The modern squad-based shooter owes much of its mechanics to the Tom Clancy series of games. From Vegas through to GRAW, each new iteration has refined the model of slow-paced tactical combat. With Ghost Recon Future Soldier, Ubisoft Paris have slightly broken with convention by moving the series away from Mexican city-crawls and towards a faster, more CoD-style set-piece approach. With a bag of high-tech toys, solid AI, finely tuned multiplayer and a lengthy campaign, it’s certainly an exciting ride and Future Soldier comes close to being the title most worthy of the Clancy name yet. But can a number of technical, connection and pacing issues hold the PC version back?
The storyline for GRFS follows the standard Clancy formula. A ghost team is killed on a mission by a dirty bomb and this marks the beginning of an escalating conflict that sees your small team of dedicated soldiers crossing the world to root out a conspiracy. Along the way you’ll stealth your way across Zambian refugee camps, perform on-rail hostage extractions, wield high-tech toys from drones to robotic weapons platforms before tying it up neatly with the classic-Clancy ‘up close and personal’ denouement. But to be honest, to articulate even that small part of the story to you I had to turn to Google to help me remember how it all went. In-game the story is a confusing mess, and quite frankly just interferes with the action.
While the larger picture is painted via cut scenes, mission exposition takes place in iPad-like briefings where you’ll be given an overview of the job ahead as well as a small list of challenges that you can undertake to improve your end-of-mission score. It’s here that you can experiment with Ubisoft’s greatly hyped ‘Gunsmith’ as well, which takes a weapon and explodes it into its composite parts allowing you to easily switch out components and recompile. Most missions have a recommended weapon though that will do the job perfectly, so Gunsmith became best applied in Multiplayer where your choice of weaponry add-ons can have a far greater impact.
PC control issues
Fans of this series already know how it controls with smart teammate AI behaviour and simple movement commands that, when strung together, make for a slick experience. Thanks to the near-future setting all troops are issued with ‘active-camo’ that renders your character invisible unless running or firing, along with various gadgets that display enemy positions or allow you to mark targets outside your line of sight. The way in which you can attach yourself to just about any part of the environment is incredibly well done and this affinity between movement, technology and intelligent team AI strings the more successful levels together into asilky smooth experience – most of the time.
Those who’ve spent any time with GRAW 2’s PC version will remember the special PC-only addition ofa top-down squad-control system. While a novel idea for the RTS-FPS fan, it was an unwieldy approach in the heat of battle with the Xbox actually delivering a superior experience through simple button commands that would issue team orders depending on what you were pointing at. I was excited to hear then that Ubisoft had given PC gamers that same, simpler and more powerful control this time around – but unfortunately, it didn’t turn out as I hoped.
In the Xbox 360 version of GRFS, the level pacing is spectacular. When undetected, you have the ability to mark four enemies for a Splinter Cell style synchronous execution with many of the later levels allowing for tight, puzzle-style gameplay as youco-ordinate your team to silently despatch every foe. Once a body is discovered or a shot missed, alarms will sound as open fire-fights begin and using the sync-shot command will now direct team-fire towards your preferred target. The Elite difficulty level has always been very achievable in this series and for the Xbox this meant a fun challenge without ever being unfair.
Unfortunately, this design approach doesn’t account for PC controls. By not changing how the controls work for PC, or the structure of each level, this pacing, challenge and excitement evaporates. One really difficult scene for the 360 version had you crossing the open deck of a large container ship battling distant snipers which on console was confounded by slower aiming and being unable to make out the distant snipers due to a lack of anti-aliasing.
On PC, the snipers went down in seconds. The scene was a cakewalk. There needs to be an added level of difficulty perhaps by an increase in the number of hostiles or their accuracy, or some measure of bullet-spread – as it is the play-space is dramatically reduced thanks to the power of mouse and keys.
An unfortunate console port
This straight-up port of the game may likely be rooted in Ubisoft originally having cancelled development of Future Soldier for PC. This was entirely our own, dirty, pirating fault according to Ubisoft, who said that “95% of gamers would download Future Soldier illegally”. Across GRFS’ development cycle the game has clearly gone through several quite dramatic changes, with this E3 2010 video demonstrating an entirely new HUD, level and story setting.
I can’t help but wonder if somewhere on Ubisoft Paris’ cutting room floor lies the PC game that could have been. It’s a grossly cynical decision that sees the game eventually ported despite the poor regard Ubisoft has for PC gamers, but it seems your money spends just as well as that of the console crowd.
It’s arguable that this contempt for PC gamers has had a big impact on the technical side of the port. Forums have been on fire with technical issues since release day, and even a recent 400Mb patch couldn’t stem the tide of players complaining of low frame rates and crashes on computers that more than exceeded requirements.
Installed post-patch on my portable desktop, an Alienware MX-17 with Crossfire 5870’s, the game was utterly unplayable on high-settings. I had to wait 15 actual, real-world minutes to load the main menu, and then a further 10 minutes waiting for an opening cinematic that degenerated into a slideshow.
This, on a laptop that can play Crysis on Enthusiast.
Killing my desire to tweak the settings to a playable frame rate, I dropped it into my main rig’s dual 580’s, expecting that it would easily handle GRFS’ DX-11 and tessellation – but across the course of the game I meandered between 20 and 80 frames per second. It was more than playable except for the most hectic of firefights, but the visuals were further marred by what I can only call a ‘fuzzy’ nature to landscape textures more reminiscent of how a console would display them. Overall it’s an attractive enough game but falls well short of what you’d expect for the demands it will place on your hardware.
If you can work through these issues, and once the single player campaign is finished (which clocked in at around 10 hours for Xbox and 7 on PC) there is still a lot of content in Future Soldier. Co-Op lets you take on the campaign with up to three people, although they all need to be on your UPlay friends list (another Publisher ‘platform’ whose only saving grace is the ability to spend achievement points on in-game items).‘Guerrilla’ is Ghost’s take on a Horde-mode where you’ll pick a stage then face an ever-increasing onslaught of enemies with the end of each wave allowing you to select new weaponry and support packages. There was so much potential here to stamp their military FPS gameplay on the genre and step up to the zombies and locusts of similar titles, but instead it is squandered on a banal, repetitive and frustrating 50-wave grind. No-one I know had GRFS so I was unable to try these modes out on PC.
Share the pain online
What’s left then is multiplayer, the strongest weapon in Future Soldier’s arsenal but also the one that caused me the most grievous injury. Choosing from an Engineer, a Sniper or a Rifleman, you’ll play across standard multiplayer game-modes but with a few special twists. Upon spawning in the objective based-modes you can select a mission to focus on (very much akin to Brink’s interface), one of which might be to protect a player carrying intel back to base, or attack an objective.
You can also hack downed enemies, a long process that appears as a ‘protect’ mission for your teammates, with a successful hack giving your team the temporary ability to see hostile players through walls. Completing various objectives and getting kills or assists grants experience points, and each new level you attain brings new primary unlocks as well as attachment tokens to spend on upgrading your gear.
A handful of character levels offer two primary gadgets to choose from, with the unselected item then greyed out permanently which lends itself a real diversity among player kit-outs. Some of the late-level toys like shotgun-drones look like a lot of fun and can further complicate an already intense online experience.
The multiplayer venues are superb, with very large spaces offering an abundance of cover but also an equal number of avenues through which to breach the other team’s defences. When a team co-ordinates via voice they can and usually will dominate as one player might launch a sensor, another a flashbang, while the other two co-ordinate a ground attack. At times like this it can be one of the finest team-based experiences in online gaming. The campaigns dull enemy AI gives you a false sense of capability that will be sorely tested against some of the tactics human players will throw at you, and winning a round in the last second can feel like quite an accomplishment.
It’s such a shame then, that connecting to other players on PC is a frustrating debacle of crashes, lock-ups and terrible, terrible lag. While the campaign mostly ran fine with only a few issues, I experienced a lock-up or crash to desktop in-between almost every match and where I was able to maintain a connection for a full round there are so few players online that my kill-cams clearly showed several seconds of lag between their firing from the other side of the planet and my dying. This was incredibly frustrating and meant long sessions back on the Xbox so I could remind myself of just how much fun the multiplayer can be.
There is a lot to like about Ghost Recon Future Soldier: the lengthy campaign, sync-shots, smooth movement and smart squad-AI make for an engaging and entertaining single player experience although one that sorely lacks a challenge. Co-Op and Guerrilla mode are great for those who like to team up against AI, but not great for those who lack the friends to invite. Multiplayer is where this latest Ghost Recon really shines with smart, tactical team-combat and long unlock trees delivering many hours of play – as long as you can overcome the aforementioned difficulties.
For fans, this is a no-brainer offering hours of fun and familiar content,but for newcomers to the genre and PC purists the F2P Ghost Recon Online, coming to PC later this year, might just be the better option.
- Sync-shots, toys and slick movement make you feel like a battlefield predator
- Multiplayer is an excitingly different approach to online play
- Woeful online connectivity
- A disappointingly undercooked port with staggering performance issues
- Mouse and keyboard controls break the challenge level