After having its release date pushed more than once over the last two years and enduring another slight delay announced a few weeks ago, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier will finally debut this May. In anticipation of the long-awaited new installment in the Tom Clancy franchise, we traveled to Ubisoft's San Francisco office to get hands-on with the game's campaign to find out what this new direction for the Ghost Recon series entails.
Ghost Recon: Future Soldier takes the ideas of its predecessors to an entirely new level, offering a departure from the first-person gameplay the series was known for. Future Soldier is a third-person tactical shooter with a heavy focus on tech and teamwork, all wrapped in a character-focused, international storyline - something the series has been lacking in up until now.
The campaign contains 14 missions in total, each ranging from 30 minutes to a full hour each, and is playable with up to four players co-operatively online or through LAN (no splitscreen). During our time with the game, we explored different segments of levels previously showcased at E3 and GDC, along with a few entirely new locations designed to demonstrate different forms of gameplay (including the use of helicopter mounted gun turrets) and environments. Specifically, we played parts of the first, second and fourth missions, and a significant chunk of a larger mission set in an open area just after the 10th.
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Players will notice two key differences right off the bat in regards to the digital people who populate the game. We knew already that the AI for the squad and enemy combatants had been overhauled, but for the first time in the series, environments are given life in the form of civilian NPCs. They must be protected at all costs as shooting innocents - accidentally or otherwise - will result in the player having to restart that area. The other key improvement is that Ghosts themselves play a much larger role in the game's story than they have in previous installments, with more dialogue, more screentime through cinematics and a story that will pull players into the mindset of the Ghosts and their motivation.
The game's tutorial of sorts is built into the first missions, with game mechanics introduced to players gradually. Players won't be able to utilize active camo or tag enemies and coordinate simultaneous take-downs from the get-go, but it won't take long before they can. Once the player does have these tools at their disposal, Future Soldier becomes a completely different experience.
After 10-15 minutes of learning and getting comfortable the tactical features and controls - it takes time - I was able to quickly cycle through equipment when necessary (including the new magnetic vision mode), depending on the situation, using drones to recon the target area, selecting enemies that my squad could eliminate without alerting other foes. There are often more targets than there are Ghosts so marking targets strategically is crucial as patrolling guards are very observant of dead bodies, just as they are of the recon drone if you fly it too close.
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Unlike in the Advanced Warfighter titles, the Ghosts in Future Soldier carry and deploy the drone themselves, fully controlling its movements. The neatest feature of the drone is that players can hover it down to ground level and 'Land' it, converting the flying device into a four-wheeled rover that's practically invisible to enemies. This is key for missions when moving from exterior to interior locations and vice versa (the drone can take off at any time as well). While the drone is in its rover form, it can be triggered as an EMP mine, giving it a variety of tactical functions.
The most highly advertised gameplay feature from early gameplay videos of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is the optical camouflage which turns the Ghosts partly invisible. It's very simple and it's built into gameplay; Simply crouch when moving and it’s on. It isn't overpowered however, since moving quickly or getting too close to an enemy looking your way will get players caught (and shot). Taking hits or using loud weapons also deactivates the camouflage, while silenced weapons significantly reduce the effect.
If used tactically, players can stealthily get behind enemy combatants and employ one of they many melee takedown actions or, if in close enough range for a takedown, they can tap the trigger and automatically put a bullet in their target's head.
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This leads into another brand new system and key feature of Future Soldier: weapon customization. The new Gunsmith mode (Read our Gunsmith preview) was featured at E3 heavily since it's where Xbox 360 players can utilize the Kinect to assemble and customize their weapons. It's not necessary, but it does offer a neat gimmicky way to play with the in-game tech. Players unlock weapons and components throughout the game and can interchange pieces on up to 10 difference sections of the weapon, allowing for over 20 million variations and hence, any type of weapon for any type of situation or player preference.
Gone is the limitation of one primary weapon as Ghost Recon: Future Soldier lets players fill out their secondary slot with another large firearm, allowing for close range SMG and long-distance sniper rifle combinations. The Ghosts can carry several types of grenades, from typical explosive frags to sensor grenades which reveal the location of nearby enemies. There are no rocket launchers in the game, so taking out vehicles will involve making use of stationary turrets or being crafty with grenades.
One of the most important gameplay mechanics players will utilize during Ghost Recon: Future Soldier's campaign missions is synchronizing takedowns via the Cross-com system. The Ghost team consists of four soldiers, so up to four enemies can be targeted for elimination at the same time. Choose which targets carefully, and indicators on the HUD notify the player when each member of the squad has their target acquired (light-colored Cross Target laser beams also display on the HUD, indicating where each squad member is aiming).
When playing solo, the player can give the signal at any time, and teammates who are ready will fire (this can be done while piloting the drone as well) simultaneously. If you’re taking out one of them yourself, line up your shot, and wait for the squad to get into position. Fire and they’ll fire at the same time — if executed correctly, the game presents the kills (and blood splatter) in a slow-mo cinematic fashion, but this isn't just for stylistic purposes. When playing co-op, and giving the greenlight for players to shoot, the game enters this slow-mo mode for a short time window of just a few seconds so your human counterparts can each individually fire on their own.
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If the player misses their shot, the AI teammates will assist if the target has spotted the shooter. However, if using a silenced weapon that didn't alert the target, and said target doesn’t realize he’s close to his doom, the squad won't steal your thunder and you can try again.
Due to the third-person nature of the game and Ubisoft's push to make the Ghost Recon experience more immersive and realistic, players are more affected by the environment. The cover mechanic allows the Ghosts to protect themselves behind any objects in the level, vaulting over them or blind firing around corners at nearby enemies. Depending on which side of an object the player rests, players can manually switch which hand the character on screen holds their weapon to get the right angle. Aiming at targets pulls the player into a first-person perspective for precision shooting.
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Like Battlefield 3, players are affected by incoming suppression fire, but in the case of Future Soldier, it does more than just blur the screen. Taking heavy fire makes it nigh impossible to shoot or mark enemies and players will have to escape quickly. If the player takes too much damage, they get downed and can be revived by teammates, so long as someone on the team is still on their feet.
While we didn’t get hands-on with multiplayer during the demo, we did get the low-down for what players can expect from online play outside of campaign co-op. Ubisoft's goal with competitive multiplayer in Future Soldier is to keep it objective-based and in line with the theme of the game. Ghosts are always on task, trying to achieve something, so it’s not about plain deathmatch, in an effort to differentiate the game to other shooters on the market.
Ghost Recon: Future Soldier's online multiplayer component is being handled by Red Storm, the same team behind the multiplayer of the Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter titles. The game ships with four game modes that can be played across 10 maps and includes a progression system for players to level up, unlock weapons and weapon components as they customize their character. Multiplayer allows for up to 16 players with 8 vs. 8 team-focused gameplay.
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The mission statement of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, as emphasized by the game’s title is "recon" and this game, more than the last few, gives players to tools to do this effectively. Players enter an area, a situation, and it's up to them to analyze a situation using the available tools and plan their attack accordingly. Guns a-blazing or with stealthy precision, players can pursue their own path and it makes playing this cooperatively that much more involved, intense and rewarding.
For more details on the game's player progression and weapon customization, read part two of our preview: Crafting the perfect weapon in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier's Gunsmith mode.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier releases May 22, 2012 in North America, and May 24, 2012 in Europe, for the PS3 and Xbox 360. A PC version will follow at a later date.
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