Ghost Recon (GR) is the latest tactical shooter from Tom Clancy's Red Storm Entertainment. As such, GR has some pretty big shoes to fill in light of the strengths of predecessors such as Rainbow 6 (R6) and Rogue Spear (RS). It's also worth noting that its predecessors, though quite good, left non-trivial room for improvement, and thus provide GR with some good opportunities right from the outset. Why do I open the overview with a discussion of GR's pedigree? Because I think it relevant to understand the degree to which the developers have innovated and advanced in putting forth this new offering. Overall, GR is a positively fabulous game, though there are some complaints that may be levied against it as I shall try to make clear.
Knock-down, drop-dead incredible is the only way to describe the visuals in GR, and that's saying a lot. With the present state of the industry, impressive eye-candy is becoming more and more common, due in no small part to the widespread licensing of the Unreal Tournament (UT) and Quake III Arena (Q3A) engines. But GR goes beyond what I've seen in any other game to date. Individual trees are not only nicely modeled; they sway in the breeze, their branches looking and moving realistically. The models and animation are wonderful, the textures are of an extremely high resolution, the weather effects, most of the particle effects and almost every other aspect of the game's visuals are a step beyond the state of the industry at present. This is particularly noteworthy because the graphics in prior Clancy titles were generally a step or two behind the state of the industry. I say "almost every other aspect" because the explosions look a little bit goofy, but that's a minor drawback overall.
The only complaint I have against the game visually is that all of this jaw-dropping eye candy comes at a price, namely, very steep system requirements. When I first acquired the game, I was running it on a 1.2 GHz. Athlon CPU with a 32 MB GeForce2-based video card. With that configuration, I could play any other game on my system at 1024 x 768 x 32 bpp with all the graphics settings maxed out and still maintain an acceptable framerate. With GR, however, I had to drop the resolution to 800 x 600 x 32 bpp and turn down several of the graphics settings just to get it to run as something other than an attractive, but ultimately unplayable, slide show. Maybe that's a reasonable price for such visuals, but it does leave one wondering whether perhaps the GR engine is a bit of a pig. To be fair, once I upgraded my video card to a GeForce3 Ti 200, all such problems vanished and GR became eminently playable even at 1280 x 1024 x 32 bpp. I guess that with the new card the game was more limited by the CPU.
Having detailed how amazing the visuals in GR are, I can summarize the audio by saying only that it's even better. The ambient sounds are astonishing. While walking through the tree line in the very first mission, I almost jumped out of my chair at the sound of some animal rustling about. The ambient sounds alone were so incredibly well done that I really felt as if I were in the game. The music is not as good, I think, as that in Rogue Spear, but it is nevertheless very appropriate, stirring and well implemented. I would prefer more variety in it, of course, but that's simply a result of the choice of composer. That is, I enjoy Bill Brown's work a great deal, and any game that features his music needs more of it as far as I'm concerned.
Regarding the weapon sounds, I can't say whether they're realistic or not. I haven't fired too many of the weapons in GR, as compared to Operation Flashpoint (OPF), so it just wouldn't be fair for me to comment on realism. I can say this much, however, with confidence: whether or not the sounds are realistic, they're great! The weapons "bark" in an exhilarating way, the tanks shake the ground as they rumble along, grenades, claymores and other explosive devices sound great, etc. The audio in GR is the best I've heard in a game to date. It's so good, in fact, I have no complaints against it whatsoever in terms of the sounds themselves.
I do have one beef with the audio, though I suspect it will be fixed in the forthcoming patch. The developers made good use of the Creative Labs EAX extensions in developing the game. Because of this, footsteps echo and sounds are occluded, as one would expect in light of the environment. In a couple of missions, however, there were certain locations on the map in which the mere reverberations of my own footsteps would build via an awful feedback loop into what was ultimately a high-pitched scream at full volume from my poor, abused speakers. I had to play these sections of the game with my amplifier muted in order to avoid damage to my system. I reported the bug, and I know it has been worked on to some degree; I just hope it's fixed for good.
The interface for GR is pretty good. The menus are well organized and clearly meaningful. The tools to select soldiers and assign them to squads, select their kits, and so forth are all good. The in-game interface is similarly as useful and unobtrusive as it is functional. I personally would prefer having the ability to switch to a third-person view of the action, as with R6/RS, but I can live without it. I have only two complaints with the interface as it stands. The first complaint is that some of the multi-player functions seem unintuitive to me. Perhaps I'm just a dope, but when I tried to join my first game, I didn't have a clue what I needed to do to get into the action. Other games of this sort seem much simpler, so either there's room for improvement in GR, or I was needlessly drawing a blank.
My second gripe with the interface is that the threat indicator isn't that easy to "get" either. It took me a while to figure out what the arrows (on the inside and outside of the ring) meant, and what the yellow flashes meant as opposed to the red dot. I'm still not that good at it, and maybe this is another blind spot of mine. For whatever reason, I just didn't find it all that helpful until rather late in the game. Better late than never, I suppose. It would be still more helpful if there were some way to discern vertical position from the indicator as well, but I suppose I'm probably asking too much for something that's designed as more of a way to make sure the player has a prayer of surviving.
The game mechanics are pretty much what we've come to expect from tactical shooters, though GR throws an interesting twist or two into the mix. To be more specific, this is not R6 or RS in which one has to draw up a detailed—and generally useless—battle plan prior to beginning the engagement. Rather, one need only select the team members who will be on the mission and their load out; the action begins immediately thereafter. The planning is done entirely in real-time by giving various commands to the squads into which the team members have been grouped.
This lends a great deal of immediacy to the game. It also breaks the refine-a-stupid-plan cycle that R6 and RS require. Instead of constantly creating a plan that's always useless from the outset, the player gets to react to the changing situation in a far more flexible fashion than in R6 or RS. Unfortunately, the lack of go-codes or other such orders really makes it difficult to stage integrated attack plans. In R6 or RS, I could set up my units at the periphery of some enemy position, then give them all a single go-code to unleash them so that death comes at the enemy from multiple approaches at once. This is extremely difficult to pull off in GR, and it has more to do with frantic clicking than anything else. Further, it's not possible to give specific orders (e.g., throw grenades, target that tank, etc.) so that one simply has to hope the soldiers will do the right thing. This wouldn't be too bad if the AI were better, but I have a few complaints as I'll mention later.
NB: Since this review was written, I've discovered a way to simulate the go-codes of previous games. The key is to move the teams into position, and give them orders while they're holding. A quick couple of key presses suffices to tell them to advance with weapons free. For further details, see my subsequent write up on the expansion packs for the game.
Another downer to the game mechanics is the highly silly set of limitations that terrain places on the soldiers. These are supposed to be battle-hardened elite units, yet they cannot climb the slightest slope. The terrain in OPF makes a lot more sense insofar as the troops can go pretty much anywhere troops can go, which is clearly not the case in GR. Still, the game handles different positions (i.e., standing, crouching, and prone) well and provides good overall movement mechanics. The basic game mechanics are otherwise pretty good, save for the complaints I've made here.
As a novel addition, the ability to boost the skills of one's troops in an almost RPG-like fashion really adds a whole new dimension to the game. The decision of whom to take on a mission determines who improves and who doesn't. These choices become quite important in the later game. A single point can make a huge difference, for example, in the closest-point of approach for a fighter, the reticule speed for a sniper, the number of hits that can be taken by a support fighter, etc. It lends a strategic element to the game that was lacking in R6 and RS, wherein one pretty much always took the same guys.
It also bears mentioning that the specialist-unlocking model and weapon restrictions seem positively silly. This is another aspect in which OPF was a better game. In OPF, any soldier could pick up a weapon and use it. That seems far more realistic to me than being pigeon-holed so tightly into one of a handful of categories. But in GR snipers can't use anything but sniper rifles, assault guys can't use support weapons or anti-tank weapons and so forth. Further, if you screw up and overlook the mission objective that unlocks a particular specialist, you might never get to see some of the neat stuff in the game. I guess the developers felt the need to impose such restrictions, but they strike me as counterproductive to having fun.
The story (yawn) has been done to death already. I mean, how many different ultra-nationalist factions within the former Soviet Union can we really believe? Gee, you mean another group of ultra-nationalist commie-wannabes have yet again seized control of key resources and threaten the stability in the region? And you mean to tell me that (yes, you guessed it) U.S. special forces again have to go in to do the dirty work of stopping them? Golly, that's such a new premise! Ok, so the story is a serious sleeper. You can probably write it out yourself by now if you've played many other video games (or seen many of the relevant movies) to date. Still, this is hardly a big problem with the game as the action is what GR really promises and delivers.
The content is as interesting as it is varied. The player will be faced with beautiful outdoor areas, relatively claustrophobic enemy bases, traipsing across farmland to get to a downed plane, scuttling enemy submarines, etc. In short, GR is a treat when it comes to its diversity of locales and mission types. The weapons are a similar cornucopia of death-dealing fun. I particularly liked the challenges involved with mastering the various assault rifles, though I ultimately settled (largely) on the wonderful OICW. I could gush on about the content for quite some time, but the best summary is to say simply that it's great.
My primary gripe about the content involves the player AI. While the enemy AI seems quite good sometimes—I've witnessed some very impressive flanking maneuvers in GR—the player AI isn't so hot. My support troops almost never threw grenades, didn't seem to understand suppressing fire at all, wouldn't use their anti-tank weapons without me controlling them explicitly and so forth. The most difficult aspect to many of the missions became switching back and forth amongst my men to get control of the one who needed to be doing something intelligent. In short, the lack of fine-grained control in R6 and RS wouldn't be such a big deal if the player AI were better, but it's not that much improved.
My only other real gripe about the content is that there's no final reward. I mean, the final mission is easily one of the best of the breed, but when it ends, it ends. There's no closing movie to give you a sense of accomplishment. There's nothing but the credits rolling which, while interesting, just doesn't give the sense of closure that R6, RS and other such games have provided. Maybe I'm just spoiled. I guess I expected something more given the high cool-factor for the opening movie.
The multi-player in GR is simply wonderful, save for some niggling complaints I have with the interface, as mentioned previously. It seems as if Red Storm Entertainment has finally hired somebody who knows how to do net code. The networking in R6 wasn't bad, though it could have been better. The networking in RS was positively awful. The networking in GR is better than either of its predecessors. Seriously, GR is just as good for multi-player stability as UT, Q3A, or any other modern game. Better still, because of the serious focus on realistic movement, weapons, damage, etc., the game plays like what Counterstrike (CS) should have been. That is, it plays like a real-world situation. The one-shot-one-kill model is truly intact under appropriate conditions, grenades work as they should... I'd better stop before I start drooling.
My only complaint against the GR multi-player experience is that there aren't enough people playing it! I love the multi-player game, but there are never more than a couple of hundred servers around as near as I can tell. Among those, I can frequently find a good game, but I'd prefer the flexibility that thousands of servers would offer. It would also make the community large enough to support the kind of competitive gaming ladders that are available for UT, Q3A, CS, etc. Perhaps that will change with time? I don't know. I do know that GR provides one of the greatest multi-player experiences you can have today.
GR is the best tactical shooter made to date, hands down. Because of its fabulous attention to detail, strong implementation in the visual and aural departments, strong content and so forth, it's also just a great game all around. I can highly recommend it to any player who likes tactical shooters, and it's a good buy for people not previously initiated to the genre.
Reviewed by Phileosophos