The next Ghost Recon has great team play, but graphics need work (preview)

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Future Soldier is Ubisoft’s big release this year in the third-person shooter market. The video game is one of the major releases of the year and should help revive interest in Tom Clancy’s long-running combat franchise, which is in major need of modernization.

It’s appropriate, then, that Ghost Recon Future Soldier isn’t just about contemporary warfare; it takes you into the future with cool technological advances, such as stealth cloaking, that are meant to give soldiers an unfair edge on the battlefield.

The game is an important one for Ubisoft because it revives an important franchise for the French video game maker as it strives to compete with much larger rivals Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts. If Ghost Recon Future Soldier sells well, it will help the company grow its war chest and double down on its top franchises. And it will help the company advance the state of innovation in the lucrative multibillion-dollar shooter market.

I had a chance to test a couple of levels with two different modes of gameplay recently with the game’s lead designer. The conclusion: the team-oriented cooperative play is phenomenal, but the graphics may be disappointing to gamers used to the visual quality of Call of Duty or Battlefield games. I played the Valiant Hammer and the Firefly Rain missions in the campaign game, and fought in Guerilla Mode on the Mansion map. All told, there are 12 missions, each of them pretty long. The eight main locations include the dusty villages of Africa, the suburbs of Moscow, and the icy territory of the Arctic.

Great team play

The lack of phenomenal graphics isn’t a killer drawback. I’m assured that the bugs I saw will get fixed by the launch. And the experience isn’t all about the visuals; Ubisoft Paris lead designer Roman Campos Oriola positioned the game as an intelligent shooter, where you combine team tactics, modern technology, and thoughtful strategy in order to beat various terrorist enemies. You can’t just go running and firing down the street, since a bullet or two will put you in your grave quite easily.

The other thing that is attractive about this game is that a single smart team leader, in our case Oriola, can teach three other players how to fight. You can play the entire single-player campaign game with four-person cooperative play. When we started our missions, Oriola led the way. He sent a small recon drone up into the air to identify enemy soldiers. A marker appeared above each high-priority target, as selected by the squad leader. Then we each identified one target and clicked on it with the right bumper to claim it. Then everyone else could see which unsuspecting soldiers had been claimed. Upon counting down, Oriola told us to fire and four enemies fell just like that — a synchronized kill. It’s not a fair fight, but the odds are tilted against you.

As long as everyone stays in stealth mode and uses a quiet, silenced weapon, you can execute those silent takedowns repeatedly. That helps you get through tough missions where there are armies of enemies that will attack you upon discovery. If you go into a crouch, your invisibility cloak, known as “optical camouflage,” goes into effect. This turns you virtually invisible until you start firing. After that, you’re on your own. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish when you stay in a tight group and communicate.

Graphics

The graphics aren’t nearly as impressive as Battlefield 3 or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. You can’t run as fast as you can in those games, but then again, you’re not supposed to be able to move fast because the game is so realistic. I noticed this a lot while moving through the water. You could step into and through the water without seeing any wake. I’ll reserve full judgement on this when I see the real shipping game. But it’s a little disappointing that, after so many years of development and long delays in production, this was the best Ubisoft could do.

Gunsmith mode

Another cool part of the experience is customizing your gun. In Gunsmith mode, you can pick all of the features, from grips to nozzles, that will help your soldier kill more efficiently. I created a gun with a grenade launcher and a stable grip. My scope didn’t work so well, but I expect they’ll fix that bug by the time the game ships. You can use the Gunsmith in both single player and multiplayer, resulting in a unique experience. As you proceed through the campaign, you win credits that can be used to level up your gun. You get a choice of dozens of attachments and components. When you enter the mode, the weapon goes into a freeze frame and you can see all of the parts in an exploded view, where it seems like the parts float in the air.

Guerilla Mode

In Guerilla Mode, our team of four players had to defend a spot on the Mansion map. Enemy soldiers surrounded us and attacked in waves. At first, the waves were easy. But they got progressively harder. One of the things that adds to the realism is the battlefield chatter that comes from your comrades.The chatter isn’t completely idle. At the outset, one comrade will yell what direction the enemy is coming from. If one of your team members is hit, they will yell out for help. You can then revive them, as long as you don’t expose yourself.

In between waves, you have to pick up ammo and grenades from chests on the map. Then a clock ticks down until the next assault wave starts. As many as 50 waves will hit you. If one enemy is giving a teammate trouble, you can fire at the enemy and suppress them, or pin them down so they can’t fire. You can carry a couple of primary weapons and toss out grenades. I enjoyed earning claymore mines and then plopping them down on pathways. I got used to playing defense in my corner of the battlefield. But occasionally, I’d have to fight with one of my teammates for the best spot to snipe. The location you have to defend rotates sometimes just so you don’t get to used to defense on a section of the map.

If you are shot, your comrades can revive you. If you bleed out and die, your team loses the mission. As you level up, you can get access to air strikes. I got one during the game, but dropped it on nothing because I found it particularly hard to control.

One of the problems in the game is that if you’re noisy and give away your position, you compromise your entire team. For that reason, you’ll only want to play with friends via online co-op. The teamwork required is very involved and it won’t be a fun experience if you play with a stranger who flakes out on you or otherwise screws up your team dynamics.

One really unfair advantage is that you can see the enemy through walls, thanks to either special goggles or your recon drone. You can fire through some of the walls but not all of them. If you press the A button, you move into cover. You can move from cover to cover and try to outflank enemies. But maneuvering isn’t that easy if you want to do it fast. Too often you run into obstacles and can’t see that you have done so. That’s a typical problem with the third-person perspective. It’s also quite hard to see where an enemy is when they’re close to you in hand-to-hand combat. Up close, I noticed a lot of graphics clipping. Again, I hope Ubisoft’s minions take care of this before launch.

The missions

Each of the missions comes with cut scenes and a story that properly motivates you to fight. You have to help a Russian general fend off his own comrades. To do so your team has to take out a bunch of artillery that is being used to pin down the general’s forces. It isn’t easy to get through a mission because all of your people have to survive. You can get a headstart on the mission with a synchronized kill, but very quickly the firefights that ensue become chaotic. I found that my best bet was to flank the enemy as much as possible.

Once in a while you come across mounted weapons, such as machine gun nests. It’s quite fun to man them and spread death across the battlefield. But you have to be supported when you do so, or else you’ll be an easy target. The whole lesson of the combat is that the team with the best coordination is the one that’s going to win under heavy fire. You can compete against friends on online leaderboards. In multiplayer mode, eight players can square off against eight. You can pick rifleman, engineer, or scout classes. You can level up your character as you complete more missions.

I enjoyed playing the Firefly Rain mission, where the dialogue among the troops kept me immersed in the real-world feel of the combat. After a while, my teammates became good at launching synchronized kills and sweeping through the enemy formations. But we always had the most trouble in places where the enemies could easily surround us on the battlefield.

The game will be released on May 22. That gives Ubisoft time to fix some of the graphics flaws. So hopefully you won’t see water that leaves no wake when you wade into it. We played the game on the Xbox 360. It will also be out on the PlayStation 3 and the PC.

Check out the new trailer below.