If you're looking for an action game that you can start playing quickly and easily, you've got plenty of choices, thanks to the impressive number of excellent action games released just this year. But if you're a fan of more-realistic games, you might be more interested in a tactical shooter like Ghost Recon: Island Thunder. For its modest $20 price tag, Island Thunder offers more than enough in the way of a challenging single-player game and new multiplayer maps for players who are serious about tactical shooters--but anyone else may find the game a bit too frustrating.
Island Thunder is the second expansion pack for Ghost Recon; the first, Desert Siege, was released earlier this year. Like its predecessors, Island Thunder is mainly focused on realistic, covert, team-based military operations--in this case, in the jungles, swamps, and grasslands of Cuba. And like its predecessors' single-player game, Island Thunder's single-player game generally consists of cautiously guiding three squads of soldiers out into the field, encountering enemy soldiers at set points, and picking them off as cleanly and from as far away as possible, avoiding any messy firefights that can get your computer-controlled teammates killed.
However, Island Thunder puts more focus on group conflicts--unlike in the previous games, you'll find more groups of enemy soldiers clustered together on the game's wide-open maps. Fortunately, you'll also find a lot more cover for yourself and your teammates. Most of Island Thunder's new single-player and multiplayer maps offer a good mix of open spaces and cover, so you'll often have multiple ways to take down a group of enemies. Enemies hiding in a building can be taken out by tossing a grenade around the corner or by ambushing them from the back door, for instance. Enemies stalking around a mountain range can be taken out from the front by a good sniper shot or can be flanked by assault and support groups. The single-player game uses the same improved team AI as in Desert Siege, and you'll appreciate the fact that although they'll occasionally stumble into enemy sights or react slowly to an order, your teammates generally do what they're told and don't get in the way.
The single-player game consists of eight new missions on eight new maps. That may not sound like much, but each of Island Thunder's missions takes place on an extremely large map and has multiple objectives. You'll most likely take a trial-and-error approach while playing, since you may be caught off guard by a group of enemies, get killed, and end up reloading your last saved game. It should take most players at least 30 minutes to an hour to complete each mission the first time through.
Island Thunder also adds five new multiplayer maps, new weapons, and new multiplayer modes to Ghost Recon, and these are enjoyable enough, or would be if it weren't for the game's poor multiplayer support. Island Thunder has a built-in server browser, but unless you know the exact IP address of a specific server, it's useless. Your only other options are to use either a third-party application or Ubi Soft's clumsy, unreliable Ubi.com online player-matching service. Though Ubi.com now has chat and buddy-list features, at the time of this writing, it can't properly set up a game of Island Thunder. The browser often incorrectly lists open slots on servers that are actually full, hangs on a connection and then disconnects, or incorrectly lists game modifications you'll need to join a particular game. In all three of these cases, which happen far too often, Ubi.com will drop you right back to Island Thunder's multiplayer screen, and you'll have to restart Ubi.com and browse for servers all over again. When you finally make it into a game, you'll find that multiplayer games of Island Thunder play out much like single-player games; they have the same sort of terse, erratic pace characterized by long periods of silence as you scope out the field in search of your enemies, occasionally interrupted by lightning-fast exchanges as the player who sights and draws a bead on his enemy generally kills first.
If you enjoyed the pacing of Ghost Recon and Desert Siege, you'll definitely enjoy Island Thunder, though if you're looking for a more-accessible run-and-gun shooter, you probably won't have much fun with this new expansion pack. Like in Ghost Recon and Desert Siege, you'll often take fire from completely unseen opponents. In multiplayer play, these shots may be taken from skilled sniper players who may be hiding far out of your field of vision. In the single-player game, these shots may be fired by the one enemy soldier in that one group you didn't account for. While this challenge--and the fact that a single, clean hit can kill you outright--is certainly realistic and can be very exciting, it'll also be exceptionally frustrating for new players or players who are looking for more of a pick-up-and-play game. This is especially true of some of the especially well-guarded choke points in Island Thunder's single-player game--you'll be assaulted on all sides by groups of unseen enemies, which means there are that many more ways for you or your teammates to take a hit and lose the mission. You'll need to be patient enough to replay through certain fights multiple times until you get it right.
Fortunately, Island Thunder looks and sounds quite good. The game uses the same graphics engine as Desert Siege and recycles many of that game's player models, though they all look good and are fairly detailed. Soldiers that remain stationary for a long time will twitch, adjust their backpacks, and occasionally turn and scan their surroundings. Island Thunder also does a good job of rendering large outdoor areas--the terrain integrates different topography and objects (including hills, valleys, lakes, caves, and large buildings) seamlessly. The game's pixelated trees and grass might not look that good on their own, but they look considerably better when they're swaying in the wind in a huge outdoor jungle in a rainstorm. Island Thunder also reuses a great deal of Desert Siege's and Ghost Recon's sounds, including your teammates' voice samples and sound effects for weapon fire. As with the previous games, most of Island Thunder's sound is sparse, but effective.
If you prefer your action games to be easy to pick up and put down, you probably won't get much out of Ghost Recon: Island Thunder. Specifically, the single-player game's group skirmishes require a great deal of patience to conquer. But if you're already a fan of tough tactical shooters and you're looking for a real challenge, you'd do well to invest in Island Thunder--its substantial single-player campaign and new multiplayer maps and modes (when you can get into a game) are definitely worth it.