Famous military and espionage writer Tom Clancy has more videogames to his name these days than he does novels. And while his involvement in game development no doubt ranges somewhere between “limited” and “just mail me the cheque”, the Ghost Recon franchise has its share of fans. Arriving five years after the series’ previous instalment, Future Soldier once again puts the player in control of one of the titular Ghost squads, elite infiltration units tasked with dealing out swift, silent justice to various freedom-threatening arms dealers and paramilitary groups around the world.
The campaign opens with one such Ghost squad meeting a particularly gory end as they attempt to interrupt an illegal arms shipment en route to the United States. A hidden dirty bomb wipes out the hapless Ghosts, and a new team is sent into the field to pick up the trail, which leads them on a global goose chase of informants, intelligence, and assassinations.
The flimsy plot is a convenient excuse to send the player around the globe to various exotic locations. It’s as if the level designers are ticking a list: desert village, bustling subcontinental streets, snow base – check, check and check. Each stage sees the Ghosts carrying out typical covert missions – tracking down informants, assassinating warlords, extracting hostages and so on – but unfortunately there's rarely any exposition beyond the most basic “the target is a bad guy who has information” briefing.
The stages are punctuated by brief cut scenes of the squad members sharing manly little bonding moments, talking about trucks, and listening to hard rock. However, there’s a disconnect between these character moments and the actual gameplay, not least of all because these Ghosts are all but indistinguishable in the field due to their head-to-toe camouflage gear, so forming any sort of personal attachment or investment is difficult. To make matters worse, the character models in these scenes are stiff and plastic-like, and the voice work is serviceable at best.
The gameplay is more satisfying. Taking cues from the current trend of third-person, cover-based shooters, the Ghosts dash from waist-high object to waist-high object with ease, entering first-person mode for improved accuracy, and emptying clips into hostiles with comfortable familiarity. The most innovative gameplay feature on offer is the “synch shot” – the neat ability to mark up to four enemies at once and execute precision attacks in perfect unison. AI teammates will get themselves into position and line up a bead on unsuspecting foes’ heads – all the while staying out of sight. Then, with a squeeze of the trigger the game will enter a short period of slow-mo and the targets will drop. It’s a great feature, and makes the unit feel like the efficient group of highly-trained killers they should be.
There’s also a lot of merit in the multitude of futuristic gadgets at the Ghosts’ disposal. Optical camouflage will render operatives nearly invisible to the enemy as long as they stay crouched or stationary, drones can be sent on short-range reconnaissance flights or driven along the ground to discharge electric pulses, and sensors can be tossed like grenades to provide a temporary visual on enemy movement. All of the game’s tech is based on potential near-future military developments, and it lends the game a suitably cutting-edge feel.
Campaign stages are generally split up into sections of stealth infiltration, tactical fire-fights, and the occasional on-rails shoot-out. There’s a linearity to the levels that can’t be hidden by the occasional option to either take out enemies or sneak past undetected. In fact, the game pushes the player along so strongly that, often, whether the objective is to extract a hostage or plant and detonate a C4 charge, the task at hand boils down to a simple case of follow-the-checkpoint. More annoyingly, being spotted by enemies sometimes allows the squad to press on through the level, guns blazing, but most times it results in instant and arbitrary failure. With all of the technology at the Ghosts’ disposal, more player-determination in how a level is tackled would’ve been far more satisfying.
Future Soldier's multiplayer, however, is extremely robust and highly addictive, offering a class-based system that focuses more on completing objectives as a team than racking up the best kill-death ratio. There isn't even a standard deathmatch option available, so frag-addicts will have to adapt to modes such as Conflict, where points are scored by completing random objectives that pop up over the course of a 15-minute round, and Decoy, where three objectives are available to the attacking team, but only one is the true objective – and neither the attackers nor the defenders know which is which. While there are only four multiplayer modes in total, they each offer a pleasing variation on the team assault theme.
Multiplayer offers three classes to choose from – rifleman, engineer, and scout – and as each levels up, different tech, weapon and appearance options will be made available. There’s also the excellent Gunsmith feature, which lets players customise weaponry using Attachment Credits earned with each level. Nearly every part of a vast selection of guns can be tinkered with, adding high-powered scopes, muzzle-flash suppressors, under-barrel attachments and more, each of which will alter the weapon’s performance in subtle ways. The great thing is that it’s not a simple case of “maxing out” weapons – adding greater control may come at the expense of manoeuvrability or power, for example, meaning upgrades need to be carefully considered.
A couple of minor annoyances: The cover system, which is normally quite fluid and easy to use, can sometimes suffer from “over-stickiness”, meaning making a quick getaway when a grenade lands nearby is often easier said than done. Also, taking cover behind objects can occasionally be frustrating, as opponents can seem to score lucky hits on the gun barrel as you duck out of the line of fire. However, these gripes are not nearly enough to tarnish the overall thrill of Future Soldier’s fantastic multiplayer action.
Rounding out the play modes is Guerrilla, Future Soldier’s take on Gears of War's extremely popular Horde mode. Here, up to four players silently take over an enemy HQ, then try to survive wave after wave of militants who’d like very much to take it back. It’s hardly an innovative feature, but it is a well implemented and welcome addition to the game. And it’s a challenge; surviving all 50 waves will require some serious team coordination and sharp shooting.
For a title with a famous author’s name brandished on its cover like a medal of honour, frankly, Future Soldier’s writing stinks. There’s little to recommend the singleplayer experience, but ironically, those heading online to the plot-free pleasures of team multiplayer will discover the game’s true strengths.