Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Preview
We visit Red Storm's offices and get briefed on this tactical and extremely technical first-person shooter.
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Here's a stumper for you: Why would a company that's produced some of the most wildly popular first-person shooters choose to make its next FPS a "B" title? The answer, at least for Red Storm Entertainment, is simple--the "B" means bigger, badder, bolder, and better. Bigger maps. Badder enemies. Bolder graphics. Better artificial intelligence. You'll find all these things and much more in Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon (Ghost Recon from here on out), a squad-based warfare simulation that probably comes closer than any PC simulation to capturing the true essence of 21st-century infantry warfare.
Despite the zooming popularity of squad-based warfare simulations, Ghost Recon is undeniably its own game--this is definitely not a cookie-cutter title cranked out to cash in on the popularity of a rising genre. Take vehicles, for instance. Though they're featured in many of the missions, you won't have the ability to jump in and take control of them as you can in Operation Flashpoint or even the futuristic Tribes, and unlike the overly ambitious World War II Online, Ghost Recon limits its multiplayer games to 36 combatants.
Why leave out the ability to take command of military vehicles or fight on a grand scale when both are clear draws for gamers (read: potential consumers)? The reason is simple: Red Storm would rather get everything it does right, rather than trying to do everything and getting some of it wrong. And who can blame the company? The same formula produced smashing results for Rainbow Six and Rogue Spear, the forebears of Ghost Recon, and after seeing the game in action at the Red Storm studios, it's clear that the development team's attention to detail is likely to produce one of the most compelling games of the year.
While Ghost Recon takes many of its cues from the Rainbow Six line, its inception was actually spurred by forces outside Red Storm Entertainment. According to Ghost Recon producer Darren Chukitus, Red Storm was contacted by the US Army regarding the possibility of creating a mainframe-based simulation that the Army could use to simulate modern battlefield tactics and situations. "We weren't very interested in creating that kind of simulation," says Chukitus, "but it did get us interested in creating a simulation of modern warfare."
His interest sparked by the conversations, Chukitus took a trip to Fort Bragg to check out the Army's latest and greatest concept: Land Warrior, immanently familiar to PC game fans thanks to NovaLogic's Delta Force line. For those not in the know, the Land Warrior system goes hand-in-hand with those ads you see on TV about an "Army of One"--each soldier is equipped with a global positioning system integrated into a computer/radio subsystem, and weapons have video-capture capabilities and troops can use night-vision technology and infrared targeting. There's also a new assault helmet in the game (which can stop direct hits from 9mm weapons) and plated body armor that can halt a round from a 7.62mm rifle.
But the crucial factor for Chukitus was the new paradigm of warfare. "What type of combat do we face?" he asks, and the answer is obvious: small-scale operations against guerrilla and terrorist groups equipped with hard-hitting weapons and an almost insane will to survive. This reality provides the perfect context for moving the high-tech but claustrophobic worlds of Rainbow Six and Rogue Spear into an external environment--and that's just what Red Storm has done with Ghost Recon.
A Brand New World
Get one thing clear from the start: Ghost Recon is not a continuation of the Rainbow Six line. That's being handled by the hotly anticipated Rogue Spear: Black Thorn game. But while it clearly draws much inspiration from that heralded ancestry, Ghost Recon marks a radical--and sometimes difficult--departure for the crew at Red Storm Entertainment.
In hindsight, it's easy to see the evolution of Ghost Recon. Rainbow Six focused almost exclusively on internal environments, while Rogue Spear added the element of controlling commandos over various types of external terrain before (and after) reaching their target. In Ghost Recon, however, the action has been moved--for the most part--into open countryside. Yes, there are cities and villages you must enter, and once you reach them you'll once again have to overcome some nasty surprises in the form of hidden gunmen and deadly snipers. But where Ghost Recon seems to achieve its greatest levels of tension are in the missions that send you across open country: You know full well the enemy is out there, but you've got no other choice but to advance as safely and as effectively as possible.
The maps in Ghost Recon are large--400x400m--but the single-player missions have been designed in such a way that there's little chance of wandering around aimlessly. You'll find the enemy soon enough, but even before you do your blood will be pumping in anticipation of hearing the enemy pop off that first round.
And just who is the enemy? Well, this is a Tom Clancy title, so it's no big shock that the Russians are involved--but as the game opens it turns out you're there to help the Russkies. A change in leadership has drawn the US and Russia into a firm friendship, and when an uprising in the Baltic States erupts, the US volunteers to aid in quelling the disturbances. As you progress through the missions, however, you soon find yourself facing a different opponent; we won't spoil it by telling you who it is, but it probably won't come as a huge shock.
But the emphasis on external environments is just one of many changes awaiting Rainbow Six and Rogue Spear fans. The most noticeable comes at the start of each mission: There is no planning stage. Much as in SWAT 3, you now issue orders on the fly to your team of up to six troopers (they can be divided into three squads) from a command screen; unlike in SWAT 3, however, the command screen is a top-down 2D representation of the combat area. Why the change? "Our user feedback showed us that a lot of people just skipped the planning stage in the Rainbow Six games," says Associate Producer Robbie Edwards.
Instead of being able to control only the leaders of each squad, you can assume control of any soldier in the mission--perfect in case you want to use your personal touch with a grenade launcher carried by one of the troops, for instance. Setting waypoints is a simple point-and-click affair, and at any time you can issue orders such as "advance," "advance until contact," and "hold." You can also send a squad into recon mode, which orders one or more squad members to cover a fellow teammate as he or she advances.
Improvements Over Rainbow
Anyone who's played the Rainbow Six games knows the "Ding Chavez syndrome"--just about everyone picked him for each mission because he was far and away the most skilled squad member available. For Ghost Recon, Edwards says Red Storm has decided to let you create your own personal favorites by adding a role-playing element to the design. All soldiers are rated in one of four categories: leadership, weapons, stealth, and endurance. After each successful mission, returning troops will see their ratings in each category improve based on team survival rate, the number of enemies that were faced, and other performance factors.
And Edwards says these stats really do have a solid impact on gameplay. "If you have a character whose leadership is at the maximum, it will make all your squad members perform at a higher level," he says. The only fuzzy stat here is endurance--it affects the ability to fight after being wounded rather than the ability to stave off fatigue (Edwards says fatigue isn't modeled because these soldiers are the fittest of the fit and wouldn't tire in real life while tackling missions such as these). It's easy to see how you will become attached to the characters you've guided through several battles, and to round out the experience, soldiers will earn medals and commendations.
As you begin the first of the game's 15 single-player missions, your force will consist of riflemen--all-purpose troops equipped with standard kits and weapons. During the course of the game, though, you'll begin to "unlock" specialists who have the ability to use certain weapons and tools that riflemen and even other specialists can't. Specialists come in four flavors--assault, demolitions, sniper, and heavy weapons--and will prove invaluable in tackling mission-specific obstacles. On one outing, for instance, you'll find yourself pinned down by a tank, and without the antitank weapon that can be used only by the heavy-weapons specialists, you would be in for a very long day. One of the more tantalizing weapons a specialist can wield is a .50-caliber machine gun: Once it's in place you can turn an open area into a veritable killing field.
By no means were Rogue Spear or Rainbow Six slouches in the graphics department, but Chukitus is proud--and rightly so--of the special visual effects that have been incorporated in Ghost Recon. "In the past we didn't have time during the production cycle to emphasize special effects," he says, "but we do for this game. We've added a 'shaking camera' to simulate explosions, scorched earth where mines and grenades have detonated, and the terrain is the best we've ever done."
Ghost Recon also ups the ante in the animation department, with more than 650 distinct animations. Realizing players got a bit weary of the minimalist death animations in Rogue Spear, the team has already generated an amazing eight distinct animations for head shots, and even more impressive are the motion captures used to simulate the effects of explosions, gut shots, and other types of wounds. Your soldiers will be able to hit the deck and fire while prone; once down, their field of vision will decrease to reflect their position. The movements of the soldiers are amazingly lifelike, thanks to the decision to use a real-life Army major for the motion-capture footage. You won't find any jumping animations because soldiers don't skip and bound across open terrain--but it would be nice if Red Storm incorporated a dive so you could fling yourself into a ditch or ravine.
The Ultimate in Realism
Edwards says another area where the Ghost Recon team has put in extra effort is the AI for friendly and enemy troops. "The enemies here aren't just better shots," says Edwards. "They really are smarter--you'll see them run to avoid a grenade, lay down suppression fire to cover their teammates, attempt to flank your forces, go prone when they're fired upon, and spray gunfire into foliage if they hear you coming or see the brush moving." And he's not just blowing hot air--we saw them do all that and more, including pistol-whipping a hostage inside a barn as we espied them through binoculars.
The art department is going to extreme lengths to ensure the game looks as realistic as it plays--no soldiers in pristine uniforms here. Their uniforms become soiled as they crawl across open fields, and even the rip-stop design of uniforms (which prevents holes from becoming huge rips) has been modeled. Naturally you'll see blood on troops who've been shot, but don't expect geysers of the stuff--there's enough to convey a sense of realism, but that's about it. One area that is highly authentic is the modeling of the Russian troops in the game, thanks to assistance from an unlikely source: a Russian paratrooper who introduced himself to the Ghost Recon team at this year's E3. He's providing invaluable input not only on graphics but also on the sort of kits and weapons Russian soldiers carry in real life.
For the game's sound effects, Red Storm turned to Sound Deluxe, the sound studio that worked on both Rainbow Six and Rogue Spear. Chukitus says the company "took weapons to a valley and hooked up over two dozen microphones" to create the game's 3D sound effects. Extensive support for EAX is planned, and even in the alpha stages the game's audio adds immensely to the game's immersive qualities.
And just what are the weapons that were recorded? Red Storm is being a bit tight-lipped about the game's arsenal, but what it has officially announced is enough to get any cybersoldier excited. Riflemen can carry the M249 standard assault rifle; snipers can pick off bad guys with an M24 sniper rifle; and heavy-weapons specialists can tote the M136 antitank weapon. Also planned for inclusion are the OICW, a next-generation assault rifle with anintegrated grenade launcher, the silenced M9 pistol, and the M203 grenade launcher. You'll encounter a variety of land and air vehicles such as the M1 Abrams, the A-10 Warthog, the Bradley APC, and a couple of types of helicopters, but you won't be able to control any of them. Still, the sight of a Warthog flying over a village and dropping a load of napalm will probably make more than one commander sit up and take notice.
Though multiplayer games can be played on the 15 single-player maps, Red Storm plans on including at least a half-dozen multiplayer-only maps being designed by a dedicated team of three level designers. New game types such as capture the flag and defend are being planned, and you will be able to set up dedicated servers to run the game. Edwards says the team hasn't decided what type of matching service will be used for multiplayer games, but Microsoft's Gaming Zone is a likely candidate. Teams in multiplayer mode can consist of human- and AI-controlled soldiers, and each team will be given a "pool" of lives; after your team has suffered 10 deaths (and respawns), the next kill will knock you out of the game.
With a budget of 5 million dollars, Ghost Recon is undeniably the biggest project ever undertaken by the Red Storm team--and it shows. Stay tuned throughout the summer for more news on this breathtaking simulation.