A few years ago, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 was amongst the first wave of titles available for the latest generation of consoles, and it was brilliant. Coupling an intense single player campaign with some brilliant online modes it showed just what you could achieve by making a slightly slower paced, squad based shooter. Now Ubisoft have delivered the next step in the Ghost Recon series, and with the hype building up to Future Soldier’s release being both frequent and impressive, the game itself has a lot to live up to.
When I saw GRFS showed off at GAMEfest last year I was instantly excited. It looked like the best parts from GRAW2 had been grabbed, given a substantial sparkle and dropped into a bucket of awesome. The set pieces, squad based gameplay and brilliant techy kit looked like this was going to be an instant winner. But then the beta arrived and didn’t do Ubisoft any favours. True, beta tests are designed for stress testing servers and balancing weapons, but with a lot of people seeing it as a demo of the finished article, and as Ricky found in his write-up, the balance or connectivity really wasn’t in place. And so when my review copy landed I was both excited and nervous about what I’d find. I needn’t have worried – apart from a few small issues, this is a great game.
The main campaign really can’t be called a single player campaign. Even offline you’re in a squad of 4, and the review notes that arrived with our copy made it clear that the game is best served as a co-op experience with three friends. That’s as well as maybe, and I’ll come back to that idea in a while, but does that mean it’s no good if you’re on your own? Well fortunately, no it doesn’t. The campaign gives you some nicely varied missions to carry out while you travel around the world doing your stuff, and the way you interact with your squadmates is generally impressively slick. When there’s a set piece to be had, it won’t begin until all four players are in the right place, at which point the actions switches seamlessly between cinematic cut-scenes and actual action – if you’re part of a co-op session you’ll even see the action differently depending on where you’re standing. Nice touch. The problem with this is the odd occasion when your AI counterparts seemingly forget that you’re waiting for them. A couple of times three of us stood waiting to breech a door where a hostage was being held or a meeting of evil minds was going on, and the fourth member of the squad had gone AWOL. As you can’t leave the set piece area once you’re there that means restarting at the previous checkpoint. Helpfully these were never more than a minute or so before the moment of madness, but it’s still a bit annoying. Obviously that would be reduced by playing online, but that’s not an option for everyone.
That’s a bit of a shame really, because on the whole the rest of the campaign is great fun. Using toys like the reconnaissance drone is a handy way to spot enemies behind buildings are slightly further afield, and the various vision modes come in very handy when you’re in the middle of a sandstorm and can barely see anything with the naked eye. But by far the coolest trick in the box is the simultaneous shot; this lets you target up to four enemies that, if done right, you and your team will all shoot at the same time. When you’re trying hard not to be detected, taking out a small bunch of people can be both extremely useful and insanely satisfying. And you’ll spend a lot of time trying not to be detected. It’s not quite on the level of Deus Ex, but it’s a lot easier to keep quiet and take out exposed targets than getting into a full on firefight. In fact whenever you raise some suspicion you’ll be alerted Metal Gear Solid style and when things really hit the fan and you’re being engaged by the enemy then you’ll be told that quite loudly too. It’s a nice way to inject some panic into proceedings, and dashing for cover is generally the first thing you’ll want to do.
Speaking of which, the cover system works quite nicely. You can turn towards alternative cover spots and run between cover with the push of a button, making it a little easier to sneak up on the enemy without being spotted. It can be quite tough to shoot from cover though, and you’ll sometimes find that whatever you’re hiding behind gets in the way of your shot, but being able to switch which shoulder the camera sits behind does help considerably with that issue. The missions themselves are mostly well constructed, although there are a small number of bad eggs in there that feel like they don’t really belong. Each missions does, however, have some mini-tasks that run alongside the main missions that will earn you small rewards if you manage to pull them off. Things like getting a certain number of head shots, or taking out 4 soldiers playing football without getting noticed, they’re not adding anything to the storyline, but they certainly give you incentive to go back and replay some levels once you’re done.
But the campaign is certainly best served as a co-op affair, and gathering a bunch of friends to play through the campaign with certainly makes life more interesting and dynamic. Being able to seek out enemies, communicate with your squad and select your method of attack adds a lot to the experience, and whether you choose to draw the enemy’s fire in one direction while the rest of the squad flank them or just dive in all guns blazing it’s great to be able to experience the missions with real people. There’s also the Guerrilla mode, giving you the option of facing large number of enemy waves with the main mission being survival. Compared to the brilliant co-op objective games in GRAW2 it feels a little light, and there’s no option to rescue Officer Cock with his inability to step over a twig, but it’s a good diversion and definitely worth trying out when you’ve got some friends on standby.
While you’re with your mates it’s worth jumping online and trying out the competitive multiplayer, which on the whole is a pretty brilliant experience. Call of Duty obsessives might as well turn around and go back to their killstreaks though, because this isn’t for you. Instead you’ll be treated to a much slower, more considered approach. Sprint into the open with your guns blazing and you’ll be picked off in seconds with a well placed headshot by a camouflaged guy hiding behind some boxes. Try to go it alone and ignore your squad and you can expect a more organised enemy group to identify you as a lone wolf and have you taken care of in no time at all. This is a game for people who like to work together, and success will more often than not hinge on whether the people you’re with have a similar mindset. There are still the usual XP awards and suchlike for kills, but you’ll win just as many from protecting your squadmates, defending objectives and generally being a good teammate, which does give you more incentives for teamplay. As you rank up you’re sometimes given choices to make in terms of what you earn – for example the first choice you come across as a Scout allows you to either choose a heat-sensitive scope or a more meaty zoom. One allows you to see enemies through smoke, the other lets you get a more accurate shot from afar. Which you choose will depend on how you play, and there are plenty of other difficult choices to make later on.
In terms of the modes available, there’s a decent range on offer. Whether you’re securing a range of objectives, capturing and planting a bomb or trying to eliminate the other team in a SOCOMesque single spawn game there’s plenty to sink your teeth into. The latter of these options is where I spent most of my time, and although the XP rewards are relatively low compared to other modes the tension raised by knowing that a badly timed dash out of cover could end your round makes the game feel completely different. If you want a change of pace and a huge dose of excitement you could do a lot worse, and the teamwork and communication brought about by finding a good squad online is something fairly unique in modern gaming. The online modes here will keep me occupied for a long time, I’m certain of that.
Future Soldier maybe isn’t quite everything it could have been. Between a couple of less impressive campaign missions, some ropey AI squadmates and a gap in the co-op possibilities it’s leaving a couple of boxes unticked. But that’s not to say this isn’t a great game; it’s taken on almost everything that was great with GRAW2 and given it a shine to bring it up to date, and the results are an extremely enjoyable change of pace that will delight those who enjoy teaming up with friends to take on an equally organised enemy. The online sections will look after themselves for a long time while you level up the various classes of soldiers to your own specific playing style, and the campaign is generally enjoyable with some fantastic little touches along the way.
It’s very hard not to recommend Future Soldier. I’ve seen some very harsh things said about it in the last week or two, but also some far more complimentary ideas, and I’m very much in the latter camp. You’ll probably already know if it’s not for you, but if you can turn away from the frantic pace of other online shooters this is a very sound bet
Reviewed on PS3, XBox 360