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Ghost Recon: Island Thunder Review

publisher: Ubisoft
developer: Red Storm Entertainment
genre: Shooters

PII 300, 32MB RAM, 8MB Video Card, 500MB HD
ESRB rating: M

release date: Sep 23, 02
» All About Ghost Recon: Island Thunder on ActionTrip

Ubi Soft is very proud of its Ghost Recon license. They're so proud of it, they don't mind dishing out a new expansion pack every several months or so. It seems like it was only yesterday that I reviewed "Desert Siege," and here I am - yet again reviewing a Ghost Recon game.

Unlike "Desert Siege" however, which was (surprise, surprise) set in a desert environment, Island Thunder takes place on the lovely and picturesque island of Cuba. The land of Fidel Castro, only now Fidel is dead, and the US has one helluva interest in seeing to it that a proper 'democratic' government is voted in the country's first democratic elections since God knows when. This is, of course, not in the best interest of the major drug lords and militant fractions in Cuba, which are trying their best to disrupt the democratic protest on the island. The Ghosts, an elite team of U.S. Army Green Berets, are sent to Cuba as part of a UN peacekeeping force to destroy the rebel forces and their mercenary leaders and secure the elections for a free Cuba. And there was much rejoicing. (Yaay.)

This time around however, the Ghost Recon squad will have their work cut out for them. No really, they'll have to work extra hard to get the job done, because Island Thunder doesn't bring a whole lot in the way of new features. The truth is, "Island Thunder" plays exactly the same as every other Ghost Recon title on the market. It features 8 new single-player missions, 2 new multiplayer game types, 5 new dedicated multiplayer maps, and 12 new multiplayer weapons including the M4 SOCOM rifle and the MM-1 automatic grenade launcher. Now, all this may sound like a lot on paper, but it's conceptually-speaking all of this is nothing more than a few cosmetic additions. Therefore, before you make your final decision whether or not to purchase this pack; you should consider a few important facts first.

To begin with, this game is extremely hard. You won't last long without learning to love that F6 key (quick save), and doing so after every successfully completed stage of the mission. This is, in a way, to be expected as the sole purpose of most expansion packs is to challenge the hard-core crowd who eventually end up buying this product - no matter what anyone says. To me, the whole thing was a bit overwhelming at first, but I eventually got used to it. It's just that most of today's uber-realistic shooters usually restrict the number of saves per mission to two, which actually adds to the overall in-game atmosphere. Yet, implementing such a concept in Island Thunder would be ludicrous, as the game would definitely be too hard, even for the most hard core fans of the series. Nonetheless, I probably wouldn't mind the fact that the game is a bit too hard if the mission objectives were more versatile and... well, wouldn't come down to simply annihilating the baddies on the field.

There are a couple of chief reasons why "Island Thunder" is so tough to beat; for one, enemy soldiers have the eyes of an eagle and the ears of a fox. But, just like the stout dwarf, oftentimes they can't see an Elfish bow (a Ghost) when it's right in front of their nose (yes there is still a few odd AI glitches left over from the original). Seriously, most of the time the enemy AI can pin-point a sparrow from a mile away, which is both unfair and highly annoying. Hence, this expansion pack lays a lot more emphasis on stealth and avoiding detection (using the element of surprise), than simply rushing in and trying to kill everyone with a huge gun.

The other reason why this game is so tough to beat (or rather it would be if it weren't for the quick save option), is the constant presence of the fog and mist caused by the high air humidity in the jungle, which severely hinders the visibility, thus making the enemy damn near impossible to spot from afar. Most of the time, the enemies will be shrouded in the veil of mist, and to make matters worse, their uniforms will pretty much blend in with the environment (they'll sometimes have Ghost-like camouflage themselves). Realistic - yes. Easy to spot? No. Still, if you make too much noise, the mercilessly accurate AI won't have any problems pinning you down from a couple of hundred meters away - even though the Ghosts are supposedly camouflaged better than a redneck at a Garth Brooks concert! Now do you see what I mean? (I had a harder time finding a sober person at a Bob Dylan concert - ED.)

While this new concept of "fog of war" really does wonders for setting the in-game tone and depicting the lush, tropical environments, it sure as hell makes the game a lot more difficult, even on the veteran level ... but wait! There's more! The developers didn't just boost the AI's accuracy; they introduced some genuine improvements to the AI code, to boot! For example, the enemy soldiers will choose their cover better than ever. Moreover, they'll hardly ever rush to their death - they'll try to take the advantage of the terrain just as much as your team will. And while we're on the subject of teammates, I must give credit to the designers for the obvious improvements they've made to the team AI. Your Ghost Recon squad mates act more soldier-like than ever before, providing covering fire for each other, taking care of all the angles while advancing, etc. So, you see - it's not that the AI code has JUST been artificially boosted. The designers have made some positive changes that definitely make the game more immersive, and at the same time, a lot harder to beat. Heck, the enemies won't shy away from throwing a couple of nasty grenades your way every time they see fit, and though I welcome this neat gameplay addition in terms of boosting the game's realism factor, I can't say I really appreciated it a couple of times when that damn grenade fell right into my lap.

Visually, Island Thunder is not much different from any other Ghost Recon game. Sure, the settings are different in a sense that you'll get to play in the jungle, amongst some strange rock formations and so on, but the 3D code looks generally the same as in any other GR game. The only real novelty (though not a particularly important one) are the chopper insertions. During landing, the helicopter will cause whirling trails of dust to rise from the ground, and strands of grass to sway and bend from the blast of air. A catchy scene, but as I said, it's hardly enough to make a difference. I should add though that the weather effects - the storms, pouring rain, and puddles are well-done and quite moody.

The rest of the facets of this game bring absolutely nothing new over the original game.

In the end, we come to that same old story that seems to apply to every single expansion pack on the market today. Yeah, you'll like it, but only if you were hard core about the original, or haven't played the original at all and happen to like this particular game genre.


7.2   Good

Some truly positive changes to the team and enemy AI. Excellently conveyed jungle atmosphere; the weather effects. Versatile map design (the maps don't seem nearly as claustrophobic as in the original). This is still a very fun game to play;

Not a whole lot of single-player missions and the mission objectives aren't exactly original. Precious little innovation over any other GR game, making Island Thunder seem like a shameless attempt to milk some more cash from the hard-core fans. They shouldn't have boosted the accuracy of the tangos so much.



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