Dusty But Trusty: Ghost Recon

To qualify for a ‘Dusty But Trusty’ article, a game must be old enough to vote in the Federated States of Micronesia, buy tobacco in Algeria, and serve in the Pontifical Swiss Guard. More importantly, it must be demonstrably super, smashing, great, ace, wizard, bonzer, the knees of the bee, the testicles of the dog, and the whiskers and pyjamas of the cat. You don’t need rose-tinted pince-nez or a cutting-edge pixel pump to enjoy 24 karat golden oldies like… Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon.

“Journey through Ubisoft’s largest action-adventure open world. Discover stunning diverse landscapes both on and off road, in the air, on land, and at sea with over 60 different vehicles… Infiltrate a gang of smugglers. Take part in their crazy races & challenges to earn their infamous leader’s trust and destroy them from the inside…”

Judging by the words and images on their shared site (Sorry, I can’t bring myself to actually play Wildlands or Breakpoint) the two most recent incarnations of Ghost Recon, have as much in common with the series progenitor as a Super Soaker has with a Heckler & Koch G36.

Back in 2001 Ghost Recon players were never more than a five-minute jog from a cunningly disguised map edge. They were as likely to encounter a tapdancing tapir in the field, as a medipack, scavengeable weapon, or commandeerable conveyance.

Did those limitations matter?

Did they flip!

Because the emphasis was on realism – plausible situations and believable ballistics – and Red Storm Entertainment were a talented and experienced bunch, the ghillie-suited perspiration producer had no trouble whatsoever wowing critics and punters. One of those happy customers – yours truly – is still a fan.

I return every so often for the thrilling firefights, the tactical freedom, and the melodrama-free narrative, not, it has to be said, for the highly rated multiplayer, angular terrain, fogged horizons, and relatively crude lighting and models. Visually, the engine has aged in ways even the most transformative total conversions struggle to disguise.

Despite the best efforts of tireless miracle-workers such as ApexMods (see on), Ghost Recon’s ghosts still have to do without that modern FPS staple, 3D iron sights. Firearms and the fleshy appendages that manipulate them, aren’t visible in first-person view. You frame foes in 2D reticles prior to plugging them. Always rock-solid and dead-centre, these crosshairs incorporate indicators that, during movement and sustained bursts of fire, spread to show likely bullet dispersion. Opt to run and gun and embarrassing close-range misses are eminently possible.

Differences in accuracy, rate-of-fire, stopping power, wieldiness, and audio ensure invisible boomsticks aren’t indistinguisable or insipid boomsticks. Ignore the fact that GR glosses over things like wind drift when sniping, and doesn’t let you steady weapons on scenery, cook-off grenades, or eliminate foes with knife or bayonet, and there’s very little to grumble about on the combat front.

Red Storm’s refusal to rely on hit points or health bars (single shot kills are common) and paint adversaries as untrained, fearless, simpletons means you’re unlikely to finish a campaign with the same platoon line-up that you started with.

The occasional losses would hurt less if ghosts didn’t benefit from battle experience. In the vanilla game, everyone who survives a sortie gains a Combat Point that can be spent in one of four skill areas.

Fundamental to Ghost Recon’s success as a singleplayer tactical shooter is a superbly designed fireteam management system. By adding waypoints and firing arcs to the map, you can move the three elements of your force around the battlefield with a minimum of fuss. Hotkeys allows movement to be arrested/continued, stances changed, and rules of engagement altered in the blink of an eye.

Thanks to ongoing events in Ukraine, the original campaign feels as plausible today as it did twenty years ago. Set in what was then the near future – 2008 – the fifteen mission sequence dispatches the player to various spots on Russia’s southern and north-western fringes.

There are UN peacekeepers in need of protection, pilots awaiting rescue, structures and heavy weapons requiring demo-charges, locations to be inspected and secured. Wisely Red Storm resist the urge to impose time-limits or spice-up the skirmishing with scripted spectacles. Tardy, stealthy, and thorough players are all made welcome.

Cruelly ignored in the credits, GR’s cartographers worked wonders with the limited tech available to them. It’s not the cubist boulders, ramps masquerading as staircases, or unvaultable barriers that linger in the memory after excursions in Georgia and Latvia, it’s the atmosphere that drips from mist-wreathed eves, and wafts, like clouds of wind-driven pollen, from conifer boughs. It’s the fact that after countless playthroughs it’s still possible to find new ways to tackle familiar maps.

Oddly, neither GOG – currently flogging GR for a very reasonable £2.60 in its summer sale – or Steam sell Ghost Recon ‘Gold’.

Desert Siege and Island Thunder, the two official expansion packs, can, on Steam at least, be bought separately, but as the fantastic Heroes Unleashed supermod provides versions of the Eritrean and Cuban campaigns for free, purchasing the add-ons isn’t strictly necessary.

Heroes Unleashed! Seventeen years in the making, this ten gigabyte labour of love adds features, refines mechanics, and fattens folders with gusto. Assuming you’re ready to dispense with a few play aids (In pursuit of greater realism, Apex takes a mallet to GUI gadgets like the threat indicator) it’s an essential download.

Hundreds of new weapons, smarter foes, more realistic injuries, dynamic weather, longer view ranges, new and reworked campaigns, extra multiplayer options and units, overhauled scoring, a random mission generator… if Ghost Recon wasn’t already a deserving Dusty But Trusty inductee, Heroes Unleashed would bundle it over the threshold.

19 Comments

  1. Ha, I thought I was the only one who still fired up GR for a quick fix anymore! Excellent write up. I didn’t realize a modeling community had sprung up, I’ll have to check that out. I’ve also felt the temptation to fire up some of those early Rainbow Six games. I remember them being great fun and requiring a good deal of thoughtful planning and team management, but I haven’t played one in forever so now I’m curious how they’ve held up. I can confirm SWAT 4 is still tense, believable, sweaty-palmed fun.

    Also can confirm: the original GR has held up remarkably well. It’s a lot of fun and challenging in the right ways. Like Tim says, prepare to approach the missions with extreme deliberation.

    Amazing that this was the type of game finding its way into the hands of console players back in 2001. It feels a lot closer to a 1st person Close Combat than it does to a Call of Duty, et al. My, how times have changed. Any modern title with GR-like gameplay is likely to be an indie PC title.

    I’ll confess that I did try Wildlands. My expectations were generally not high and I certainly did not expect (nor did I receive) a true GR-like experience. My verdict? Meh, it’s OK if you’re into that sort of game. Felt a lot like a modern Far Cry title more than anything else, I think. More “tactical” (I guess) than a Call of Duty, but also crammed with what I consider mind numbingly repetitious busywork.

  2. I haven’t read the article yet, but I will say I strongly preferred Operation Flashpoint (as then was; after title rights issues renamed to Armed Assault: Cold War Assault (?)).

    • a) 4:3 is God’s gaming ratio, and I miss it.

      b) I played Ghost Recon and Desert Siege shortly after they were released, and a couple of player-made campaigns. I haven’t touched it since then, so this is based on distant recollection.
      The campaign mods were limited to using the level maps from the game, typically with different start and end points, and changed objectives. In Operation Flashpoint, there were a couple of largish islands and a proper mission editor, so makers could create missions anywhere, of any size, and in any direction. Additional tools soon turned up allowing all possible objects and units to be placed.

      c) The stats and Combat Points serve no real purpose.

      d) It’s largely infantry vs infantry, though I think there’s one level in GR where you take out a BMP. The combined arms in OFP are a lot more fun – the enemy can be more mobile, and using LAWs/RPGs to eliminate soft/light-armoured opponents is empowering.

      e) Slightly hazier recall this time, but I think it was an issue with Tom Clancy games of that era (presumably all by Red Storm) that you couldn’t always walk over obvious surfaces. In GR there were low rocks that your guy absolutely refused to clamber over. In one of the Rainbow Six games, I shot a tango on an upper level; his corpse falls down and prevents me from mounting the ladder.

      f) to z) Other reasons why OFP is emminently superior, but feel like mocking the afflicted to list.

      • The wonderful Operation Flashpoint will get a Dusty But Trusty at some point. I lionised it for PC Gamer UK a few years back.

        b) New maps are possible in GR. Here’s a selection: https://www.ghostrecon.net/files2/index.php?act=category&id=20

        c) Stats have a big impact on things like spotting ranges (Stealth) and the time it takes the aiming reticle to ‘close’ after movement (‘Weapon’). A green ghost isn’t nearly as efficient as a late-game one or an unlocked ‘specialist’.

        e) I suspect your ladder experience was in Rainbow Six or Rogue Spear. I can’t recall encountering ladders in GR. The inability to clamber over low rocks, fences, and fallen trees is annoying, but as everyone is in the same boat and mapmakers generally avoid such barriers, it doesn’t have much impact on tactics.

        • I’m going to add another game to the equation: Delta Force, which was my bread and butter back in the day.

          I did dig GR, but it wasn’t until one of the Xbox sequels that I really got into it (pro tip: the MG 3 on single fire mode as a sort of defacto sniper rifle was king due to its accuracy, magazine size and stopping power).

          Delta Force on the other hand had massive sprawling maps, driveable vehicles, a fairly robust AI (although not as robust as GR) and it was voxel based, which made it ahead of its time.

          Also if we’re going to get even dustier: EA’s Seal Team was brilliant – it was the first game that really sold the pulse-raising atmosphere of the Vietnam War jungle, plus it had some proper difficult medals to win (I once nabbed a medal of honour due to a bug that spawned a heap of VC near my PBR which I gunned down with an M60 – it was brutal).

          Anyhow food/games for thought.

          Another excellent read Tim. I’m probably going to download GR and that cool mod now, thanks!

          • Delta Force is available on GOG and plays fairly nice with modern systems. Although you are limited in resolution.

            I picked up recently and I don’t think its aged terribly well in comparison to some other games folks have been talking about (Delta Force 2). But its still a good bit of fun.

      • Having recreated a few GR missions in OFP and later Arma they don’t really play the same and have fairly different sweet spots. To the point that I would say the comparison is moot. Especially nowadays when you can own both for a tenner.

  3. I wasn’t aware there were any team management features in any of the Ghost Recon games. Thanks Tim for pointing this out. I always considered the series more on the arcade side (without ever playing it ofc). I love to see in a game a medal case or pilot jacket which was the norm with the older games, not so much nowadays.

    I recommend “Hidden & Dangerous 2” and its expansion “Sabre Squadron” as a good candidate for a next Dusty But Trusty article. Or even “Soldiers of Anarchy” maybe.

    • Ghost Recon was a step back from the Rainbow Six games so it was relatively speaking more arcade. However, the original Rainbow Six games where a highwater mark of sorts so I think it can be forgiven.

  4. I’ll never forget the original Rainbow Six — taking Ding Chavez across a misty Colombian ranch to whack an Escobar stand-in was an experience I relived with joy dozens of times.

    Tim, your post here — well done as always — reminds me another very well done but less lauded title: Full Spectrum Warrior.

    Can I encourage you to revisit this title? I’m assuming you’ve played it — a safe assumption I hope?

    No other title has better captured modern urban combat at the team/squad level… it offered an excruciatingly accurate interpretation of the early 2000s/pre-counterinsurgency American infantry experience. The way it compelled the player to understand the crucial role of support-by-fire has not been replicated more accurately in any other real-time title I’ve played (let’s not compare it to Combat Mission/Graviteam et al.)

    • The original Rainbow Six was aces, I played the demo level in the embassy so many times waiting for it to come out.

      Ubisoft Forward today has just announced the next RS:Extraction “come together to face an unprecedented evolving alien threat” now there is a series that has changed focus over the years…

      My own nomination for dusty but trusty would be Medieval Total War 1. A little low brow for here but a cracking game, and while Shogun is a little creaking the better UI in Medieval means that it is still great fun.

  5. Thanks for the suggestions, everyone. Hidden and Dangerous 2 and SWAT 4 Dusty but Trusties are inevitable. As I’m not familiar with either Soldiers of Anarchy or Full Spectrum Warrior, they’ll have to pass a short audition to qualify.

  6. Ghost Recon was probably my second tactical shooter(?). I picked this almost at random from the Wal-Mart Gamecube section and fell in love with it. If I recall correctly it had splitscreen co-op campaign that I spent hours playing with my brother.

  7. I loved Ghost Recon when it came out, and still play it from time to time. But when I’m feeling nostalgic for an older tactical game, Full Spectrum Warrior and its sequel Ten Hammers are my go-to games. Wish someone made a modern version with that core gameplay.

  8. Full Spectrum Warrior was great fun, really well done. As long as we are talking FSW though, what about Brothers in Arms? I loved that series!

    Relative to GR, I would say that FSW and BiA are both much more “structured” for lack of a better word. GR just plops you down at the edge of a map and says “have at it”, whereas both FSW and BiA sort of shuffle you from one staged battlespace to the next (with of course a good deal of flexibility within that defined battlespace as far as how you want to skin the cat). The squad orders are also a lot more structured as well, I think.

    All great games, just noting some gameplay differences!

  9. I like the concept of your ” Dusty but Trusty” series. Keep them coming. This is some of the best WG discussion left on the internet.

  10. Ghost Recon really represents pinnacle Clancy-dom for me. The real key being the cleverness and flexibility of the scenarios. They felt like real operations, as opposed to levels to clear. The additions of optional objectives often meant there was a real tug-of-war between wanting to get out and bring everyone home, or take the risk to go after some additional targets.

    The strength and replayability of the single player was something I loved, and something that seems to have really weakened in modern games. Everything seems multiplayer focused, which sometimes leaves niche products very sparsely populated.

    Love the idea of Dusty but Trusty as a running series. I’d submit the original IL-2 Sturmovik for consideration on the list

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