Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon
Review - in another spell of January lull catch-up, Tom takes on the might of Clancy's Russians - Live!
With the greatest possible respect, we find Tom Clancy's books incredibly boring. A rich tapestry of military insight and clever storytelling they may be, but if we wanted long-winded descriptions of American weaponry and terrorist threats, we'd subscribe to bin Laden's newsletter. It's only thanks to the likes of Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell (which jostle competitively for position near the top of our All Time Greats list) that we can say we enjoy his work.
And as a result, the Xbox Live enabled Ghost Recon was quickly stolen (using our Splinter Cell super sleuth skills) and rapidly absorbed (using our Rainbow Six briefing mental assimilation technique), and now here we are ready to report.
Cold Wars Episode II
Set in 2008, Ghost Recon tackles the possibility of an ultra-nationalist group of Russians trying to rebuild the Soviet empire, by causing/influencing problems in nearby states and amalgamating them into a huge red bloc once more. You play the lead in a specialist team of US Green Berets nicknamed 'Ghosts', employed to counter any threats in their infancy, and with the utmost discretion. And violence.
But instead of plunging you into the midst of a big fancy maze full of scripted sequences and clumsily controlled AI squad mates, developer Red Storm has managed to build up a hugely cerebral tactical shooter. As well as leading the Ghosts, who come in two teams (Alpha and Bravo) and several flavours (Sniper, Rifleman, heavy weapons based Support and Demolitions), you can also switch from man to man at the touch of a button, organise their movements with waypoints using the in-game squad management system and effectively play co-operatively - with yourself.
The controls aren't as complicated as you might expect either. The keyboard/mouse FPS control scheme has been adapted to the Xbox pad with precision to rival Halo's, and GR-specific tricks have made the transition intelligently, like the ability to stand, crouch and crawl depending on the situation (D-pad) and pull up the map and team info overlay (left trigger). In short, whenever the interface calls for a PC approach, Red Storm has come up with a chunky, primary coloured console alternative of the same depth.
Sadly Red Storm's technical expertise did not stretch as far in the visuals department. Soldiers are amply detailed, but the game world looks merely adequate - more Operation Flashpoint than Halo - with big, poorly detailed open spaces (featuring lots of questionable foliage), a draw distance that isn't all it could be and an abundance of fog. Given a fairly saucy environment (with buildings, caves, etc), Red Storm can perform, but graphics whores won't be blown away. Audiophiles, on the other hand, will no doubt appreciate the 5.1 surround sound, accentuating every whistling bullet and Soviet yelp.
Given the state of the tremendously shoddy training mode (with huge, half screen obscuring windows featuring one line of text, voiceovers which interrupt each other or fail to kick in at all and inadequate explanation of the controls), it's a good thing we're not too short tempered. Once you start playing it, the mood changes.
Campaign mode is the central preoccupation for single players, with a diverse range of missions - usually to do with rescuing hostages, taking out encampments or cleaning cave networks of Al Jazeerah film crews - and complicated tactics are the norm. Often the expansive environments play host to several key mission objectives, and it'll take some serious thought on your part to retrieve a prisoner without losing a single man from either squad - worth doing, because each picks up skill points after a successful mission, which go toward their Weapons, Endurance, Stealth and Leadership attributes.
Single player fun doesn't stop with campaign mode, either. There are also various Quick missions to complete in four modes (Firefight, Recon, Mission and Defend), and by finishing the game you unlock seriously beefy, experienced soldiers to lend the game a new slant. And finishing Ghost Recon on the highest skill level, Veteran, is a task that would certainly test Rambo's mettle.
The Real Thing
It's safe to say that Ghost Recon isn't going to last lonesome players forever, and beyond getting all your troops through alive and playing with your beefy super soldiers, replay value is almost negligible. However, taken online Ghost Recon has the sort of timeless lure of PC classic Counter-Strike, and versus the substandard Whacked!, the acquired, bittersweet taste of MechAssault and the efforts of MotoGP, it's the only proper co-operative game Live really has, where free-for-alls play second fiddle.
Sadly though, and despite a patch from Ubi, things still need a bit of fixing up, with the odd bug (and usually they are odd) popping up here and there in the oldest of FPS traditions. Otherwise though it's incredibly smooth and lag free, and completing missions in groups, outwitting AI or even human controlled enemies in the process, can be tremendous fun.
But there is a problem that blights Ghost Recon on Live, and it's nothing to do with the game itself. It's the players. We only hope that someone, somewhere compiles a list of the Gamertags of these bastards who go around shooting their teammates, just so we know who to ignore and ban. There are always servers to play on, and games in progress of every description, but if you plan to play co-operatively you're going to have to get used to people on your team shooting you in the head to get past you, shooting you in the head because it's "funny", and shooting you in the head because you're new and apparently everyone has to go from fresh meat to Dutch from Predator in the space of one game. Does it spoil the experience that much? Yes, it really does.
Ghost Recon is a fantastic port - and unquestionably best on Xbox - but it suffers in part thanks to last century's tech and in part because pathetic team killing gits thrive in the current Live community. We would recommend it to fans of the PC game with Live access, because you deserve a decent online version of it, and it's definitely among the finest tactical blasters we've encountered. But if you enjoy scratching braindead insignia into train windows, hurling abuse at passers by and nutting your friends for a cheap laugh, then please go away and die instead.