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.