Why Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is a great shooter that lacks identity

When it comes to a genre as saturated as shooters, identity is everything. Killzone 2 may not have had the most original settings, but its weighty controls and vicious atmosphere make it a killer war game. Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising didn’t boast CoD-level visuals, but its strict, realistic world made it a game for only the most hardcore.

But identity can be a hard thing to cling on to, as the sequels to both of the aforementioned games prove. And now in 2012 the future soldiers of the Ghost Recon franchise find themselves fighting that same battle.

It’s not that Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is an unimaginative, dull game (in fact quite the opposite), but it finds itself conforming to genre conventions arguably more than any other entry in the series before it. There’s regenerating health, a cover system, levels where you call in ridiculously close-range airstrikes and command invincible, missile-spouting war drones. It likes to hold your hand a little bit more than usual, telling you what weapons to bring into battle and keeping you in line with that most loathed of “You are leaving the area!” messages. Then there’s the barebones attempt at a story, woefully ill-advised on-rails segments, and eye-rolling slow-mo breach sequences. Oh, and the real kicker; it’s pretty darn easy.

What was once viewed as one of gaming’s premier tactical franchises now finds itself straddling dangerously towards the herd of standard shooter fare.

But, surprisingly, that isn’t the nail in the ghost’s coffin. Where many games fall apart in sacrificing what makes them unique, what we’re left with here is a game that still makes a great case for your playtime. Future Soldier is still a cut-above many other recent entries into the genre thanks to its pinpoint weapon handling, accessible arsenal and finely-paced campaign.

There are initial worries in the game’s opening hour, which largely shoves the stealth to one side and gives us gaming’s latest attempt at replicating Hollywood. But when the second level kicks in, dropping you into the sun-beaten wastes of Africa, it becomes clear that Future Soldier is still trying it’s damned hardest to be an engaging shooter. Here it struts its stealth, with the barren landscape serving as a brilliant backdrop for the deadly silence that’s excersised while sneaking around tents, coming within an inch of an enemy and then firing one vicious bullet right through their head, catching them before they hit the ground. Perfect.

This is a game that’s at its best when it gives you an expansive area to sneak through, but leaving you capable to fight back if you slip up. It can deal all the right cards: laying on an overwhelming sense of pressure during rain-drenched shootouts, yet capturing a powerful predator feeling as you pick off targets from the shadows in the next area, all of which is amplified by a sense of wonder injected into some of the environments. It’s 8 – 10 hour run time asks you to do a bit more Gears of War than one might hope, but there’s enough Metal Gear and Splinter Cell in there too to make for a varied and entertaining mix.

It’s a shame that it comes with so much fluff; the throwaway story is actually summed up by your commander in the first cutscene (“Blah, blah, blah, I don’t care”), and the redundant movies only serve to magnify the appalling character models. It’s 2012; we shouldn’t be seeing the kind of faces that are in this game anymore, especially from the likes of this publisher.

Central to the combat in any of Future Soldier’s three modes is the tech players have at their disposal. Sensor grenades can light up all enemies on screen (even behind cover) for your team of four to take out, while flying drones buzz overhead, picking out well-hidden targets. Optical camo gives you the edge in stealth, allowing you to get the drop on an enemy if not always sneaking past them unnoticed.

The game’s HUD is cleverly disguised as part of all this gear – something which you won’t even realize until hit by an EMP grenade and even the aiming reticule goes astray. It gives the screen a much more integrated feel, similar to Dead Space though more with Minority Report in mind. Combined with Ubisoft’s brilliant cover system that lets you dash from wall-to-wall by simply holding a button, Future Soldier proves itself as an accomplished action title.

Where the disappointment sets in is just how easy this new Ghost Recon is. Sure, it wants a wider audience, but maybe that could have been found in brushing up the title’s presentation instead of making it a cakewalk even on the hardest difficulty. While team AI is refreshingly capable (when playing single-player), it’s far too tempting to just sit behind cover and pick targets for them to deal with rather than try and manipulate a battlefield to your desire. In the game’s four-player co-op you can lean on the squad as much, but that’s compensated with a recovery mechanic that lets you revive fallen allies. Gone are the days of careful scheming and patient planning of older GR games; in truth almost any situation in Future Soldier can be handled from behind the first bit of cover you see.

Outside of the campaign there’s an expansive survival mode called Guerrilla to tackle. It asks players to fend off against 50 waves on enemies and highlights some of the more positive aspects of Future Soldier, like the brilliant Gunsmith addition that takes weapon customization to new heights. In the campaign this exhaustive feature is betrayed by the setup screen that tells you what weapons to use (which you’ll already find loaded into your arsenal). It goes far above the usual scope-switching, allowing you to decide on the tiniest details – even the trigger can be swapped around.

Concerns over ease go out the window in Guerrilla, as enemies stack up and it’s up to players to decide on the best positions and weapons to bring to the fight. It also allows for you to save at the particular wave you’re on, giving it more of a sense of progression than your standard time-killing extra.

Taking the game online proves to be a satisfying, if unspectacular affair. Given that Tom Clancy games that aren’t named Splinter Cell have been MIA for a while, it’s funny to be reminded of Rainbow Six Vegas when playing in any one of Future Soldier’s modes. That is to say it’s a largely cover-based experience, with those who dare pop their heads out usually meeting a grizzly end seconds later. It’s camping-prone, that’s for sure, but allows for plenty of opportunities to one-up the campers too, with map memorization becoming an essential part of getting the drop on enemies. It ticks the boxes on character progression and customization like most, but also then follows in the campaign’s footsteps of conventionalizing everything.

Given that it’s harder to stand out in the competitive scene, it’s a shame that Future Soldier hasn’t taken more risks with its online mode, moreso than with the campaign. It has the footing to be one of the great tactical frag fests of the generation, but never delivers on such a prospect.

It’s an odd one to call, then. There’s every chance that the Ghost Recon elite will play Future Soldier and come away mournful of a franchise that once was. But at the same time this is still a high-quality shooter with the chops to standout from other entries into the genre. I’d much prefer to see future Future Soldiers (?!) set out to retake the series’ hardcore reputation, but you won’t see me turning away anymore games in this vein, either.