The signs of a good interface aren't always visible. An elegant in-game display susses out the sweet spot between education and economy, making it an art that is often overlooked by design. And when games aim, claim or clamor to be cinematic, life bars and scores tend to be the first things tossed out as distracting clutter. The traditional HUD is fading from view.
Ghost Recon: Future Soldier occupies the same fictional space as Call of Duty, adding a glossy veneer to war and sexing things up with tantalizing gadgets. But Ubisoft's take on modern warfare isn't about seeing -- it's about reading. Oh, there's no shortage of cover-based shooting and GET-TO-THE-RPG-ing in here, but those actions are informed throughout by a busy interface. In comparison to many "immersive" blockbusters, you're getting a library and not a pamphlet.
In practice, this means Ghost Recon is about learning to decipher information quickly, and drafting attack blueprints on the fly. Despite being on the action-heavy -- pardon me, streamlined -- spectrum of console games, Future Soldier uses its hologram-heavy premise as an excuse to fill the screen with data. Warning: It requires reading comprehension, which is a rather extravagant demand when some of the most popular games just want you to strap in and see the pretty sights whizzing by.
We all love a good roller coaster, but there's a deeper pleasure in positioning your dominoes and holding back your flicking finger until just the right moment. From my brief cross-section of the game, I can say that Ghost Recon: Future Soldier appears to be built on a cycle of preparation, triggering hostilities and then improvising when, in military parlance, shit goes down. The penetrative optical interface, employed by the ghosts and shared with you, can highlight and track enemies and offer visual aids when they're obscured by night or smoke. An effective strategy can be built around tagging a cluster of enemies and triggering a simultaneous, silent barrage of head shots -- in which you'll also have to participate, and time correctly.
Another tactic might reward a brief flyover with a wrist-mounted, unmanned vehicle (turning you into the futuristic equivalent of an eagle trainer). Its camera picks up more detail when you fly low, but going higher avoids enemy detection and gives you breadth from above. Using visual markers, you can plot a rough route through an enemy encampment and identify spots with high enemy traffic -- dangerous because the ghost tech isn't quite up to par with Solid Snake's slick Octo-Camo. Get too close to an enemy, even while you're cloaked, and there'll be no need for anyone to ask "Whose footprints are these?"
The big question on your mind should be whether this stream of information, no matter how slickly presented or justified by the game's semi-fictional slant, constitutes a different kind of roller coaster. Is Ghost Recon: Future Soldier not simply holding your hand and whispering into your ear, constantly telling you what to do? It might feel that way if you prefer to play your shooters by ear, but the truth is that information is no less destructive to challenge than regenerating health, perfectly placed handholds or convenient magical powers. Protagonists tend to cheat.
Reading and capitalizing on what the HUD tells you doesn't sound scintillating on paper, but if it can feel organic and encourage minor decisions in every battle -- like choosing when and where to initiate a firefight, or deciding between offense, retreat, flanking or reconnaissance. It makes Ghost Recon: Future Soldier a returning alternative to the calls and medals strewn across the retail battlefield. Just don't expect to see much of that come across in the bombastic marketing.
Nobody's going to be impressed by the graphics, which undoubtedly fell behind when Ubisoft delayed the game and reeled in some of its more outlandish science-fiction. The dusty environments and the generic African warlords who rule them aren't exactly refreshing either, so your gaze ends up falling on the guns and how they're presented.
There's a dizzying number of weapon configurations, exploded into constituent parts and spinning around in a Tomb Raider-esque inventory circle. It's the sort of thing that every marketer wants draped across their lips: "There are like 50 bazillion trillion combinations, and you only have to pay $60 for ALL OF THEM!" The crucial selling point is that you can jump into a testing range and get a feel for all those tweaked attachments, firing rates and recoil dampening. Firearm fiddling, it seems, is something that's not as easy to convey through the ghost's detailed HUD.
Ghost Recon: Future Soldier isn't the radical franchise update you might have envisioned (the shoulder-mounted rocket launchers from the game's first reveal are long gone), but its pursuit of information-driven decision making still sets it apart in the context of today's most popular shooters. In a way, its exaggeration of military technology and procedure has made it old-fashioned among flashy peers. Back in the day we had information stuffed in every corner, and we liked it.