There has been a longstanding tradition of military fantasy in video games -- you're a part of an elite team who have been honed into lethal killing machines by years of intense training. The rules of engagement are clear -- we're the good guys, they're the bad guys, and we're going to operate as a well-choreographed unit to take them down.
Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, the latest game in the Ghost Recon series, plays like an attempt to put you into the brain of a highly trained special ops soldier. It does this via careful streamlining of the Ghost Recon formula, and in the process looks to allow for more dynamic, intuitive, and exciting gameplay. What would it feel like to truly have had millions of dollars' worth of special forces training? Future Soldier aims to let us know.
When playing Ubisoft's past Ghost Recon (and Rainbow Six) games, I often found that a combination of a difficult interface and bunk teammate AI would have my supposedly badass team acting like a bunch of untrained clowns.
"No!" I'd find myself screaming at them. "Do not go straight out into the open and get mowed down! Take cover, for God's sake!"
"Roger, moving out," they would say, before going straight out into the open to get mowed down.
Ghost Recon Future Soldier takes a stab at addressing this problem. It does so via careful streamlining of the Ghost Recon formula, and in the process looks to allow for more dynamic, intuitive, and engaging gameplay.
Looking back at these first few paragraphs, you'll see that I've used the word "Streamlining" twice. So, let's get it out of the way -- yes, Future Soldier has been streamlined significantly over its Xbox 360 predecessors, Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter and GRAW 2. And yes, those games themselves were streamlined versions of the slow-paced, unforgiving Ghost Recon games on PC. But Future Soldier is quite a bit of fun to play, and by closing off some options sometimes feels like it offers more tactical variations for approaching a given situation. The fluid automation of targeting and shooting allows your characters' "training" to handle the smaller stuff while you focus on tactics, positioning, and strategy.
In Ghost Recon Future Soldier, players will assume the role of one member of a four-person Ghost squad. (For more on the specifics of combat, check out the video here.) While visiting Ubisoft's San Francisco headquarters a couple weeks ago, I saw the game in several bits -- first, the opening chapters, a stealth mission from near the beginning, and then a much more open map from later on. The Ghosts are elite fighters, the best of the best, blah blah, America Fuck Yeah, etc. As I played, I was dimly aware of some sort of plot happening, a typically Tom Clancy-ish military techno-thriller about an arms dealer and some…people… and some… other things. It was mostly entirely uninteresting.
But that's alright -- I liked both GRAW games, and never really had much of a handle on those games' stories either. However, the bland narrative is a bit of a disappointment in light of the comparatively ambitious storytelling on display in Ubisoft's other marquee tactical shooter, Rainbow 6.
One of Future Soldier's core mechanics involves tagging enemies and taking them down quickly and silently. Just like in Splinter Cell: Conviction, many situations have you sneaking into a room filled with patrolling guards and tagging them one by one, setting up a coordinated takedown. Each tag assigns one of your teammates to the enemy in question, and turns blue once your teammate has a clear shot. With four guys on your team, you can tag up to four enemies at a time, and a single button press takes them all out automatically.
This may sound like it makes the game play itself, but in practice, that's not the case. The automated shooting looks cool, is satisfying to pulll off, and allows the game to shift its focus from team micromanagement to high-level strategy.
As the Future Soldier development-team members who walked me through my demo were sure to point out, "There is always a fifth man." In other words, there is usually an additional challenge on top of the four patrolling enemies that your team can silently, automatically take out. Sometimes it's literally a fifth guy, who you have to deal with immediately after taking out his four friends. Sometimes it's a patrolling vehicle or tank; sometimes you're simply so outnumbered that opening fire from a disadvantageous position will result in a quick death.
It's clear that each situation has been strategically designed around the game's tag-autokill system. It depends on the mission of course -- one early mission I played was an entirely silent mission, where detection would result in a game-over screen. Another was a "go loud" mission, that played out like a more-tactical Gears of War mission. Still another revived the balls-to-the-wall on-rails helicopter missions from Advanced Warfighter, with a giant minigun allowing for some welcome catharsis after several levels of restrained sneaking.
One of the coolest things about Future Soldier is that the entire campaign is playable by four players. All of the levels have been designed with this in mind, and so in may ways the game plays out like a four-player version of Splinter Cell: Conviction's two-player co-op, which was excellent. We didn't have a chance to try out the co-op, but while I doubt the levels are as intricately designed around cooperation as in Conviction, they still seem like they'd be a lot of fun to play with friends. While verbal communication will be necessary to a point, the guys from Ubisoft were quick to point out that non-verbal communication and cues were also important, particularly given that in Europe (where they do most of their playing), you're likely to wind up with teams that don't all speak the same language.
The overarching feel of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is one of objective-minded tactics. Waypoints have been removed from the games, and objectives are the only thing you have to highlight. For example, in Advanced Warfighter, players would have to select their team in the cross-com, set a waypoint, pick an enemy, then engage. In theory, it was cool to have that much control over your team, but in practice, it was often frustrating, particularly when something would go wrong and your entire team would get mowed down. It wound up being easier to simply crawl out and take out the enemies yourself.
Future Soldier changes up by having you simply give your team a target, and they'll automatically find a good position and prepare for your orders to shoot. Yes, this seems like it could lead to boring oversimplification. But as I played, I found that I had plenty to keep track of, and could vary my tactics in a number of ways. Moreover, for the first time I felt able to man the aerial drone and really just let my team do all the work -- I could set targets, take them out silently, and generally feel like a field-commander rather than a guy making frantic commands in the thick of battle (though of course, that's possible too.)
All this streamlining winds up simulating what it would be like to be a highly trained soldier. Sometimes when soldiers commit great acts of valor and courage under fire, they say something to the effect of, "It wasn't me, it was the training. It just sort of takes over." The more efficient and automated actions in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier feel much the same way -- often, and particularly in the open-ended level we played last, the game is more about strategic positioning than it is about moment-to-moment gunplay. It doesn't quite reach the heights of the (still-underrated, in my opinion) tactical 3DS game Ghost Recon Shadow Wars, but it's something similar.
Those seeking a punishing, highly technical tactics/action hybrid might be disappointed by Ghost Recon: Future Soldier's focus on big-picture tactical decision-making. But from what I played, it worked. It's a far cry from the cinematic, on-rails experience of Call of Duty (which some have gone so far as to say makes CoD "an un-game"), and it will doubtless provide many hours of fun co-op gaming in addition to its reportedly 10-12 hour single-player campaign.
To see Future Soldier in action, take a look at the video I posted earlier this morning.
Silent but deadly Crouching sniper; hidden dude. Tango down, hooray!