If this month's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier was a toddler and not a video game, I'd pat it on the head and compliment its Call of Duty costume.
It's doing a good job of dressing like its more popular playground rival, but — wouldn't you know it? — it's own personality still sneaks through.
I've played a few levels of the May 22 game in the comfort of my home, and while Future Soldier is a little more brainless and big-budget-action-movie than it used to be, it's still going to be a nice change of flavour from the conventions of Call of Duty.
Future Soldier is a third-person shooter. It supports four-player campaign co-op. Those are not things that you get from Call of Duty. But Future Soldier's missions are frequently filled with heavy amounts of gunfire, special weapons strikes, large explosions and lots of other big spectacle funnelled into a mostly linear path. That's very Call of Duty and enough to make any reasonable Ghost Recon fan worry that the newest game in the series is abandoning what made Ghost Recon special.
This isn't old-school Ghost Recon, but it's also not CoD.
First of all, you're expected to play through much of the new game's missions in stealth. We're talking about aggressive action-oriented stealth, mind you, the kind of Batman or panther type of fearsome-attacker-from-the-shadows stealth that Ghost Recon publisher Ubisoft emphasised in the most recent Splinter Cell game.
You are powerful when playing in Future Soldier's proverbial shadows. You and your squad of three allies utilise hi-tech camouflage that turns one's body and clothes translucent when you're standing still or moving slowly. This makes it hard for enemies to see you.
You will rely on cover a lot, and you will be able to target new cover points and definitively move from one to the next with the kind of precise tactical movement that's more Full Spectrum Warrior than CoD.
And you'll be able to mark your targets from your character's line of sight or via an overhead drone that you can toss into the sky. Marking enemies sets up powerful "sync shots." Players of that last Splinter Cell will recognise this:. you mark targets and, when they are within the line of site — this time of the other three soldiers — a single button press will trigger kill shots to the marked targets. In co-op play, presumably, this will still be done manually. (I played my preview copy of the game solo.)
Here's a sync shot.
Here's a quick clip of a player-controlled drone.
I played through long sections of levels in the new Ghost Recon sticking to cover, remaining invisible and using my drone to mark targets for my buddies to kill.
Occasionally the game would force me into aggressive action. It would pour enemy troops at me or set up some battle against a helicopter that felt more big-action and less like tactical stealth. Often enough, happily, the game required me not to let my presence be known. It wanted me to sneak. I enjoyed that.
Sometimes they really do want that big-action feel, like when they let you walk the four-legged Warhound robot through a snowy battlefield and use it to shell tanks. That's not stealth! But it's cool in small doses.
The clips I've got in this preview were cut from some footage that Ubisoft sent me. Oddly, none of the footage they offered included one of the most distinct elements of Future Soldier — something you rarely see in Call of Duty — the presence of civilians in the modern battlefield. Two of the missions I played in this game were set in near-future Zambia and Moscow. In Zambia, we're in a refugee camp hunting down a warlord and civilians are everywhere. The Zambia mission actually opens with one of the warlord's henchman apparently about to rape a woman. Your first task: kill the arsehole. As you skulk through the camp, civilians will flee the bad guys and can be caught in the crossfire (my mission ended when I shot one). In Moscow, there are huge protests in the streets after what I believe was a coup. Same thing. Civilians in the battlefield.
I'm intrigued that Ubisoft has so many civilians in the game, and I'm fascinated by one scene I caught that shows machete-wielding civilians taking revenge on a gunman who was oppressing them. The game is scripted to make you pass them by. It's an eerie moment and I'm looking forward to seeing how much further Ubisoft goes with this.
The game also has competitive multiplayer, which I didn't play, and its own riff on Gears of War-style Horde Mode, though that too has a Ghost Recon twist. Up to four players oppose waves of enemies, but you'll be doing it while trying to seize and hold a base and in the midst of blinding storms. Stealth helps.
The rude way to look at Ghost Recon Future Soldier would be to say that Ubisoft is selling out, moving away from the tactical, stealth fundamentals of the series' original games and inching even further toward linear-action-war-game than did the Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter games of recent years. I'd consider that unfair, now that I've played a few hours of the game. You shouldn't — and at high difficulty levels, can't — play the new Ghost Recon as if it's the Call of Duty that it sort of looks like in screenshots and some trailers. You need to sneak; you need to plan. I like that.
There's enough Ghost Recon here for me.