Unquiet Spirits: Ghost Recon Online Preview

Aren't you a little skinny-wristed for a Stormtrooper?

Oh dear. The context in which I find myself writing about Ghost Recon Online is very different to the context in which I played it. It was all sunshine and daisies and shotgun shells then, but now it’s blood and mud and he said she said and everyone knows best and everyone else knows nothing. What I’m not going to do, though, is discuss the controversial comments made about completely different Ghost Recon game and one man’s troubling take on the state of PC gaming, so I’d be grateful if you could keep arguments about Future Soldier to the thread about Future Soldier. I’m talking about Ghost Recon Online, a game specifically made for PC and PC only (at least for now – apparently there’s a WeeeeOooooo version due after Nintendo’s bizarre console/tablet thing launches), and one mercifully sidesteps piracy and DRM arguments due to being an inherently online game with persistent player ranks and whatnot.

Here’s the thing about GRO: it’s a free to play, mulitplayer-only shooter. And it’s pretty good. That doesn’t have to be an oxymoron after all.

GRO, a third-person shooter that’s close enough to its characters’ camo-clad shoulders to feel somewhat FPSy, doesn’t come across as cheap and nasty, not at all. It’s not hitting the dizzy graphical highs of Battlefield 3, but it looks like an entirely modern shooter with a decent budget behind it, and it feels like a proper PC shooter. Height and twitch and complicated menus all that jazz. It is, however, only really Ghost Recon in name – it’s an all-out team shooter that emphasises teamwork and only offers a sci-fi take on stealth. I’d think of it more as smaller-scale take on the way Battlefield handles things: capture points and classes, communication and corpses. (Four Cs in a row: look at me, ma!)

I played as the assault class, one of three – the others being recon and specialist, and that meant running and gunning. For me particularly, that meant a suitably meaty shotgun, a lot of crouching behind corners with a deft cover system reminiscent of Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s, and a lot of shooting oncomers in the belly at close range. It also involved frying people to death with a special ability called Heatwave. For a few seconds this radiates microwaves all around, slowing any enemy in range to a crawl and preventing them from taking a pop at me, as all the while their blood boils in their veins.

If this sounds monstrously unfair – well, it is. That’s why it’s so hilarious to use. But it can be deactivated by other classes’ powers, which is one of the reasons teamwork is so vital – if you’re in the grip of an Assault type’s death-ray, get on the blower to a Specialist player and they can EMP me up the wazoo, giving you time to make your escape and, optionally, shoot me repeatedly in my face while my vision’s all messed up. If Heatwave isn’t working out for me, I could equip Blitz instead – which sticks a heavy metal riot shield in front of me for a few seconds, lets me sprint like a goon and send you sprawling to the floor if I manage to collide with you. If this happens, I will giggle. I’m sorry. Meantime, the Recon guy is able to turn invisible for a little while, enabling super-safe sniping, or he can use a radar system to identify any enemies in the area and reveal their locations to the rest of his team – a sort of anti-camping device.

So, it’s not subtle but it is reasonably tactical – picking which abilities to equip, when to activate ’em, and using plenty of cover and hiding before you dart out to spray bullets and try and crab a capture point. For all that, it’s fast and frantic and, basically, I really rather enjoyed it. Though I’ll admit part of that was because I seemed to be pretty good at, my shotgun assaults leading my team to victory in both rounds I played. But was I really good at it, or was it just because I was playing against a few console journos and a dev or two who was going easy on me? I’ll never know, so let’s just presume I’m brilliant. I did ask a passing dev if my skulk’n’shotgun approach would be a valid tactic in the final game, and he claimed the game was indeed to built to support that and multiple other approaches, not to be purely a sniper’s paradise. The proof will be in the open beta-based pudding, of course, but the combination of a proper cover system and the disruptive special abilities really did suggest that the game couldn’t be dominated by stone-cold headshotters. It’s a broad and immediate shooter, and it feels tight and expensive – it certainly doesn’t meet the more negative preconceptions of free to play.

But it is, of course, free to play, and that means microtransactions. Clearly I couldn’t get a good sense of how this would work in long-term practice during a 40-minute play session, but I’m told the idea is that players who are prepared to splash out won’t be able to straight-up buy better weapons and gadgets. That stuff comes from ranking up: you spend accumulated in-game currency on better stuff, but it is level-locked rather than open to all comers with enough cash. So, if you do want to transact your way to glory, you can buy buffs that increase the speed at which you rank up or accrue virtual currency, as well as assorted cosmetic stuff.

Again, I can’t say for sure whether the balance won’t collapse into a horror-blancmange of haves and have-nots, but the theory is that you can pay to more quickly get yourself on a more equal footing with the players who put more hours in/are naturally better, rather than swapping groats for a straight-up advantage. Which might mean it’s not all that different from something like COD’s multiplayer, where everyone can grind their way to the big ranks if they’re so inclined, but the better players will always be the better players. (In fact, you get better rewards if you perform particularly well in a match, and these rewards are tailored towards how you play. So, my fervent shotgunnery resulted in shotgun-based upgrades). The difference here is that you can shortcut the grind.

We’ll see, but my natural cynicism about F2P was certainly defeated – at least for now- by the discovery of a sharp, serious and highish-tech shooter that felt thoroughly PC. I can very much see myself playing this, because the combat felt meaty and smart. Obviously free-to-play shooters face a fearsome challenge now Team Fortress 2 has shed its old money-based shackles, but this is a different enough prospect with a far more tactical upgrade path. I reckon we’re all going to be pleasantly surprised by Ghost Recon Online.

Wider-spread beta access should arrive before the end of the year.


  1. nirs says:

    looks terrible :P

  2. Necroscope says:

    Fond memories of the original ghost recon, gr:desert siege and gr:island thunder flood my mind…I shall obey the urge to start up a new campaign by re-loading the game :)

    • grundus says:

      I already have them loaded, might have to go and do a quick combat mission… AWAY!

      But before I go, could this be Metal Gear: Online but better? MGO was just a hackfest after a while, and no one played it anyway because signing up for it was impossible. Still, it had a few nice ideas, I wonder if it’s still going? I might have a look at that too. Then again, this being Ubisoft, I have huge doubts.

    • Runty McTall says:

      Yes! Loved the Ghost Recon game and expansions for co-op with my brother. Have faithfully followed down the many Tom Clancy games since and they have been pretty consistently good at keeping decent co-op campaigns throughout.

  3. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    But it still has Ubisoft’s trademark DRM– namely being something no-one would want to pay for

    (Sorry, sorry I know you said specifically not to do this but I just, well blame thanksgiving or something)

    • James1o1o says:

      An online game game that requires online DRM? Are you serious bro?

    • The_QC says:

      I’m pretty sure that’s not true… It’s a free game, why would it have DRM?

      It does require you to be always online, though – doh, it’s an MMO.

    • 4026 says:

      @James, The_QC: Whoosh.

    • Ninja Foodstuff says:

      @4026 indeed.

  4. lfwam says:

    Cor, Concurrent C’s! Capital.

  5. pmouse says:

    Looks pretty crap , if this was not free i would not steal it


  6. Gonefornow says:

    Surprisingly it sounds good to me.
    Been playing too much TF2 anyways.
    I’ll give it a go for sure, when ever it comes out.

    Is it played in a browser though.
    Looks like it could.

    “We’re making a game, not a F2P game.”
    Sounded a bit silly to me.

    • Hoaxfish says:

      Yea, that line is bordering on “many of my friends are black” when people are accused of racism. It’s obviously not quite the same, but it comes across as a kind of “I’m not quite comfortable admitting that I’m working on an F2P game”.

      I think it sounds interesting too, with its “bit more futurey than modern, but not much” thing going on.

  7. 626 says:

    So Mr Recon can sit in a corner, be invisible, and see anyone near him on a radar. That sounds like a campers paradise to me!

    Also, is the invisible perk completely invisible, or more like Crysis’ blurry, sort of invisibleness?

    • liquidsoap89 says:

      I think they can be invisible OR spot baddies on the radar.

  8. Radiant says:

    The “game is designed to support that type of gameplay” line is the dev equivalent of a parent’s knowing smile and pat on the head when a child has drawn a dick shaped rocket ship.

  9. mongpong says:

    You had me and then “GRO, a third-person shooter” you lost me. For some reason I despise third person shooters. I just don’t see the benefit of haveing a third person perspective in these types of games.

    • Torgen says:

      I’d say it’s to implement the Deus Ex-like cover system he mentioned.

    • YourMessageHere says:

      Oddly, Deus Ex managed the Deus Ex cover system just fine without being third person outside of cover interactions.

  10. Njordsk says:

    I’m sure we PC gamers will manage to pirate your free game for around 95% of us. We’re that bad.

  11. torchedEARTH says:

    Being able to turn invisible is a terrible idea. I have played games like that before – it was truly shit. No longer interested.

    • Heliocentric says:

      Team Fortress 2, Hidden Source, Battlefield 2142, Splinter Cell Chaos Theory Multiplayer and battlefield heroes just conference called me, you are wrong.

      Invisibility can be aces.

  12. jplayer01 says:

    This game sounds great … but I’m probably not the only one when I say that Ubisoft has convinced me never to buy or play any of their games. It’s a free game and I still won’t play it. How’s that for ‘lost sales’?

  13. Machinations says:

    So in other words they are taking what was unique about Ghost Recon – tactics – and throwing that bit out, instead making a sort of Call of Duty Online with perks and purchasable weapons?

    With a third person perspective? No thanks Ubi.

    Would it have been so wrong to *not* use the Ghost Recon name, since this game obviously has little to nothing to do with prior titles?

    • Dom_01 says:

      I agree, what I liked about the old Ghost Recon games was the tactics, the planning, and the realism. You really had to figure out how to make an assault by getting as many advantages as you could on your enemy. I’m saddened to see Ghost Recon go the way of the Rainbow Six franchise, that is to say, ditch the tactics and realism in favor of fast-paced CoD-like gameplay.

  14. Hoaxfish says:

    the assault class, one of three – the others being recon and specialist

    What exactly is a “specialist”… I mean, the other two classes surely “specialise” in assault and recon respectively… while a “specialist” specialises in… specialising?

  15. dee says:

    But if it’s free… how do I pirate it?

  16. Chaz says:

    Microwave weapons? Why not just go the whole hog and give them laser guns? In fact better yet ditch the Ghost Recon license and use a classic Star Wars one instead and have Rebels vs Storm Troopers.

  17. hamster says:

    Fool… you can download a cracked .exe which unlocks all the gear that you would otherwise have to buy. If the game is ad supported, the crack gets rid of the ads. If the game was released for free or for charity, the crack automatically diverts your water/electric/phone bills and sends it to the developer, cleverly embedded in his own water/electric/phone bills.


    Also, thanks a lot for pissing on the Ghost Recon name, Ubi.

  18. Hatsworth says:

    Designing competitive multiplayer games with persistent advantages is a trend that needs to die off… I agree it doesn’t much matter if it comes from grinding or paying, but it probably wouldn’t be viable to make this f2p game without it — Quake Live didn’t do too hot for instance.

    • jimjam says:

      ‘Q3 live’ was/is a dismal failure for making any money. Bearing this in mind this F2P ghost recon tactic lite version is of NO interest to me and will sink like a stone.

  19. Shooop says:

    Is anyone else sick of the “level up to get better equipment” gimmick in shooters yet?

  20. vodka and cookies says:

    And the petty backlash against an otherwise interesting game beings…

    This is why game developers rarely ever speak candidly and PR goons manage everything.

  21. FRIENDLYUNIT says:

    Sorry that you had to write all that Alec. I bet there’s a fair few of us thinking we’re not prepared to pay the price of playing.