Ubisoft breaks cover and reveals its variety show of a stealth
Developer: Ubisoft Paris, Ubisoft Red Storm
Format: Xbox 360. PS3
Origin: France, US
According to Ubisoft Paris level designer Florent Guillaume, the process of making Ghost Recon: Future Soldier “was an interesting way to work. There was lots of prototyping, with levels like gameplay blocks we could rearrange.” The truth of his words becomes evident in our hands-on session with the singleplayer campaign: no two missions feel the same, and the most polarised, and gripping, of those we dip into are opposites in both pace and structure.
The first is a manic shootout through the streets of Peshawar, Pakistan. With traffic at a standstill, you and your three fellow Ghosts need to push through a miniature army of enemy soldiers and panicked oncoming civilians to reach the other end of the main street. Vehicles can be used for cover, but the aggressive enemies, many wielding shotguns and hellbent on close-range kills, mean that you have to keep your blind spots under careful observation. The best strategy, then, is to make use of your gadgetry. Throw a drone up into the air (selected with the D-pad and launched like a grenade with a tap of the left bumper) and you can scan the area ahead for hostiles. Its elevation needs to be controlled via triggers to avoid detection, but once you have the enemy in your sights a press of the right bumper can tag up to four units for your squadmates to prioritise or eliminate simultaneously on your command.
Civilians react dynamically, meaning their crazed dash is unpredictable and alarming
Objective commands such as these and orders to heal downed teammates are the only directions you need to give your squad — they will otherwise traverse the warzone of their own accord, never breaking cover unless ordered to do so. This means not having to worry about Al foul-ups, or about pathfinding mistakes that might screw up your game plan, freeing you to focus on keeping yourself alive, which is easier said than done. That’s because the Ghost Recon series’ use of realistic levels of player vulnerability has survived the leap to this latest iteration, giving the game a sense of threat that’s rare in the genre outside of the likes of Operation Flashpoint. There’s also the added factor of civilian casualties: if too many die, then it’s game over. Civilians react dynamically, too, meaning their crazed dash through the streets — like a scene from the running of the bulls in Pamplona — is both unpredictable and alarming.
Having taken down the immediate threats in our recce of the level, there’s the small issue of a turret gunner blocking our path to victory before a chopper evac and traditional he.i-gun section. To overcome this obstacle, a downward tap of the D-pad fires up your X-ray vision, allowing you to snipe through a vehicle and move on to the next phase of the mission. If that sounds a little like science fiction, the team remains adamant that it has grounded its tech and tactics in realism. It was even aided by a team of special forces consultants during development of the game (and, not least, the guiding hand of series veteran Ubisoft Red Storm). If there’s a bad note in the Peshawar mission, it’s the helicopter gunning part. Less attractive than those of previous games, and more tedious, it’s a break in the level’s flow that comes off as forced, its linearity clashing with the open-ended feel of the preceding section.
The next mission we plunge into couldn’t be pitched further from the clear and present danger of Peshawar. Set in a deep forest that’s dense with vegetation and gorgeously detailed, there’s a deadly silence to the atmosphere that instinctively causes you to take cover every step of the way. This is when Future Soldier’s camouflage system comes into play. Staying in cover and moving slowly causes your stealth camouflage to kick in automatically. If you’re detected or move too briskly, you’re plain for all to see. There’s a user-friendliness here that feels more casual than the unforgiving nature of classic Ghost Recon, but it’s another thing less to worry about as you creep and crawl through the undergrowth, surveying enemy outposts disguised as, and surrounded by, lumberyards. Melee stealth kills come in handy on your approach to the enemy bases and close-range weapons prove integral to the claustrophobic shootouts that erupt in a split second. Roadie runs to and from cover are vital in the thick of it, too, and the camera’s bob and sway gives the action a cinematic slant. The motion capture of the Ghosts, with an alleged 2,500- plus animations, also adds a level of realism as you roll over and dive into cover.
The overall look of the game, however, feels removed from the more gritty, hard- edged and rather clinical look of previous titles. Character models are chunky and rounded, and the environments themselves look far more colourful and inviting than the cold, barren sterility of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter. There’s a gloss to Future Soldier that screams casual rather than hardcore, which is perhaps a result of the military- themed shooter’s paradigm shift to narrative- led, Holly wood-style thrills since Ghost Recon*s previous console outing in 2007.
Environments take in everything from homages to original Ghost Recon maps to sprawling urban warzones. The visual design is far less sci-fi-orented than that of E3 2010′s demo: the general idea is to keep the narrative and feel as close to Tom Clancy canon as possible
Although the settings and style of the two missions we see are vastly different, both can be tackled with either strategic stealth or gung-ho gunnery — there’s no wrong way to navigate Future Soldier’s skirmishes and tackle its threats. Playing the scenarios with three human squadmates will be the true test of the game’s strategic options and replay value, but on this showing there’s a variety to combat that gives you a strong sense of being in charge without drowning you in menus. As a halfway house between action game and military simulation, Future Soldier simultaneously strikes the chords of accessibility and depth that Operation Flashpoint so fatally missed last year. If the rest of the missions on offer can build on the
While Future Soldier may have been designed as a cooperative experience, the quality of the enemy and teammate Al is strong enough to make it a considerable proposition for lone players. As such, the absence of a narrative in our time with the game, even though it’s never played a prominent role in the series to date, is now more noticeable. Future Soldier’s vibrant new aesthetic feels in dire need of a coherent story to add some blockbuster intrigue to its luscious looks, and hopefully the writers have spun a Clancy-style yarn bold enough to match its production values.
What are ya building?
Gunsmith mode is a rifle range that allows you to test and create weapons, the latter being done with parts earned through the campaign. Bizarrely, it supports Kinect, too. Hand gestures flick through weapon sets and dismantle guns for you to reassemble as you please (providing you adhere to plausible combinations). Shout ‘badass’ and you’ll be provided with a randomised firearm fit for a hero. In the range, your outstretched arm, fist clenched, aims the weapon, while opening up your hand fires. Tilting left or right moves you around. It’s entertaining, but after a few minutes’ play you’ll likely want to revert to a controller variety and scale that’s been demonstrated here, Ubisoft might well be able to offer something for everyone. We do know, however, that they’re set to take place on an international stage that includes Russia, and with a few nods to classic Ghost Recon maps.