Preview - a first hand look at the tactical combat follow-up to Rainbow Six
Red Storm have made a name for themselves in recent years with the popular Rainbow Six series. Although it's not a true sequel to those classic games, Ghost Recon is very much more of the same, but this time putting you in the boots of an elite US military squad rather than an international counter-terrorist force.
Outside The Box
As a result the action has mostly moved into the great outdoors, with a brand new graphics engine powering the whole thing. The maps aren't as huge as the ones found in Operation Flashpoint, but they do provide you with plenty of space to roam around in during missions without being so vast that you get bored of all the running.
The other main departure from the Rainbow Six series is that there is no pre-planning stage in Ghost Recon. In previous games you were stuck with the plan you sketched out at the start of the mission, and if something went wrong you couldn't improvise or work around the problem - it was a case of back to the drawing board. By contrast, in Ghost Recon all your orders are given out in real time during the mission using a simple point-and-click map interface. This allows you to direct other squads around the mission area and tell them whether to romp around the map at full charge or to sneak around cautiously, and whether or not they should fire at any enemies they encounter.
The result should be a more fluid and immersive experience for players, with less frustration and staring at tangled mission planning maps. And as in the Rainbow Six series you can always switch between the various squads under your command at any point in the mission, taking over direct manual control of any particular soldier with a few key presses.
These soldiers will now gain experience points during the eighteen mission campaign as well, and you can spend these between excursions on boosting their stats to create your own unique team of highly trained specialists. Because the characters carry over from one mission to the next throughout the game this gives you more incentive to keep friendly casualties to a minimum, as your men will gradually become more effective as they take part in more missions. Lose a veteran soldier and you may be forced to replace him with a rookie.
It's not just your own soldiers who are smarter this time round, as the AI is already looking promising and reacts far more realistically than in most other tactical action games. For example, when you fire a rocket at a group of enemy soldiers the survivors can be seen scrambling for cover behind the nearest tree as the smoke clears. They don't just stand around waiting to be killed either; soldiers can be seen wandering around camps, patrolling roads and railway lines, guarding base perimeters and interrogating prisoners. It all makes for a more dynamic feeling game world.
Sound has a greater impact on gameplay now too, with the AI reacting to any noise you make. This encourages the use of suppressed weapons when possible, and makes quick clean kills even more important. If you miss your first shot the soldier you were shooting at may start firing back at your unit with a noisy assault rifle, bringing other troops running in from all around.
The game is very much focused on squad-based infantry combat, and although there are some vehicles in the game you can't drive any of them yourself. There are enemy tanks to destroy and evade though, and in some missions you will be able to call in close air support to take out the opposition.
Indeed, the subject matter means that the range of weapons on offer is somewhat more offensive than in the Rainbow Six series, and as Ghost Recon is set a few years in the future and your elite team has access to all the latest military hardware, some of the weaponry and equipment at your disposal is not yet in use. But while it's state of the art gear, it's all very much grounded in realism - there are no laser guns and Quake-style rocket launchers to be found here, just the kind of advanced infantry aids and updated firearms which the US military might well be using by the end of the decade.
One item that is stretching realism a little is the threat indicator, which shows you roughly which direction the enemy is in. This is an optional aid though, designed to help you track down the last few enemies in a large map rather than as a core part of the game or a real piece of equipment. There is also an in-game save system at the moment, although it's not entirely certain that this will be in the final version of the game. But this doesn't mean that Red Storm are going soft in their old age - one shot kills are still the order of the day and weapons are harder to use when moving and take time to aim accurately. Treating the game like a traditional first person shooter is likely to get you sent home in a body bag.
And it's not just the gameplay and the weapons which have moved on. Ghost Recon sports a brand new graphics engine which marks a vast leap forwards from the low resolution textures, angular characters and sparsely populated levels of Rainbow Six.
For starters the game's outdoor areas are larger and more detailed than in previous Red Storm titles, filled with everything from bushes and trees to hide amongst to railway lines, bridges, roads and farmhouses to fight over. There are also some impressive looking urban maps which put the relatively primitive looking Balkans mission in Rogue Spear to shame. It's not groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination, but it gets the job done nicely.
It's all very atmospheric, with plenty of ambient sounds to boost the mood. Meanwhile the character animations are smooth and life-like, making it look somewhat better in motion than it does in the admittedly poor screenshots on the latest UbiSoft press disc. And while Ghost Recon can't match the sheer eye candy of the Quake 3 engined Soldier of Fortune 2, games like Counter-Strike and Thief have shown us that graphics aren't everything.
With a solid heritage behind it and the brains of Tom Clancy once again contributing to the back story and concept, Ghost Recon could prove to be another hit for Red Storm. Improved internet support for both co-operative and competitive play won't hurt either, and the game is already looking very promising. I had to be almost literally dragged away from Ghost Recon at ECTS a few days ago, and with a December release currently on the cards we are looking forward to getting our hands on preview code soon.