Hands-on / Ghost Recon: Future Soldier invites your brain to play

Clearly I’ve been spending too much time in Uncharted territory. I’ve let my shooter side go soft; lost to hand-holding difficulties, scripted set-pieces and generous checkpoints.

Ghost Recon Future Soldier’s co-op mode is something of a wake up call, then. In my short time with the main campaign’s tenth mission I’m given a crash course in what tactical shooters have been doing while I’ve been surviving plane crashes and fighting off Locust. Even with another three players by my side to pick up the slack, I’m constantly being punished for my hero-tactics; risky flanks and point-blank shootouts all seem to have a recurring theme involving my death and a few jabs to the shoulder from frustrated teammates.

But each time I die, I’m discovering another layer to the game. I’m being taught the importance of marking targets, staying together as a team, selecting the right weapons and utilizing funny little drone thingies.

See, Future Soldier could just be your everyday shooter; its modern setting and genre invite that assumption. But the game’s strict low health-threshold and no-respawn system ensure you won’t last long. Co-op can be used as a tool to tip the balance of battles in your favour, but it requires for people to know their stuff to be handled like a pro. As such, the latest Ghost Recon could end up filling a hole long left empty by many a contender this generation.

There are plenty of near-future gadgets stuck into players’ arsenals in-game, but to get the most out of Future Soldier you’ll need to be well-stocked yourself. Communication – meaning a head set – is an essential part of the experience, especially when objectives require a bit of patience and stealth. That’s made obvious the moment our first targets appear. The game has a marking system that allows everyone to highlight targets and pick them off simultaneously. It’s a staple of the Tom Clancy brand, having been utilized in earlier Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell titles, but here it proves to be a little less generous.

The team lines up shots, prepared to fire. We’re all armed with our own headsets, but are in a comfortable enough groove not to communicate our every move. That’s proven to be a mistake the moment two of us score a headshot… on the same target. That leaves one bewildered enemy to raise the alarm and shift the pace a little.

Fortunately, Future Soldier is as confident an action shooter as it is a stealth one; the marking system proves its worth again as I paint a target that has been pinned down. No sooner than I’ve made him visible he slumps to the ground as a teammate picks him off, freeing me up to take care of the rifleman on a nearby truck. It’s a cold, calculated affair that drives home the game’s no nonsense, professional tone.

Despite the slip up, our first encounter with the enemy is an ego-booster for myself. There’s definitely a sharper tone to the battles, but the regenerating health and plentiful ammo is enough to restore my super-hero antics.

The real fun starts as we approach a larger area, populated by cut logs, gun emplacements, enemy ordinance and plentiful sentries to take out. A full on battle here, without proper coordination, is suicide. A bit more thought is required for the standard mark n’ kill approach, as bodies left out in the open are discovered.

The expansive area encourages a little more maneuvering on the players’ part. Future Soldier takes Splinter Cell: Conviction’s cover system to heart, allowing for smooth and efficient movement between logs and crates as you simply look for the next wall to snap on to and then hold A/X to get there. Unfortunately I get so used to using it that I by the time I realise I’m too far away from my teammates, I’m surrounded by enemies and put in my place. None of my team can get to me for a much-needed revival and so it’s back to a checkpoint for all of us.

A bit harsh, you might think, but this is pivotal to making you live and breathe the Ghost Recon experience. Death isn’t so much a frustration as it is a chance to reassess and succeed. If you’re dead, it’s someone’s fault (usually mine), not the game’s.

Not that I’m a quick learner or anything; it’s not for another six or seven tries until we make some progress. But by then I’ve been introduced to the wonder that is the drone; a flying bot that helps us scout out a field and mark up enemies we couldn’t previously see. Foes that were once smugly hankered down and ready to pick off my fumbling-self are uprooted.

Then there’s the optic-camo that allows for close-quarters evasion. It’s not an invisibility cloak, but a handy tool to get out of tight spots.

Even with these features it’s tough to get through the area unscathed, but learning to stick together ensures that the Ghosts just about scrape through.

Then a BTR shows up.

The battle shifts from controlled to reckless as we seize gun emplacements and light up the vehicle. It’s an alarming change of pace that bodes well for keeping players engaged throughout missions. Pinning the giant between two mounted machine guns ensures its demise, with the rattle of the guns tearing through the usual silent-but-deadly atmosphere. When it wants to be, Future Soldier can be as vicious as the best of them.

But this is all only the very surface of Future Soldier. Even as we’re playing I know I’ve neglected the game’s Gunsmith system which allows for obscene weapon customisation. For the mission ahead I’ve only settled for a silencer on my sniper rifle and assault rifle, but the options to fiddle with under-barrel attachments and scopes, down to the smallest of details, are just begging for proper exploration.

For now, though, I’ll have to go back to boot camp before I tackle Future Soldier again. Its emphasis on teamwork and tactics requires commitment, especially on the game’s higher difficulty settings. To me, that just makes Ubisoft’s shooter all the more enticing. I’ve spent too much time leaving my brain at the door with recent gun games. It’s time the poor thing joined the party.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is heading to PS3 and 360 on May 22 in the US and May 25 in the UK. A PC version follows on June 12 and 15 for the US and UK respectively.