Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is an exceptional game housed in an exceedingly generic shell. The parts that work well do so brilliantly, while those that don't only serve to make the game feel incomplete.
- Fun, futuretech-filled campaign is just as fun to play solo as it is in co-op
- Responsive, well thought out controls
- Mission maps are smartly laid out to support multiple play styles
- Ridiculously elaborate weapon customization
- Total absence of stat-tracking outside of multiplayer
- Lack of cross-mode unlocks limits replay value across the board
- Multiplayer progression feels limited given how much gear is available elsewhere in the game
Ghost Recon: Future Soldier starts out with a bit of misdirection. You're following a squad of gun-toting grunts as they drive along in an armored humvee as part of a larger convoy. Your immediate assumption is that you're riding with friendlies; no one is speaking, in English or any other language, and the non-descript nature of the uniforms and gear suggests Vanilla Military Force. The fact that the camera is along for the ride is all the proof we really need to assume that we're looking at some of the Good Guys.
Of course, misdirection is the calling card for Ghost Recon's future soldiers. The camera eventually cuts away from the convoy, off to a nearby ridge where a squad of four teched out soldiers in stealth camo lie prone with their weapons and intel devices pointed in the direction of the convoy. It's a slick introduction to what ultimately amounts to a rather generic story, but it nonetheless captures the essence of what being a Ghost Recon soldier is all about.
Cut From The Same Cloth
The scene described above ends with the Ghost squad opening fire on the convoy and quickly suppressing all resistance. Once the area is secure, a search of the vehicles unfolds that results in the discovery of a dangerous-looking warhead. As it turns out, the whole thing was a trap and the warhead detonates well before the Ghost team can get clear. This sequence of events sets Future Soldier's story of revenge in motion, with a second Ghost squad -- the one that you are a part of -- being dispatched to track down those responsible.
It works very well as a setup, even if the first-person shooter trope of killing off a seemingly important character in a bomb blast has been done before. What's unfortunate is that many of the events that follow this one feel largely generic and too heavily inspired by other sources. You'll infiltrate a Russian prison to rescue a VIP. You'll fight through the streets of a familiar city caught in the grip of a revolution. You'll even watch in horror as a found footage cutscene shows an attack on another familiar city.
This isn't to say that the missions aren't well thought out. You'll do cool things as you rescue VIPs, infiltrate enemy compounds, gather intel, and eliminate HVTs. You just won't care why you're doing it. The only real failing in Future Soldier's mission design is one that occurs later in the game without your squad to back you up. This is a squad-based shooter and the mission in question simply doesn't work very well without that squad backing you up. Fortunately, this is the only such example of a forced solo situation, and even that can be offset by playing through the mission in co-op.
Tools Of The Trade
The story is all very generic and forgettable in the end, though it's not the crime that it could be given the many strengths that Future Soldier does have. It's a game that certainly lives up to its title, serving up a vast range of technological doodads and gizmos that you can use and abuse to tilt the rules of engagement in your favor. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier might not introduce much in the way of new ideas, but its fresh treatment of familiar ones offer a good time regardless.
Let's start with the most low-tech tool in your toolbox: sync shots. Up to four enemy soldiers can be marked with the press of a button, with your team then following your lead and taking out anyone you've marked once you open fire on one of the targets. Stealth is a huge part of the game and the friendly AI is shockingly competent, so you end up relying on this feature frequently.
You can also mark as many as three targets and leave them for your team to deal with (by pressing and holding the same button you use to mark enemies). This is most useful when paired with the game's UAV drone, a remote-operated quadrotor-powered camera that can be deployed during most missions.
Between tools like the drone and the sync shot feature, it's entirely possible to play through most of Future Soldier without firing your weapon. This is really where the game stands out most, giving you all of the tools you need to tackle near-future battlefields in a way that suits your particular play style. The responsive controls fully support this too, whether you go in guns blazing or you rely on your squadmates to handle the bulk of the heavy lifting.
It's really the pacing that makes all of this work, however. Future Soldier never simply drops you into a mission with dozens of futuristic battle tools to choose from and no indication of what each one does. You're learning new tricks and picking up new toys throughout the game, though it's presented in such a way that it never feels like an endless tutorials. You're simply supplementing what you already know.
Sometimes these are one-off gameplay features that amount to a palette cleanser. In one particular case, you spend most of a mission guiding a combat mech around the battlefield. You certainly have the option of relying on your equipped firearms for most of the challenges you face, but it's far more fun to use the mech to rain a constant stream of devestation down on your enemies. There are also occasional on-rails sequences that give you all the ammo you could ask for and a bunch of enemies to shoot with it.
Then there's the weapon customization, which is by far the most detailed you've ever seen in a AAA release. You can tweak everything from underbarrel and side rail attachments to the gas system, barrel length, and trigger pull of your chosen firearm. Kinect voice and motion controls can be used in this Gunsmith mode, though they feel tacked on and unnecessary. The level of customization is the real win here, no question.
Future Soldier's gameplay overall is as fun as the story is generic. Sure, you'll balk at some of the things you see and hear in cutscenes as nods to (or ripoffs from) other games. But you'll also likely be too excited about what new toy you'll get to play with next to care. Only the on-the-ground version of the UAV drone misses the mark, due to exceedingly clunky driving controls.
Fighting With Your Fellow Future Soldiers
Co-op forms a huge part of the experience in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Some of the game's challenges, such as the solo mission mentioned above, simply don't work well without multiple human players in the mix. Guerilla Mode, a Horde-style 50-wave survival challenge, is basically impossible to play through without at least one other player at your side.
As enjoyable as it is to rely on your UAV drone and sync shots in the campaign, the best bet is always to bring along other human players. You can fill out your entire squad of four with online friends (or randoms), and apply the same sort of teamwork-oriented thinking in a group setting. The amount of enjoyment you take away from this depends largely on how well your crew can work together, but switching from managing an AI squad through each mission to using your futuretech tools in the context of a group is seamless.
Group play is even necessary in certain cases. There are challenges that are unique to each mission in the game; completing them unlocks all manner of new weapons and Gunsmith attachments. Some of these challenges are easier to complete on your own, but most of them favor group efforts.
The challenges offer a cool twist to the campaign and a reason to replay each mission on tougher difficulties, but the way that they're executed speaks to one of the larger problems in Future Soldier. A lot of the out-of-game menu juggling feels half-baked and poorly executed. For example, there's no way to measure your past performance. You receive a 1-100 rating based on your performance in each mission, and there are challenges tied to these ratings. Unfortunately, there's no way to look back at how you've scored previously inside the game.
There's also the fact that the different pieces of game feel disconnected from one another. You're constantly unlocking all sorts of weapons and attachments in the campaign, but none of this carries over to the Guerilla or competitive multiplayer modes. In Guerilla, you're actually stuck with whatever the game chooses to offer you for each wave. There's also no real sense of progression in this mode, beyond unlockable Achievements/Trophies. You can play through the 50 waves and have fun doing it -- every 10 rounds you have to take over and then defend a new HQ for the next 10 -- but there's no carrot to keep you coming back.
Finally, there's the multiplayer. It's mostly great. You don't have any of the typical bog-standard modes like Deathmatch or Team Deathmatch. Instead, there are four entirely objective-based modes to choose from. They're all a lot of fun to play and they all feel decidedly unique, even if they play on established multiplayer ideas.
Decoy, for example, has one team rushing to interact with their "key" objective. There are also two other "decoy" objectives. The opposing team can see all three locations, but it isn't ever made clear which one is the primary. Or Conflict, a mode with a rotating set of objectives that could involve anything from kill/defend an HVT to take a control point and hold it. There's nothing in the multiplayer modes that's particularly new, but it's nonetheless a lot of clever riffing on familiar ideas.
Unfortunately, there are also some baffling limitations. Each of the three classes -- the frontal assault-oriented Rifleman, the stealth camo-clad Scout sniper, and the sensor grenade/UAV-toting Engineer -- levels up individually, but they're all saddled with a surprisingly limited selection of weapons. There's so much firepower on the campaign side of the game, but you can only put a sampling of it to work for you in multiplayer. More weapons unlock as you advance through the ranks, but it's still only a sampling of what's available elsewhere in the game.
Future Soldier also makes the fatal mistake that others have made, of forcing faction-specific loadouts and weapon options on players. Is it more realistic for the U.S. forces to have access to an ACR and for the Russian forces to use an AK-200? Sure. That sense of realism comes at the cost of a good time, however. Tweaking your custom loadouts can be fun, but having to spend your attachment credits on the same new Gunsmith parts twice quickly becomes tedious and bothersome.
So in the end, we're left with an experience that feels divided against itself. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is an exceptional game housed in an exceedingly generic shell. The parts that work well do so brilliantly, while those that don't only serve to make the game feel incomplete. There are things that will annoy the hell out of you, no question, but there's also a ridiculous amount of fun to be had. My advice to shooter fans: get over it. For any of its faults, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is well worth investing your efforts and multiplayer hours into.
Editor's Note: Future Soldier was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy of the game; however, we also played the PS3 version, and found no differences. If further investigation reveals any differences between the 360 edition and the PS3 edition of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.