No matter how popular the Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, and Splinter Cell franchises become, I always have a troublesome time locking in to their strain of overly manly, novelized styles of tactical military gaming simply because Tom Clancy's godforsaken eponym continues to be attached to them. Clancy is among the worst type of airport-bookstore titans; his hackish, elementary prose exists for no other reason but to perpetually stir the simmering cauldron of on-the-edge-of-war fictional fanatics. Even though Clancy has little to do with the creation of the digital undertakings that bare his namesake, his blurred, undiplomatic philosophies often seep into Ubisoft's products. However, over the years my frustrations have begun to subside, what with countless based-in-reality combat titles being vomited out faster than hurriedly ingested lunchtime MREs on an excruciatingly hot day, the Clancy games, while not quite in the remarkably polished first-person tier of Battlefield or Call of Duty, maintain a certain sense of overall creativity that's scarce in the aforementioned rival series.
The Ghost Recon canon arguably took the longest for me to forgive; everything about their squad-focused, third-person maneuvers and halfheartedly ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling felt like a low-rent version of Rainbow Six's mission statement. Yet something finally clicked with 2006's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter and its 2007 sequel: Primary developer Red Storm accepted that they didn't have to hit players over the head with hostile messages regarding the perils of armed conflict, all they had to do was fabricate something that was above and beyond the norm when it came to strategic, team-centered run-and-gun fighting. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier goes even further, adding a layer of intentionally unrealistic weapon and reconnaissance technology to its arsenal of simple-to-pick-up, arduous-to-perfect third-person devices. Its visuals are a bit lacking, and its narrative layout leaves much to be desired, but the level of exciting, innovative gameplay at hand is quite commendable, and does well to erase the label of a lesser Call of Duty: Modern Warfare from Ghost Recon's metaphorical forehead.
Future Soldier's extremely chess-like shootouts are its greatest strength; going about a mission minus deep foresight, planning moves in the moment akin to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 will likely result in untimely demises for your party. As a matter of fact, many of Splinter Cell's stealth-is-king principals permeate over into Future Soldier's resourceful flow. Carefully depleting the opposing forces troop by troop and utilizing cover to its fullest extent is fundamental, and Future Soldier usually steps away from any genre clichés with its excellent pacing and dedication to non-linearity. Goals can be achieved via numerous methods of quiet personnel dispersal (for once, your platoon really does feel entirely under control at any given second), punctuated by flashy set pieces of explosive action that never feel too thematically redundant or over the top. Future Soldier's foe-tagging option is a huge plus, the option to earmark up to four enemies and have your squadron keep tabs on them, eventually executing a kill at the proper junction, while going about your own business manifests a true sense of camaraderie among the friendly and notably keener artificial intelligence. Though these from-a-distance strikings may ease you into a secure mindset, it would be foolish to get too comfortable. Future Solider's main campaign produces a hefty difficulty spike during its last act, requiring a much more hands-on approach in order to effectively dispatch the resistance, which normally outnumbers you by a considerable margin.
The battlefield tools Future Solider bestows on you are vast and diverse, providing an assortment of combinations that lead to an appreciably high replay value. From the more-or-less expected accoutrements such as sight-balanced snipers, modifiable camouflage, proximity grenades, and callable jet bombings to the BigDog-esque Warhound that simultaneously bequeaths battery and temporary mobile shelter. The flyable drone from previous Ghost Recon installments has also returned, but with a few terrific enhancements, the best of which is the ability to transform into a miniature R/C vehicle for zipping around the environment, taking surveillance, and, by way of a sonically engineered blast, momentarily debilitating enemies as well as various nearby electronic equipment.
Thanks to some poorly scripted dialogue, Future Soldier's otherwise solid 10-hour story mode falls short of being significantly memorable, even with co-op and the PlayStation Move's better-than-anticipated usage intact. Its brotherhood-promoting tale involves one Ghost squad avenging the deaths of another, and it reaches for emotionally grabbing, role-building sequences at inappropriate times. It doesn't help that character models, especially the facial areas, look choppy and crude. Backdrop designs range from top-notch, well-lit artistry to flavorless locales that mar the gunplay.
Multiplayer, though, is an all-around success, featuring four worthy scenarios that take the most tasteful elements from the single-player experience and expand on them. Guerilla mode is the typical online throwdown en masse, but with Future Soldier's towering amount of blueprinting available (you can even craft your own artillery in the Gunsmith menu). Decoy mode is far and away the niftiest multiplayer selection, coming off like a brutal version of the shell game in which one member of each team is the actual target, but the other team has no idea who, producing endless comical fake-outs like guarding the wrong teammate to throw off the other players.
More than anything else, what separates Future Solider from the tyrannical genre reign of Call of Duty and the like is its desire to clearly be more than just a burnished expansion pack. There's a bounty of original, militarized ideas here—ones that will undoubtedly raise this package above the labeling of a shallow, materialistic bridge between Modern Warfare 3 and November's guaranteed goldmine Black Ops continuation.