KERPOW! KABLAM! KERSPLOO! KER-*vanish*.
In the world of near-future, high-tech, reality-augmented, silent soldiers, I think the Ghost Recon guys stand alone. They've got camouflage that makes them nearly invisible. They've got gadgets galore. They have guns with bullets that can enter and destroy an enemy's brain.
All right, I admit many games feature stuff like that these days. Homefront, Call of Duty, Battlefield all feature tons of nifty tricks players can use to get the advantage against unwitting AI and each other. That leaves Ghost Recon Future Soldier (I'm not going to write f***ing Tom Clancy every time, OK?) with quite the challenge. Has Ubisoft Paris, Red Storm, and Romania made it from cover to cover or has all that gadgetry malfunctioned?
Future Soldier revolves around the B-team ghosts trying to track down the source of a dirty bomb that in the opening scenes completely wiped out the A-team. Apparently the terrorists in Tom Clancy's world love when a plan comes together, too.
As Ghost Leader, 30K, Pepper, and newcomer Kozak (that means you, player) track down the weapons smuggling supply chain, they travel from Nigeria to Pakistan, Norway to Russia, and beyond. I was pleasantly surprised by the varying locales, especially for a political military thriller with a conflict so based in reality.
What's more, each of these is heavily populated with NPCs, both enemy and civilian. Nigeria in particular features some nicely done crowd AI with reactions to the stealth killing and out-and-out gunfighting going on in the city.
More impressive is your team's AI. While you might be playing the rookie, players will call the shots. That means lining up sync shots where each team member is responsible for quickly eliminating an enemy. In any other game, I'd be bitching right now about how stupid the teammates are and how these synch shots are only really possible in cooperative play.
Future Soldier actually gives you the tools to deftly manipulate your computer teammates into position. They won't give you away, they won't shoot too soon, and they certainly won't have you slamming the controller down in crushing frustration.
On the lower difficulties, this means that the game practically plays itself. That's an unfortunate side effect of the many gadgets and abilities you have at your disposal. On higher difficulties, sync shots and other tools make the battlefield feel more like adrenaline-pumping chess, where only the player's input will push your team on to the winning side in a conflict.
And oh, what a beautiful box of toys you have to play with. Sensors marks enemies in the immediate vicinity. Grenades and flashbangs operate with devastating effect. The UAV is a quad-copter you can park above a group of enemies before going back to your rifle to keep tabs on hostile positions. The UAV is also a valuable tool in marking opponents for sync shots while maintaining stealth.
The Warhound is a mobile mech complete with mortars and missiles. As the lumbering beast of destruction moves around the battlefield, you'll use your unique view to target enemies and launch missiles. You can also take cover directly behind the Warhound should things get too dicey.
What's been brilliant implemented here is a level of pacing most shooters seem too afraid to engage in. Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Gears of War aren't tooled for stealth, so instead you're simply left to run from one engagement to the next. Future Soldier mixes loud, explosive sections of gameplay with silent, tense areas of stealthy engagement.
The set pieces in the campaign more than make it a must-play endeavor, but in creating a top-tier shooter, Ubisoft made sure to include all the bells and whistles. That means a varied multiplayer mode and Guerilla mode (read: Horde mode).
Guerilla mode is fun, but only if you've got friends to engage with while you take on 50 waves of enemies. There are a handful of locales, but I suspect it won't take long for intelligent players to team up and find areas in each map better suited for defensive positions.
Multiplayer is Ubisoft's big selling point here, and it is nothing like Call of Duty or the other shooters on the market. There is a very steep learning curve, a constant need for vigilance and team work, and danger at every corner.
Players will find themselves extremely vulnerable, both to enemies camping out for easy kills and flankers looking to shoot you in the back. Objectives are nearly impossible to accomplish on your own, but that doesn't mean that a smart team can't manipulate the tools at their disposal and come out with a win.
Many of the tools from singleplayer reappear in multiplayer, and players can actually manipulate their victims for enemy intel. Interrogating a downed player will reveal enemy positions and score you team-action points. Those points will help your bottom line experience points, but they also act as a tiebreaker at the end of a close round.
What's more, making yourself valuable to the rest of your team will pay off in your favor, both in objective assistance and conflict back-up. My favorite mode out of the lot was Saboteur, which tosses a single bomb between two teams. Whoever takes the bomb and runs it into the opponent's base first wins. Other oft-replicated modes fill out the multiplayer options, but there's a ton of great fun to be had in each. It could be easy to write off Future Soldier as a me-too shooter, but Ubisoft Paris, Red Storm, and Romania have created a fantastically challenging competitive mode that carves a niche for itself in the crowded multiplayer market.
All in all, Ghost Recon Future Soldier is a strong product with plenty to do. It could easily become your go-to multiplayer fare this summer. The single-player campaign is excellent, and multiplayer is varied and deep. The only thing threatening Future Soldier's greatness is an unproven community of players who may or may not move over from the beta. Of course, only the ghosts know what the future holds.