Four guys vs. entire armies? Sounds like fair odds to me! From Ubisoft Paris, Ubisoft Romania, and Ubisoft Red Storm comes a re-re-envisioning of the now classic "open terrain" squad based TPS series that puts the next wave of military tech in your hands. And with rock solid mechanics, many multiplayer choices, and stunning presentation, this sorta-new direction lends itself to a very diverse and enjoyable experience.
With E3 almost at our collective doorsteps, we all wait with anticipation to see "what's new" in the game world. I myself get just as excited as anyone else, particularly when new Tom Clancy projects are announced. Say what you will, but the track record is hard to combat. Most entries are, at the very least, good. And to be honest, there haven't been any real big "missteps" to date. To me, the best online console shooter ever is still Rainbow Six 3. I was really, really bad at that game, but that didn't deter me from understanding how great it was. And while different, Ghost Recon shares the same pedigree of unrelenting gunplay in a strategic sense. Keeping the barrel "hot" all the time would amount to you being on the wrong side of the "Mission Failed" screen. Future Soldier is a slight retreat from that. The strategic element is still there for sure, but the "gadgetry" will make your stint on the battlefield much more "doable."
There are a few features that should be talked about first. These "points of emphasis" should paint a better picture when the actual gameplay discussion starts. The Cross Com from GRAW is back, and better than ever. This version 2.0 is a lot more streamlined, which makes it easier to navigate. Gone are big overlays of info on the top and bottom of the screen. Future Soldier has a small marker next to your gun showing current ammo and what gear is "ready to use." That is the only constant mainstay. This opens up the rest of the screen to take in where the rest of the "Com" is located. Enemies are not shown with "red diamonds" anymore. Instead, identified baddies show up all red, and turn white when "neutralized." Additionally, a "note" about the current mission may "hang in the air" near the point of action. So a building may have a huge hovering sign displaying "Enemy Threats." May not sound very helpful, or even cool, but it works in practice. Another component to the Cross Com is when you decide to get all strategic and call a Sync Shot. This allows you to identify up to three targets for your other squad mates to take out upon your shot. They will inform you when they have lined up their assignment, then you let em have it! An area of a few tangos is begging for this to be executed.
Future Solider does borrow a few generic conventions that we have grown accustomed to in today's third person shooter landscape. One of them comes in the form of Cover Swap. This is the standard "get behind cover" mechanic for use with the "stop and pop" technique. Find a fool to cap, hold A to smack shoulders with a barricade near him, and peak out to get a clear shot. Cover Swap also allows you to pan through other likely park destinations and will show you exactly where you will end up with a little "ring" on the ground. So you won't be playing the guessing game of what will happen once sprint is initiated. Makes using this familiar system much better. The last keystone in this title's bag of tricks is Optical Camouflage. When crouched or prone, you are essentially invisible. The military is currently experimenting on a suit with a series of reflective LED screens that will "cloak" the personnel wearing it. Future Soldier assumes this technology comes full circle and is completely "field worthy." This particular aspect of the game is the quintessential difference from previous Ghost Recon entries. The luxury of being just a few feet from any enemy at any time, undetected, is the fulcrum point that may divide people in terms of this game's worth. Some will say this makes it too easy, and eliminates the need for hardcore planning. Others will simply point to the name on the case and say that a successful series must go through "face lifts" from time to time, but will always be the same at it's core. Well, the campaign itself adds fuel to each side's fire.
The main stock of Future Soldier comes in the form of a campaign featuring 12 individual missions. You will take command of the Ghosts, a military stalwart that is the size of a normal fireteam: four armies of one. Hunter, Kozak, 30K, and Pepper are the epitome of brothers in futuristic arms and call the Earth their playground. As you complete objectives, you will be globe trotting. From Bolivia to Zambia, no corner of the planet is safe from your not-so paranormal presence. The campaign is very episodic, and each level builds upon the previous one. So, I won't say too much about the specifics to save me from being the "spoiler." I will say that a rouge force needs a stern talking to from the end of your barrel and you may want to bring a coat for the later excursions!
Again, many differences will be drawn from this one to it's predecessors. The one contrasting change in "philosophy" (so to speak) is the fact that you will not feel outgunned ALL THE TIME. As much as I liked GRAW, this point was terribly maddening. You never got a moment where it felt like you were in control. Sure, you had many advantages in terms of weapons, tanks, UAVs, ect., but there was a constant "sinking ship" mentality. Relief came with the completion of missions, not accomplishment. There is still plenty of challenge to be had in "the new game," but it won't be controller-throwing inducing. Personally, I like this. Future Soldier wants to relay the message that having technological advantages will "even the odds" when you are way out matched in terms of man power. Most often, this is what occurs. The battles seem fair. I always thought if I took good shots and implored the right strategy, I could get to the next obstacle. Thumbs up on this point. If you're someone who just needs that nail biting, hair pulling sorta effect from your game, simple: turn up the difficulty setting.
If I could break down and group the various activities campaign has to offer, I'd come up with three distinct mind sets. The first is careful engagement. Harking back to the days of first person-all reticle view, many times you'll need to watch for patterns within a set of opposing forces and find a way to dispatch of them without recognition of "your work." Utilizing Sync Shot and sneaking around for Stealth Kills/Shots affords a much more "handled" elimination of targets. Sometimes this is needed to limit the amount of enemies you will see in a given area. So if you throw caution to the wind, and the upper portion of the HUD shows "ENGAGED," then you might have many more targets on your plate than you would have had otherwise. Sometimes an "alert" of this nature will cause "Mission Failed." Planning and strategy is still needed to succeed in Future Soldier. Although, there are about as many times where you just need to get after it in all out gun fights. No hiding here! Pop from pillar, to wall, to shipping crate and participate in full scale chaos of explosions, head shots, and bullet counts by the hundreds. But watch yourself, because just a few shots will "down" you. A quick revive from a teammate gets you back in fightin' shape, but three strikes and you're out to retry the checkpoint. The third level is to put the Optic Camo to the test and not engage whatsoever. Just "slip past" to the next objective. Surprisingly, there are a more than a few of these instances. Even more surprising, they add a very cool "ebb and flow" contrast that feels like the right thing to do when implemented. Rather good balance on display here.
The one knock that can be lobbed to this experience is that it can be quite repetitive. Expect to shoot a lot of bad people with bad intentions, and don't expect to do much more than that. Arrive, find target/intel/ect., extract, call for evac, clear LZ, hold for evac, leave. I mean, at one time this wouldn't be viewed as a bad thing at all. But now that we live in the era of rappelling, driving snowmobiles, and shooting guys from horseback, some people expect more variety from their "modern-to-future" military shooter. I for one am fine with the "vanilla" blend, but I won't begrudge someone for holding it against this title.
Getting back to good, the friendly AI is superb, to perhaps being the best I've ever played with in this style of game. Almost a year ago to the day I reviewed a "sqaud/tactical shooter" that had the worst set of comrades to grace a console of mine (not going to "title drop," but it's still up if you choose to do a bit of searching). So having gone through that, it is awesome not needing to babysit three grown men. Quite the opposite at some points. I was so confident in their ability to hold their own and lend a helping hand that I found myself being a lot more aggressive in firefights than may be prescribed. They move well, take Sync Shot commands instantaneously, understand positioning and spacing, and rarely become "downed." Ubisoft, if you're reading this, thank you.
Future Soldier also features campaign split-screen for up to two and online for up to four. I played the first couple of levels solo, then finished the rest with my brother over LIVE. I had an absolute blast. Having a teammate to converse with and plan some "inventive" tactics while the AI half of the team played things really conservative was a huge advantage. Also, we could mix up our weapons and gear in each briefing. Before the missions, you are allowed to select your gear. This includes a very wide range of weapons (assault rifles, snipers, shotguns, sub-machines, light machines, pistols, you name it) and gadgets. The gadgets are awesome, and each mission has a particular "toy" outfitted for each. So, sometimes the basic "pocket" UAV is enough to identify targets and such in a small city street. But other times an RC mech called a Warhound outfitted with mortars and missiles is the appropriate accessory for sprawling outdoor objectives. Overlord ("Control" back at HQ) will suggest what to take based on what to expect "out there". My brother and I would take turns packing the "suggested set" while the other took stuff that would contrast well. If I was on heavy gunner detail, he'd take a sniper. Worked out wonderfully. If given the opportunity, play this with at least one other person.
One part of the game being talked about extensively is Gunsmith. This takes virtual weapon customization to the nth degree. Ubisoft promises some 20 million combinations in total. That is an astonishing number, but attainable when you start breaking down everything. All parts can be swapped out or added onto. Extended or foldable stocks, full auto or three round burst triggers, suppressed muzzles, laser side rail attachments, and more scope options than should be allowed! it is all here. And each choice will adjust the manor in which the gun acts when fired. Using an "over" gassed feeding system fires more rounds but makes the arm harder to control, where under gassed does just the opposite. And don't think this doesn't have a real effect on the way the guns feel. One change may not cause a drastic shift, but if you have a "plan" in mind, you can wind up with something that is tuned to the way you play. This is super helpful in multiplayer.
The "Adversarial" portion of the program exists with the quality over quantity philosophy. For starters, things are limited to just 12 combatants creating 6v6 with no "FFA" playlists. The point of it is abbreviated teams in short, but hyper focused exchanges. It works. For some reason, this always feels like the right amount of folks. Never too many to be completely chaotic, but not too few that you feel awkwardly isolated. Nice number. The gamplay in multiplayer itself feels just as clean as campaign. Good, tight controls with a solid semblance of how one would imagine these weapons being fired to act like. No killstreak rewards, no "air support." None of that. Success is dependent on your understanding of the map and taking positions that lend to favorable sight lines while outfitting yourself with the proper tools of destruction that go in accordance with what you want to accomplish. Ya know, old school.
You may select from three different classes for your warrior. Scout utilizes Optic Camo to sneak in good sniper spots, Engineers can detect when he is in the cross hairs of opposing forces and blasts them with shotguns and Personal Defense Rifles (PDRs), and the Rifleman has stronger armor to charge through using assault rifles and LMGs. Four playlists are available "out of the box." Conflict is a "territories" game of sorts, where teams battle for control of objectives that mark down time rewarded as points, and the team with the most points at the end of the match wins. Decoy is a bit unique. There is an Attacking side and, naturally, a Defending side. There are three objectives, with two being "dummies." The Attackers need to find the "key" one which unlocks a final "point." If the Attack gains this, the round is theirs. Best of three decides the match. With Saboteur, think Halo's Neutral Bomb. An explosive is spawned near the middle of the map setting up a mad dash to locate, secure, and plant it in the opposing side's area to win. The last is classic Siege. Defenders spawn near the objective, Attackers away. A random objective is assigned to each of three rounds. The trick here is no respawns. So with just one life, we see that strategy word creep back into the frame. Of course, compared to the offerings of, say, Modern Warfare 3 with seemingly dozens of playlist options, the set in Future Soldier is quite scant. But I'm sure it will be "beefed up" with plenty of DLC... (sigh)
The last game mode is Guerrilla. Remember the whole "borrowing" thing I mentioned earlier? That applies here as well. Take control of a "base" with up to three other peeps and hold off a possible 50 waves of enemies. Played any "horde mode" from a different shooter and you've done this. Nothing special, but a nice (and ever increasingly necessary) component. Another check mark in the "plus side."
I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the presentation. Mainly because it's awesome. The in game character models are very good and highly detailed. For example, you can distinctly identify what each team member has as their weapons and how they've customized them, even during the pseudo cut scenes. Awesome design. Character movement is also phenomenal. 2,500 animations are promised for Future Soldier, which creates the illusion of seamless movement that a real person would enact moving from place to place. The environments were just as rigorously created. Each area of the world looks like what it is intended to be, and everything just looks very "natural." And interaction between character and environment is flawless. But if the game looks good, it sounds even better! Never have my a40s sounded this incredible playing a game. Some titles come across as just being "loud" with no observation of space or direction. But despite many things causing "racket," I felt like all sounds existed in a certain, individual "place." Yet another tip of the hat to Ubisoft. You may have made us wait for this entry, but clearly, it was well worth it.