Does Ubisoft’s flagship shooter still hold up? Well, yes. It bloody well does.
It’s fair to say there is an over-saturation of a particular gaming genre on the market at the moment. Which one I hear you ask? Well, namely, that of the first person shooter. You see, there are quite literally an absolute mega-frickin’-ton of FPS’ out there for us as consumers to delve headfirst into, and while we seem to continuously buy those titles of which we are comfortable with and know they will bring us the usual crash bang wallop they so predictably provide, those which dare to do something new, innovative and interesting are normally the ones left on the side to gather dust on the shelves of our favourite video game stores.
Luckily, ‘Ghost Recon’ isn’t one of those franchises. Well, firstly it’s not an FPS, it’s a TPS. Third Person Shooter. No? Never mind.
Here we are then with ‘Ghost Recon: Future Soldier’, the twelfth(!) game in the series (three ahead of CoD, if you’re counting) and released yearly without hesitation – the series took a break from the major consoles last year, instead landing on 3DS with the underrated ‘Shadow Wars’ – to generally high acclaim. The latest in the series seems to have been in development for a long time, longer than any ‘Ghost Recon’ I can remember, and the hype surrounding this game was massive. After having a brief dalliance with ‘FS’ at last years Eurogamer Expo and very much enjoying it, I was properly pumped to get my hands on this and see what those extra months had done to the game, and whether the prolonged development time was worth it.
The only way I can explain ‘Ghost Recon’ to anyone who hasn’t played it is imagine ‘Battlefield 3′ and ‘Crysis’ getting together for one steamy night of war torn love making under a pile of rubble they used to call their home and giving birth to a incomprehensible hybrid of the two. What was created? ‘Ghost Recon’. Specifically, ‘Ghost Recon: Future Soldier’. The game draws from both series amicably and seems to grab the best moments from each and smash them together so expertly. It’s no secret ‘FS’ is hanging its hat on the inclusion of apparently genuine future military tech, and it makes no secret of that fact. Everything here is presented a pure futuristic sheen, from the neon blue lights coming from every characters eyeballs to the monstrous Augmented Reality, but more on that later.
The cover physics are something special on this game, ensuring you’re quick thinking and moving. As the cover can deteririate while you’re under attack, you’re forced to search for other spots you can hide behind. They’re never far away but it certainly keeps you on your toes. While in cover, you can be suppressed, for example if you’re under fire by an enemy, your field of vision decreases – common ‘screen covered in blood’ sitch – and the camera will shake, making it difficult to return fire. If you stay in cover long enough though, you’ll regenerate automatically – surprise, surprise – and from there everything should be roses.
In terms of visuals, ‘GR:FS’ really holds its own in most areas. Yes, it completely creams ‘CoD’ in this department. The visual sheen of the locations, vehicles and weapons all jump off the screen, with each set piece becoming more and more visually arresting as the game progresses. The game is presented similarly to every other shooter out there, with fast wizzing pictures and newspaper cutous filling the cutscenes as there are unnaturally quick in out and zooms of various countries on a map, nothing you haven’t ever seen before, however while there is a lack of originality in the cut scenes and the menus, the campaign more than makes up for it in terms of style. On the Xbox 360 version we tested, after installing the game there was no noticeable pop up, lag or framerate issues. Considering the amount that’s happening on the screen, that’s hugely commendable. It’s a shame then, that they fall down on the one area every other company seems to have just about nailed. The faces of the characters are just awful, harking back to the early days of this generation. With no expression or any kind of genuine lifelike movements, the obvious shortcomings sadly take you right of the action. A characters eyes, for example, are completely dead. There has always been the ‘dead eye’ issue in gaming, however in the last couple of years we’ve seen Ubisofts competitors (Rockstar, Infinity Ward/Treyarch/Dice) finally get over this hurdle. I’m only going to put it down to the fact that this game has been in development for so long, pushing four years, which is a long time in the gaming world. I can only assume the character models were built very early on and were just never returned too. It’s a damn shame considering everything else looks so polished. It’s comparable to playing Gran Turismo 5 and seeing the disgraceful pixellation when up close with the cars. It brings the game back at least two years. The sooner MotionScan becomes the norm in gaming, the better. Despite this, ‘GR:FS’ is without a doubt the best looking war shooter out there at the moment.
One aspect I fully appreciated was the in game challenges which are presented to you before the mission begins. You have weapon challenges – ie, shoot a certain number of enemies with a particular gun etc, along with tactical, ghosts and elite challenges, it’s a cool extra factor to the game which completionists will definitely get a kick out of.
Weapons and weapon parts are your reward for completing these challenges, along with completing missions. Let’s get one thing straight here, Ubisoft weren’t bullshitting about their weapon customisation. A true myriad of availability which you can tinker with before every mission. Of course, . A mecca for custom weapons fans, and very simple to navigate and implement, with descriptions for each weapon part easy to read and understand. Parts that can be customized include optics, paint, triggers, magazines, under barrel and side barrel attachments, gas systems, barrels, muzzles, and stocks. You can also test out your weapons before you take them into the campaign in the Firing Range, where you’re presented with a variety of targets to shoot varying in distance. Lovely touch. Another lovely touch? The Xbox 360 Kinect integration. Ubisoft really know this hardware better than anyone by now, instilling it into almost every title which comes out from them. Here it’s used to throw your weapons together, flipping the circular selection screen from side to side and saying which part of the weapons you want to change. In the brief time I tested it on Kinect, it was pretty damn fantastic and worked nigh on perfectly. Through hand gestures and voice commands you can create weapons. That’s the dream, right?
Everything has a sensor via your AR (Augmented Reality) vision. From your ‘future soldier’ visor you can see how much ammo you have, what your secondary and side weapons are (sensors, frags) along with keeping a whereabouts of your teammates at all times, enabling you to see through walls to find allies along with enemies you have discovered with your sensor. Your AR abilities also pinpoint your locations and checkpoints, along with destinations with whacking great big arrows above them. It’s a terrific addition and something you genuinely can’t see being too far off in the real world. Outstanding.
The first level is your basic search and rescue with plenty of action, culminating in a terrific third act where you’re shooting your way through the streets of Bolivia with your prisoner on one arm. Using only a pistol, navigating your way through these busy streets is a tense and thrilling experience, ensuring your bullets are heading straight into the bodies of your ‘packages’ captors rather than civilians. An awful lot is going on around you at this point, from innocents running directly in the line of your fire to cars with mounted turrets tearing through the village, destroying every home and fruit seller in their path. It can get a little confusing, at one point with only one viewpoint locked the entire time (namely the left hand shoulder of your prisoner, not you) I found myself believing to be shooting the enemy, where in fact I was actually shooting a crate of melons, the enemy just happened to be standing behind them. I eventually took him out, also taking a fuckton of melons in the process. Damn melons.
Of course, one of the biggest draws of ‘GR:FS’, and something which has been pushed to death in the pre-release hype is the ‘camo’ invisibility, giving ‘Future Soldier’ a right to use such a name. To active it all you have to do is crouch, although it doesn’t appear until the second level. Honestly the function certainly works well, however it can’t be used when running fast, taking a shot or being shot. There certainly are limitations, and you wish at certain points that Ubisoft could have suspended our disbelief just that little bit more so we could have taken more advantage of the future tech (will we see it in Black Ops II?) as it’s really the only part of the soldiers kit which still seems a long way off but hey, who am I to argue with the U.S. Military? Another funky addition is the magnetic detector. Activated with a simple down on the D-Pad, it allows players to detect particular metallic objects such as weapons and mines which would be hidden in the environment.
By far though the most important gadget in your arsenal is the sensor. A unique take on the common ‘radar’ map, the sensor allows you to become aware of everything around you once it’s in the area of your choice. Shaped like what can only be described as a Pokeball, you have the option of just throwing it over your head or placing it in a full area. The sensor will scan within its radius (which is huge) and send all the information it finds back to your AR visor so you know exactly how many people are surrounding or ahead of you. It’s completely essential in most circumstances, and imperative if you’re going to get anywhere in this game. I found myself in a habit of using them a little too much once I reached the middle section of ‘FS’. Of course, this being ‘GR’ I quickly found an ammo stash and reloaded myself with plenty to carry on. Some may over rely on the Sensor, but like I said, it’s the titles take on the traditional map, which is nowhere to be seen. I dug it, so will you.
There were certainly aspects of the campaign which did stump me. Moments I wasn’t sure where I was going or what I was supposed to be doing. It’s a sign of modern gaming that if you get stuck there is always a checkpoint or a metre countdown showing you where to go with a giant beacon overhead. I’m not particularly talking about the hand holding ethics of modern shooters, though. The second level is all about stealth. Now with the bases that I’ve covered considering the kit you have, this is still rather difficult. Picking off the lonesome patrolmen was simple enough with stealth kills, it’s when they’re in groups it becomes tricky. And annoyingly, it wasn’t until after that section was completed I discovered I can synchronise shots so each person on the team can shoot a group of up to 4 one at a time. Very frustrating, as they only way to get past this section was to get discovered, it seemed. Once it was over, the option was there for me to take out groups very effectively, but it wasn’t until after I really needed to know how to do it that I discovered it. I can see this particular issue annoying several players who like to keep perfect records in this sort of game. Once you do figure it out though, it goes like this:
During ambushes/breaches/firefights, you can make one high priority target with a simple tap of a shoulder button. This isgnals the rest of your team to focus their fire, which is nice. In the more stealth orientated sections, you can mark up to for targets for a sycnhronised kill. Your team will each automatically pick a target and move into a position to take them out. You will then give the command or shoot your chosen target, at which point your team will take theirs out too. It’s a neat and very useful little inclusion, and one you’ll find yourself relying on as the game progresses.
Despite this, it’s perhaps the most tension I’ve experienced in a game so far this year. Yeah, that’s right. You read that correctly. When you have little to no sight and you’re being shot at from every angle in the middle of a damn sandstorm – which looks spectacular, by the way – yeah, tension is going to build. With your metallic sensor on you’re presented with a black and blue pallette, guiding you through the insanity which befalls you. Of course, because of the madness of it all, the audio lets this sequence down somewhat. It’s purely realistic for team members caught in a sandstorm not to hear each other, however again you wish that Ubisoft everso slightly remembered that this is a game and should have treated it as such. Still, it looks terrific and is brilliant fun, despite not really having any sense of direction during the chaos.
I’m going to be honest here, I certainly had my reservations about this one. As I mentioned at the beginning, the industry is plagued with games just like ‘Ghost Recon: Future Soldier’. Some are fantastic, some are middling, some are dreadful. Well, you can throw this one in the ‘fantastic’ pile. I’m genuinely blown away by the game. Yes, it has visual and audio niggles which I’ve mentioned, and the lack of awareness is kind of frustrating at times, but come on. This is war, and it’s never been so sweet. On this basis, it’s going to take some time before someone catches up to this kind of level. ‘Black Ops II’ has an awful lot to live up too.
In fact, it may be time for CoD to get back in the ocean.