There's no denying the popularity of tactical first-person shooters. Though the FPS genre was once ruled by exaggerated, cartoon-like fast action games like Quake, in recent years we've seen a shift in focus to more gritty, realistic first-person shooters like Counter-Strike and the many games that fall under the Tom Clancy name. Clancy's games go one step further toward realism because they focus not only on real-world weaponry and realistic damage models but also on plausible near-future political situations. Red Storm's Clancy lineup is mostly dominated by the extremely popular Rainbow Six series, but in late 2001 the company added a new franchise to the Clancy family with Ghost Recon on the PC. The game cast you as a member of "The Ghosts," an elite covert ops team operating behind enemy lines. Two expansion packs later, Ghost Recon has become established as a favorite among tactical shooter fans, and last year we even saw an excellent port of the original game to the Xbox. Now Ubi Soft and Red Storm are bringing the PC version's second expansion pack Island Thunder to the Xbox, and the console port will boast Xbox Live support and a scattering of additional enhancements as well.
Ghost Recon: Island Thunder continues the Clancy tradition of placing you in a realistically hostile political climate and tasking you with making a difference against power-hungry people with their own agendas. Island Thunder sees The Ghosts traveling to Cuba to quietly help restore order after Castro's death sometime around 2006. The Cubans have since been subjected to a series of corrupt politicians and shady political maneuvers, and The Ghosts will have to use their subtle but powerful military might to influence matters in the name of democracy.
Like the original Ghost Recon, the core of Island Thunder's single-player experience is a sequence of linear, goal-oriented missions. At the beginning of each mission you're presented with a map of the area you'll be entering and a list of objectives that must be completed. These can range from disabling a certain installation to reaching an extraction point without losing any of your team members. After you've reviewed your mission goals, you'll be allowed to build the squads that you'll tackle the upcoming mission with. Island Thunder has you playing as two teams, Alpha and Bravo, that are each comprised of three members. You can customize the teams to your liking by selecting the skill set of each member--for instance, Alpha team may be led by a standard rifleman and backed up by a sniper and a demolitions expert. Of course, the skills of a given team member will determine the weapons he'll carry, which include a standard-issue combat rifle equipped with grenade launcher, a sniper rifle, or a heavy machine gun.
The actual gameplay in Island Thunder is very similar to the original Ghost Recon, and despite its tactical nature, it's pretty easy to get acclimated to the game quickly. Though you start off each mission playing as the leader of Alpha team, you can switch to the other five members of your squad at the press of a button; indeed, when you die, the mission keeps going, and you have to manually change to one of your surviving teammates. Like in Ghost Recon and the Rainbow Six games, you've got three stances--standing, crouching, and prone--that you can move around in, and you can also peek around corners to check for nearby enemies. Slow, careful movement is essential, as enemies can easily become aware of your presence and loose an unpleasant rain of lead in your direction should you stray too close. Ghost Recon fans dismayed by that game's wide-open expanses may be relieved to find that Island Thunder's maps feature more cover, such as wreckage and natural land formations, that you can hide behind as you stalk the enemy. Your teammates won't just mill around aimlessly behind you, either--the game lets you tweak the AI of each soldier to perform various tasks, and your allies are quick to fire on enemies once they've been spotted. This comes in especially handy when you're learning the ropes of the game and end up stumbling into a clump of enemies unwittingly.
The PC version of Ghost Recon: Island Thunder was simply an expansion pack for the original game, and it contained a modest amount of new content and was priced accordingly. The Xbox version, however, will be a standalone game, and thankfully it will contain a lot more new additions than its PC counterpart. In addition to the full Island Thunder single-player campaign, the game will also include three missions from the first Ghost Recon expansion pack, Desert Siege, and four maps from the Xbox version of the first game. Roughly a dozen more maps from the original game will be available, and this huge number of maps will come in handy when using the game's custom mission and multiplayer modes. Custom missions can be set up with mission-style objectives or simply have you fighting to clear an area of enemies or trying to reach an extraction point alive. The multiplayer game, which will work over a local network or via Xbox Live, will include a number of cooperative and competitive gameplay modes. Our build of the game only supported two-player gameplay on the same console and television, so clearly the Xbox Island Thunder's multiplayer, like the PC's, is focused squarely on network and online play.
Ghost Recon: Island Thuner is shaping up to be a superb follow-up to the original Xbox game, and it features enough new features and content to warrant attention from fans and newcomers both. The game is scheduled to release in September, and we'll bring you more information soon.