There’s a bit of an arms race in the shooter genre. One game blows up a helicopter, so the next game blows up a helicopter and a bridge. Then the next game blows up the helicopter, the bridge, and a skyscraper. The next game comes out blowing up the helicopter, the bridge, a skyscraper and then a whole city. On it goes towards its inevitable conclusion, Call of Duty: Everything Explodes, All the Time. Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon franchise hasn’t been immune to this type of escalation in the past, so I was nervous about the newest title in the series Ghost Recon Future Soldier. Thankfully, while there are explosions aplenty in this game, Ubisoft has stepped away from the excesses of the genre to deliver a shooter that’s less about outrageous set pieces and more about clever tactical situations.

What helps set Ghost Recon apart from other military shooters is its focus on teamwork and high-tech gadgets. The whole Army of One mentality that spreads through Call of Duty and Medal of Honor has no place in Ghost Recon, where your squad members are just as, and in some cases more, important than you are. Even playing solo, the entire game seems designed to evoke the feel of a cooperative game with your friends. Your fellow Ghosts are not only effective at using cover and picking targets, but they also call out threats as they pop up, which greatly adds to your situational awareness throughout the mission. When you add in the cooperative campaign, where you actually can play through the entire game with your friends, the strength of the game’s team-based focus becomes even more apparent.

The new target marking technology is critical to making all this work in a variety of situations. You can use your UAV drone, for example, as a sort of eye-in-the-sky to identify key targets. Simply tag the ones you want taken out and your squadmates will move up to a firing position, all while trying to stay hidden behind cover. Once one of your soldiers has locked down a target, you’ll see that target’s marker change to blue. As soon as you’ve got all the targets assigned to specific squad members — you can even grab one yourself, if you like — you simply issue a fire order to take them all out at once. Taking out four sentries at once without ever giving any of them time to raise the alarm is an amazing moment that makes you feel like a total, yet completely believable, badass.

Some of the other toys, like active camouflage that makes you nearly invisible or magnetic vision modes that highlight vehicles and weapons in your environment, may seem to be more science fiction than fact, but everything featured in the game is based on technology the US military is currently testing. The game strikes a delicate balance between putting you on the high-tech battlefield of the future and also making all the toys seem like the kinds of things that our soldiers might be using in a few years. Fortunately, none of them are powerful enough to completely ruin the game’s challenge, and later on you’ll even start to encounter enemy forces that have access to some of the same high-tech advantages.

The AI is generally good at staying behind cover and keeping your squad suppressed, but the game just doesn’t feel as wide-open as some of the earliest games in the Ghost Recon franchise. The levels themselves are fine, but the enemies are always right in front of you and there’s really no room to approach an encounter other than head-on through some cleverly disguised hallways. It’s less of a problem in the game’s multiplayer modes, where there is a bit more freedom to move around , but it keeps the single player game from really opening up

The story suffers from a similar sort of predictability. I get that the game’s real-world military inspiration limits the types of things that can happen, but I’m past caring about Bolivian arms dealers, African warlords, and Russian rebels. Yes, publishing a game in which we actually went to war with a real nation would be a bit of a PR problem, but I’m just so sick of playing through these same old plots about coups and stolen nuclear weapons again and again. Even the beats are predictable. Remember that helicopter I mentioned at the beginning? Yeah, it explodes. It might be saved if the characterizations were better, but developers seem incapable of defining soldiers as anything other than “someone who holds a gun.” Makers of these types of games want to honor the men and women who fight for us, but apparently don’t feel that making them into real characters is worth the effort.

It’s sad that the story and characters are so forgettable, but it’s less objectionable in a game like this than it would be in, say, Skyrim or Batman Arkham City where story and character are more significant components of the design. In Ghost Recon Future Soldier the toys and the firefights are the context, so my complaints about the lack of memorable bad guys or a unique conflict shouldn’t discourage shooter fans from picking up the game. For them it’s enough that the game offers up customizable weapons, loads of challenging enemies, and plenty of stuff to blow up.

Finally, do not buy this game for its Kinect support. It’s great that Ubisoft wanted to incorporate Microsoft’s latest technology into the game, but this is more of a proof of concept than a full-on feature. The Kinect technology only works for customizing your gun and testing it out on the range. Otherwise, it’s constantly getting in your way by prompting you to use it each and every time you want to customize your gear before a mission. Try it out once, then turn it off and never think about it again.

Bottom Line: Despite the predictable narrative, it’s a smarter game than the genre usually delivers with a satisfying focus on teamwork and technology.

Recommendation: Give this one a try if you’d like to try a shooter that tests your tactics as much as your trigger finger.

[rating=4]

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Ubisoft Red Storm
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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