Ghost Recon has been out on the Xbox for quite a while now, enjoying lots of success thanks to Xbox Live. The stand-alone expansion Island Thunder has recently been released as well, adding more missions and more multiplayer options, but no real improvements overall.
In this series of games, you control two groups of three team members. You can specify which characters to bring on each mission, as well as upgrade character stats in-between missions (a*uming they survive, that is). Each character has Weapon, Endurance, Stealth, and Leadership skills that you can upgrade throughout the game. There are also special characters you can unlock by performing special objectives during missions.
Before each mission, you’ll be briefed and shown a map of the area you’re about to encounter. Your objectives are marked on the map. After the briefing, you choose your team members. For some missions, you’ll need a specialist with you, such as a demolitions expert with an anti-tank launcher, so you’ll need to equip such a character before you are dropped into the field.
The 8 campaign missions that ship with the game are mostly jungle areas. Some missions take place during the day with a clear sky and bright sun, while others take place at night or while it’s raining, hampering your vision. Each map has lots of foliage and rock formations to take cover behind, as well as a handful of enemy camps to infiltrate.
While you’ll have to plant a bomb at a specific destination or execute a rescue operation in some levels, the majority of the gameplay relies on you moving through a level, gunning down the opposition. I really never found this to be very enjoyable, considering most of the time my teammates would spot enemies before me and take them out before I even knew what was happening. Visibility was a real problem for me and I didn’t enjoy waiting around, scanning an area for 10 minutes before moving on. There’s a little compass-like device on your HUD that shows you the general direction of the enemies, but it was only really helpful for letting me know if enemies were real close. So, my game plan quickly boiled down to me leading a group through an area and allowing my teammates ample opportunity for shooting enemies.
If you don’t like my simplistic approach, there is also a map you can access where you can specify team behavior as well as set waypoints for your team(s) to follow. You can set waypoints for the teams individually or have them both move together. You can also take control of any of the six characters from this screen. This interface also allows you to toggle the team behavior between Hold, Advance, and Advance at All Costs. Although this map screen allows you to feel more cerebral about your game tactics, the map really doesn’t have much detail and doesn’t really lend itself to putting snipers up on a hill or infiltrating a building, so it’s most useful for letting the AI move a team to a certain location instead of leading them manually.
Unlike most other first-person shooters, the Ghost Recon series tries to be more realistic. You can usually only take one bullet before you’re injured or killed in the field, so taking your time is usually necessary for survival. The same is true of enemies though, so if you get off a clean shot, they’ll go down. There were many times I was surprised by opposition and gunned down unexpectedly. However, what quite literally “saved” me in this game was the ability to save the game at any time during a mission. Believe me, if this option wasn’t in the game, I would have given up on Island Thunder almost immediately.
Overall, the single player game left me bored. Having AI-controlled teammates gun down AI-controlled enemies isn’t really too much fun. I never felt like I was an important part of the game. Even though the AI is fairly lifelike, it was more like watching a movie than playing a game. Fortunately, there are lots of multiplayer options for gamers to play through on Xbox Live, over a System Link, or in split-screen mode.
There are four cooperative modes: Mission, Firefight, Recon, and Defend. Mission mode is identical to the single player campaign, except that you can play cooperatively to get through a level. The Firefight mode basically just allows you to go through a map and attempt to eliminate all the enemies – you can take a group or go solo. The Recon mode is very similar, except that the goal is to have all your team members make it to the extraction zone. And finally, in the Defend mode, you and your team start in a location of the map and must take down all the enemies that are trying to get into your base.
Team games include Last Man Standing, Search and Rescue, Hamburger Hill, Domination, and Siege. There are also some additional free-for-all game types: Sharpshooter and Cat and Mouse. Servers have a nice list of options they can customize, such as removing the compass-like indicator from players’ HUDs, allowing respawns, adding bots to fill teams out, setting the max players, enabling voice chat, kicking out players that misbehave, etc.
As for the technical aspects of the game, the best feature is the sound by far. The ambient effects are perfect. You’ll hear the crack of lightning during missions in the rain. You’ll also hear the buzzing of flies around small pools of water in the jungle, the foliage moving with the wind, and the footsteps and voices of your teammates behind you. The surround sound really helps complete the audio package for this title. You’ll hear bullets fly by and hear a teammate say “right behind you” and he actually sounds like he’s right behind you.
The graphics aren’t quite as remarkable though. I wouldn’t describe them as bad overall (perhaps “dated” is the best word of choice), but there are certainly some low textures used throughout the environments and the geometry seems fairly simple for buildings and structures. The terrain provides more diversity with hills, cliffs, and waterfalls, but there’s not anything here that’s going to break new ground visually. I thought the team members were the best-looking feature of the game.
In the end, the single player campaign isn’t very enjoyable in Ghost Recon: Island Thunder, so it shouldn’t be your deciding factor for getting this game. It certainly doesn’t warrant a $40 purchase in my eyes. If you’re a big multiplayer fan however, then there’s lots of fun to be had here. If you don’t own the original Ghost Recon, this is worth a try, but I’m not sure the extras in this game warrant a purchase from players who are enjoying the original.