Review by macdawg
"Engaging and immersive, but flawed"
Tom Clancy is known for a multitude of things, amongst them jarring realism, hyper-technical mumbo jumbo, and some games that bring both these things together to create an immersive experience for the player. The first of such games was Rainbow Six, which placed you at the command of an international terrorist fighting SWAT team. Ghost Recon, the latest entry in the Tom Clancy series, places you at the head of a group of an American Army Special Forces Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) team.
Like all Clancy games, Ghost Recon combines a nuanced level of detail along with characters who cannot shrug off bullets, James Bond Goldeneye style, and who also do not hit anything they aim at. The real question is if this realism becomes something in the way of enjoyment and gameplay, or if it only adds to the overall gaming experience.
The answer is a balanced one. Yes, the gameplay and realism are in fact extremely deep and you'll quickly lose yourself in them, however certain aspects of the game seem to be created more to frustrate and annoy in the name of Clancy's flagship realism than to lead to a more streamlined game experience.
The graphics here are fantastic. The Xbox can do some amazing things, and this game proves it. Huge, miles-long environments are crammed with objects such as trees, buildings, and tanks that litter the landscapes, both urban and rural. Character models are extremely well detailed, with differing faces so that you no longer have the same set of eyes staring out at you from behind eight black face masks, a la Rainbow Six. Characters each have distinctive facial features that are extremely well rendered and easily distinguishable when up close. Your characters move very accurately through the three different stances available, and it's always cool to look behind you and see your crouched teammates moving silently through the trees behind you. Textures and objects are well-rendered as well, so that you can visually identify the types of weapons your teammates and the enemy are using, as well as picking out unit patches on your characters, which is great fun. These graphics are extremely well done and reflect the programmer's commitment to artistry and realism.
The only problem with the graphics is that at times when there are significant events onscreen there is noticeable slowdown and stoppage. When you fire a grenade out of one of your launchers, sometimes in the middle of an open field, the game will stop for the briefest of moments before the explosion. This also occurs after completing a mission objective and before the completion window flashes up. It's jarring and it interrupts the flow of the game. Also, when there is a large amount of frenetic activity onscreen, especially when fighting in the urban level where you have to escort tanks that fire and engage the enemy in the middle of a rainstorm. All that may sound like it's excusable to have some slowdown, but in that case some of that activity should have been tempered for the sake of smoothness, or had the graphics tweaked slightly. There's no reason to have such awkward stuttering, and it does get annoying when, in the thick of some furious fighting, the game starts jerking around for six valuable seconds during which half your team gets wiped out. Something that drastic happens maybe three times throughout the whole game, but it does happen, and in much lesser degrees throughout.
The sound in this game is fantastic. The environmental sounds are amazing, with the ambient sounds of birds and wind in the countryside as well as the sounds of cars and various other urban noises in the city. Sounds travels slightly differently throughout those environments. Gunshots crack out with resounding clarity, and explosions are full sounds that roll across the landscape. A cool effect is that if an explosion occurs near you, you hear the first part of the soundwave but the resonance deafens you for a brief moment, the briefness of which depends upon your proximity to the explosion. The closer you are, the longer you stay deaf. This adds to the coolness factor because if an enemy patrol tosses a grenade near you, you'll hear your comrade shout a warning and then the briefest of explosions before everything goes muffled and you hear your comrades respond accordingly (re: shoot back).
Bullets hitting near you sound great, as they thump into the ground/trees/walls and make corresponding noises depending on their recipients. Bullets hitting you result in a pounding kind of noise that resonates louder than anything (and that is also accompanied by a jerking of the controller). The shouts of your comrades are extremely well done as well, with outcries of Grenade!, Enemy down, Got him, Watch where you're shooting, We've been hit! and some cool ones that occur when you try to get your soldier to go prone (lie down on the ground) in the middle of a river. I laughed out loud the first time I heard Jack Stone say I'm not going swimming in a deadpan voice when I tried to make him do just that.
Also of note is the headphone sound option. If your TV has a headphone jack (which mine does, allowing me to take advantage of this) I highly recommend playing the game whenever possibly with headphones and the headphone option enabled. It really makes a difference as the sound is altered to really immerse the player. You'll hear the wind fade around you and distances are accurately represented by the headphone sound. Few games do this nowadays, and this game's headphone track really pulls the player in. Sound is the most well done aspect of the entire game.
The gameplay here is entirely a mixed bag. We'll go through the good before the bad.
GOOD: The good is not only good, it's great. Enemies move in formations when there are large amounts of them, accurately crouching behind advancing tanks when the time comes. Enemy AI indeed remains one of the highlights of the game, with accurate dives for cover, rolls, and tactics when they encounter you. Gone are the days of Rainbow Six's enemies who stand still while you reload and shoot them. These enemies will engage you from the front and then flank you from the left or right while your fire and attention are concentrated on the target in front of you. Tanks will engage you as well, and you will find tanks in an urban setting and tanks in the countryside to be horses of entirely different colors. Enemy AI is consistently challenging and adds to the tension of the lull between encounters.
Friendly AI is also extremely well done. Your teammates will react accordingly to the Rules of Engagement that you have set, either ignoring the enemy or openly engaging them with guns blazing. Also, friendly AI lays down excellent suppressive and covering fire that does a good job of keeping the enemy's heads down. Friendly aim will also be much more accurate and consistent then your own.
The game interface is well done as well. It is more than easy to set waypoints for your teams and direct them through the battlefield, as well as setting their stances through their Rules of Engagement (ROE's) and movement commands. It is also very easy to switch between your men and position them in a firefight. Three types of ROE's are presented, Recon, Assault, and Suppress. Recon tells your team to move silently and stealthily, only engaging the enemy when fired upon. Assault tells your teams to use careful, aimed shots when engaging the enemy with visual confirmation of the enemy's position, and Suppress instructs your team to lay down a thick cover of suppressive fire to where ever they think the enemy is.
Also cool is an RPG-like element whereupon every time you pick one of your several operatives to go into combat and they survive, they get a point which you can spend on one of several attributes that you can customize your team with. You can then end up with a maxed out stealth team that can move almost directly under the enemy's noses and not be seen, or have a rampaging death squad who can kill anyone they set their eyes upon. Also, the earning of medals gives your characters more points, so that if one of your guys earns a Bronze Star for a battle and lives, he'll have two points to spend at the next upgrade instead of one. Upgrades occur between battles when you are selecting your upcoming team.
BAD: Bad comes in multiple packages. Friendly pathfinding is abysmal. Your guys will frequently get hung up behind small rocks, curves in the road, and everything goes extremely chaotic pathfinding wise when you're in buildings. You often have to switch to the stuck man or men, and this causes the other two members of that man's team to run to his position, so you sometimes put yourself in the same situation two or three times in a row just because when you switch to a stuck guy and move him forward, the man who was ahead will go behind him and get himself stuck. This gets very, very annoying.
A cool feature that the development team messed up is the medal system. Medals in the real world are awarded for bravery in combat. However, medals in Ghost Recon are awarded for kill counts. This is absurd. A guy can stand up in the middle of a firefight, launch a grenade at an enemy pillbox, and then close on the pillbox and neutralize it, killing three men in the process and exposing himself to great risk, and no medals. Basing medal awards on kill counts alone means that the only way to receive some medals are to go on entire missions with only one character, making you hunting for medals, something which is highly dangerous and very foolish. There is a better way to do medal allocation, and this has been exhibited by the Close Combat series, which awards medals for actual acts of bravery individual soldiers perform, instead of glorified kill counts.
Also annoying are the Clancy games' tendency to oversimplify a weapon's spray radius. This is the area covered by your weapon that grows bigger as you move around and fire shots in succession, and shrinks as you lie down and still your gun while aiming. The problem with this is that if you're standing still and suddenly turn, you're radius (represented by four points onscreen and a centered circle that vaguely resemble the sights on the weapon you've got equipped) will shoot out drastically and way out of proportion to the degree of your movement. Also annoying is the fact that when you shoot, the radius grows and grows. This is understandable because not every soldier is a rock-hard sniper, but it gets ridiculous when you're firing a fully automatic weapon, because you'll find your fire going off from your initial target by about forty degrees. Trust me, this does not happen in real life, bullets do fire off and will not always hit what you are aiming at by any stretch of the imagination, but such an aiming discrepancy as presented here is unheard of.
Equally problematic is locating the source of fire when you are being engaged by an unseen enemy. Although I can understand that they wanted to get the suddenness and unpredictability of combat across, however it is extremely perplexing that your teammates will be able to almost instantaneously locate the enemy while you blindly look around. Your failure to engage the enemy will result in you soon being killed because you could not see the guy your teammates are firing at and who is picking you off.
Which leads me to my biggest problem with this game, and Clancy games in general. At the easy difficult setting it's alright, but when you amp up the difficulty it gets extremely frustrating, and I'm talking about enemy accuracy. You'll be walking through a field and a guy you can't even see will pick you and your teammates off with six shots from an AK before you can even react. Your targeting radius, as discussed before, balloons if you so much as look to the left, whereas the enemy are all certified snipers with their scopeless rifles. Apparently realism also means every Russian regular infantry soldier you go up against is a crack shot, whereas your Green Berets can only hit the far side of a barn 1 time to the enemy's 2.
This is a good game that sucks the player in very well. However, the overall experience is somewhat disappointing, for although the developers did an excellent job of creating the tension and suddenness of combat, they royally dropped the ball on the more mechanically oriented aspects of the game, such as weapon function and enemy location. I'd suggest renting it before buying, but since it's twenty bucks now brand-new, it's definitely worth picking up for that price.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 08/04/04
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