Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii U
Style: 1 to 4-player shooter (16-player online)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
When Ubisoft first revealed "Ghost Recon Future Soldier" at the 2009 E3, a sense of dread came over me. As a longtime fan of the series, the idea of linking up with three other squad members to form an invisible human caterpillar seemed ludicrous. Not only would this soldier caravan turn nearly invisible, Ubisoft touted a link-up feature that allowed the squad to move automatically so players could just focus on firing their weapons. This was a far cry from the stress on true military tactics that gave this franchise its identity.
My worries eased slightly when I saw the game again at this past year's E3. After a year in development, the game started to take on characteristics of traditional "Ghost Recon" games, albeit with a streamlined tactical approach made possible by better squad AI. After a recent hands-on session with four different campaign missions, I'm starting to think Future Soldier may make its biggest move forward by looking into the past.
The first few missions I played were very streamlined affairs in closed environments. Whether I was in Bolivia trying to extract a turned CIA informant, stealthily stalking a weapons dealer in Zambia, or chasing after a fleeing target on a gridlocked street in Peshawar, Pakistan, the missions played out largely the same. I moved from cover to cover, used a sensor grenade to identify targets, and gunned down the hostiles with the help of my largely autonomous teammates. But when Ubisoft fast-forwarded me to a later mission (one of 13 in the campaign), suddenly it felt like I went back in a time machine to "Ghost Recon's" glory days.
This advanced mission opens in the middle of a Russian forest. At this moment in the campaign, a Russian civil war has erupted after a coup attempt, and the Ghosts are sent in to protect a loyalist general from an ambush. Though I still have access to advanced technology like the "Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter" titles, the wide-open environments feel closer in spirit to the original "Ghost Recon" games. My squad of four soldiers has acres of land before them, and moving cautiously is key to avoiding detection.
Crouching or going prone automatically activates the intelligent camouflage system, the near-future technology that masks the soldiers to match their surroundings. As long as I don't move too quickly or open fire, I am nearly invisible to enemies. Moving slowly to avoid detection, my team and I come across a sawmill that's been re-appropriated for military use. I could move in immediately to engage enemies, but instead I choose to stay back and scout the base with my drone.
Once my recon instrument is in the air, I have full control over its movement, including its verticality. Carefully hovering over the compound, I designate four targets that can be taken down without alarming the rest of the soldiers stationed there. With that prompting, my teammates move intelligently into position to line up the shots, staying in camo the entire time. Once they are in position I line up the fourth shot. From here I have two options. I can issue a command to have them shoot their three targets, or I can pull the trigger on the enemy in my sights and they'll automatically synchronize their shots to mine. All four meat bags hit the ground simultaneously, but a patrolling soldier who I didn't spot with the drone sees one of the bodies fall and suddenly the base is swarming with enemies. This was not part of the plan.
Like "Assassin's Creed's" Synchronization system, each mission in Future Soldier features a series of challenges that encourage you to play in a certain way. If you go off script (or blow your cover like I did) you aren't punished in any long-term way, but you may have to face more reinforcements than if you were neither seen nor heard.
Once the bullets start flying it's time to see how my teammates fare in battle. By clicking the left bumper while an enemy is in my sights, I designate the most immediate threats, and the Ghosts prioritize their targets accordingly. They smartly stay behind cover, never exposing themselves irresponsibly to gunfire. Given their stellar performance in these missions I don't expect to be hauling ass across the map to heal them like I sometimes had to do in "GRAW."
While they stay in cover I pull out a sniper rifle outfitted with advanced heat-seeking ammo. Much like using a heat-seeking rocket, once I get a lock on a target I can return to the safety of cover before pulling the trigger and the bullet will still find its intended target. With this kind of idiot-proof technology at play, forget about having to hold your breath to line up a shot.
After grabbing some intel in the sawmill, my team is redirected to destroy a nearby AA encampment. Several enemies are entrenched behind piles of logs and in buildings, but this area provides several flanking options. Using the drone I mark the enemies with vertical advantages for my squad to take down, then I work my way around the side of the enemy position using the new cover moment functionality.
While moving your reticle over the environment, a blue circle appears behind other areas of cover. By holding down the sprint button while this icon is showing, your soldier will automatically vault his current cover and move aggressively to the new position -- think roadie run from "Gears of War." It's a fast and effective way to advance your position without dealing with the clunky cover stick mechanic present in many third-person shooters.
Once I've eliminated the hostiles and set the charge on the AA weapon, the demo comes to a close and I feel pleasantly surprised. I wasn't sure what to expect given the long development time and the questionable features touted early on, but Future Soldier feels more like the traditional "Ghost Recon" games than I expected. Given that you can play through the entire campaign cooperatively with four players, fans of co-op shooters have another viable option come spring.
I still doubt "Ghost Recon Future Soldier" has the firepower to go toe-to-toe with the elite shooters like "Call of Duty" and "Battlefield," but gamers looking for a more tactical experience should keep their eye on this Clancy title. Ubisoft says the Xbox 360-exclusive multiplayer beta should begin sometime in the next few months.