Ghost Recon: Future Soldier’s journey through development parallels that of fellow Tom Clancy and Ubisoft stablemate Splinter Cell: Conviction. Both games debuted to the press and public in a form vastly different to their final product, and both ultimately put fresh spins on the established mechanics of their respective long-running series. There’s even some shared gameplay DNA, with Future Soldier’s Ghosts employing Sam Fisher’s room-clearing takedowns, branded as Sync Shots here. It’s a team effort rather than a one-man special attack, though, upping the pace and offering gung-ho players some fistbumping moments of glorified death. What’s more, a stronger emphasis on stealth throughout the game (crouching triggers your active camouflage, helping you stay unnoticed) further reinforces those Splinter Cell comparisons, with your Ghost now able to sneak up on foes and deliver melee takedowns.
Elsewhere, Ubisoft’s other tweaks to the formula streamline the singleplayer game. Squad commands are now limited to initiating attacks, heal commands and ‘tagging’ specific threats. Generally, your three AI squadmates mirror how you play – they crouch and go prone as a unit, open fire when spotted, and regularly save your fragile life as they flank and face down the opposition. This is a diluted Ghost Recon, then, at once punchier and less strategic than Advanced Warfighter.
Missions are punctuated by gruff-voiced banter and erratic shaky-cam cutscenes as you and your band of brawny brothers headhunt clichéd, Aviator-wearing threats to world peace. The game’s creators have taken a broader, less-cerebral approach to its world and politics, but popcorn blockbuster values are an appropriate match for the more accessible gameplay.
Inching a series built largely on military fidelity closer to the action genre is an approach that’s been tried without success many times before. Most recently, Sony cover shooter SOCOM: Special Forces and Codemasters’ awkward halfway house Operation Flashpoint: Red River fell short of expectations as they reached for inspiration beyond the grasp of their respective legacies. Future Soldier, however, prevails where those two titles stumbled. The action is more kinetic, charged and louder, but it maintains the illusion of realism, and entertains with its rollercoaster of setpieces and measured, varied objectives.
Future Soldier is anchored by solid world-building, evoking a strong sense of threat and place as you creep and kill your way through the lush, if linear, locales. Enemies, ammo dumps and architecture have been arranged with a set designer’s eye for detail across maps that take in the sun-ravaged streets of Nigeria and Pakistan and the snowy slopes of Russia, all brimming with colour and flair. They’re the kind of levels you’ll want to revisit at higher difficulties and with different gear loadouts, too. Each one is treated as a walled garden for you to conquer alone or with friends, and the ability to heavily customise your firearms becomes a reason to double-dip the campaign, encouraging you to test out ways of dealing death with even greater efficiency. The weakest links in the campaign chain come in the third act, however, when the developer caves in to the action-shooter genre’s need for escalation, and wrong-foots the game’s balance with a hyperactive pace.
The front end reminds you that online is a big part of Future Soldier’s strength and focus (its lobby-style layout places multiplayer at the top of the list in case you didn’t get the hint), and the game’s multiplayer elevates the singleplayer’s mechanics brilliantly. For instance, take your Ghost’s cross-com HUD, which identifies concealed friends and foes. It gives you superiority in the campaign, but against equally matched opponents provides room for greater tactical play, adding tension as you scan the horizon for new threats. Gadgets become crucial to victory as well (the sight of a silent UAV drone overhead scanning the environment is nerve-racking) and this encourages you to rank up and unlock the best of the game’s extensive inventory to outpace and outgun the competition.
Maps are perfectly sized to accommodate both full 16-player Conflict matches (in which objectives are delivered on the fly) and the stealthier Saboteur gametype (all about planting and detonating a big bomb behind enemy lines). Then there are the Siege matches, which have respawns disabled and best capture the hardcore spirit of earlier entries in the series, while Decoy matches serve up another lively dose of tactical espionage as you deactivate enemy hardware.
Levelling up specific classes, (be it Scout, Rifleman or Engineer), keeps you invested even as you’re cut down by bullets time and time again. The vulnerability of your soldier makes stealth imperative, and the killcam (AKA Casualty Assessment) provides a useful lesson on where you’re going wrong and where your opposition is getting it right.
Further longevity is offered by challenges in both single- and multiplayer, requiring you to fulfil some frighteningly strict criteria in missions and matches, such as trying to kill off ten enemies in a row without reloading. Then there’s Guerrilla (read: Horde) mode, adding to an already robust package.
Future Soldier exemplifies a developer honouring the ‘fun first’ ethos of its publisher’s canon, even as it stays true to the seriousness of its espionage licence. Yes, it’s lost some tactical edge, but a disciplined commitment to entertainment focuses the experience. In the overmasculine world of the thirdperson shooter, this is a game that stands out for being delicately beautiful even as it delivers brutal thrills.
You can read this review in full in our print edition.
Our July issue, which goes on sale June 6, features a Post Script interview with creative director Jean-Marc Geffroy, and development director Adrian Lacey.