Impressions: Ghost Recon Online «

After blasting my way through a few hours’ worth of the Ghost Recon Online beta, I’m confident enough to make the following statement: Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, set for launch on PC in June, will face some stiff competition from its free-to-play sibling. Ghost Recon Online, still in closed beta, delivers the premium multiplayer shooter goods, and it does it for the low, low price of free.

When Ubisoft announced Ghost Recon Online nearly a year ago, I shook my head, fully expecting Ubisoft Singapore to create a cheap knockoff of the struggling long-running franchise. And let me be clear about something right from the get-go: this is not a return to the tactical, “wait 10 minutes in the brush with the crickets for the perfect sniper headshot” realism of the original. Those patient, tension-packed moments were on my mind as I downloaded Ghost Recon Online. Third-person, cover-based shooter? Special abilities that allow your character to pull off super-human moves, like the shield bull charge of the tank-like Assault class? Pfft. This isn’t Ghost Recon, and whatever it is sounds like a jumbled mess.

One match later, the cynical look had been replaced with eyebrow-raising interest. Two matches later and I was biting my lip through the heated final moments of a tug-of-war battle. Three matches later and I was sporting a telling smirk. It didn’t take long for me to recognize the funky formula of Ghost Recon Online, against all odds, works, and it works well. Here’s why:

A Whole Lotta Class

If you don’t have a balanced squad of Assault, Specialist, and Sniper soldiers your team will quickly be overrun. A true class-based shooter, Ghost Recon Online rewards teams that put the talents, abilities, and weapons of each class to use. In particular, the high-tech offensive and defensive abilities of each class add a great rock-paper-scissors layer of depth to overall gameplay.

Lone wolves need not apply. GRO is a true team-based shooter.

For example, Ghost Recon Online’s Specialist can deploy a bullet-deflecting AEGIS Shield, and my squads leaned on this ability when attempting to seize well-guarded capture points. Watch out though, because the perfect counter to the bubble shield is the EMP Blackout, also part of the Specialist’s bag of tricks, which briefly shorts out all electrical equipment. Advancing under the cover of the AEGIS Shield only to have it shorted out by EMP Blackout while out in the open is a pants-dropping, dive-for-over cover experience.

Snipers have a cloaking ability that renders them almost completely invisible, and more than once I was the victim of a stealthed Sniper who casually walked right up behind me to deliver a close-range headshot. However, I was also saved and assisted by my fellow Snipers who used their Oracle ability to spot and pinpoint enemy positions, even revealing the red outlines of soldiers hidden behind walls.

Abilities are a fun game-within-a-game mechanic that help make GRO unique.

And then there’s the Assault class, the battering ram of Ghost Recon Online that I used for the majority of my play time. With a speed- and power-boosting exoskeleton and a massive riot shield, I used the Blitz ability to perform high-speed charges into enemy nests and clear the way for my squad like a true tank. I was also the victim of other Assault soldiers who saw my charges coming and fried me with the HEAT weapon– a funky backpack device that microwaves targets. Toasty.

Because these well-balanced abilities are tied to lengthy cooldown timers, squads have to work together to make sure they’re using the right ones for offense and defense at the right time. It’s a fun game-within-a-game mechanic that helps make Ghost Recon Online unique.

Take Third-Person Cover!

Controls in third-person, cover-based shooters can be frustrating. I recently blasted my way through Binary Domain and found myself stuck to more walls than I care to count. And Binary Domain is far from alone. That’s why I’m happy to report Ghost Recon Online makes getting into and out of cover a breeze.

The joys of not being stuck to a wall.

Caught in a gauntlet of fire in one of my first matches, I quickly discovered the joys of sliding into cover. Hit the spacebar while sprinting, and your character will slip-slide his way to a safe position. And once in cover, it’s easy to poke up, to the side, or even down low to the prone position and to the side to return fire. With Snipers trying to zero in on my position from afar, these options allowed me to play a tense game of cat-and-mouse, staying safe behind cover while still returning fire from unpredictable spots. And when it was time to advance or fall back, I was able to detach from walls, crates, and columns without once cursing at the controls.

You Got the Look

Visually, Ghost Recon Online is a premium shooter. I’d compare it to Modern Warfare 3 in that it looks good, but it doesn’t sacrifice performance for visuals. The Assault, Recon, and Specialist classes are highly detailed and sport some funky near-future equipment, like the mechanized exoskeleton of the Assault class. These soldiers do battle on maps with decent textures and good lighting effects, especially in a subway level pulled straight from Battlefield 3.

As a shooter fan that prefers doing my aiming down the barrel of my weapon, I was happy to discover Ubisoft didn’t leave the first-person viewpoint to scoped snipers alone. While this is primarily a third-person game, any time you aim down your sights there is an instant, seamless transition to first-person perspective. It works exceptionally well because of a realistic focus/blur effect that makes objects in the distance slightly fuzzy while in third-person. Aim down your sights at the far away object, and it immediately comes into focus. Nice.

There are also thin blue lines that branch out from your character to the rest of your squad, pointing to exactly where your teammates are when they’re in relatively close proximity. It’s a nice visual touch that helped us move and work together like a true squad.

Best of all, I’ve yet to spend a dime on Ghost Recon Online, and I’ve never felt outgunned by those who have. There are tons of weapons, attachments, and armor items up for sale, but you can also unlock everything with time. So if you’re a cash-strapped gamer who can do without the single-player campaign, take the free version of Ghost Recon for a spin before you spend $60 on its paid sibling.


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