Ghost Recon is tough. Let's rephrase that. Ghost Recon is hard as nails. No, that doesn't do it justice. Ghost Recon will hurt you.
And it's about as gentle as a hatchet-clutching butcher to a dairy herd. Pride, self-belief, life-expectancy any longer than it takes to breath in; all slaughtered in a matter of minutes.
It's the bloodiest of welcomes. Ghost Recon's multiplayer makes you aware you're playing a very different game.
First Spawn: 4.53pm. First Death: 4.53pm. Time Difference: twenty seconds.
The second, gut-wrenching pain comes from the inevitable loss of confidence. You thought your skills in Modern Battlefield Ops 2 would help you here, right? Wrong. If you want to, you can run and gun in Ghost Recon, but it's not the done thing. Charging round the battlefield is a sure fire way of familiarising yourself with the respawn points.
Once these painful and humiliating lessons have been learned, you may be left feeling a little frustrated. You have two choices; you can either take a walk down washout lane, or pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and go again.
Those who persist past the initially steep learning curve will discover an exciting and deceptively deep tactical shooter lurking beneath the unforgiving facade.
In the beta there were two maps to sample; Mill and Pipeline. Mill is set in a village surrounded by trees. Stone buildings stand next to wooden huts, and a river bed dissects the map. Pipeline is set around a dusty abandoned oil refinery, all sand and rusted corrugated iron.
But in blueprints its all a series of cover points, all built for Future Soldier's odd but enticing battle tempo: quick charges to cover pinpointed by a targeting reticule, then snapping camera pans to watch for bobbing heads nearby. Charge, double-taps flowing you over lower would-be cover points smoothly, and plant against wall. Plan the next cover charge. Repeat.
It's cat & mouse, adrenaline blasts followed by rapid-fire methodical planning that's familiar to the multiplayer FPS market but whose execution feels excitingly different.
Two minutes. Longest survival stretch thus far. Most spent crouched behind a car wreck, watching opposing side's strategy, getting feel for battle. Take bullet spray to exposed head. Kill-Cam reveals thermo-vision worn by attacker. Swear at the unfair nature, then make promise to get own version of equipment.
Mike: I started off as a Rifleman. Whilst I didn't go in all guns blazing, I still didn't have a clue what I was getting into. The first few games were a painful experience, as my aggressive play resulted in me dying. Often.
Once I realised that the key to survival is hugging cover like it was your long lost bestest friend in the world ever, I started to claw back my kill/death spread and regain some of my confidence.
Moving your Future Soldier around the battlefield feels clumsy at first. Once the rugged cover system has been mastered, that movement starts to feel much more natural. Darting from cover to cover quickly becomes the only way to travel, though even then you're never far from danger.
Despite my newly discovered love for all things bulletproof, I was still at the forefront of any trouble that was kicking off; trying to capture objectives and support teammates in similar positions. I quickly tired off playing this way, because many of the people who were working with me were still going through the process of being hurt by Ghost Recon. And because of their pain, I was dying too much.
At this point I changed class, switched to the Scout, and started playing an entirely supporting role in every game. As soon as I switched tactics my whole experience changed, and for the better.
There were two game types in the beta. The first, Conflict, was by far my favourite. A series of objectives shift around the map, and both teams press forward trying to capture them and earn points. The team with the highest score after fifteen minutes takes home the win.
The mic crackles. A lone adult voice speaks. "Anyone else have a mic?" One response, inexplicably young, more snort than insult. The mics go silent, the squad continues to splinter across the map in disarray. The score puts them at some 200 points behind the opposition.
Assault was less enjoyable, purely because it relies on both teams being evenly matched. A bomb is deployed on the map and needs to be picked up and detonated in your enemies half of the arena. In practice it should produce frantic and direct confrontations, but with unbalanced teams it always ends quickly and predictably. If you're not working as a team, you will lose.
With that in mind I spent increasing amounts of time trying to safeguard my teammates from afar. Ranged combat from supporting positions opens up the possibility for kill streaks and support bonuses, giving you more points to spend on weapon upgrades and customisation options.
When upgrading your equipment, points can be spent on optimising the smallest details of your weapons. Scopes can be added, barrels adjusted, and colour schemes implemented. Highlighting a weapon causes it break up into its composite parts, and when you've made your changes, you can visit the firing range and try out your new set up.
Guns howl across the courtyard, bullet rain dangerously close but all find their home in an explosive mist of blood that blasts out of advancing enemy soldier, the focus of two comrades covering a lone squad mate exposed to enemy fire. The first glimmer of cooperation. The three advance on a near set of stairs, providing covering fire for each other as they hop to each piece of cover.
After you've gone through the growing pains associated with Ghost Recon's learning curve, the lone wolf mentality soon dissolves into a flood of teamwork. The necessity of staying near your comrades and focussed on objectives keeps players moving together as a cohesive unit and ensures you work towards a common goal. Whilst there were still some players running around like headless chickens, holding back and supporting their erratic efforts was a much more enjoyable experience than getting killed with them because nobody was watching our collective backs.
There are plenty of tricks up the Future Soldier's sleeve. Sensors can be deployed to tag enemies, drones can be introduced to the battlefield (though none were spotted in the beta) and there's a plethora of customisation options to help you improve on the futuristic weaponry featured in the game. There's also two teams; Bodark and Ghost, and each has different options. Classes can be progressed in different directions, meaning a selection of load-outs can be created for different mission types. If you like to tinker, the selection on offer will satisfy.
Once you've shaken off the Modern Warfare mentality, and started playing Ghost Recon properly, it becomes enjoyable. By the end of my time with the beta, the cover mechanics central to the game felt comfortable. Providing your team with support allows you to go on and win matches in as satisfying a manner as any of the more in-yer-face experiences offered by the popular FPS shooters currently out there.
Oh, and you get to be frickin' invisible.
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