When you wind up on a well-rounded team that works together cohesively and uses each class's abilities intelligently, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Online's brutal multiplayer firefights are among the most satisfying you'll find in a free-to-play game. Matches don't always click though, and since the fun in each encounter hinges on how well your team works together, getting stuck with a bunch of meathead bullet sponges can spoil your killing groove. However, a great cover system, balanced class perks, and some cool high-tech gadgets make the moments where it all comes together feel immensely satisfying.
Ghost Recon Online ditches the high military plot setups of its predecessors and explores a wild what-if scenario that pits dueling teams of ghost operatives against one another. There's no rhyme or reason to it story-wise, but that doesn't matter. With 16 soldiers thrown into the fray sporting the latest futuristic tech, things get crazy in a hurry, and that's a big part of what makes this online shooter feel unique. The balance of power constantly tips back and forth as each side one-ups the other with sneaky moves aided by some powerful but nicely counterbalanced unit abilities. When you're diving in and out of cover under sniper fire, scrambling to get behind a teammate's temporary force field bubble as you push forward to take a position, and lurching around corners to shoot unsuspecting foes in the back, it's easy to appreciate the high level of strategic flexibility you're given to play around with.
Three dynamic character classes offer a broad array of tactical options on the battlefield. It's great that you can eventually deck out any class with the full range of guns and armament goodies you unlock from playing and amassing points for buying gear, but it's their special abilities that really make classes stand out. Far from a generic run-and-gunner, the assault class is perfect for pushing the front line into enemy territory. The blitz shield lets you charge forward at high speeds right into incoming fire, bludgeon enemies into a prone position, and then take them out with a few quick shots before they even know what happened. Or you can nuke foes with area-of-effect microwaves that blind them and cook them with radiation damage.
Meanwhile, specialists can trigger EMP devices to short-circuit enemy tech or engage a limited portable force field bubble that affects bullet trajectories. Recon sniper units are favorites for their cloaking ability and a radar-like ping device that reveals enemy positions and invisible units to all teammates. Each unit's special perks are useful in countering another class's abilities too, which makes balancing your team important. Putting all of these skills into play on the battlefield at once is deliciously chaotic, and it keeps matches fluid and engaging.
Tight gameplay lets you focus on enjoying the flow of battle and capitalizing on your team's strengths. When you're running around and dodging behind cover, Ghost Recon Online is mostly a third-person affair, but anytime you look down the sights of whatever weapon you're wielding, the action kicks into a first-person perspective. It's a great blend that you barely notice because it just feels right, thanks to fast and smooth transitions. The excellent cover system itself is equally fluid. An awesome sliding move lets you zip behind barriers even when you're about to eat lead, and once you're behind cover, there's a lot of maneuverability for lining up shots and popping out quickly to surprise the enemy. Ghost Recon Online feels great, from the responsive controls to the way you move around the battlefield.
Both of the two available modes, Onslaught and Conquest, emphasize the need for teamwork with slight variations on point-capturing and defense matches. Running around on your own gunning down enemies boosts your own character growth to an extent, but you won't win rounds and earn much-needed bonus experience without working with your squadmates to put together more orchestrated battle plans. This is where the matchmaking system can be problematic, making for a wildly inconsistent experience from one battle to the next. It's possible to form your own fire teams composed of online friends, but there's no way to limit the class makeup of your group, which sometimes puts you at a serious disadvantage. Recon units are a popular player pick, for example, and it's not uncommon to wind up being the lone assault soldier on a team of snipers. Nothing sucks more than getting stuck on a wildly imbalanced team with players who don't cooperate. Otherwise, hotly contested matches played with a good group of comrades can be a real blast.
The four sprawling maps you battle across are rife with sniping hotspots, cover points, and pathways weaving throughout. They're a fun playground for strategic mayhem, though the visual designs fall a bit short flavor-wise. It's not that these areas look bad; they just blur into one another in terms of their visual design. Despite the limited play modes and environments to fight in, Ghost Recon Online's class-specific progression system keeps you in the game even during moments of aggravation.
Gaining experience and leveling up lets you unlock tons of abilities, weapons, and gear to deck your soldiers out with, but most importantly, it also earns you requisition points--one of the game's two currencies--that can be used to buy everything from special skills and guns to upgrades for individual weapon components. RP doesn't cost you anything; it's earned simply from playing. The better you perform, the more you can get, and taking on daily missions or earning achievements also nets you sweet bonuses.
For those on the fast track, ghost points can be purchased instantly with real-world cash and spent on everything available in-game as well as experience boosts. What's great about Ghost Recon Online's model is that you truly don't have to spend a dime to enjoy the game. Spending money is optional, and the pricing model isn't as heinous as other "freemium" games. RP is doled out generously, and amassing a bunch of it in one fell swoop feels like a substantive reward for pushing hard and ranking in the top tier of your squad in a match.
Out of the starting gates, four large maps, three distinct classes, and two game modes doesn't seem like a lot of content. It isn't, but what's here plays smoothly. Even without considering what's coming down the pike in terms of additions and updates, the currently limited scope delivers a lot of mileage and high replayability. While it's an option to speed things along, purchasing gear and perks via microtransactions isn't necessary, and there's a lot of fun to be had just working your way up the ranks with each class to unlock things as you go. Both Ghost Recon Online and its burgeoning player community may still be in their infancy, but this addictive, high-end multiplayer shooter is already a force to be reckoned with in the free-to-play space.