Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Island Thunder
I was one of those people who were a bit peeved at the prospect of having an expansion pack for console games. When Ubi Soft announced that Island Thunder was in development for the Xbox, I figured that it would be offered at a supreme discount, much like PC software. Leading up to the game’s release I refused to buy into it because I felt that Ubi was, in fact, ripping the consumer off by offering an expansion pack at a standalone price point. However, after putting Island Thunder through its paces I realized that the game is well worth every cent of its seemingly high price tag. Sure it may seem absurd to pay so much for what is being labeled as an expansion pack but in truth, the game has so much to offer that it stands up on its own merits. The fact that it doesn’t require the original Ghost Recon to operate makes this an even more attractive package.
Don’t get us wrong, if you hated Ghost Recon’s debut on the Xbox you won’t like this quasi sequel either. It doesn’t really bring anything new to the table but that’s not the design of an expansion pack. The intention of an expansion pack is to provide lovers of the original material with more of the same and in that sense, Island Thunder accomplishes its goals and does well to go beyond them. Not only does it bring a whole new campaign to the fray but it contains all of the elements that made the original product such a huge hit amongst Xbox fans. All of the features and components of Ghost Recon make a return appearance here, including the vaunted Xbox Live and single-console multiplayer features. The Xbox Live implementation alone is well worth the price of admission as a well-trained group of players can have a blast taking the enemies down in a realistic and professional fashion. Not to be overshadowed are the single-player elements which features a campaign that’s set in the dangerous jungles from around the world. Hands down, the multiplayer components are the best facets of this tactical shooter as human controlled players can outplay and outthink AI players any day of the week.
While the bulk of Red Storm’s Tom Clancy-inspired titles deal with counter terrorism in close quarters, the Ghost Recon franchise has always been about long-ranged combat in wide open environments. This means that the bulk of your time is spent doing combat outdoors and as a matter of fact, the weakest elements of the game is the combat that does happen to take place indoors. This if the place to be if long range combat with high powered rifles is you’re bag, if you’re looking for intense close quarters battles then wait for Raven Shield because you won’t find it here.
As the namesake implies you’ll be do combat in various jungles from around the world. If ‘Nam taught us anything it’s that some of the most ferocious bastards set up camp in the jungle, and while you won’t have to deal with pungie sticks or Charlie hiding in the trees, you’ll still have to enter blind ambushes and deal with a whole host of camouflaged enemies. Environments range from swampland like jungles to resort-style beaches, all of which exude a believable sense of reality. Though the environments all have some sort of artificial boundary (used to contain the gamer in the map) they all look and feel like they could actually exist in various parts of Cuba. It’s just a shame that they’re so eerily empty.
If there’s one thing that I’d fault Island Thunder on it would have to be the lack of realism in the environments. It’s not that the environments believable, it’s just that the elements of the environment aren’t believable. I can’t for one second believe that I would never run into any sort of wildlife while I’m in the thick of the jungle. Aside from some ambient noises, nothing is done to indicate to me that this is real jungle that’s teeming to the brim with life. Games like the Gathering’s Viet Cong did an excellent job of putting insects and wildlife amidst the foliage of the Vietnamese jungles, here we get nothing except a few swaying trees and a cavalcade of baddies.
While some of the environments are lacking in detail the missions more than make up for the lack of refinement. Mission goals range from your standard clear out the map of enemies and return back safely to some pretty intense demolition missions. No matter the situation, you can always expect to be thrust into some exciting firefights. Fighting your opponents feels realistic as you won’t be able to run full speed at someone and expect to score a headshot. Like the rest of the Tom Clancy shooters the targeting reticule grows and diminishes depending on your actions. Standing still will give you more accuracy as does lowering your stance. This does well to ensure that hotheads who like to rush headfirst into the battle will be the first to die in multiplayer.
You’ll have a large cadre of real-life weapons at your disposal including the always popular M16 and the M4A1 rifle/grenade launcher combination that was made famous by NovaLogic’s Delta Force series of games. While there is a great deal of variety in the weaponry I was a little disappointed to find that I couldn’t manually decide which weapons would go into my kit. Instead I was forced to choose from a bevy of pre-selected combinations and while I’m sure that the presets go through the majority of the available combinations, I’d still like the freedom to thinker as I please. At times it becomes downright tedious, especially in the multiplayer realm. There are dozens of presets and each time you select a squad mate you have to start from number one. Now imagine if a player’s favorite kit is preset number 47 and he selects it for all his characters. People are already impatient enough as it is; this is just another unnecessary hindrance.
On the visual front Island Thunder looks just as you would expect, like a two-year-old PC game. The engine that Red Storm is using is really showing its age, especially when compared to heavy hitters such as Unreal Championship and the upcoming Half Life 2. For Xbox fans they’ll scoff because it looks like a slightly high-res PS2 games while PS2 owners will laugh because it looks like it was made in 2001. We wouldn’t make such a huge deal about the visuals had it not been for the debilitating it effect it has on the gameplay. Amidst the blocky trees and muddled textures lie the enemy troops. Because everything is so blurry, most of the environment has a tendency of blending in with one another. Regarded that everything in a real jungle has a knack for blending in with each other, but it’s mainly because everything looks similar, not because everything is blurry and hard to discern from one another. As a whole the visual package is lacking and won’t really do much to impress the special effects-enthused crowd.
Thankfully the audio is much sharper and does well of engulfing the gamer in the environment. Weapon effects and squad chatter is right on and the surround effects will really have you jumping anytime you come under fire. A nice audio feature of Island Thunder is that you can set the audio chatter in multiplayer to come out through your speakers as opposed to the headset. It doesn’t really serve a purpose (seeing as how you’ll still need to wear the headset to chat) but it’s a pretty cool feature that I haven’t seen in many other games.
The single-player element is decent but the real action begins when you take the game online. Like the previous Xbox-installment, you can take your game online for some co-op or deathmatch-style gameplay. While the competitive modes are pretty decent the true meat lies in the fact that you can play through the entire game with up to five other people. What’s fun is that people are real serious and professional about it too. Rarely will you run into someone who decides to go all Rambo and take on the entire Cuban resistance by themselves. Most of the time you’ll get guys who come up with a plan and execute it to perfection. Basically the main reason to buy Island Thunder is to exhaust the extensive Xbox Live component. If you don’t have Xbox Live then you really should think twice about picking it up. But then again, if you don’t have Xbox Live this just might be the game that makes you take that dive.
What’s nice about Island Thunder is that it doesn’t require the original Ghost Recon product to operate. In this sense those who were slow to jump on the bandwagon can head right into the fray without having to waste their time with yesterday’s product. It’s nice that Ubi Soft engineered the product to run separate from its predecessor but I still wish that the company would have come up with some sort of price break for those who made the original Ghost Recon such a hit. A small discount of $10 would have worked wonders both for show of fan appreciation and for the sales figures. Small gripes aside, it’s still a pretty good pickup for anyone looking to jump in on the action.
Yes, it’s a two-year-old PC game but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have something to offer the console crowd. Its look is definitely a bit dated as are some of the elements of the interface, but the intense and gripping battles are what make Red Storm’s aging franchise so attractive. Admit it; the prospect of being put into an elite squad of soldiers who are armed to the teeth and set into the jungles to unleash some punishment on terrorists is a pretty damn attractive. Sure it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (lots of patience is required) but if you really get in to it, it could be one of the best experiences that you’ll partake in during the waning days of summer.
It's a pretty good game if you've got Xbox Live and the reasonably high price tag is justified by all of the features that this game brings with it. It's not exactly a must have title but it'll help tie you over until the big game titles ship this Holiday season.
Rating: 7.7 Above Average
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Gaming has been a part of my life for as long as I could remember. I can still recall many a lost nights spent playing Gyromite with that stupid robot contraption for the old NES. While I'm not as old as the rest of the crew around these parts, I still have a solid understanding of the heritage and the history of the video gaming industry.
It's funny, when I see other people reference games like Doom as "old-school" I almost begin to cringe. I bet that half of these supposed "old-school" gamers don't even remember classic games like Rise of the Triad and Commander Keen. How about Halloween Harry? Does anyone even remember the term "shareware" anymore? If you want to know "old-school" just talk to John. He'll tell you all about his favorite Atari game, Custer's Revenge.
It's okay though, ignorance is bliss and what the kids don't know won't hurt them. I'll just simply smile and nod the next time someone tells me that the best entry in the Final Fantasy franchise was Final Fantasy VII.
When I'm not playing games I'm usually busy sleeping through classes at a boring college in Southern Oregon. My current hobbies are: writing songs for punk rock bands that never quite make it, and teasing Bart about... well just teasing Bart in general. I swear the material writes itself when you're around this guy. He gives new meaning to the term "moving punching bag."
As for games, I enjoy all types except those long-winded turn-based strategy games. I send those games to my good pal Tyler, I hear he has a thing for those games that none of us actually have the time to play.
When I'm not busy plowing through a massive pile of video games I spend all of my time trying to keep my cute little girl fed. She eats a ton but damn she's so hot. Does anyone understand the Asian girl weight principal? Like they'll clean out your fridge yet still weigh less than 110 pounds.
Currently I'm playing: THUG, True Crime, Prince of Persia, Project Gotham 2 and Beyond Good & Evil. View Profile