August 20, 2012
Ghost Recon Online - Open Beta
by Guest Writer Barry "Bahger" Isaacson
Currently in open beta, Ghost Recon Online (GRO) is the less-hyped of the two new Ghost Recon games with which Ubisoft hopes to revitalize the venerable franchise this summer. Ghost Recon Future Soldier (GRFS) has already failed to impress many diehard PC gamers who, having supported the series from its earliest incarnation as a PC-based tactical shooter, have found Future Soldier to be a badly ported console game which sacrifices tactical gameplay in favor of action and spectacle. Meanwhile, GRFS multiplayer on the PC has been greeted with only faint enthusiasm.
Ghost Recon Online and Ghost Recon Future Soldier share the Yeti graphics engine, along with certain design and conceptual motifs, but GRO is an entirely different game, developed by a different team (Ubisoft Singapore) and is built exclusively for the PC. Of the two products, Ghost Recon Online offers a far superior gaming experience.
The above endorsement is likely to be greeted with skepticism by old-school PC tac-gamers, who prefer an arms-length relationship with PvP (player-vs-player) shooters. Most of us have dipped a toe into Counterstrike at some point, only to be repelled by the pervasively anti-social nature of run-and-gun PvP culture and its disdain for teamwork and tactical gameplay. What's more, there is a stigma attached to FTP gaming, too; people feel that free-to-play means pay-to-win, and that such games are a form of bait and switch. Additionally, they do not expect high production value from FTP titles versus what they might experience in AAA games, like Ghost Recon Future Soldier, which currently retails at about sixty dollars. These assumptions are all powerful strikes against GRO, or at least the idea of it, in the minds of many mature players of tactical shooters. I, too, have consigned PvP combat gaming to the life's-too-short category many times in the past; in the specific case of GRO, though, doing so would have caused me to overlook by far the best small-unit spec ops tactical shooter, either PvP or coop, that I have ever played.
Odd as it sounds, iRacing is a better point of comparison for Ghost Recon Online than Counterstrike. Like iRacing, GRO's all-in dedication to the idea of cooperation and tactics requires a certain level of social engineering. Thus, players are rewarded for using their class-based special abilities (of which more below) for the benefit of team-members even where the use of the device does not enable the player to enhance his personal kill tally. For example, I have often used "Oracle", a situational-awareness ability for the Recon class that lights up opposing players' positions momentarily, to improve my teammates' chances of winning a CQB engagement at a chokepoint, resulting in the taking of the point and rewards accrued to me. As in iRacing, the player's status, reward opportunities and tactical options are so heavily weighted towards cooperative game play that run and gun tactics will almost always get you killed and/or limit your opportunities for progress within the game. Virtual tethers (thin blue lines in the HUD) connecting teammates inside a certain radius, cooperative participation in class-based protective abilities, good integrated voice comms and the absence of all "team death match"-style gameplay in favor of strictly territorial objectives create such overwhelmingly favorable circumstances for team play that to ignore them and attempt to win in any other way would be as productive as treating iRacing as a demolition derby.
Gameplay and Combat
But how is the combat, you ask? Superb. Cooperative fire-and-maneuver, support and suppression are strongly promoted in GRO. It is much easier to cap a point when well-positioned recon snipers are providing overwatch for assaulters moving from cover, with specialists using their light machine guns or ballistic shotguns to provide suppression. The weapons are exceedingly well-modeled in terms of ballistics, performance characteristics and type-specific limitations; visceral and audio feedback is terrific. These guns are a huge, almost guilty, pleasure to wield.
A decent draw-distance allows realistic conditions for sniping (and counter-sniping), which is highly feasible in all the maps. Here is a short video I did using the sniper capability.
There are only four maps but they are complex, detailed, beautifully rendered and extremely supportive of tactical gameplay. These scenarios, such as an outstanding Moscow subway station map, are long and relatively narrow rather than short and wide; this forces teams to move forward, to negotiate some formidable chokepoints, and to flank. When I get killed in GRO, it is almost always because I have made an avoidable mistake, like not checking the most frequented flanking routes, popping out of cover when I should have either stayed put or maneuvered intelligently, or, above all, getting isolated from the team effort. There are three combatant classes: I don't play Assault because this class thrives on the chest-out combat most associated in my mind with traditional PvP mayhem, but as a Recon, out in front or flanking, armed with the cloaking device and a tricked-out PP 2000 silenced SMG with an extended mag and reflex scope, I have many stealth kills to my credit. As a Specialist I can deploy a device that shields team members around me to help push the team up on a point. The Specialist is armed with either a semi-automatic shotgun or a SAW-style light machine gun, my weapon of choice being the M245 Para, a fearsome boom stick whose distinctive, loud bark has a suppressive effect all by itself.
As for the devices or "abilities", again, an understandable prejudice exists among serious tactical gamers who assume these to be science-fiction gimmicks. In the hands of less talented developers, and without the benefit of very extensive balancing over many months of beta testing, they might have been just that. However, they are well integrated into the game's combat scheme, which is essentially a combination of CQB, urban warfare and some open combat across longer distances. Successful use of the class-based abilities requires situational awareness, knowledge of their vulnerability to counter-attack or neutralization and, as always, teamwork. Among these near-future assets are the above-mentioned "Aegis", an electronic dome-shield that confers short-term immunity from incoming rounds — but not from grenades — to advancing troops within it, "Heat", a suppression device which essentially fries enemies not in cover within a certain range, "Blitz", which an Assault-class player uses to deploy a riot-shield in powerful assaults on defending players in the open, and "Cloak", a pseudo-invisibility aura of short duration which a Recon with a silenced SMG can activate to launch stealth attacks on enemies not guarding their flanks. In each case, these abilities are limited in both power and duration and are easily countered by situational awareness, effective maneuvering and other devices. The three troop classes (Recon, Specialist and Assault) and the two special abilities available to each class, form a rock-paper-scissors combat matrix that is impressively calibrated and well-balanced in almost all matches.
FTP games require an infrastructure, just as iRacing's subscription model does, a kind of administrative meta-game. A vast database "under the hood" of GRO governs every aspect of the player's experience of the game; it keeps track of minutely detailed personal stats, rewards, achievements and friends' activities in-game.
The weapons inventory consists of a granular database of gun performance stats with context-sensitive comparison data available; it's so much more evolved, and useful, than the "Gunsmith" eye-candy to be found in GRFS. A real-world knowledge of weapon characteristics and limitations will inform and support your style of play in GRO.
The game's infrastructure also offers dozens of cooperative and individual achievement benchmarks to enable you to earn RP (GRO's in-game currency). Whereas RP is often hard-won, it is plentiful enough to empower all players to buy sufficiently high-quality weapons and personal defenses, such as body-armor with slots for defensive inserts that enhance characteristics such as the player's durability, speed, injury recuperation time, etc., to compete with better-equipped players, indeed to smack them down when their tactics are questionable. I have supplemented RP with self-funded "Ghost Coins" and used them to beef up my already extensive personal armory but at no point have I felt exploited by this system, especially as you need to level up via experience and success in order to wield the more powerful weapons, such as SMGs like the Para with a very high rate of fire and handling stats, semi-automatic, suppressed sniper rifles, light machine guns with dampened recoil or fast-reloading bullpup shotguns.
PvP shooters will never be everyone's preferred mode of tactical gameplay, especially because for the most part they are not tactical, whereas coop games against AI opponents are viewed as a civilized pastime for mature tac-gamers because they enable people who have learned the value of cooperation in their everyday lives to cooperate, without being showered in abuse from over-caffeinated teenagers with itchy trigger fingers. Let's be honest with ourselves, though; when you are up against competent, skillful human opponents, the experience of virtual battle, while brutal and often humiliating, is often less predictable and more realistic than against even the best AI. However, one all-important prerequisite applies: any game that promises such an experience has to support tactics and team play; this requires developers committed to the notion of integrating "co-operative PvP" so deeply into the very concept of their product that it is self-evidently counter-productive to attempt to play it any other way. In my PC gaming experience, iRacing was the first product to accomplish this ambitious goal, because it had to in order to fulfill its basic premise. Ghost Recon Online has accomplished it, too, not because it had to but because by doing so, it can push the genre out of a rut and establish a new paradigm. Ubi Singapore deserves tremendous credit for this. The game is in open beta now; you can sign on here. I strongly recommend the experience of GRO to all tac-gamers here at SimHQ, for it is this game, albeit as a free-to-play, PvP concept, that honors the legacy of Ghost Recon on the PC in more style and with greater success than the shoddy port that is GRFS.
- Superb implementation of movement, cover and CQB combat
- Outstanding weapon performance characteristics and weapon database
- Well-organised game infrastructure that encourages and supports team play and makes micrro-transactiions painless; GRO is FTP but not PTW
Could Be Better
- Class balance is often sabotaged by too many players camping as Recon snipers
- Maps are good but there are only four of them
- GRO is often brutal on rookies who have not yet levelled up
Reviewer's System Specs
- Processor: Intel Core i7 920 2.66GHz (Quad Core)
- Motherboard: EVGA X58 3X SLI (Intel X58 Chipset)
- Graphic processor: GeForce GTX 285 2GB
- HDD/storage: 1x (500GB Western Digital (16MB Cache) (7200 RPM) (SATA)
- Sound: Integrated Motherboard Audio
- OS: Windows Vista 64-bit
- Broadband: Cable
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