Before we dive into this review, I want a show of hands. Who knew there was a free Tom Clancy online shooter up and running for over a year? Come on, be honest. I didn’t. And that’s so embarrassing I contemplated handing over my “FPS Gamer In Good Standing” membership card. I blame it sliding under my radar on one simple fact: online team based tactical shooters have never really been my pint of beer.
Oh sure, I’ve played the many iterations of Call of Duty and Battlefield, dabbled withTeam Fortress 2 and Planetside 2, but… TF2 is too cartoony for my High-Definition sensibilities (Hats? Really?), and the players in those other games spend so much time playing them, and get so good, that causal drop-in types like myself have no chance. I’ve rage quit more times than I care to remember. Nope, I prefer to rely on my well honed senses and uber l33t mouse-trigger finger (I just made myself throw up a little) against inferior bots over the human experts, griefers and hackers found in many online shooters.
Right about now you’re probably asking yourself why you should keep reading this review, right? Because I do like a lot of the Tom Clancy games, and I am all kinds of geeked about The Division coming to the PC, so I really really want to like them. Can Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Online (GRO) change my perspective on the genre? Let’s find out!
What Is It?
GRO is a 3rd person squad based shooter where teamwork is more important in the final outcome of a match than your “uber l33t trigger finger.” Awesome. I was already behind the 8-ball before firing off my first round. Challenge excepted Ubisoft.
Assault, Specialist, and Recon are the three different classes of Ghost operative you can play at any given time. Each class has their own weapon loadouts, special devices, and squad support abilities that are upgradeable as you earn experience and level up. But… (there’s always a but) all that can be bought in the online store with real money too. Only one weapon from each class can be carried into battle; special devices and squad abilities are also limited to a one-at-a-time caveat. Since teamwork is key, having the right mix of the three is important if you want to copy Charlie Sheen’s favorite pastime (Winning!).
Wielding assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, and grenades (these last two are universal across all three classes), the Assault class is your tank… the point man who can take the most damage. Blitz gives Assaults a bulletproof shield and overcharges the exoskeleton (only available on the Assault class), letting you knock players to the ground. This stun attack gives you just enough time to put them out of their misery. The Heat ability not only throws out damaging microwaves, but makes it harder for enemies to aim their weapon (the image on your screen shakes). The Assault helps his team by giving armor buffs or increasing combat health regeneration.
Specialists use electronic warfare to their advantage. Armed with light machine guns or shotguns, they also tote around some very cool gizmos. Blackout generates a pulse that disrupts enemy electronics and disorients enemies, and Aegis lets you throw up a mobile plasma shield that changes the flight path of incoming rounds. Their squad ability either refills ammo or increases the recharge rate of your team’s devices.
Recon are the snipers of the group. As if these guys weren’t pesky enough, GRO snipers can make themselves invisible for short periods (through the Cloak ability). If you don’t want to go the sniper rifle route, you can always arm yourself with an SMG for better all around protection. Aside from the Cloak ability, Recon also has access to Oracle, an electronic sensor system that reveals (to the rest of your team) the exact location of enemy personnel within scanning range. Their support abilities allow them to detect sprinting enemies or gunshots, and relay that info to nearby squad mates.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Online has plenty of gaming goodness under its balaclava.
GRO doesn’t drop newbs straight into the meat grinder. Everyone starts in the Beginners’ Playlist, a separate matchmaking queue that lets you “learn the ropes” without getting chewed up by veteran players. And trust me… you do not want to go up against players with names like iKeelYou, FartBiscuit69, and MisterBean without knowing what you’re doing. You’ll stay in this beginner zone as long as you stay below level 5, and while you can opt out at any time… don’t.
Why? Because there’s an MMO aspect to the game that can’t be ignored. As you play you simultaneously earn XP (Experience Points) and RP (Requisition Points). XP levels you up and unlocks access to a range of abilities, weapons, and equipment. RP is the “money” you use to buy those new abilities, weapons and equipment from the online store. You also earn achievements (like having the longest kill streak, being the best of your class in a match, winning multiple games in a row, etc.) and medals.
Graphics are on par with current shooters, but the sound really struck me as exceptional. I heard shells casings hit the floor in my rear speakers and swore someone was about to pop a cap in my real-life ass.
The cover system is incredibly fluid. Aside from all the standard stuff (ducking behind things, shooting from cover, etc.), you can scale walls, drop down into a kneeling position or lay flat on the ground. You can also slide at any time like a baseball player sliding into second base. I used this a lot because it’s functional… and it looks cool. Using cover comes with some added benefits: it increases your accuracy, reduces gun recoil, and ramps up your health regeneration.
Link lines extend from you to your teammates, which keeps you more situationally aware of their location. Spawn points are located so far away from the front lines that unscrupulous ass hats won’t bother camping to collect kills. You’re never locked into playing one class as all three are available at any time (but you must level them up independently).
One of the keys to being a good online shooter is knowing the layout of every map like Lindsay Lohan knows her way around a rehab center. If you don’t memorize exactly where the choke points are, where the best snipping hidey-hole is, or the least used route behind enemy lines… you will get killed ad infinitum. During your first four levels of newb training there are only 3 maps available. Fortunately, they increase to eight once you hit level five. My favorites are Balaklava Sub Pen (Conquest), Xinyi District (Holdout), and Markov Station (Conquest). Truthfully though, all eight maps are well designed and genuinely fun.
The special devices (Aegis, Blackout, Blitz) didn’t come into play much in the first four levels, probably because no one knew how to use them yet. But they make their presence felt once you get to level 5. In fact, I wondered if they were too much a part of the game, but since GRO relies on these special abilities in order to be “new and different”… I embraced them as my skill level increased.
And the biggest “good?” Downloading the game costs you zero dollars, and your entry fee of nothing gets you access to every class, mode, map, and ability GRO has to offer.
But all that goodness comes with a fistfull of bad.
As much fun as I had with my fellow newb Ghosts during the first four levels… it all vanished the second I put on my big boy camo pants and waded into the deep end of the pool. My first experience as a level 5 Assault was like going from Pop Warner to the NFL. Between the skill discrepency and the ability to buy BFGs that kill with one shot… I couldn’t stay alive for more than a few seconds. It didn’t take long to figure out that the basic loadouts the game provides puts you at a distinct disadvantage. Bottom line: you have to buy the more powerful weapons and gadgets in order to be competitive, and that realization made me one sad panda.
The game has its own chat client, but everyone sounded as if they were talking on tin cans… underwater. And it wasn’t just my fading hearing or my PC’s audio settings. I saw (because most people used the text chat feature) a lot of complaints about not understanding people.
If you’re buying what Ubisoft’s PR folks are selling, GRO is “the next generation of PC multiplayer shooters.” Sadly, that’s the same old marketing lingo we’ve heard a million times before, and it doesn’t mean anything. It’s like Coors saying they’re “the world’s most refreshing beer” without ever proving it. My advice to PR folks: your verbal trickery doesn’t work anymore. Gamers are too smart to buy into the hype. So, does GRO actually bring anything new to the table? Did it make me scream, “THIS IS THE GREATEST THING SINCE SLICED VIRTUAL BREAD!” Not really. But… that didn’t stop it from being highly addicting and damn fun.
GRO does have a feature that was hit hard and often with an ugly stick. The online store. Rather, the play-to-win scenario that the store creates. And herein lies the biggest problem with many free to play games… they have to make their money somewhere.
In the case of GRO, not only are the store prices inflated, but the ability to buy more powerful weapons overpowers players. This makes the game unbalanced, and in the end puts a big damper on the fun factor. Why? Because players (like myself) who are just looking for some quick fragging don’t want to spend weeks earning enough scratch to buy better weapons just to be competitive. And I’m sure as hell not going to plunk down $15 real American dollars for a single virtual gun! It’s just not gonna happen. But guess what? Others will… gladly. I know, because I ran into them often.
But let’s look at this from a different perspective. The game is completely free to download and play. Ubisoft could charge $50 for it and it’d probably sell like earplugs at a Miley Cyrus concert. So, with all the cash you didn’t spend… why not use it to make yourself one seriously l33t Ghost? Fifty dollars will buy you 7,830 gold coins. That much in-game currency will buy a virtual arsenal that any 80’s Hollywood action star would kill for.
Reviews – for any product in any medium – are intrinsically tricky and inherently subjective because everyone’s tastes are different. I may love one particular feature about something that you absolutely hate, and vice versa. But I’m not going to lie. There was a lot of love/hate going on, and I flipped flopped on the score several times. It scored higher when I was rattling off the longest kill streak in a match (while drinking Maker’s Mark 46 whiskey), and plunged lower when I kept getting one-shot by FartBiscuit69. In the end it all evened out… and I didn’t spend a dime.
Tom Clancy’s GRO made me – someone who didn’t care for online tactical shooters – officially addicted to its virtual firefights. I’m having fun (despite wanting to rage quit every few rounds), and that’s all you can ask from a game.
If you decide to give GRO a try, download it (for free!) and look for me online (my tag is “Badland”). I promise not to shoot you in the back. Much.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Online Review
With some patience and cash... you too can be an elite Ghost.What Our Ratings Mean