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Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars Review

Josh_Laddin By:
GENRE Action 
DEVELOPER Ubisoft Sofia 
T Contains Mild Violence

What do these ratings mean?

Mr. Clancy, I think your game might be experiencing an identity crisis.

FF Tactics. Ogre Battle. Disgaea. Fire Emblem. Ghost Recon.

I don’t know about you, but that list just doesn’t look right to me. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something just seems out of place. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy. Pack up your giant swords and black mage hats and move along.

click to enlargeSeriously, though, the answer is obvious – amongst titles involving magic, dragons, demons, and overly dramatic, drawn-out face-offs that only the Japanese can deliver, why would I mention a series of modernized first-person shooters?

I confess, upon starting Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars for the first time I didn’t know much of anything about it going in. Imagine my surprise, then, that what used to be a tactical FPS has become a turn-based strategy game for my brand-new 3DS. Whether that’s a pro or con really depends on the type of gamer you are; I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t in for another handheld FPS-with-touch-screen-controls, but longtime fans of the series are likely to balk at the completely new direction.

It’s still fortunate for all of us, though, that despite removing the “FPS” from Ghost Recon, Ubisoft hasn’t removed the “tactical” part. Like all those other tactical RPGs rattled off earlier, Shadow Wars’ gameplay takes place on battlefields segmented into grids, with each Ghost and enemy soldier occupying a square and taking turns slinking around the area and looking for good places to take shots at each other while minimizing the return fire.

And you know what? It works pretty damn well. Expect to enjoy Shadow Wars more than what usually comes standard with the Ghost Recon name. For their first outing with an established series into uncharted territory, Ubisoft’s done a hell of a job.

The game’s surprising depth of gameplay is the key to its success. There’s a lot more to consider with each move than just where you can shoot a guy from. As mentioned before, return fire plays a big role in planning out your actions – anytime someone is attacked, up to three friendlies in range will open up in retaliation. If you pick your shots at bad times, you could end up taking a lot more damage than you cause.

click to enlargeThe battlefield also has a lot of terrain features that impact the flow of battle. Occupying a building will give heavy cover, which translates into drastically reduced damage, but also hinders movement. Bushes and trees give less cover and may also block line of sight. Occupying a square adjacent to a short wall or fence will provide the damage reduction of light cover but only against enemies on the opposite side.

Pickups usually litter the battlefield as well, with the obligatory health and ammo refills in decent supply to those who reach them first. There are also special boxes which fill a character’s power bar, which can only be otherwise filled by doing damage or other class-specific actions. At 100% power a Ghost is able to unleash devastating special attacks. Your gunner and sniper can fire high-powered super shots, while the other classes can use a rapid-fire attack to act twice in one turn.

The character classes are strongly differentiated, and each Ghost feels distinct from the rest of the team. Six classes form the squad: The commando is great for taking point and has a good movement and attack range, while the gunner does obscene damage but generally can’t move too far and attack in the same turn. The sniper hits for good damage from long distance (obvious, no?), the engineer deals crappy damage but can deploy a mechanized turret that deals un-crappy damage, and the medic will run around healing people while they all do their jobs. My favorite is the recon, a stealth fighter who can only be attacked when an enemy is standing next to them and can melee most guys for a one-hit kill.

In the heat of battle you want to use any advantage you can, and many maps have flags that award command points every turn to the team that captures it. You can cash in the points for some much needed support like devastating airstrikes or power bar charges for the whole team. One command power lets you reactivate a Ghost in the same turn, which leads to great things when combined with a recon with a full power bar, who suddenly becomes capable of one-shotting three or more bad guys in a single turn.

Best of all, the stars you earn at the end of each mission get distributed to the team as you see fit to level them up. There’s a real strong sense of progress here, as each star can unlock perks like stronger weapons, more HP, more power points, less movement reduction penalties, etc. Many times I told myself it was time to stop playing, but I just had to go on to the next mission to try out my shiny new sniper rifle or deluxe med kit.

click to enlargeAnd the single-player campaign is long, too. There’s a good 20 hours to be had with it, along with plenty of extra skirmish and challenge missions that get unlocked as you progress. But it’s a shame that the story remains clichéd and hollow throughout, as well as providing no character development whatsoever for the squad. When pretty much every briefing boils down to “bad guys are trying to do a bad thing, go kill them and stop it”, the impressive gameplay just feels less engaging without ambitious storytelling to go with it.

Shadow Wars also takes a hit graphically, with visuals that could be easily accomplished on the DS. On-screen characters look blurry and generic, while the plot is mostly told through static and uninspired portraits over some text. The 3D isn’t invasive at all in this one, and overall makes the game more pleasant to look at. It doesn’t add anything to the gameplay, of course, but you can get a good sense of depth from the bird's-eye view during missions.

There is a multiplayer mode in here, but it's damn strange how it's designed. Two people can only play against each other by taking turns on one 3DS. Note that it isn't an option – this is the only way to do a multiplayer game. Why can’t there also be a mode to play against someone else who owns the game, or a more simplified download match using one game card and two 3DSs like you can in Super Street Fighter IV? It’ll just have to be one of those questions for the ages...

Still, there’s more than enough single-player to last you for a long time. With three different difficulties and the wonderful ability to choose your difficulty for each successive mission rather than be stuck with one for an entire playthrough, you’ll have reason to go back and complete missions more than once. The harder difficulties award more medals for a successful mission, which don’t do anything outright but contribute to your overall completion percentage for the game.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is surprising in more ways than one. The first shock is that this is definitely not the genre you were expecting. The next one comes from playing it and realizing just how well it’s done. This is a strategy RPG that rivals the big names in the genre. Unfortunately, there’s no prinnies, chocobos, or vibrant spiky hair to seal the deal.
B Revolution report card
  • Surprise, it’s a fun strategy RPG!
  • A lot more depth than you’d think
  • Excellent class variety
  • Leveling system creates solid progression
  • Single-player lasts a long time
  • ...but multiplayer definitely won’t
  • Uninspired story and characters
  • DS-quality graphics
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