First up, some good news for the many amongst us that worry about being stuck in a zombie apocalypse or thrust into a combat situation while standing in line at your local bank - it turns out that playing video games does confer upon the gamer at least some real-world skills involving firearms.
How did I arrive at that bold conclusion? Well, last week Ubisoft hosted a group of game industry types out to the Sydney International Shooting Centre (the venue that featured the shooting events at the 2000 Olympics) as part of promotion for their upcoming shooter, Ghost Recon Future Soldier. Everyone was pretty excited about getting the chance to fire off some live rounds, especially as it was being done competitively, with scores being kept and an iPad for the winner.
We got to fire two guns - a target pistol and a rifle, both shooting .22 calibre bullets. I had fired pistols before so had some idea of how to do it and hit the target, but was surprised to see that the rifle seemed to have pretty much a point-and-click interface - line up the target with the crosshairs through the scope, pull the trigger, and you’re pretty much done.
It’s hard to get a perfect score every time, but after a couple of shots I was reasonably confident I’d be able to headshot a slowly shuffling zombie as it approached - an achievement which seemed to be shared by pretty much everyone else there, as most of the shooters were doing a pretty reasonable job of hitting the target. It would be a fascinating exercise to pull random people off the street and see if they can perform as well as video gamers.
Unfortunately, while hitting the target consistently seemed to be well within the skill set of most of us, doing it with extreme accuracy that could be repeated over and over again was not. Shooting at any sort of range means that even the tiniest mistake - breathing at the wrong time, shifting your body slightly - is amplified significantly, meaning your perfect ten shot becomes a much less perfect six.
Of course, if you’re a special forces soldier, the difference between hitting the target and not hitting the target has many more real world implications, and in Ghost Recon Future Soldier you get to experience all of these implications in a nice, safe, virtual environment from the comfort of your own home. To find out more about this we sat down with Ubisoft’s Yann Suquet, an Associate Producer on the game, as he ran us through some of the highlights.
For those who came in late, Ghost Recon is another in the ongoing series of Tom Clancy games. You’re playing the role of character Sergeant John Kozak, a new member in a Ghost squad, and the game has a big focus on the cooperative element of working as part of this four man team -- taking advantage of some incredible sci-fi-style equipment to help you battle your way to victory.
Yann explained that the special forces aspect of the game is critical - they want you to feel like you’re an elite soldier at all times throughout the game, and to help bring this off they’ve been forging relationships with special forces outfits around the world. They’re not just taking artistic license with how they think these guys operate or asking them shallow questions about what colour helmets they wear, they’re sitting down and talking to them, and observing them with a view to understanding the entire SF process.
One example of how this is carried into the game world of Future Soldier is with the Gunsmith - the in-game gun creation toolkit that allows you to mix and match 52 weapons with 48 different attachments, allowing for (mathematically) around 20 million different combinations. From conversations with SF soldiers, Yann reveals that the design team discovered that these guys take their weapons really, really seriously, and have almost complete freedom when picking their arsenal. Given the hostile environments they operate in and the expectation that they have to be independent, their faith in their weapon needs to be absolute - meaning they take pains to customise them extensively so they work exactly how they want them to.
With the Gunsmith you can tweak your weapon extensively to match your playing style. The changes aren’t cosmetic, either - the modifications all have real, in-game effects on the action. You can change the trigger over to be a hair-trigger action, so the shooting is much more sensitive. You can choose different firing mechanisms to find the right balance of range and power. Outfit yourself as a long-range sniper with incredible scopes, or a stealthy close fighter with suppressors and subsonic ammunition - the choice is yours, and there are lots to be made. (This whole system is drivable with Kinect, which is sort of cool
, but probably not really the sort of major noteworthy feature they’ve made it out to be.)
Another SF-inspired feature is a change from previous games, where instead of designating locations or areas for your teammates to target, you designate actual enemies. Yann explained that in the field, soldiers number off their targets, making sure the firing order is well established and each person knows who is taking out who. This is managed really simply in the game - just bracket the targets in sequence and hit fire. Once your team members are in position and ready, you get a visual cue; and as soon as you take the first shot, they’ll follow in tight sequence. It is very satisfying to line up three or four enemy soldiers and watch them silently drop to the ground as your tactical decisions become reality.
Early in the demonstration, Yann explained: “We made the game more cunning, more fast, more powerful”. As it turns out, that simple sentence provides a great opportunity to look at some of the main features that make Future Soldier stand out - cunning, fast, and powerful. Each of these embodies a particular feature that is worthy of note, and they all combine to create a compelling gaming experience.
On the cunning side, the game is literally packed with high tech toys - called ‘intel’ - that you can play with. For example, there’s a small drone you can throw into the air and pilot into position, which will then spot hostiles and feed that information directly into your heads-up display so you can make sound tactical choices. There’s a sonic grenade that you can lob from cover which will give you a quick snapshot of surrounding enemies, also very helpful. Each tool has its own counter - presumably offering much fun and chaos in multiplayer - so they need to be used carefully.
The speed of the game is something that I thought might be an issue - with all the focus on the tactical side of things - stopping to deploy intel, line up targets, issue firing orders, and so on, it seemed like there might not be a lot of room for actual, well, chaotic shooting of bad guys. There’s also a lot of focus on maneuvering from behind cover, but there’s a great cover swap mechanic helps keep the pace flowing smoothly - you’ll be bouncing around quickly between locations, and when combat kicks off, you know all about it. It’s total chaos, civilians running everywhere, bullets flying, people screaming, and you having to move and shoot quickly to stop from being wiped out.
And, finally, powerful. There’s a few things that really shine here. Obviously all the weapons feel great - even the quiet, silenced stuff packs a nice punch. There’s also the added feeling of satisfaction you get assembling your own weapon and then using it to cut down bad guys, but easily my favourite part here were the silent take downs that you get to do. Sneaking up behind unsuspecting combatants, you can perform a silent kill option - your character will do variety of really awesome (and bone-jarringly painful) looking take downs. Unfortunately the sound effects for most of these weren’t in place yet, but you could imagine the horrible gurgling sort of crunchy noises that will certainly be in there to complement the sudden, lethal violence.
Everything in the game gels together really nicely visually. They went to extreme lengths to do motion capture, including capturing people moving in squads, instead of just getting different people to perform actions and gluing them together. So instead of your squad moving around clumsily, all the actions you perform look and feel extremely natural and organic - it looks like guys actually working together as part of a close, tight-knit squad towards a common goal. Plus, your character just looks plain bad-ass with his kerchief tied around his face and the glint of the heads-up display in his eye piece. Awesome.
Further, a lot of the actions break out of the third person view into a more cinematic view - even simple things like opening doors, the camera will pan around differently so you can watch your squad enter a room. This is done with great style, combining the fantastic animations with clever camera angles to create a really cinematic experience that complements the gameplay nicely, making it feel like you’re participating in a cool action movie - not just watching one.
Another nice improvement is the enemy AI. Yann highlighted what they are calling “player-centric AI”, meaning that enemy soldiers react individually to each player (or character) in your squad. Anyone that has played co-operative games before will be intricately familiar with the experience of one player triggering an event which alerts enemy units, only to have them all to immediately swerve to the closest member in your team and plug them. In Future Soldier, the enemy units will react only
to what they can see and hear around them. So if your teammate alerts a bad guy, other bad guys will only respond based on that event - they won’t immediately know where you are and shoot you in the face while you’re sneaking up quietly behind them and are still unobserved.
While the feature list of the game is impressive enough, there’s no one thing I can point at individually and say “this game is awesome because of X”. What is
awesome though is how everything gels together to create a really compelling experience that you just want to keep playing. It’s well-paced and just feels nice and crunchy the whole way through - there are really satisfying moments where you combine a silent takedown, then deploy some intel, follow it up with a deft bit of target designation, and then dive into a full combat situation.
One aspect of the game that I did struggle with though is something that seems to perpetually plague me - the stealth mission. Most of the missions in Future Soldier offer near-total freedom in how you carry them out - you can Rambo your way through, or sneak your way through, or combine any number of different approaches. However, there are missions that are stealth-only, where you have to creep around and not get seen - or else you fail the mission and have to restart.
So of course I got hopelessly stuck on one while I was playing through the game. I expressed frustration to Yann afterwards. “We’re not making it impossibly hard”, he said, pointing out that (happily, at least in my book) the stealth missions are few and far between, that they are very aware of the frustration of the uncoordinated stealth soldier, and that they have taken pains to try to make sure the focus is on freedom of movement and action wherever possible. Phew.
Unfortunately, the relatively recent confirmation that the game would in fact be making its way to PC (after the initial confirmation that it wasn’t) meant that Yann wasn’t able to comment much on the PC version, which is certainly my favourite platform for tactical shooters. As such we weren’t able to get any inside information on how the game works on this platform - in particular the multiplayer aspect of it. So we’ll have to hang out for more on that score, though it seems likely - based on previous Ghost Recon titles - that we can expect a player-hosted peer-to-peer system with no dedicated servers.
On the multiplayer front - despite the game looking like a veritable fun-fest for multiplayer, sadly we didn’t get a chance to take it for a test spin. Future Soldier is slated to have co-operative play (some of my fondest co-op memories are playing the original Ghost Recon game in co-op mode, so I am very keen to find out more about this) as well as a meticulously crafted “Adversarial” mode, designed separately by the team at Red Storm, the guys behind the GRAW multiplayer action. So there’s a lot of potential there, but you’ll have to wait for the next shooting session for more about this.
Ghost Recon Future Soldier is shaping up to be a very solid extension to the series. It’s hard to stress how much enjoyable the game simply feels
to play; all the motions are extremely natural, everything packs an incredible punch and the great cinematics all combine to create an experience that simulated my mental image of being a special forces soldier. Definitely looking forward to getting my hands on multiplayer as well and finding out more about the PC version, but if you’re into tactical shooters with satisfying, high-impact gameplay then you’re going to want to keep your eyes open for this one.