Little wonder: it's been five years since we last patrolled with Ghost squad, and while the shooter and third-person adventures evolved a hybrid language over that stretch due to cross-pollination, Recon's mix of cover systems and attack co-ordinations make it mostly unique.
Even knowing that Future Soldier, that as you play a global response unit armed to the teeth with gadgets and guns, is tailing a new wave of squad-based shooters inbound over the next couple of months, it's feathers remain unruffled. Recon's distinct enough to be untroubled by competition. The only true comparison is Ubisoft's own Rainbow 6 series, Ghost's glamourous and cooler brother: and that's not due until 2013.
Other games' squad AI are either slaughtering powerhouses or aimless cowards. Straightforward in aggression or timidness. In Ghost Recon, AI is what you make it. In three of the four single player levels we play for this preview, we're slowly reintroduced to the idea that "I" equals team.
You're quickly introduced to the breadth of your command options, and while comrades will give the illusion they're mapping terrain in their sights, laying down suppressive fire, tactically running between cover points, they'll live or die depending on your orders.
You can paint a target to focus fire. Move them along firing lines, leapfrogging their cover points to move along the battlefield. Mark multiple enemies and order a simultaneous shot.
The last manoeuvre becomes rolling set-piece for the entirety of the last level. A silent trek through Russian forest, clearing out two outposts and sneaking towards a large depot without raising alarm, we have to work fast taking out patrols whenever they're out of eye-line of their comrades.
The franchise's ever-present UAV, your eye in the sky, gives you essential info of enemy locations with a quick sweep through the canopy of the trees, and uploads the data to your HUD.
The mission is particularly exciting, offering a rich contrast to the unrelenting action previously. We infiltrate deep into enemy camp and command the rest of the squad - still taking position on the edge of the area - to snipe as we paint each sentry in turn as we sit not a stone's throw from the patrols. Comrades will move to get line of sight on their target, a faint line from gun muzzle to sentry head turning blue when the shot can be made.
Executing a simultaneous kill order will kick in a slow-mo moment, less cinematic, more practical: it gives you a few seconds to rise up and head-shot leftover troops. We never do, getting an overpowering kick instead at controlling the action rather than participating; Ghost Recon's tactical differential a bullet point for the back of the retail box.
Having time to think pre-kill order is a luxury in this demo build. Surprisingly it's not until this last level that we're given any time to absorb the situation or allowed time to plan offensives; from thirty seconds into the first level to the dying sounds of gatling gun fire in the climax of the third we're rarely never more than a wrong move away from eating a bullet. And even come that switch, rapid reaction is traded with gut-churning tension.
Yet it takes time for immersion to absorb, mostly due to relearning the feel of the cover system. The mechanics are just on the wrong side of fiddly for the moment as we readjust, swearing openly and twisting the controller in frustration.
The setup's simple: fast track between cover points requires a right stick pan of the targeting reticule over a promising area until a blue radial appears. Tap and hold A and you'll automatically charge from point to point. It's a cool roadie-run type move and in progressing up a traffic-filled street during a gun battle, it gets the blood pumping.
However, unlike the current norm you can't slide round corners while in cover, and we found the radial's appearance didn't always match where we wanted to go, forcing us to leg it to cover at a right angle of where we wanted to be - and in line of sight of enemy combatants.
This meant an awkward few seconds of pulling our bodies off cover and swooping round to the exact point we wanted to be: seconds that, even early on, can mean you're calling in for a Medic or staring at a restart screen.
Shame, as the rest of the moves are delicious. 2000 frames of animations mapped off mo-capped Navy Seals going to good use as you hunker between standing, crouch and crawl, the last letting you roll out of and back into cover smoothly. Even crossing walls is done with efficiency, rolling over low rises with shoulder first and with a flick of the legs. It all suggests the speed and regimented fluidity by stealth soldiers deep in enemy territory.
Visually the game looks more low key than its contemporaries, though not lacking in detail. First level's market bustles with civilians - who increasingly become a hindrance for blind fire during firefights - and while shadowing a warlord between tents in another you'd easily believe the temporary housing and its inhabitants stretch off into the far distance, despite the inclusion of obvious invisible walls like burning car wrecks propped against flammable tents.
Future Soldier seems set in the same mould as Advanced Warfighter: aside from the slick cinematics between levels, there's no flash in the field. Any camera pans are conservative, mainly sticking to your shoulder for the most part.
For example, the climax to the Russian forest mission sees a concealed tank bursting from cover and into the courtyard you're holed up in. No cinematic camera pans or signifiers were the threat is. Just a threatening rumble, something moving from the corner of the eye and suddenly you're taking heat. In that, the studio is expecting you to keep your eyes and ears open throughout: a decision we like.
Aside from the active camouflage and improved UAV, so far we've seen little that that captures the futuristic tech promise of the game's subtitle. Though in conversation with developers we hear mention of a few tastier gizmos not appearing in this build.
Back in 2006 Advanced Warfighter lived up to its name. It felt, and looked, like the cutting edge of squad shooters. From what we've seen so far Future Soldier is surprisingly beholden to similar techniques and mechanics as back then. It's definitely got the stones to cut it against the rest of the pack. We're just waiting to see what tricks it's hiding in order to live up to the boldness of that subtitle.
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