Ubisoft have just announced Ghost Recon Online, a free-to-play multiplayer game in their near-future combat series. I had the chance to play it at their offices in Paris earlier this month, and it's surprisingly good.
I say 'surprisingly' because free-to-play can sometimes mean cheap. Ubisoft have been working on GRO for 2 years, and it feels like a proper shooter - in fact it's remarkably slick. The visual fidelity is intentionally a notch below stuff like Crysis, to let it run on a wide range of systems, but the movement and shooting are satisfying. It feels to me like the halfway point between Call of Duty and Team Fortress 2: a modern-day military setting, but with classes based around unique and crazy abilities. But unlike either of those games, it's also cover-based, and stays in third person until you aim down your sights.
You unlock new weapons, upgrades and abilities as you play, but not necessarily for cash. Senior producer Hugues Ricour says "a player that decides to never pay can have the full game and the complete experience. We don't want a paying user to have a competitive advantage." You don't buy weapons earlier than you'd normally earn them, but you can buy consumables like grenades. Ricour says the other stuff you can spend money on includes new uniforms, special ammo, armour boosts and extra inventory space to store this stuff.
There are three classes: Assault, Recon and Specialist. Each is defined by a single main ability, and each gives a specific bonus to team-mates who stick near them. Recon soldiers can scan the nearby area to see all enemies, even though walls. Their passive bonus is that anyone standing near them also gets that intel on-screen.
Assault troops carry a heavy shield on their backs and metal braces on their legs. Their ability is to bring down the shield, making them invulnerable to damage from the front, and charge at inhuman speeds with their augmented legs. They can bash enemies to the ground with the shield, then switch to a weapon to finish them off before they get up. Their passive bonus boosts the armour of everyone nearby.
I can't tell you what the Specialist class does yet, they're saving some details for future reveals. But the main ability of each class is not fixed forever: at certain level milestones you'll unlock a new one. As you'll see in the trailer, the Recon can eventually get a personal cloaking device instead of his intel scanner.
Two things really impressed me about the way abilities work in GRO. One, that Assault shield-charge is immediately fun. The previously vicious kill zone becomes a hilarious playground with you as the bully, smacking people down as they try to scramble away from you. If you stop to finish one off, that's the end of your charge. But if you have a team-mate covering you, you can keep bashing people while your friend finishes them off.
Secondly, the passive abilities encourage close team-work in a way that's natural and intuitive. A thin line connects you to any allies who are close enough to receive your bonus, and give you theirs. So you not only know if you're close enough, you also know where they are. And a perk like seeing your enemies through cover is a strong incentive to stay close to your Recon guy.
Making the benefits of team-work obvious to everyone is important, particularly in a free-to-play game where you're auto-matched to a server. Team-work doesn't work if your team doesn't get it. So even if you personally don't need these incentives to stick with your allies, they'll help your allies stick with you.
I should note that while there's no server browser, Ghost Recon Online does have a party system so you and your friends can be sure you'll end up in the same game.
The cover system is surprisingly good - you see a highlight on the patch of wall you'll hug, then press the cover key to move to it. If you then hit 'Aim', you can peer round bit by bit in first-person, so you only expose as much of yourself as you need to.
In a more conventional shooter, it'd probably be too effective - choke points with only a few pixels of enemies visible to shoot at. But cleverly, all three of the class abilities are designed to break stalemates. Knowing where the enemies are, and where they're facing, lets you slip around them as Recon. An Assault guy barging in with full frontal protection makes them all flee cover to get away. And while I can't tell you what the Specialist's ability does, it certainly helps you get past an entrenched enemy line.
I have to admit I was pretty sceptical about a free-to-play Ghost Recon. I was imagining a drearily realistic online shooter with a bare-minimum design philosophy, and I feel like we've had enough of those. I was really happy to see that Ghost Recon Online is going for more than that, and it's already fun.