Back in April, when the first details of Call of Duty: Black Ops II were revealed to fans, much was made of the futuristic setting, and many palms were moistened at the thought of an intense, cinematic shooter crammed with more gadgets than a James Bond boxset. Presumably, over at Ubisoft, there were quite a few disgruntled rumblings by the watercooler. After all, they’d been working on an intense cinematic shooter that boasted futuristic war tech since 2009, and were just weeks away from release. But the anticipation surrounding the latest Ghost Recon game is a million miles away from the annual CoD furor. That’s no fault of the developers – the simple fact is that Ghost Recon games have always had a reputation as the thinking man’s shooter. While Battlefield, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor and their ilk all strive for the biggest bang for your buck, Ghost Recon has always been less run-and-gun, more hide-and-have-a-think-about-it. For Future Soldier – the fifth title in the Ghost Recon series – there’s an obvious attempt by Ubisoft to combine the best of both worlds by marrying smarts with style – blowing things up is vital (and fun!), but there’s also a lot of attention given over to stealth and infiltration.
As a member of an elite, near-future squad of soldiers, players must investigate the detonation of a dirty bomb in Nicaragua – sneaking and shooting all the way back to the source. Which is great for gamers who like more than just hosing enemies with bullets. But, crucially in this case, it also puts players in something of a quandary. Avoiding detection is crucial to advancing through the single-player campaign. Get spotted by a guard, or leave a body lying about and the entire mission will be scrubbed. If you’re playing solo, your computer-controlled teammates are fairly adept at hiding, but if you’re tackling the game’s (much more entertaining) co-operative mode, the slightest misstep from a teammate pegs you all back to the last checkpoint. Given how some of the game’s harder sequences can require multiple attempts, trying over and over is not only infuriating, it ruins any sense of cohesion between the story’s events. The fate of the northern hemisphere might be in jeopardy, but it’s hard to care when you’re obsessing over being spotted for the hundredth time.
It makes for a strange dichotomy: Future Soldier is a lot of fun, and relatively nice to look at (there a few textures that look a little unfinished, but these are few and far between). Although it’s an intuitive and engaging shooter offline, however, it’s an infinitely more fun experience when you’re playing with friends – be that in campaign mode or the array of multiplayer contests. But the increased sensitivity that kicks in with human teammates, and the game’s tendency to punish you for the slightest mistake makes it frustrating. That, plus a few niggles regarding the HUD (too cluttered, too glow-y), and the cutscenes (terrible dialogue, rubbery faces) leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Future Soldier is a solid, decent game in a market that’s full of them. But when the bar is already so high, decent just isn’t enough to cut it.