Brenda Garno Brathwaite and John Romero, two well-known game designers, never made a secret of their passion for Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon games. They played for hundreds of hours and tweeted about their victories. Ubisoft’s Chris Early took notice and hired their company, Loot Drop, to make the Facebook game Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Commander. Some of its features, such as blood splotches and head shots, are not your usual fare on a social network where many of the titles are about matching gems or growing crops.

The title debuts today as what Early (pictured above left) calls a “gamer’s game” on Facebook, and it will be a companion game to the console title Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Future Soldier, which debuts on May 22. We caught up with the team recently and played through a couple of levels in a hands-on preview session.

The idea of doing a hardcore game on Facebook makes sense. Rival game companies such as Kixeye and Kabam have created home-grown hardcore games that have attracted millions of players on the social network site. Electronic Arts, THQ, and Take-Two Interactive have all tried to take over Facebook with more casual fare.

But Early said in an interview with GamesBeat that he believed that, with more than 800 million users, Facebook is home to a lot of hardcore players. They are just itching to get their hands on a third-person military shooter game, he said. After all, just about everybody is on Facebook now, including gamers. Those gamers can’t always be at home playing with their keyboards or consoles. But at work, they just might want to play social games that are based on the same franchises they play at home, said Brathwaite, in an interview. The game is a true companion release because it unlocks advantages in its console counterpart. That gives fans of the franchise an incentive to give the social game a try.

“I can play at different times of the day with the same franchise and have my play matter,” Early said. “You can play during the day at work, earn items, and unlock weapons that you can use when you go home and play Ghost Recon Future Soldier.”

The social game is designed to stand on its own and have production values that are as high as Facebook can support. Since Facebook can’t accommodate large numbers of people playing high-end 3D graphics-based games, some tradeoffs are necessary. The question is whether gamers will overlook the shortcomings of Facebook as a platform and get excited about the flexibility that it does offer them, such as the ability to play anywhere and being accessible to any type of player.

In the game, you recruit your friends as “Ghosts,” or elite soldiers with specialties such as sniping or explosives. You can hire high-ranking friends for missions if you want the job done right. If you hire low-level friends, they are likely to hire you back and generate more experience for your soldier.

In one mission, I had to roam through a market and take out a bunch of enemy mercenaries and hunt down an illegal drug cache. In another, I had to find my way through a jungle and blow up a bunch of ammunition crates along the way. It played like the old XCOM game, where you move so many steps at a time and then give another player a turn. The sound effects of gunfire and explosions were cool, and the Ghosts spoke to each other in their throaty, macho military chatter.

For each of the ten missions in the game (which are all set in Central America), you assemble your strike squad by picking the friends who have the most experience and are best suited for the mission.When you go on missions, you hunt down the enemies and try to shoot them in the head. The game is played from an overhead isometric view, which means it looks like 3D but it is really two-dimensional and the viewpoint doesn’t change. Each level takes up about ten times as much of the usual space in a Facebook game, Brathwaite said.

“It’s not super gory, but we didn’t want to dumb it down for the Facebook audience,” said Brathwaite, the lead designer. “As a 43-year-old female, I am the Facebook audience. I like the look of the landscape because you can either blow it up or vacation there.”

The combat is turn-based. You move your soldier a certain distance and can fire at enemies that are within sight. Then the enemies take a turn and try to close in on you. You can play it in stealth mode, take cover behind objects, or run away. It seems as if the game is happening in real-time because the game play is quick. But if you have to stop playing for any reason, the game pauses.

“We felt that matched the way that people play games on Facebook,” Early said.

If three Ghosts play in close proximity to each other, they get a bonus. You can see enemies as red dots on a radar map. You can play it in recruit mode, veteran, or elite. With the higher levels, you have more complex rules such as being able to see only the enemies that are directly within your line of sight. In between missions, you can visit your base camp where you can examine your character, browse through weapons, and purchase new items.

The social game is true to the franchise because Brathwaite has more than 170 hours in the first Ghost Recon game, while Romero played it for more than 200 hours. That made their San Bruno, Calif.-based company a great candidate for making the game.

“We’d play the old game through the night and realize ‘my God it’s light outside,'” she said. “We were insanely excited that Ubisoft contacted us.” Romero added, “It’s like a dream come true.”

They made the game with a handful of experienced developers, including lead coder Jonathan Rogers and lead artists Cody Miles. Both have considerable experience in social games. They will soon move on to making the mobile version of the Ghost Recon Commander game.

Early said that it made sense to hire Loot Drop because it had both social gaming expertise and a familiarity with the franchise. But sometimes, Ubisoft will have its own internal teams make social or mobile versions of the games.

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