Ghost Recon Online: Beta Impressions

Team Fortress 2, Blacklight: Retribution, and Tribes Ascend are some of the most popular free-to-play shooters today. They please the masses with fast action, loud guns, and the occasional antics. Now, Ubisoft has come into the F2P market with a shooter that delivers a different pace and approach to F2P multiplayer combat — Ghost Recon Online. Ubisoft went into open beta with their franchise newcomer on August 15, and since then, we’ve gotten a chance to check it out.

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, Ghost Recon is a tactical shooter franchise that debuted in 2001 on PC. The series spans a dozen titles & expansions — the most recent Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (May ’12) — which have generally received positive reviews. Ghost Recon Online runs on Ubisoft’s YETI engine, the same engine that was used behind other GR titles including Advanced Warfighter 1 & 2 and Future Soldier.

Ghost Recon Online (GRO) presents three playable character classes: Assault, Specialist, and Recon. Upon launching the game, you select your first class and are introduced to the ways of upgrading it through purchasing weapons, equipment, armor enhancements, and more. As common with multiplayer shooters, GRO focuses on the gradual improvement of your individual class and its associated weapons. You’ll earn two types of level-up points through combat. RP points derive from your in-game performance — kills, assists, captures, etc. EXP points are earned through completing each match and, as a result, your character will progress to higher levels and unlock new abilities. GRO’s two available multiplayer modes are Onslaught, an attack/defend objective points mode, and a Conquest mode in which both teams try to capture the same objective points simultaneously.

Breaking In
As someone who has played F2P shooters, I was expecting constant rat-tat-tat machine gun fire and explosions all around me. GRO really threw me for a loop; any run-and-gun “tactic” employed in the opening 30 seconds of a round will get your head blown off. But while it’s not a camper’s game, GRO emphasizes understanding the positioning of allies and foes at all times. Think of it like a paintball match; your team moves through the map point-by-point, stopping at each interval to find cover and eliminate nearby opponents. From what I noticed, a majority of players play as Recon soldiers, or snipers, meaning you really have to check if the coast is clear before you sprint to the next cover point. I still found opportunities to pick off enemies mid and close-range, so there is enough balance among classes to keep non-snipers happy.

Each class has a set of abilities that gradually becomes available through leveling up. Level 2 abilities may not be as powerful as Level 8 abilities, but the idea that your character improves without you having to spend virtual and/or real currency is satisfying. For example, as an Assault soldier, at Level 2 you gain an ability called Heat which gives you a portable turret to suppress enemy fire — very effective when you’re outnumbered or regenerating health. With limited use during combat, these abilities effectively create micro-scenarios on the battlefield and break up the usual cover-shoot-cover pattern.

Getting Down to Business
The first game mode I tried out is Onslaught, an objectives-based mode in which one team seeks to attack and control three objective points while the opposing force is tasked with defending them. With each point captured, the attacking team gains more time. This is a great nuance because it encourages a fireteam to work together one point at a time, and it makes for more concentrated combat. Beta players can also take on a similar mode called Conquest, which involves both teams attacking/controlling the same objective points simultaneously. From these modes, can we say Ghost Recon Online reinvents the wheel? Certainly not, but it presents a fluid, fun core gameplay that is wrapped up well in the game’s presentation.

Knowing your squad’s positioning and your class’s role will help in battle.

The more I improved over my testing, the more I experienced the varying combat scenarios within Ghost Recon Online. As the outcome of a match nears, the action can take a variety of directions. Sometimes squads will stay in tact and play back, or at other times, a couple players from each team will quietly, but quickly move up and create close-combat chaos. You’ll also notice the map and environment itself offering moments of strategic advantage — shadowed areas, upper level floors, narrow hallways, etc. You’ll seldom feel like you need to keep running around until you find an enemy within 20 yards; action and/or suspense constantly keeps you on your toes. If you want a unique experience each time, I suggest playing as an Assault or Specialist class a little more often than Recon. This is mainly due to the ability of those classes to succeed in close and mid-range.

As a F2P game, it’s important to offer replayability that goes beyond map packs and new character classes. Ghost Recon Online features achievements in the form of class-based achievements as well as daily achievements categorized for both individual and fireteam (group) merit. For example, one of this week’s achievement is called Overachiever and is completed when a player has completed five other achievements this week. Whether you’re solo or playing with a group of friends, you always have an achievement(s) to work for.

Environments are not aesthetically brilliant but are functional, offering several approaches when attacking & defending. The levels are layered with multiple floors and a plethora of walls & objects that make for cover. There are some admirable lighting and particle effects that add to a modern combat setting but do not disrupt the gameplay. Most of the time, GRO ran on my PC on high settings — 1920 x 1080 — and with a modest GTS 450 graphics card around 50 frames per second. It’s a good looking game and one that F2P players will be able to run on most systems.

A couple of side notes: Once you’ve completed a match, you’re automatically entered into the next round of matchmaking. I’m not sure if this is exclusive to the beta but, for a game with an obviously smaller audience right now, this is a good feature. I’d also like to inform everyone out there that there is no jump button.

Upgrades and Stats
Ghost Recon Online has created an intricate and pleasantly familiar upgrades & level-up system that functions quite smoothly. Ubisoft has achieved a balance between free leveling up and premium leveling up that will let casual and hardcore players progress through the game to their liking.

Class-based leveling up is the foundation. With each match, your Assault, Specialist, or Recon soldier will gain EXP that will result in newly acquired abilities, weapons, armor, and other upgrades. Weapons you use during combat will increase in crit, although you can also enhance your pew-pew through the market; weapons have their own purchasable upgrades for barrels, scopes, magazines, and more. If you don’t want to spend to upgrade, you’re not to worry. Some of GRO’s most basic upgrades, such as increasing your health by 5% or your health regeneration factor by 0.2, can be spent with virtual currency and are very cheap. It’s good to see a F2P game offer accessible features for people who want a completely free, but quality experience.

Perhaps the most impressive feature that Ghost Recon Online offers for hardcore audiences is its statistics interface. You’ll find stats that give your k/d ratio, average lifespan, damage differential, and other numbers in both weekly and lifetime values. You can also track your objectives-based stats such as attacks & defenses per round and use those numbers to tweak how you play the game. In addition, GRO helps a player improve and understand his/her enemies. During gameplay, when your character is killed, a diagram pops up on screen displaying where your character was shot, which weapons caused the damage, and who killed you (it could be multiple players). That may clue you in regarding how you expose your character in the game, thereby spurring you to change your tactics. It’s great to see a feature like this offered during combat versus in another menu.

Player damage diagram and map with squadmate locations.

Unsolved Mysteries
As with many games that enter public beta, Ghost Recon Online has a few qualities that have puzzled me but have not tarnished my gaming experience. Hopefully, Ubisoft can address a couple of these problems, but if they don’t, I can still play the game as a happy soldier.

The cover system, while very good, has a couple of weak points. First, you can’t SWAT-turn and execute easy maneuvers between cover with the push of a button. However, leaving such a feature out causes you to move between cover objects more tactfully and to make sure your head & body is protected. When you’re presented with the on-screen option to move into cover, your character automatically lowers his weapon. There where a couple times where I went up against a fence or wall and wanted to engage in battle immediately but couldn’t since my character wouldn’t draw his weapon. I got lit-up because of this.

During battle, there will be the occasional stalemate and, because you can’t see what classes all your squad mates are without pressing Tab, you don’t have the best sense of where individuals should be. I understand this creates a more realistic presentation, but perhaps there could be a couple of tactical elements, such as commands, to enhance the squad focus of the game; for example, a “move-up” button with the option to direct all Assault soldiers would be beneficial.

You only have a few seconds to switch your class during matchmaking. Once the match has begun, you’re stuck with the class you chose. I would appreciate either the ability to switch classes mid-round or even a hotkey that could switch my class pre-match without having to go through the menus.

You can’t play as a female soldier. Most shooters are single-gendered as well, but some like Blacklight Retribution offer both genders.

C’est Finie?
Ubisoft has not announced a release date for Ghost Recon Online, but, based on our time with the game, it looks like they’re within a few months away from a final product. Gamers should consider Ubisoft’s product launch schedule — which includes Dance Central 4 (10/09), Assassin’s Creed III (10/30), ShootMania Storm (Fall 2012), Fary Cry 3 (12/04), and other 2013 titles — as a factor in GRO’s release.

Aside from my gripes with the cover system and some missing tactical elements, I’m impressed with Ghost Recon Online and its accommodations for the free-to-play audience. GRO succeeds in expanding the capabilities of F2P shooters and caters to its hardcore gamers with a deep and affordable level-up system. Ubisoft has done a very good job focusing on fluid core gameplay that, while seen before in other shooters, feels comfortable from the third-person perspective. You don’t need a high-end PC to appreciate GRO’s slick, but underlying detailed presentation, and you rarely feel overwhelmed by the in-game sub-menus and combat-monitoring features. It’s a tough game to get into due to its pace and cover-based mechanics, but once you spend a few rounds observing the gameplay style, you’re going to enjoy the paintball-like combat.

On the surface, Ghost Recon Online is a simple shooter but with a smart sub-layer of gameplay-enhancing nuances. It successfully blends cover and squad-based combat with the popular level-up framework from other shooters — while adding its tweaks for both mainstream & hardcore gamers. I recommend checking out the beta for yourself and experiencing a new kind of F2P combat.

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