If you're expecting to sneak about undetected for the entirety of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, prepare to be disappointed. While there are many clandestine moments throughout, Future Soldier plays closer to the rulebook established by the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare titles. Levels start out with stealth at the forefront but it rarely remains there, regularly giving way to explosions, chaotic gun warfare and the odd turret section.
You're part of a unit of four highly trained Ghosts, thrust into action to deal with only the most important, confidential missions. As a third-person squad shooter, Future Soldier's focus is much more on teamwork than following non-playable characters around and being left to do most of the legwork yourself. When it's big and brash, it's a lot of fun: the controls are smooth and reassuringly standard, the action ever-interesting, the gunplay great. However, it's when it slows down to a more considered pace and plays on its own terms, not emulating other games as closely, that things really take off.
The devices you get to fiddle with would make Inspector Gadget green with envy, for one thing. Sensors can be lobbed into the battlefield and highlight targets; the Ghosts wear camouflage that literally turns them translucent when they crouch and tread slowly; flying drones can be sent forward for recon; a mortar-spitting death machine of a robot joins the gang for one mission. The ten-to-twelve hour campaign's levels are pretty rigid and don't offer much freedom in their structure, but the technology opens things up to the point that, even if you can't decide where you go, you can at least choose how to progress to some extent.
It's always best to start off covertly, creeping in under the cloak of invisibility, and take out as many enemies as possible without raising awareness. The best way to do this is to roll a sensor in to put the opposing forces in plain sight, then tag up to four of them with R2: pull the trigger and your team pulls off a synchronised shot, killing every target at once before they know what's hit them.
Operating from the shadows is as good as it gets, the amount of feedback from enemies and the audio of your shot combining perfectly into supremely satisfying moments. One later level focuses almost entirely around the ideals of sneakiness, and it's easily one of Future Soldier's best highlights. You've also got to be wary of the order of your kills if you stick to stealth; put down the wrong guy and a dead body could be left slumped in the patrol route of another soldier, instantly blowing your cover.
Alternately, you could hang back behind a wall, launch a drone into the sky and use its camera to tag a few foes and send your squad off to do your bidding without your direct involvement. Or you could take the opposite approach and use the camouflage to tiptoe up behind an isolated opponent and put a knife to their throat. Or fire a shot to send everybody into a frenzy and go in all guns blazing. Or fire a shot to alert them, then hide like a coward and boss your squad about via the drone, selecting which enemies they should focus their fire on. It raises the question why your character isn't the leader of the squad, really; you have command of all the gadgetry and end up telling all the others what to do outside of cut scenes anyway.
Fitting right in with the technological wizardry is Gunsmith, a weapon editor available before each mission that allows literally hundreds of combinations for your arsenal. Guns can be pulled apart to examine and exchange each component to find the perfect balance of accuracy, power and more. It's never necessary, as the best weapons for each stage are recommended anyway, but undoubtedly experimentation is encouraged. Mission-specific challenges and the vast range of gun options give Future Soldier's campaign a fair bit of replay value.
Gunsmith is also the only section of the game that supports PlayStation Move. All manner of rifles can be rotated and peered at by shifting Move around, and each can be taken for an extensive test run on the target range. Here Move can be used to accurately take aim at as many cardboard men as desired; it's a shame that the controller couldn't have been brought into the main game too. As it is, it's a fairly novel addition that will probably only be messed with for a limited amount of time – you might as well just use the DualShock, because it's the only way you can control the rest of the game.
Other disappointments come on the technical side. It's pretty irritating to see sluggish load times at boot up and before each mission despite a mandatory 6.35GB install as soon as you pop the disc in for the first time. It isn't as visually impressive as many of its peers, character faces in particular looking a bit worse for wear. Elsewhere, the checkpoint placement is a little off, regularly placed just before a line or two of dialogue that you might have to listen to several times.
The story doesn't quite come off as well as the action. The influences of Activision's blockbusters trickle down to the near-nonsensical plot line, that doesn't so much take notes from a Modern Warfare script as attempt to remake it. It's a stylishly presented mish-mash of heightened reality: during visits to the Middle East (check) and Russia (check) you defuse terrorist situations, hunt down rebel leaders and blow up dozens of vehicles. Mission briefings consist of animated maps over which needless 'key' words from the voiceover are splayed, futilely attempting to give them a greater sense of importance.
The characters are given little opportunity to flesh out, and it doesn't always seem to know whether to tell its tale in sombre or silly tones. Prolonged periods of seriousness are suddenly cracked apart by a crass expression of glee at the destruction. A sober attempt to endear one squad member to the audience by way of a birthday phone call to his son is a mere flicker on Ghost Recon's radar.
Still, at least your teammates are reliable. Barring a single occasion early on when one repeatedly crawled into a wall — only fixed by reloading back to the previous checkpoint – we found the pathfinding to be almost completely on-point. The artificial intelligence too is top of the class. If you're knocked down your squad will revive without delay, though get taken down thrice and you have to go back to the previous checkpoint. No matter where you tell your guys to aim, they get the job done without a grumble.
Online co-op for up to four players is a natural fit for a team-based shooter, and while the AI is great we imagine things are even better with a few fellow humans by your side. We say 'imagine', as we were unable to test campaign multiplayer for this review. Co-op is unfortunately restricted to friends only, so you can't join random games, and any attempts to join up with our militia-minded mates were met with host connection errors despite several reboots and setting rejigs. There's no split-screen co-op here, which is a shame. Hopefully the online connection issues were just launch weekend hiccups.
We had the same issues with Guerrilla mode, but that can at least be played in local multiplayer. It's a survival mode, in the style of Gears of War's Horde or Call of Duty's Zombies, and is very much designed to be played with friends – the same 'friend only' restrictions apply – rather than solo. After just a few of the 50 possible waves it gets really difficult if you aren't able to cover all directions around the HQ that needs defending.
More enemies are added with each subsequent wave, the only respite coming during the short breaks between rounds. Weapon crates slam down from the sky in these periods to give you a chance to restock your equipment and experiment with different weaponry. With nowhere safe, those enemy-detecting sensors are a godsend. If all players die simultaneously or the headquarters are captured, your defence is considered a failure. You can retry from your current wave whenever you die, though.
The adversarial multiplayer is what is likely to keep players coming back to Future Soldier. There are just four modes, but each is fantastic in its own right and none rely upon the standard 'kill everybody' deathmatch approach, instead hanging completely around objectives. Conflict generates random goals, asking the teams to attack or defend specific points on the maps. Decoy has teams guarding or assaulting three points, but only one of them is important to winning the round; two are distractions, and crucially neither team knows which is which. Siege is for the most hardcore, as each player only has one life per round as they strike at or shield a targeted area. Our favourite of the bunch is Sabotage, though: a bomb is placed in the centre of the map and each team must run forward, try to grab the explosive and carry it to the opposing team's base to blow it to kingdom come.
Multiplayer once more follows the Call of Duty model in its level up system, which unlocks new equipment and weapons as you progress through the ranks. Items from the campaign, such as drones, can be deployed to immense benefit in multiplayer too. Experience can be gathered through kills, but you're rewarded far more greatly if you capture an objective, play intelligently – shooting from cover, for example – or use a piece of equipment well; assisting a kill with intel from one of your sensors might actually gain you more points than if you'd carried out the hit yourself. The scoring is a bit unbalanced in that sense, but it does mean that crazy assaults are discouraged in favour of more tactical play.
Ghost Recon: Future Soldier has several technical flaws and leans too much on the story devices conceived by several other modern day shooters to its detriment, but where its campaign diversifies with elements of stealth, teamwork and gadgetry it really shines. It's the multiplayer that turns out best, however, focusing on fewer modes of good quality that encourage co-operation rather than all-out killing.