It's been half a decade since Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2, and a lot has changed over those five years. The last entry in Ubisoft's series of tactical, squad-focused third-person shooters came just as military-themed bang-bangs were at the beginning of a huge boom in popularity, led by Activision's Call of Duty games and Electronic Arts' Battlefield series.
Given this new climate of high-profile, big-budget heavyweights, one imagines the team at Ubisoft Paris felt a bit of pressure developing Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, a game that, at least in part, is trying – and not quite managing – to be the sort of high-gloss shooter to which today's gamers have grown accustomed.
It wants to deliver a strong, driving narrative, but fails. I felt no connection between myself and the game's core squad of four hard-boiled, super-elite soldiers, who come off as facsimiles of more interesting characters from better war stories (like Eric Bana's rough and tumble Delta Force trooper in Black Hawk Down).
It tries to wow us with the sort of dramatic moments and spectacular set-piece sequences perfected in the Call of Duty games, including a tragic opening scene that sets the stage for the Ghosts to track the source of rogue weapons of mass destruction and, later, exact a bit of honourable vengeance. But, these scenes lack the scale, direction, and, frankly, the graphical panache to deliver the sort of immersive, jaw-dropping thrills we've felt playing other war games. They just don't conjure up much emotion.
Luckily, though, there are also moments – and plenty of them – when Future Soldier forgets about trying to measure up to its bigger-budgeted competition and gets back to the series' third-person-based tactical roots. This is when things gets fun.
Its main strengths are strategy and teamwork. We're talking about four guys taking on hundreds, perhaps thousands of enemies, so, not surprisingly, running and gunning doesn't usually work. Instead, we use high-tech gear to infiltrate heavily fortified locations and surgically eliminate specific hostile elements.
Perhaps the most hyped piece of equipment in the game is the active camouflage suit, which provides near-complete invisibility when prone or moving slowly. It doesn't disappoint. Not only is it cool to watch in action (think Predator), it's also a great way to explain away acts of stealth that would seem hard to swallow in other games, such as sneaking undetected within an enemy's peripheral vision.
Another fun toy is the quadricopter drone. Launched and recovered with a simple button tap, it provides us with a birds-eye view of the battlefield, allowing us to find and tag targets for our entire squad to see. It's not always available, but we can also identify targets from the ground, using high-tech eye gear to mark up to four at a time before taking them out covertly via a simultaneous squad attack.
Tagging targets while engaged in combat is as satisfying as it is when in stealth mode. There were skirmishes in which I fired not a single shot, opting instead simply to identify enemies from the safety of cover and let my squad-mates do the rest. The remote targeting mechanic reaches its pinnacle in a mission set in icy Russia, where your team field tests a quadruped robot that marches along with them and employs eerily precise artillery to destroy troops, tanks, and helicopters almost as quickly as we can target them.
The tactical elements transfer nicely to multiplayer, too, with the game's broad selection of covet-worthy gear doled out slowly as players level up their profiles.
The ability for teams to detect and mark the location of opposing forces on their maps, just as in the campaign, forces a much more cautious style of play. Plus, the option to respawn alongside your four-player squad is a good way to keep groups together and discourage lone wolves (even if it does, sometimes frustratingly, result in unfair spawn kills).
Add in a broad selection of modes – including a co-operative, wave-based "guerrilla" challenge with some seriously clever enemies that will put even the most tightly knit teams to the test – and you have a recipe for months of online fun.
Even so, this is no Call of Duty or Battlefield killer. There are many little blemishes: Among them a finicky covering system that's apt to occasionally leave one's derrière hanging uncomfortably in the breeze, long loading screens, save points that are a touch too distant and menus that tend toward ugly and confusing (this includes the ballyhooed "gunsmith" menu, which lets players change and customize every last detail of their weapons).
Perhaps Future Soldier is Ubisoft's way of warming up the Tom Clancy stove. It could be the French company is simply getting gamers reacquainted with the brand prior to the launch of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Patriots, a first-person shooter that's been in development for years by the seasoned team at Ubisoft Montreal. Based on trailers and early gameplay footage, this 2013 release appears to benefit from a bigger budget and seems likely to deliver a much more polished experience geared for a broader audience.
Future Soldier will probably win a loyal following with a relatively small audience strategy-minded gamers, but Patriots will be Ubisoft's best bet to cut itself a real piece of the industry's coveted military-shooter pie.
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Windows PC
Developer: Ubisoft Paris
Release: May 28, 2012