Ghost Recon, Desert Siege, Island Thunder, & Heroes Unleashed v1.0.0b9 Review

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There are three franchises I think many people, including myself, associate with the tactical shooter genre – Rainbow Six, the two SWAT games, and the original Ghost Recon. Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, these were the trifecta of tactical shooters. For their time, these games were pretty unique and required you to forget everything you had learned from other first-person shooters at the time like Doom and Wolfenstein for example. You don’t just run and gun, blow away endless hordes of enemies, and take a barrage of bullets to the face like you’re the Terminator. No, in reality, you would die. Reality. That’s more or less what tactical shooters attempt to replicate. Developed by Red Storm Entertainment and published by Ubisoft, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon was released for PC in November, 2001. This review will also cover the expansion packs, Desert Siege, released in 2002, and Island Thunder, released that same year. I will also be taking a look at Ghost Recon: Heroes Unleashed v1.0.0b9, one of the most ambitious mods I’ve ever seen. The release of Ghost Recon marked a defining moment for tactical shooters by introducing a whole new take on the genre and refining the gameplay. The next defining tactical shooter would be Rainbow Six 3, released in 2003. And after that, each franchise in the trifecta would go down different paths with drastic shifts in gameplay. Future games in both the Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon franchises would become more streamlined and less tactical with each passing game. SWAT just died. Nevertheless, with great games comes dedicated fans and Ghost Recon has a loyal following keeping it alive.

If you’ve never played Ghost Recon before, I would highly suggest playing through the Training course first. It lets you get used to the controls and teaches you everything you need to know. One of the reasons I never got into this game sooner was because I found it overwhelming. All of the controls, commands, and strategy involved kept me at bay and I just had a hard time getting the feel for it. But once I got the hang of it, I actually realized it doesn’t require as much brainpower as the Rainbow Six titles. There’s no real planning, the soldier customization is not as extensive, and thankfully you can quicksave at any time during gameplay. There’s three difficulty modes – Recruit, Veteran, and Elite. You can play through the original campaign consisting of fifteen missions and if you have both expansions, both have their own campaigns consisting of eight missions each, equaling thirty one missions total. In addition to the campaign is the Quick Mission mode complete with different game types and maps based on the campaigns. Every campaign mission you complete is unlocked in the Quick Mission mode, and the mission game type allows you to play through the campaign missions without the added stress of permadeath. Then there’s the other game types like firefight where you need to take out all of the enemies on the map. The recon game type requires you to make it to the extraction point without losing any soldiers. And finally there’s the defend game type where you need to defend your base from waves enemy attackers. The quick mission mode is my favorite way to play Ghost Recon since it gives the game significant replay value. Of course there’s online multiplayer but I didn’t try it.

The story in each of the campaigns is pretty forgettable. Just like in many other tactical shooters, the stories really aren’t the focus and act more like backdrops for the gameplay. They’re not engaging, there’s no cut scenes, and the only thing advancing the stories in any meaningful way are the briefings you receive before each mission. The voice work for these briefings is alright, they sound convincing but there’s not much else I can say about it. Basically, you command a fictional squad of U.S. special forces soldiers, sometimes referred to as “Ghosts”. The Ghost Recon campaign takes place in 2008. Some kind of ultra-nationalist regime takes control of the Russian government and then forms the Russian Democratic Union with plans to recreate the former Soviet Union. Obviously this is not good, the U.S. gets involved, and the Ghosts are sent in to stop the ultra-nationalists. Something like that. In Desert Siege, the year is 2009, and apparently the Ethiopian military had participated in illegal arms dealings with the same Russian ultra-nationalists from the previous year. With their new weaponry, the Ethiopian military decided to reclaim Eritrea. The Eritrean government eventually asks for international support and, of course, the Ghosts are called in to stop the Ethiopian government from advancing any further. Now in Island Thunder, according to the story, Fidel Castro died in 2006. It’s now 2010, Cuba is supposed to be free, and it’s time for the first free and open elections in over fifty years. However, the FDG, a group otherwise know as the People’s Democratic Front, are anti-American and have put up a candidate in hopes of returning Cuba to a communist rule. The FDG uses violence as a means of coercion and the Ghosts are sent in to set things right. I’m going to be honest, I had to look up the plot summaries because I just lost interest in these stories very early on so thank you Ghost Recon Wiki. For those that enjoy the Tom Clancy stories or the stories in any of the other Tom Clancy branded games, you may enjoy the campaigns here. But, for me, I just find it hard to get into the whole international conspiracy, political and military espionage type of stuff. It also doesn’t help that the campaigns do next to nothing to really emphasize the stories.

Before each mission you can read and listen to a briefing, see what your objectives are, and even view a map of the area. After this you’re brought to the Platoon menu where you choose your soldiers and their gear. The Ghosts are organized into three fireteams – Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. You can only bring up to six soldiers with you, with a max of three soldiers per team so you can not max out all three teams. Although, you can divide the six soldiers up among the fireteams in any way you wish. The soldiers are organized into four different classes – rifleman, support, demolitions, and sniper, and you can equip each soldier with different weapon kits, but unfortunately you cannot customize them any further than that. Each weapon kit is basically a preset combination of weapons and/or gear but you can’t pick and choose individual items, including armor which isn’t an option at all. Rifleman are your standard soldiers that normally carry assault rifles and pistols and I normally like to have them lead a charge if necessary. In most cases, rifleman soldiers made up the bulk of my team, with other classes added in due to objective requirements or support for different situations. Many missions require you to destroy something so having at least one or two demolition soldiers on your team is usually a good idea. They normally carry automatic weapons and explosives like grenades, claymore mines, and anti-tank weaponry. Support soldiers will carry light machineguns and are usually good to have as backup. They’re more heavily armored than the other soldier classes but they also make more noise and can give away your position so you’ll want to be careful when utilizing them, especially if you’re trying to avoid detection. Now the demolition soldiers may be required for objectives, possibly making them the most important during a mission, but Snipers are the most helpful. They carry sniper rifles, can pick off targets from long range, and I found it best to dedicate one fireteam to one sniper. Keeping your distance is essential for survival in this game so if you need to frequently get close to enemies to kill them then you’re playing it wrong. In light of the emphasis on long-range combat, Snipers may be the most valuable soldiers available. Permadeath is a thing in Ghost Recon so if a soldier dies they are out for the rest of the campaign. Unless you’re hardcore about the realism aspect, quicksaving often is a good idea because if a soldier dies, you can quickload and try approaching the situation differently. Finally, there are soldiers that need to be unlocked. These soldiers fall under the specialists group. Only by completing optional objectives can specialists be unlocked and you will want to collect them all. They have better stats than the standard soldiers and are usually more efficient in battle. There’s twelve specialists to unlock in the Ghost Recon campaign, five in Desert Siege, and six in Island Thunder.

Another important aspect of the soldiers is their stats. After completing a campaign mission, the soldiers that are still alive will receive combat points that can be distributed among four categories – weapon, stealth, endurance, and leadership. You can apply up to a max of eight points into each category and you will not be able to max out each soldier’s stats by the end of the campaigns so distributing the points properly is important. These stats will also improve their effectiveness during battle. Applying points into the weapon category will improve aiming and accuracy. The more points you distribute into stealth, the quieter the soldier will be and the harder they will be to detect. Increasing endurance will enable your soldier to take more bullets before dying, it increases the recovery time after taking a hit, and it also reduces the effect of heavy equipment on speed. Finally, there’s the leadership stat. For every three points applied to leadership, every other soldier on the same fireteam gains an extra point in to each of their stats. However, the bonus is only applied to the soldier with the highest leadership on the fireteam. Basically, you don’t want to pump all combat points into leadership for every soldier. Pick and choose a select few and make sure they stay alive. You also don’t want to neglect a soldier by not applying points into the other stats. When you unlock specialists they’ll always have better stats than the standard soldiers so you don’t have to worry too much about the standard ones later on since there’s no real reason not to use the specialists. All stats serve a purpose and like I stated before, distributing the points properly is the key to creating an effective squad.

There’s no real planning in Ghost Recon so all decisions need to be made on the fly. As soon as a mission begins your squad is placed right onto the battlefield. You can bring up a command map to place waypoints for each fireteam, set their rules of engagement, and you can also switch between soldiers at will. The only thing I don’t like is that you can’t decide how quickly soldiers move without determining their rules of engagement. For example if you set a fireteam’s RoE to fire at will, they will run to their destination. If you decide you want them to avoid detection, they won’t fire and slowly move, taking forever to get where you need them to go. My issue with this is that sometimes I just want them to quickly move to their destination and not engage any enemies if they spot them. As you traverse the battlefield, all other members of your fireteam will follow you but you cannot command individual soldiers. This also relates back to the lack of soldier customization options. You don’t have a lot of control over what they can bring and what you command. For example, you can’t have just one soldier move somewhere specific. The entire team will move along with him. I understand this is not Rainbow Six, but if you’ve played any of those games, you’re going to miss that level of control. Yes, you can assign only one soldier to each fireteam but I would highly advise against that if you’re a newcomer. Basically, Ghost Recon gives you limited tactical control which has both ups and downs. Fireteams will only move when you set a waypoint or manually control a soldier and you cannot command them to perform actions like place explosives or throw grenades. You will need to control the soldier appropriate for the situation and perform the action manually. During combat they act on their own but they’re not always smart about staying out of harm’s way. Unless you set that fireteam to advance at all costs, they will stop moving if engaged in battle, which is fine, however they’re terrible at taking cover. They often get in the way of each other and frequently group close together. Several times I saw soldiers trying to shoot through buildings and objects because they detected an enemy on the other side and seeing stuff like that can really pull you out of the immersion. Unless you’ve put points into the endurance stat, bullets will normally drop a soldier instantly. You cannot run and gun here or you will be killed. This is a slow paced tactical shooter that requires patience. I would also recommend setting your fire mode to single shot or burst since spraying will just waste ammo. Even with an assault rifle, you can pick off targets from a good distance but aiming carefully is key since you don’t want to miss. You want to make sure you put each enemy down quickly so you can aim and kill the others just as fast, before they can react. Every soldier is equipped with night vision and using it is crucial in dark areas or any missions that are set at night. At the bottom of your HUD is a threat indicator that will determine enemy locations and where shots are coming from if you get hit. This can be turned off in the options menu if you prefer more realism.

Most missions consist of your typical military style objectives. Capture and eliminate enemies, rescue POW’s, gather intel, blow something up, stuff like that. You traverse through large outdoor environments and occasionally need to infiltrate buildings. You can walk, run, sprint, crouch, and go prone. You’re aim is more accurate if crouched or going prone and you need to use cover to stay alive. The Ghost Recon campaign takes you through various locations based on real world locations like Russia, Ossetia, Georgia, Latvia, and even Lithuania. Missions can take place during day or night, rain or snow. You’ll need to utilize the environment to your advantage. For example sending your sniper to the top of a ridge to scope out an area below. If it’s a wide open field you need to cross, going prone may be the best way to proceed since it’s harder for enemies to detect you. You could also just find another way around. The maps are large and open so you have plenty of options when it comes time to engage the enemy. You can go in guns blazing and hope you kill all the enemies before they kill you or you can sneak your fireteams in at different angles and reduce the risk of a long drawn out firefight. Besides the new campaign missions, the expansion packs add new gear and multiplayer game modes. In all honesty, I preferred the maps in Island Thunder over the Ghost Recon and Desert Siege maps. Ghost Recon consists of many forest-like areas, swamps, some urban environments, and even an air base among others. Desert Siege contains a lot of barren desert areas but I just prefer the exotic tropical maps and jungle-like areas in the Island Thunder expansion. Island Thunder also contains a colorful command map, which makes it easier to identify things when commanding soldiers.

I do have a couple of issues with the gameplay, mainly the enemy AI and close quarters combat. For the most part, the enemies show some degree of intelligence. If they’re being shot at they’ll move, run to cover, shoot back, and even throw grenades. But every now and then I question their intelligence like when I shoot a guy and his buddy in the next room didn’t hear a thing. Now there’s way too many times I was killed in one shot from an enemy a mile away with a light machine gun. Their precision aim is ridiculous and they can easily pick you off from ludicrous distances with medium to close range weapons like pistols and submachine guns. Now the negative aspects of the trial and error gameplay really shine through when you experience any close quarters combat. Because of the enemy’s pinpoint accuracy and quick reaction times, any time you need to infiltrate a building and clear rooms, if enemies are in a room, they will normally blow you away the moment you step your foot in the door. Even if I was careful, holding the shuffle button to not make noise, and slowly leaning around the corner, the moment I spotted an enemy, bam I was dead. Basically it’s a matter of quicksaving and quickloading until you can enter and shoot him before he shoots you. Furthermore, there’s no items to disorient enemies which is ridiculous. You get no flashbangs or smoke grenades and that just seems very odd to me. I don’t know what gear special forces soldiers normally bring on missions in real life, but I would imagine flashbangs are an option. The lack of these items really made me want to avoid any close quarters combat. And because of the limited tactical control, you can’t even command just one soldier to scope out the doorway first, you know AI vs AI. You would have to control a soldier or set a waypoint for an entire fireteam to do it, basically putting everybody on the team at risk if there’s an enemy in the room. Thanks to spotty friendly AI, if one guy drops the others tend to follow.

I think my biggest issue with Ghost Recon is the enemy placements, especially in the campaigns. The problem is enemy placements aren’t randomized. Why is that a problem? Well, I’ll tell you. Whether you like randomization or not, I feel strongly that randomized elements should be in every tactical shooter. To some degree, tactical shooters are all about trial and error but in Ghost Recon, it’s bad trial and error. When I play games like this, I like to be surprised, I expect a somewhat different experience each time I play. Tactical shooters should always keep you engaged, on alert, and just knowing one wrong step could mean death. The trial and error is about knowing what to do and what not to do. You need to be careful, survey your surroundings, take the proper precautions, and execute your next action with careful precision because you might not know what’s around the next corner. In the Ghost Recon campaigns, that experience only happens once per mission. Because the enemies aren’t randomly placed, if you memorize where they are, the game loses that sense of tension on repeated playthroughs. That sniper will always be on that ridge or that guy will always patrol that area. If you replay through the campaign missions you can always approach situations differently but it’s just not the same because you know exactly where the enemies are. If one of your guys dies, it’s just a matter of quicksaving, quickloading, and trying again and that kind of trial and error just sucks. Enemy placements seem to be randomized in the Firefight, Recon, and Defend game types in the Quick Mission mode which is a relief. But the lack of randomized enemy placements really does bring down the campaign missions once you realize it. I spent a lot of time in the Quick Mission mode and I can honestly say that Firefight is my favorite game type. Recon becomes tedious because if any of your soldiers are killed, it means mission failure. Maybe it’s because I suck but I found that only bringing along one fireteam of three soldiers is the best way to play Recon. You don’t have to worry about other teams and managing their placements. The defend game type just sucks, at least in the single player. You start the mission at the location of your base and sooner or later enemies will be coming from all over. I get the vibe this game type is much more enjoyable in the multiplayer.

In terms of presentation, Ghost Recon just looks dated. I guess it looked pretty good in 2001 but not everything aged gracefully. There’s no first-person gun models, animations can be a bit stiff, and the draw distance is awful. The short draw distance is masked with a fog-like effect and you can see distant objects like trees, foliage, and buildings popping in frequently. Enemy death animations are scripted but look good and help make the combat feel satisfying and there’s a few nice little visual touches like smoke coming out of the soldier’s mouths when in cold temperatures. The sound design is pretty good, at least for it’s time. All of the weapons sound powerful, soldier’s footsteps will sound different depending on the surface they’re walking on, and I love the little tune that plays whenever one of your soldiers is killed. It’s just very dramatic and adds to the sense of tension. Now I do have some issues related to the technical aspects. For one thing, I played this on Windows 10 and the first time I fired it up I noticed the display would constantly flicker. I did find a fix for this online. I should mention that the main menu is hard coded at the 640×480 resolution and the text displayed during gameplay is distracting. Whenever you quicksave, quickload, something important happens, or if you have replays enabled, you’re informed of these events through text displayed on the screen. The text is just too large and can sometimes obstruct your view. Other than these things, Ghost Recon is a solid performer.

Ultimately, I would say Ghost Recon is a flawed yet still excellent tactical shooter. There’s few games in the genre that offer the same levels of tactical thinking as Ghost Recon and in the end I actually found this to be easier and less stressful than the early Rainbow Six titles. Because enemy placements in the campaigns aren’t randomized, you can easily memorize their locations and patrols, which really brings down the replay value. Fortunately, the Quick Mission mode makes up for that since you can play through all the unlocked campaign missions in the mission game type and the other three game types do offer random enemy placements. Why the developers decided to limit your tactical control, I don’t know, but as a result, it’s hard not notice what you really can and can’t do. The AI seriously needs to be tweaked a bit but overall this is a great tactical shooter. When compared to the Rainbow Six titles, they are different games and I would recommend newcomers play this over those only because it’s not as overwhelming, making it more accessible. If you haven’t played this, you should and you should play it before installing any mods, specifically the Heroes Unleashed mod. Now that I’ve played it, I don’t know if I could ever go back to the vanilla game.

Ghost Recon: Heroes Unleashed is an insanely huge mod that any Ghost Recon fan should immediately check out. I would highly recommend you visit the Heroes Unleashed website for details, read the “readme” file for even more details and installation instructions, and any other documentation that comes with the mod because this thing is huge. Heroes Unleashed combines the Ghost Recon and expansion missions together and adds over two hundred missions. There’s two hundred forty maps total. There’s now over four hundred weapon kits and the mod comes with an entire spreadsheet detailing all weapon statistics. Like I stated earlier in this review, this is one of the most ambitious mods I have ever seen. My only complaint with all of this new stuff is that sifting through all of the new missions and weapon kits is tedious. I read that the mod includes revamped weapon kit selection menus and I didn’t know what that meant at first but after reading the “readme” file, it just means maps and kits are numbered now and you can hold the mouse button down to rapidly scroll through the lists. I think overhauling the weapon kit selections and maps list with some form of organizational system of menus and submenus would have been better. Although, I have no idea if that’s even possible. With that said, equipping your team can be tiresome if you’re anal about their gear because there’s just so much stuff. There’s all kinds of new rifles, machine guns, pistols, and other weaponry, and the mod even adds in stun grenades. But there’s more. If you look in the “XTRAS” folder, you’ll find all kinds of add-ons that change things up or that will even restore things back to the way they were like the original weapon kits for example.

Right off the bat you’re going to notice major changes whether it’s in the menu, gameplay, or interface. Combat points were removed in favor in of numerical stats, it’s recommended you turn off the threat indicator for more realism, and you’ll also notice many elements of the HUD are changed. There’s all types of new crosshairs, a scope view when zooming in, most of the obnoxious text alerts were removed minus alerts for quicksaving, and when you’ve completed a mission you get scored based on the objectives completed, health, and stealth. But that’s not all. There’s new sound effects and they’re definitely for the better. The command map no longer shows where spotted or even dead enemies are. There’s dynamic mission weather changes, changes to enemy alertness, patrols, and reactions, they’re pinpoint accuracy was toned down, and there’s even improved friendly AI, although they still show signs of stupidity. At one point I saw a soldier trying to walk through a wall. And sometimes, my fellow soldiers just refused to follow me.

If you’re like me and only care about the single player, the Mission mode is definitely the way to play. There’s all new game types and variations of said game types. You still have the vanilla types – mission, firefight, recon, and defend but there’s a ton more. Escort has you escorting a V.I.P. to the extraction zone. In capture, you need to capture and extract the warlord. Search and rescue (SAR) requires you to rescue and extract the POW. The intel game type requires you to acquire the intel data package. In demo you need to blow up the enemy weapons cache. In execute you need to terminate a warlord. In Siege you’re required to take over the enemy base to win. The most unique game type is Black Op. It consists of a randomized combination of objectives from the other game types. For example you may have to rescue a POW and avoid detection or maybe you need to retrieve the intel and blow up the enemy weapons cache. Black Op definitely offers the most replay value.

Each game type also has variations – stealth, XL, and XXL. Stealth is my least favorite. Basically you need to complete the objectives without being detected. XL and XXL just determine the amount of enemies on the battlefield. Now I did notice one significant issue with the XL and XXL modes. Whenever I selected these variations, as soon as the game starts, there seems to be enemies all over the place and my guys immediately start firing upon spawning and several usually end up getting killed. I’ve also heard reports of players saying there’s not enough ammo to combat the amount of enemies in XL and XXL. My guys usually died before I would be able to find out but the increase in enemy numbers is noticeable. I have yet to play through every single new map but every one I did check out was exceptionally well crafted, with excellent texture work. The maps range in size, take place in all different locations, indoor and outdoor, and it’s just amazing how much quality content is pumped into this mod. There was only one map where I couldn’t place waypoints for a fireteam. It just wouldn’t let me do it.

I can go on and on about Heroes Unleashed but there’s just so much new stuff included it’s ridiculous. It’s basically a complete overhaul of the game to make it better in every single way. The creator even overhauled the ballistics to be more realistic. And I didn’t even try the multiplayer but there’s plenty of changes there, too. Even the included “XTRAS” are worth checking out and they’re not all gameplay related either. There’s original Ghost Recon media like videos, including the “making of Ghost Recon”, wallpapers, and even artwork. It’s insane. The dedication is truly amazing. When all is said and done, Ghost Recon is still one of the best tactical shooters to date. I think the limited tactical control holds it back, but those that have never played the early Rainbow Six titles may not even notice. This is one of the defining games in the genre and has amassed a serious dedicated following. Just like Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon’s future meant big changes and what we ended up with in the end doesn’t even resemble how the series started.

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