"The end result was that I was skirting this level or that for quite some time, trying to find the path the arrow thought was there, and I never really did. This is a problem that was present in the first game, too, but this time around it seems actually to have grown worse instead of improving as one might expect. Again, I blame this on the more intricate levels."
More of the same. The term has been used to describe a lot of subpar games, and even a few great ones. So when I use it to describe Ubi Soft's latest offering, Ghost Recon: Island Thunder, I do so knowing full well that there are those who will take one look at the term and run.
Cowards, the lot of them.
In case you hadn't heard, Ghost Recon was actually a pretty good game. It dropped players squarely in the role of team members of elite military teams assigned the daunting task of working as ghost recon units that were all that stood between the bad guys and the rest of the world. Just under a year after that previous console release has passed, Ubi Soft has decided to drop us back in what you might call those same boots for another round. The location has changed. Some of the guns have changed. The title of the game has changed. But ultimately, this is the original Ghost Recon all over again, set to the tune of a different country and with a helping of graphical upgrades on the side. If that thought gets you drooling, contemplate the matter no more; rush out and buy this game and thank me later. If you're more skeptical, read on and I'll try and give you a better idea of whether you should purchase this one or give it the weekend rental.
Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first. I'm going to admit right away that I have more negative things to say about this upgrade than I do positive ones. However, most of that doesn't matter in the end because even if there are plenty of tiny scratches on its surface, Ghost Recon: Island Thunder is still a polished mirror that deserves a look.
Making that mirror look a little less appealing, however, are a few graphical defects. The first is clipping. In the first game, this wasn't much of a problem thanks to relatively sparse environments. Not so in Island Thunder. This time around, there's a bush or a wall every time you turn around. They're all just waiting to fade in and out of sight as you turn. Get too close to the landscape and you'll get to see what the inside of polygonal figures look like. This is especially true if you happen to be crawling along the ground and using a body for shelter from gunfire. You can crawl right through it. Along the way, treat yourself to a view of the inside of the soldier's leg, or torso. This is an admittedly small defect, but it is worth a mention just the same.
Also worth a mention is the occasional issue with the placement of said dead bodies. They almost never seem to be perfectly flat on the ground. Don't be surprised if you see a body that looks like it's just floating in air. In one case I can only assume the body of my fallen comrade was actually supposed to be a few feet from the ground (though I could see no ropes or vines holding him suspended). In other cases, it looked like the polygons just didn't meet right. Again, this isn't a huge deal. We're used to it in games of this nature by now, for the most part.
We're also used to shoddy textures, and those show up here, too. From an average distance, and perhaps even from a rather local distance, the detail is amazing. Then you zoom in with reckless abandon, and suddenly you're looking at something circa Nintendo 64. Blurry, dull textures abound, particularly if you are looking at muddy banks or the sides of certain buildings. Also disappointing is the rain you sometimes must wander through. It's just a bunch of lines, and doesn't look a lot like any rain I've ever seen. Though the droplets make nice splashes in the occasional puddle, I frequently found myself wishing they looked a little more impressive coming down. Yet again, I bring this all up only so you know to expect it. Ultimately, there's more to like in the visual department than there is to dislike.
I'll get to that in a moment, of course, but first I wanted to touch on a few details that have a more direct impact on one's enjoyment. The first of these details is the interface, which feels like a step down from the original Ghost Recon. During mission debriefings, you may be tempted to follow along with the narrator. If so, you'll find the same thing I did, that the developers force you to take the extra step of selecting the text box before you can ever dream of scrolling down the page. This makes absolutely no sense. There's really nothing else you would want to do with the 'down' button on that screen. The extra step is pointless. Fortunately, this doesn't extend much beyond those first few selection screens. And it's not true of quite every menu, either; the multi-player selection screen is actually quite intuitive, making it simple to form up teams if that's your desire.
The second detail I referenced is more important than any other flaw in the game. I refer, of course, to the navigation arrow. To be honest, I forget its actual name, but that's probably because I was thinking of profane terms that might apply. Whatever one calls it, the arrow in question is the one that points you toward your next objective when you're out on the mission. Now, we can pretty much agree that such an arrow shouldn't have to exist, at least not in theory. The map should be so intuitive, the game design so slick, that such an arrow is an insult (after all, it's not like real soldiers on the field just look at the magic floating arrow when they want to know where the building they're headed for is). Ah, but that would be in a perfect world, and this isn't a perfect world. Therefore, the arrow is supplied. Since it's present in Ghost Recon: Island Thunder, that arrow could and should serve a valuable purpose. Unfortunately, it does not. Wandering through one level after another, I found myself merrily directed not to the way forward, but to one dead end after another. Unassailable cliffs and I became close friends. The end result was that I was skirting this level or that for quite some time, trying to find the path the arrow thought was there, and I never really did. This is a problem that was present in the first game, too, but this time around it seems actually to have grown worse instead of improving as one might expect. Again, I blame this on the more intricate levels.
When I say 'intricate levels,' what I really mean is that the levels are more expansive and organic. I've touched on that already so I won't spend a lot of time crossing back over old ground. Just know that each area has a few small touches that are really quite nice. From an uprooted tree crashed down on a hut to a set of waterfalls trickling down the face of a rocky cliff, the little details make all the difference in Ghost Recon: Island Thunder.
Nowhere, however, is the attention to detail more impressive and more successful than it is in the audio department. I had forgotten how much a game of this kind relies on sound, but a few minutes as a member of the ghost recon and it became obvious once more. Since you spend a lot of the game on your belly or crouched low to the ground to avoid gunfire, it's important that you have a lot of things to hear while you creep toward your next objective. And that's certainly provided.
There's a whole laundry list of sound effects, and many of them sound better than you would expect. In one stage, I kept hearing an airplane fly around. I turned and was able to track the source of the noise. The effect wasn't perfect, but it was good. Other sounds included that of rain pelting the turf, dogs barking in the distance, insects whining, and woodpeckers tapping their beaks against trees. Most impressive of all, however, was the thunder. It rumbled in the distance, grew louder, then trailed off exactly as it should. Despite myself, I had to pause just to listen to it. Simply amazing.
If only the rest of the game were like that thunder, Ghost Recon: Island Thunder might well warrant a perfect 10. With the flaws that exist, though, and with the time that has passed since the last entry, it really wouldn't be fair to rate the game any higher than its predecessor. It's better, certainly, just not 'better' enough. Still, if all you've been wanting is more of what you loved in the first place, you'll be delighted. And no matter how you look at it, this is one of the best games of its kind. Give it a shot.
Staff review by Jason Venter (August 13, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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