When we got our first look at Ghost Recon back in mid-June, we were highly impressed by almost every aspect of the game's design, from the painstakingly detailed character graphics and vividly realistic motion-capture animations to the highly convincing AI routines created for both friendlies and enemies. But because the development team was intent on completing the game's 19 levels so beta testing could begin, we didn't get a chance to get our hands dirty tackling any of the game's missions.
So when Red Storm invited us to make another trek to Morrisville, NC, for a chance to put the game through its paces, we immediately accepted. Before heading out on our first mission--to rescue NATO troops pinned down by gunfire, which is actually the fourth mission in the campaign mode--we first decided to talk with associate producer Robbie Edwards about several design issues that led to some heated (but friendly) debate among the members of the Ghost Recon development team. One was the issue of saved games. As good as Rogue Spear was, probably every fan at one time or another cursed the game because there was no way to save the game during a mission, an annoyance that would certainly be exarcerbated by the larger maps in Ghost Recon. Thankfully, players will be able to not only save-pause and save their progress at any point during a mission but use quicksaves and quickloads as well.
Another point of contention was the decision to not allow players to control any of the vehicles in the game. While some of the team felt gamers should be able to hop into jeeps or tanks, Edwards said the extra programming that would be required to implement that feature would detract from the game's central focus on modern infantry combat. In fact, you can't even destroy vehicles in Ghost Recon, save for tanks or APCs. That's something of a disappointment given some of the high-powered weapons at your disposal, but again Edwards says the decision was made because the company has lavished so much attention on the nuts and bolts of combat: weapons physics, hundreds of character animations, and eye-popping graphical effects that make you feel as if you're really in the middle of a bloody firefight.
One decision that hasn't been made yet is which matching services will support the game's multiplayer mode. Ghost Recon owners will of course be able to set up dedicated servers, but beyond that the company is being strangely silent as far as services such as Mplayer or Microsoft's Zone. Considering how hugely popular Rogue Spear and Rainbow Six are on The Zone, though, it's probably a safe bet that Ghost Recon will join those games on the service. (The beta build we played had selections for Mplayer and The Zone, but Edwards noted those were only placeholders.)
Only eight weeks had passed between our visits, but during that time the Ghost Recon artists have elevated the game's already superb visuals to even greater heights. After deciding the trees in previous builds didn't appear realistic, the artists set to work and completely redid them, and the results are simply amazing. In most first-person games, trees degenerate into a blotchy mass of pixels when your character walks up to them, but in Ghost Recon the illusion of reality remains constant (unless you get close enough that you could hug said tree!), especially when you look up and see branches swaying in the breeze. That might sound like a small thing, but it's just one of the many subtle touches that make Ghost Recon so immersive--and it's also indicative of just how concerned everyone on the development team is with getting even the tiniest details just right.
There are dozens and dozens of different characters, so each friendly and enemy will have a unique appearance--a welcome change from some of the generic bad guys in Rogue Spear. Even if you should stumble across a character from a previous mission, you probably won't recognize him because of the huge array of clothing types used in the game. Weapons are graphically modeled in exquisite detail: Stride up to a team member, and you can see the selective switch on the gun that changes the rate of fire. Another wonderful graphical flourish is realistic shattered glass: When you blast away at a skylight, you'll see tiny shards rather than huge polygons dropping to the floor.
As we sat down to test our skills with the game's first mission, we immediately noticed a change in the "threat indicator," a small circle at the bottom of the display that gives you an idea of where enemies are located. Previously, the threat indicator simply displayed in which direction you should head to find an enemy by making one of the circle's eight sections yellow. When you draw to within 40 meters of a threat, though, the directional indicator disappears, and the center of the circle turns red (this also happens when you take fire). This ensures that you'll be able to locate enemies without wandering for long stretches of time, but it doesn't lead you directly to their position--and the game's excellent AI routines for enemies mean that negotiating those last 40 meters can be a heart-pounding experience.
While veteran players will be able to jump into the 15-mission campaign after a brief perusal of the game's controls (which are fully customizable), newcomers should check out the game's seven training missions. Here they'll be taught the basics of movement at the obstacle course, learn how to use rifles and pistols at the small-arms course, discover what's involved in using demolitions equipment, and more.
On the Battlefield
Before each mission, you'll be given a briefing before choosing up to six soldiers to distribute among three squads, as well as determine which weapons and equipment they'll carry (the default kits seemed to work fine in the missions we played). Your choices here are critical to success--it's always a good idea to take along at least one sniper, for instance, as well as support personnel who can lay down withering suppression fire with their M4s. Successful missions will unlock specialists who are able to wield weapons standard soldiers can't.
As commander, you control your troop's movement and rules of engagement either from a command map or by hotkeys: Simply select a squad and press a key to have that team hold its position, advance cautiously, or advance at all costs. Used in combination with the rules-of-engagement commands--recon (don't fire), standard (return fire and take advantage of target opportunities), and suppression (fire at any area where enemies are suspected to be)--you can perform some nice tactical maneuvers. About the only thing you can't do is determine what position the soldiers will take as they move. Troops can stand, crouch, or go prone, but unless you're controlling the team members, you won't be able to have them crawl as they advance: The AI will make that determination. Setting waypoints is an extremely simple point-and-click affair on the command map, and when the soldiers arrive at their destination, you can assign a firing arc, perfect for suppressing enemy fire from a particular direction as another squad advances.
As we worked our way across a bridge to reach the stranded NATO troops, Ghost Recon producer Darren Chukitus strolled into the room with a slight grin on his face. "Oh, you're playing that mission," he said. "You picked a tough one--I haven't been able to win that mission yet." Chukitus gave us some pointers on how to use suppression fire and even pointed out where some enemies were hiding, but even so, our team slowly began to dwindle in size until a single sniper was all that remained. Finally, we decided to make a dash for cover and then try to reach the NATO troops for reinforcements--but just as the sniper started to go prone a burst of fire rattled off in the distance, and he fell to the ground with a fatal wound.
Although the mission was a failure, the experience was intense in the extreme. The sound of bullets whizzing overhead, the sight of a squad crouching behind a rock and unleashing a hail of cover fire, the image of an enemy being blown off his feet by a grenade--it all added up to one of the most visceral first-person combat experiences you can imagine. Players in search of speed and frantic shooting probably might not care for the realism that lies at the heart of this game, but take our word for it: When the tension and apprehension of approaching an enemy stronghold is shattered by eruptions of gunfire and the sounds of violent explosions, you might find yourself literally jumping out of your seat.
While mulling over our defeat, associate producer Robbie Edwards took us through several other missions--eliminating Georgian rebels, rescuing a pilot being held hostage, demolishing a bridge, escorting a tank through a city--while expounding on some of the game's other features. Excited by the idea of the .50-caliber machine gun that hadn't been implemented during our last visit, we asked Edwards to let us have a go with it and discovered it's the only time you see a weapon's muzzle in the game. Instead of aiming with a reticle, you must "walk" your fire up to a target. Edwards also pointed out that "overpenetration" has been implemented in the weapon's physics--a round can pass through two enemies if they're close enough together and the weapon is capable of that force.
To give the single-player game some replay value, you can play any Campaign mission you've completed in one of three modes: standard, firefight (neutralize all enemies on the map), and recon (work your way across the entire map to an extraction point). But it's the multiplayer game modes that will give Ghost Recon the long shelf life enjoyed by its Rainbow Six predecessors.
Four multiplayer modes are in place, one of which is exclusively team-based. Last man standing is self-explanatory: The last surviving soldier wins (if more than one is left, it's decided by kill count); sharpshooter is pretty much a standard deathmatch type game where the winner has the most kills; and Hamburger Hill is essentially a "king of the hill" variant where players or teams score points by controlling a section of ground in the middle of the map. At first blush, it would seem that this mode might degenerate into a fragfest, but in fact there are countless opportunities for setting up perimeter defenses outside the area and ordering teammates to move into the area should a controlling friendly go down. Only teams are allowed to compete in the search-and-rescue mode, in which you must collect three hostages and bring them safely back to your base.
Up to 36 players--as many as nine on four squads--can compete in multiplayer games, but there can be more troops than that on the battlefield in cooperative play because AI enemies don't count toward the 36-player limit. In team play, players will vote on a commander (the only person who can set waypoints and issue orders) before the battle begins; if no vote is taken, the game randomly selects a player to be the commander (this also happens should the commander die during the mission).
In a move that's certain to be welcomed by players who were forced to sit on their hands after dying in multiplayer games of Rogue Spear, Red Storm has decided to add a respawn option to Ghost Recon: Whoever sets up the game will be able to choose no respawns, limited respawns per player (1 to 20), a "pool" of respawns per team (1 to 20), and infinite respawns. Infinite respawns might not be what you'd expect from a combat simulation that aims for as much realism as Ghost Recon, but for beginners it could make the difference between playing the game for months or giving up after taking a deadly head shot during the first few seconds of a 20-minute game.
It's not often that a few hours of play with a beta build of a game can have you drooling with anticipation of its final release, but Ghost Recon did precisely that. And when it finally ships in late November, you can rest assured we'll cross that bridge and get those NATO trooops back in one piece.