The horizon reminds us of an old post card. The deep blue sky blends with the radiating heat of the arid desert sand. A lonely tree stands majestically at the top of the hill and throws its long shadow onto a burnt out car. Women from a nearby village have walked to the well to get water, and on their way back they run into a local militia group. Armed with old, yet reliable AK-47's one of the men forces one of the women to lie down on the ground. She resists, slaps him and runs off. Full of wounded pride the man takes aim with his weapon, but before he squeezes the trigger two hands grab hold of his head and with a simple twist he falls lifeless to the ground. He never saw the ghosts who were hiding with the aid of optical camouflage just a few yards from his position.
This is the start of one of the best missions in Ghost Recon: Future Solider, and it's a level that illustrates the appeal of Ghost Recon. Let me briefly touch on some of the highlights: A refugee camp plagued by thieving rebels, recon and assassination of a local warlord, sabotage of a freight plane, and a fight for survival in a raging sandstorm - all of this happens in one level.
So if you were thinking you would be carefully planning out your mission on a 2D map before heading out into extremely challenging scenarios you're in for a disappointment. That part of Ghost Recon belongs to the past, and with Future Soldier Ubisoft have rebooted the franchise with focus on what remains core to the experience - stealth, intel, and merciless action.
The story starts out with a bomb of Russian origin that is making its way towards America from the south. A team of Ghosts are able to stop the conspiracy, but as they all die a new team is deployed to find out the truth. As is often the case, the truth proves harder to uncover than you first thought, and the quest for truth will take us to arms dealers in Bolivia, a base camp in the very north of Norway, to the border of Pakistan, and a stop off in a rebelling Moscow.
It is by no means an original story, and when it doesn't take a page out of the Call of Duty book, it isn't afraid to pile on the clichés and empty phrases. After a while you get used to it, but as the soldiers aren't portrayed with any depth, it's hard to feel immersed in the story. The missions feel as though they don't really belong together - but this is compensated by the fact that the missions in themselves are very good, but from a narrative standpoint it's hardly an elegant solution.
Speaking of a lack of elegance we may as well go over the flaws right away. The cutscenes in between levels are quite frankly horrible looking. The not very revealing scenes look like something out of the last console generation, and it's hard to fathom why the competent game engine hasn't been utilised for cutscenes.
But even with these flaws, the game manages to immerse us and create a very engaging experience. The actual levels and the gameplay make up for it in a convincing and gorgeous way. Using high-tech gadgets such as drones, sensor grenades, and optic camouflage you can make your way unseen to enemies and coordinate attacks. In the previously mentioned African level you learn how to tag enemies much like in Splinter Cell: Conviction, and once you've done this your squad automatically sets out to take position and take them out. With an extra press of the button the attack is synchronised and all enemies fall on your command. It may be a relatively small and simple mechanic, but it works well and adds a layer of credibility.
You don't need to bother much with how your squad mates behave, and how the AI is reacting, everything just works. The player is always in command, and with a little practise you can employ tactics such as letting your AI comrades take out snipers, while you sneak around for close quarters stealth kills in the very open levels. With the aid of the drone you can scout an area out, and given the enemy numbers and positions you can think out a plan of attack that is as efficient as possible. The levels are well designed, and when everything comes together in a perfectly executed mission there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment rushing through your veins.
If the idea of collecting intel and flying with drones doesn't appeal to you, Ubisoft has made sure all tastes are catered to. In order to change the pace at times, the stealth approach is sometimes broken up with full on combat. A great example of this takes place in a level set in Pakistan, where you are dropped in with a mission to get close to an arms dealer unseen in order to spoil the deal and capture the buyer. After sending in your flying drone into the locale where the transaction is meant to take place, and transforming it to a RC car, you get wind of the fact that the buyer is stuck in traffic. The transformed drone can send out an electromagnetic pulse that takes out electronics and people alike, a few seconds later the ghosts rappel in through the sky window, secured the room, and cornered the weapons dealer. With his mobile phone you can triangulate the buyer's position, and the hunt begins on Pakistani streets. Another example is an Arctic mission where a separatist base needs to be neutralised while a new artillery robot needs testing in the field.
These more action packed sequences are some of the more challenging in the entire game, and it's a good thing the weapons are there to aid you on your missions. You can choose freely from a dizzying range of shotguns, SMG's, assault rifles, and sniper rifles.
Or rather not entirely freely as most weapons and attachments are unlocked through the course of the game. You unlock these through completing missions, but also through completing various secondary objectives that are completely optional. Examples of this would be completing a section of a level within a certain amount of time, taking out two enemies with one bullet, and avoiding detection. It's a brilliant way to force the player to think things through a bit more thoroughly and play the game differently than they otherwise would have. And you have to decide whether to focus on completing one optional objective or try and clear them all. After each completed level you're rated on your performance with a Ghost Score. If you haven't triggered every alarm, and killed a bunch of civilians along the way, you can earn extra unlock points here. There are countless combinations of weapons and attachments, and you can tailor you gear through the gorgeous Gunsmith interface in between missions.
A futuristic interface lets you pick your weapons apart with a simple press of a button, and you can then add and switch components as you see fit. You can easily spend hours pimping your guns, but if you're not that much of a gun freak each gun comes with four presets tailored for different playstyles, and if you want to just try something new you can simply press the random button. Given the amount of variation and customisation available, Gunsmith is an invaluable companion. And with an Android tablet or iPad you can download a Gunsmith app that let's you tailor your weapons on the go. Nothing we've seen in any game comes even close to rivalling this and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier sets the new standard as far as weapons customisation goes.
The same can almost be said of the multiplayer. In addition to the campaign, with around 10-12 hours of gameplay that can be played in 4 player co-op (don't forget to turn on your headset), the game also features an engaging multiplayer component. And the reason for this is how well the content from the campaign is carried over to the online game. Gunsmith is carried over, the classes are strictly divided into infantry, scout, and engineer. You quickly advance in level, and unlock new and better equipment as you progress. At certain tiers you're asked to choose between two different pieces of gear that will make a big impact on the class you're playing, and in this manner you're given some degree of freedom to shape your class. Because you're really going to need a diversified squad on the battlefield as only scouts can make use of sensor grenades and drones. The infantry man is the only one who can lay down suppressive fire. The only concern I have here is that the scout class comes across as somewhat defensive and underpowered compared to the others. It could just be my lacking skills with the class, of course, or perhaps they could use a bit of balancing with a patch at release.
New levels give us new points that can be used freely to unlock new attachments, and it quickly becomes very addictive. What is really appealing about it is the marked difference between the classes that just makes you come back for more as you want to challenge yourself with a new class or a different weapon. If you're not online you can also play a take on Horde (Gears of War) or Firefight (Halo), called Guerrilla, where you challenge yourself against 50 waves of enemies. It may not be revolutionary or innovative, but it's still a lot of fun, and adds another entertaining element to what's already a very appealing package. It feels as though the lasting appeal is near on endless here, and as you're reading this review we have moved on to explore the apps and community (Ghost Recon Network) that promises to make the experience even more immersive.
With all the content on offer there should be something for everyone here to enjoy. It's not a perfect game, as parts of the story, some cutscenes and a few graphical missteps in some of the indoors environments disrupt the picture. But on the whole that's just minor complaints as Ubisoft has delivered game of the highest calibre. Now the only thing you have to ask yourself is whether or not you are ready for the war of the future today...