Celebrating the 4th with Future Soldier
Here in the States it’s Independence Day, in which we celebrate Benjamin Franklin burning down the White House with electricity, a distraction that allowed George Washington to conquer Yorktown while Betsy Ross falcon-punched Benedict Arnold, making the thirteen colonies free from taxes and stuffiness. The details are a bit fuzzy because nobody really kept notes back then, so we may never know the full story.
Four hundred years later, Americans are still up to some awesome stuff in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, which, like the story of our glorious nation’s founding, is all about four guys beating the stuffing out of foreigners while wearing snappy uniforms.
But before we talk about the game:
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I’m yet to figure out why games need these “press any key to begin” screens, so I’m completely confused about why Future Soldier feels the need to make me pass through two. Maybe it’s Ubisoft’s tactic to get PC gamers to shut up about their constant inclusion of the first one, or maybe they accidentally assigned two guys to make the screen and then they didn’t want to play favorites by picking between them. Whatever the reason, I think it’s time we draw the line. So:
Dear Game Developers: Please stop. One “press any key” screen will do. Frankly, I’d prefer that it was removed anyway, but I’ll tolerate one.
And now on to the game itself.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is a game about the greatest country in the world (The United States) coming under attack (undeservedly) by an external evil, so her greatest elites and most impressive tech are deployed to save the day. I realize this is a worthless definition, in part because it describes every Tom Clancy game ever, and also because it makes the game sound like a load of patriotic claptrap that would probably mesh better with the worldview of bygone generations than with the jaded and internet-wise consumers of today.
Which yes, is partially true. It is patriotic claptrap. It’s filled with soldiers who are professional and respectful and not at all crass (though still fairly unconcerned about civilians getting caught in the crossfire. You’ll lose a few points at the end of the level, but nobody calls you out for it), who have their boots on the ground and know better than the politicians who are far away in cushioned chairs in air-conditioned offices. These soldiers pontificate about how their job is to perform so well that nobody knows their job exists, can perform mission after mission without any sign of wear, and get grumpy when they witness the suffering that fills lesser nations. And they’re killing lots of Russians, but it’s okay because they’re extremist Russians.
It’s safe to say I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Future Soldier, but brace yourself for a twist: This article could also have been entitled “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Future Soldier,” because after struggling through the (brutally silly) first level, something occurred to me:
It’s fictional. This story isn’t preoccupied with the controversies that face America today. This is a fantasy America, an idealized version filled with plenty of jobs and weekly neighborhood barbeques and ideals worth sharing with the rest of the world. Its soldiers go about their business like compassionate Space Marine prototypes, excising enemies of the state because they deserve it, if only because they’re opposing the Best Country That Ever Was and Ever Will Be.
This new attitude brought some growing pains. A part of me struggled against it, thirsting for commentary or controversy that never came. It turns out these soldiers aren’t doing anything controversial (except for violating all sorts of sovereignty laws, but that’s happily ignored so that Future Soldier can hop around the globe) because nothing particularly controversial exists in this black-and-white universe—whether because the universe is really painted in only those hues or because the soldiers you’re playing as are filled with sufficient conviction to believe it. And once I started to believe it, I began to have fun.
One of the game’s most-utilized features is its active camouflage, which renders your squad of four super-soldiers “invisible” (read: blurry) so long as they don’t move too fast or fire their weapons. The best advantage of this camo is that it explains away the myopic vision of video game soldiers, who see exclusively at ranges of thirty meters or less. Enemies can still spot you up close, though sometimes it takes them a while to respond to nearby blurry movement that would probably make me scream and crap myself. And if ever the camouflage goes down, you can stop moving to bring it back up within mere seconds.
Well, at one point in the game you suddenly find yourself assaulted by Russian Special Forces wearing the same active camo that your squad uses. So these guys attack, they have you surrounded, and your squad of four absolutely wrecks like sixty of them.
Wait wait wait, I think to myself. So I’m supposed to accept that the American elites are this much eliter than the Russian elites?
Well, yeah. Of course they are. You’re the protagonists and your motives are pure and healthy, and these bastards are trying to do mean things, so of course they lack the resolve to actually kill you. After all, your squad is American. The member of the squad who happens to have Russian blood somewhere in his family (enough that he can speak the language) even makes a big point of the fact that he’s from Brooklyn or some other recognizable city, because in this world being American is more a state of mind or a righteous mantle than it is a tangible geography.
In a way, Future Soldier is asking you to just tune out all that modern political stuff, accept its fictional worldview, and kill the enemies of an Apple Pie America that deserves to be defended as much as any other video game kingdom that you’ll be asked to champion without a second thought. And once I had given in, I couldn’t even quite remember why it was that I was so preoccupied with avoiding any pretense of patriotism in the games I play.
So I found myself having fun with Future Soldier, which as it turns out actually has pretty good gameplay. The stealthy bits are solid, the combat is tight, and they often merge into well-conceived scenarios. It’s common to be pitted against large numbers of enemies, with enough leeway to wipe out a sizable portion silently before someone spots you or finds a body and raises the alarm. And there are plenty of diversions that give the levels appreciated diversity: one moment you’ll be leading a lumbering combat mech into battle, the next you’ll be fighting through crowded streets, or sneaking into a Siberian prison, or holding a position against incoming combat vehicles. Of my ten or so hours with Future Soldier, I can confidently say I was never bored.
It isn’t without flaws. There are some odd quiet walking bits, a couple tedious shoot-a-minigun-from-a-helicopter parts, and a few moments where your squad escorts a prisoner and suddenly they’re running through an enemy compound in an on-rails segment that discards caution and feels like one of those crummy arcade shooters. And it can be a bit overwrought, especially in some of its hand-wringing cutscenes.
Also, the game deviates from earlier Ghost Recon games in a few key ways. In past games, your men were elite, but still vulnerable to stray bullets and reliant on extensive planning and coordination to pull off a victory. In Future Soldier, you can plaster dozens of enemies in open combat without too much threat unless you make a serious misstep. Some of the mechanics make sense, especially the coordinated shots that let you tag up to four enemies, line up a shot, and then have everyone fire at once to take down all four at exactly the same moment, but there’s no way to command or position individual squadmates. As a result, when the momentum flags it can feel as pared down and oversimplified as it can be smooth. Also, the much-touted weapon customization failed to impress me, largely in part because nearly all of the options were locked, and I’m tired to death of having to unlock everything in every dang game.
Still, I had a great time with it. I was even delighted at some of the places the story decided to go—I won’t spoil it, but it was nice to see that the main goal stopped being “Save America!” and started being “Save Something Other Than America,” even if the second goal had lots of threads connecting it to the first. In fact, I may play it again. I may even try it online, because taking down extremist Russians with buddies is always better than doing it alone.
So my final score is that you get to play with a cloaking suit. And who on earth doesn’t want a cloaking suit?