I’m of two minds with regards to Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Creatively, the game is uninspired. It’s another modern military shooter about an elite special ops team using cutting edge weaponry to tear apart insurgents in the former Soviet Union. Despite the exotic locales, you’ve been here many times before.
Yet as derivative as it is, Future Soldier is exceptionally well made, with core mechanics that make for consistently engaging gameplay that runs smoothly in multiple scenarios. I’d much rather play a game with sound fundamentals than a flashier game that crashes whenever you peek behind the curtain, and in that regard Future Soldier delivers.
Then again, that probably shouldn’t be a surprise. Ubisoft has more or less cornered the action-stealth market with Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed, and Future Soldier is cut from an equally competent cloth. The latest title leans more towards action than stealth – it is, after all, a serviceable third person shooter – but its covert components separate it from more linear gunfight-corridor-gunfight military titles. There’s seldom only one way to approach an encounter, and cool gadgets like drones, x-ray specs, and “adaptive camouflage” make the indirect route worthwhile.
Those gizmos also reward sound tactics and intelligence. If you plan your attacks accordingly, you can mark and execute up to four targets at a time with your teammates, making your unit far deadlier when your enemies don’t know you’re there. It’s possible to clear many rooms without firing a single shot, and while killing a clueless enemy isn’t particularly difficult, figuring out how to eliminate all of them without triggering an alarm is as satisfying as the more bombastic set pieces.
As much as I enjoyed the stealth it’s often optional, so you can always go in guns blazing if you’d prefer. Future Soldier handles the balance remarkably well, utilizing that versatility to deliver some real high points throughout the campaign. The last mission, in particular, serves as one of the better ‘final bosses’ I’ve ever seen in a stealth game. The lengthy levels begin with a covert insertion, progress to open battlefields dotted with chest-high walls, and then return to stealth, and it’s the blend that keeps the game reliably compelling.
The problem, unfortunately, is that even though it does a lot of things well, it doesn’t excel in any one area and drops the ball on a few too many occasions. The between-mission interface, for example, is a total mess. One button might have three completely different functions in almost identical scenarios, and there’s no real rhyme or reason to the layout.
Those issues are indicative of the game’s more general flaws. Buttons are mapped in counter-intuitive ways, and while the problems are never deal breakers, several smaller gripes will add up. I lost track of the number of times I pressed ‘x’ to enter cover and instead stood up and got shot.Other fleeting concerns – like the time I continued taking bullets and died during a non-interactive cut scene – prevent Future Soldier from reaching the top tier of the genre.
Future Soldier ultimately feels like a game that’s been poorly optimized, with many features that could have been implemented just a little better. I couldn’t even tell you what most of the environments look like because I spent 75% of the game staring through goggles with various multicolored filters. X-ray vision may make the game easier, but mountain vistas look a hell of a lot like the interiors of office buildings when you only see the world as a series of blue vectors.
The heavily advertised weapons customization system, meanwhile, barely seems worth mentioning. Future Soldier does allow you to create literally millions of unique load outs, and I’m sure there are people who are into that sort of thing, but – as is often the case – the only thing that ever seems to impact gameplay is whether or not your rifle has a silencer.
An engaging story might have made up for those deficiencies, but the narrative in Future Soldier isn’t remotely up to the task. Most of the creative elements – plot, characters, art direction, etc. – are clichéd to the point of irrelevance, and while it’s all blessedly succinct and inoffensive there’s also nothing memorable about the experience.
If anything, Future Soldier demonstrates why developers need to invest a little more time on the non-combat aspects of design, because the game is sorely lacking in the intangibles that might separate it from its peers. I enjoyed it while playing and then instantly forgot about it as soon as I switched the console off. There was no meaningful hook to draw me back for more, a shortcoming that encapsulates much of my overall ambivalence.
Future Soldier does get bonus points for its robust multiplayer, primarily because the gameplay holds up admirably well under repetition. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it is fun, and infuses the title with excellent replay value from both a competitive and cooperative perspective. Online enthusiasts looking for a fix will likely find little to complain about.
I tend to appreciate reliability, so that’s enough for a moderate recommendation. It isn’t the best third person shooter I’ve ever played, nor is it the best stealth game or the best multiplayer game. It is, however, a game that manages to combine all of those elements into one cohesive package while delivering on every technical front with a high degree of competency, which is more than I can say about a lot of games on the market.
If that’s enough for you, then feel free to check it out. The sheer variety makes the game worth a look, especially if you’re anticipating a barren summer release schedule. Just know that you’re not missing much if you decide to save your money for a few more screenings of The Avengers, and if you don’t have air conditioning at home the multiplex might be the better option.
Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is available now for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.