Remember last year's clash of the threequels, as Battlefield 3 squared up against Modern Warfare 3 in a battle for shooter supremacy? The hype? The claims and counter-claims? The ugly squabbling? How about the disappointment when you realised that Battlefield 3's single-player campaign wasn't actually as good as Battlefield: Bad Company 2, while Modern Warfare 3 was in the business of just dishing out more of the same?
By contrast, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier hits us without any excess of fanfare, under-promising and over-delivering in a way that certain other series' might learn from.
If you were hoping for an update of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, then prepare for a little disappointment. GRAW was a tactical shooter in the great Rainbow Six/Ghost Recon tradition, where you might spend as much time moving your squad into position as blasting the bad guys yourself. GRFS is a more straightforward third-person shooter, still with strong elements of strategy, but with a bigger focus on hard-hitting action, stealth and cinematic spectacle. There's a distinct Call of Duty feel to its campaign, which starts off as a battle against arms dealers and transforms into a fight for the soul of a nation, and in the way it tours the globe, taking in trouble spots from Russia and Nicaragua to Africa and Pakistan. It might have all the Tom Clancy jargon, but this is a broad-strokes blockbuster, not a more authentic military simulation.
Don't be too upset, however, because at least it's a very good one. GRFS might lack the huge dramatic moments of a Call of Duty, but the action is well-paced, involving and varied, mixing big all-out shoot-outs with more stealthy infiltration missions, and with each chapter enhanced by the use of high-tech military gadgets. These range from cool optical camouflage suits, which only function when you're moving slowly, through discreet throwable sensors and tiny, transforming recon drones and hefty, robotic walking tanks. The latter stars in one of the most satisfying chunks of the game, as you assault enemy outposts in Modern Warfare meets Metal Mickey style, blowing goons from their turrets with mortar fire and tackling circling choppers with your missiles.
And GRFS hasn't dispensed with the strategy altogether. Using drones, sensors or a sniper scope you can still spot targets and request that your three squad-mates eliminate them or set up synchronised takedowns. Meanwhile, stealth missions come with 'no alert' conditions, and even the simplest backstreet firefight involves a high degree of situational awareness. Your troops, it turns out, aren't bullet sponges, and while you can be revived should you fall, you simply won't survive out of cover or against large numbers for very long.
GRFS also delivers on the visual front. Using an enhanced version of the tech behind GRAW and GRAW2, it's a close rival to Battlefield 3 when it comes to stunning HDR lighting effects and battlefield clutter, and each environment has some distinct visual touch, whether it's the detail in the streets and rooftops of Peshawar, Pakistan, the swirling sand in Nigeria or the beautifully-lit snow in Russia. Enemies are repeated a bit too frequently, but both the Ghosts and their foes look great, and it's hard to fault the game on spectacle. CoD fans will note that Ghost Recon doesn't have a 60fps frame rate, but then it's a slower-paced, more deliberate game than the Modern Warfare outings. Even if it's not a proper tactical shooter, it sits in with Battlefield: Bad Company 2 as a thinking man's take on the genre.
Gun-fetishists, meanwhile, will have a field-day. Not only does GRFS hit you with over 50 different weapons, but each of these is fully customisable using a system called Gunsmith, allowing you to get the optimal balance of stopping power, long-range accuracy and manoeuvrability for the situation at hand. Load-outs can also be customised, and it's clear that the whole campaign has been developed to make co-op play not just possible, but the ideal way to enjoy the game. GRFS has a very substantial single-player campaign, in every sense of the word.
It's hard, of course, for any new game to make an impact on the multiplayer battlefield. Black Ops and Modern Warfare 3 have the twitch shooting market sewn up, while Battlefield 3 does the big epic battles with multiple troops, tanks and planes better than anything else. Surprisingly, though, GRFS manages to carve out its own niche. The central competitive mode involves an ever-changing set of objectives, putting the focus on teamwork over simple deathmatch play, yet there's still enough shooting to keep more kill-count oriented players happy, and there's room for players in all classes, from engineers to recon, to make their presence felt. Additions like persistent characters and weapon unlocks might seem a bit 'me too' these days, but they work here for the same reasons that they work elsewhere, helping to make GRFS a very rewarding online game.
What's more, GRFS even manages its own spin on the fashionable Horde-style co-op mode. You're still setting traps and beating off waves of aggressors, just as you do in Horde, Halo's Firefight or CoD's Spec Ops mode, but there are also stealth sequences to work your way through every now and then. It's typical of GRFS. Every time you think it's just content to clone Call of Duty, you find out that it has a style all of its own.
An excellent military shooter that takes cues from Call of Duty but still manages to forge its own third-person, tactical style. GRFS might not have the hype of Modern Warfare 3, but it's a great thinking-man's action game.
Pros: Excellent graphics, compelling single-player and online gameplay, a more high-tech, tactical shooter.
Cons: Less strategic than GRAW and GRAW2, lacks high drama of the Modern Warfare games .