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Ghost Recon Online [Review] – Back to war

30 Aug 2012  by   Tim McDonald
Game Details
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Reviewed on: PC
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Have you heard of the bystander effect? This particular little psychological quirk basically means that, if lots of people witness an emergency, they’re less likely to act on it than if only one person had witnessed it. The reasons behind this are many and varied, but a fairly important one is diminished responsibility. There are other people, so I don’t have to do anything; they can do it. And anyway, if no-one else is doing anything, then maybe it’s not that much of an emergency. Right?

If you want to see it in action, then here’s a handy guide! Download Ghost Recon Online, play as any class other than the sniper-y Recon, and start joining matches. I doubt it’ll take long before you end up on a team with more Recons than the other two classes combined, and chances are good that all of those Recons will sit at the back of a room, sniping to little effect, while the enemy captures points and wins the game. Why would they switch to a submachine gun and go in close, taking points? The other Recons can do that, surely!

This is Ghost Recon Online‘s primary problem: a great many of its players don’t appear to be any good at playing the game as was intended – or at least, they don’t care to do so.

As I’ve detailed before, GRO is a multiplayer-only free-to-play class-based third-person cover-shooter, which is a very long string of hyphenated buzzwords that nonetheless succinctly sums up the game. You are a Shooting Man, and you hide behind cover and pop out to shoot at other Shooting Men, who may have different weapons and abilities depending on what class they’ve chosen. It’s also avowedly in open beta, and while I’m a little uncomfortable about reviewing anything that isn’t a final product, its real-money store is open for business. If a game is willing to take your money, then I guess it’s time to cast a penetrating eye of judgment upon it.

GRO is a slow-paced shooter. Death comes from short bursts of fire, and the class’ special abilities – the Specialist’s bullet-deflecting shield, or the Recon’s cloak, or the Assault’s microwave gun, to pick one example from each class – come with long cooldown times. The upshot is that the game tends to be one in which you stay in cover and move forward slowly, taking shots only when you can risk it, rather than one with a dizzying back-and-forth pace.

With the pace in mind, it’s probably for the best that both of the currently implemented game modes focus on capturing and holding points rather than trying to kill as many players as possible. Conquest has both teams battling over a linear progression of capture points, with the team that holds the most ground at the end claiming victory, while Onslaught has one team attacking two points that – when captured – unlock a final point, as the other team rushes to hold them off. Onslaught is arguably the more interesting of the two; it’s slightly faster-paced and the multiple objectives at the start, followed by a single objective with multiple routes of attack, means that each match can evolve in different ways. Conquest, on the other hand, tends to be a chaotic scramble for the first capture point, before bogging down into what feels like trench warfare that’s occasionally broken up by the use of stalemate-breaking abilities.

All four maps – and yes, there are only two for each game mode right now – are fairly limited in size and generally offer a small number of linear routes to each objective. Take the middle point in the subway-based Markhov Station map, for instance, which is situated on the platform: one team can access it by choosing to go down one of two staircases, while the other team can hit it from one of the two subway tracks, or through a door in the centre. Either team can fairly easily cover all possible attack routes, and there isn’t a great deal of scope for going around the edge of the map and flanking your opponents. This isn’t that sort of game.

No, this is the sort of game in which success is dependant on working closely with your team and using your distinct abilities and weapons to your advantage. This is both a good thing and a bad thing; the good is that it’s free-to-play, so you can drag your friends in without cost and work together with them as a tight-knit fireteam. You can pull off some spectacular coups with effective teamwork, and the game is wholly satisfying when you do so.

The bad is… well, just re-read the opening three paragraphs. Unless you’re going in with a team, or are lucky enough to get a balanced game (in which case, again, things are quite enjoyable) then GRO matches can be a drawn-out frustrate-a-thon. There’s no way to change your class once the game kicks off, either, so if you have seven Recons then that’s what you’re stuck with for the next 30 minutes. It’s perhaps a bit harsh to criticise a game for the choices made by its playerbase, but this is a constant problem that impacts enjoyment and right now there’s no mechanic to stop it.

The framework surrounding all of this is comprised of the free-to-play mechanics and the real-money store. Playing matches, completing daily challenges, and levelling up grant you RP, which is the in-game currency used to purchase everything from grenades to abilities. If you’re earning too slowly for your liking then, of course, you can pour in some real money and purchase Ghost Coins instead.

Thankfully, this rarely feels necessary. The consumable grenades are the one thing you’ll be buying regularly, but even taking those into account you’ll usually have enough RP to buy something interesting every few matches. You can’t use high-level equipment without actually being high level, so even players pumping in real cash need to play a lot before they can use the game’s best gear, and most guns kill so swiftly that new players without the best equipment can still compete fairly well. Alright, you’re pretty much an infant in a threshing machine at level one, but once you hit level two and unlock your chosen class’ abilities (which should take all of one match) you’re immediately a much more valuable member of the team.

I do wonder how much of a difference some of the purchases make, though. There’s a slew of gun modification in the game, y’see – if you have a favoured gun then you can alter everything from the sights to the magazine, each offering different stats – but few seem to have a significant impact. Yesterday, for instance, I attached something to my gun that lowered its recoil from 31 to 28, but also increased its “handling time” by one point. Is this a crucial difference? Did either of these stat changes help bring about victory in my next game? Was it worth the RP I’d earned from two matches? I have no idea.

This all leaves me feeling pretty much the same way I did when I previewed Ghost Recon Online a few weeks back. It’s a fine, professionally-made game with some nice touches and a free-to-play mechanic that doesn’t feel at all play-to-win, and I still think that’s a fair success. Sadly, it’s got a sparse selection of maps and gamemodes (and the maps that do exist don’t allow for too much variation in tactics) as well as samey equipment and a playerbase that’s seemingly 75% Recon. It gets repetitive fairly quickly, and the deeply enjoyable matches with a close back-and-forth and clever use of skills and abilities are too few and too far between.

It’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, and if this text tweaked your fancy at all then you should probably give it a look (particularly if you’ve got a few friends you can drag in, or if you’re a big fan of cover-shooters that don’t rely on twitch aiming). For awhile, at least, you’ll have fun; when GRO is at its best, it’s a fantastic experience. But in a world that offers Team Fortress 2, Blacklight: Retribution, and Tribes: Ascend for free, Ghost Recon Online isn’t nearly expansive enough or varied enough to be worth more than a cursory recommendation.

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6/10
A perfectly decent game that lacks variety. It's worth a look now, but if we see some new maps and game modes in the coming months, those should buoy Ghost Recon Online up significantly.
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