Island Thunder is the second expansion pack for Red Storm
Entertainment's Ghost Recon. Thunder moves off to tropical climes, away
from Desert Siege's Africa and the original corpus' European setting.
Like the other expansion packs, there's a fictitious near-future story
behind Thunder. In a Cuba without Castro for years, it is now 2010 and
in place of hard-nosed communism is a drug kingpin who wants control of
the island nation for his own purposes. Cuba being in America's own
backyard, the Ghosts are sent in to curb drug trafficking operations and
stabilize the situation so that democratic elections can ensue.
A noble and lofty goal, the setup is an interesting one but the actual
action is brutally difficult. Thunder's island setting means much of
the eight-mission campaign is shrouded in fog and interspersed with
rain. Night vision is atrociously horrible in stormy weather. I hadn't
known Cuba was so rainy because judging from this alone, I'm definitely
not taking a vacation there anytime soon. The fog, like the urban
environs in Desert Siege and the original Ghost Recon, turns any ragtag
militia group into a deadly fighting force. However, unlike the action
you saw in the streets of European towns or desert shanties, the Cuban
fighters will be attacking from afar and with numbers too. The only
sufficient way to counter this, of course, is to use a slow and
methodical fashion in approaching your objectives. If you managed to
run and gun the original missions and some parts of Desert Siege, you
won't be able to in this outing.
In spite of that, I'm pretty sure Ghost Recon veterans will still think
some of the missions are a breeze. The eight missions include a fair
bit of everything. There are escorts, convoy interdictions, demolitions
and capture objectives. Interestingly, there is also a U.N. style
defend mission where you have to protect the voting polls for a
democratic election, including would-be civilian voters. And you
thought they had it tough in Florida.
However, there are new additions to the fray. Some elements, like
insertion and extraction are given new meaning. Helicopters (and in one
mission, a raft) are actually shown on-screen as you move into the
operating area. You still won't be able to ride them, a la Operation
Flashpoint or the Delta Force series but it gives justification as to
what you're doing. Previously, I thought it was a bit underwhelming,
fighting through a whole fortress of paramilitaries armed to the teeth
only to find the extraction point gave me a singularly disappointing
message of, "You've reached the extraction point", or something equally
What's not depressing is the addition of new multiplayer features. All
eight new missions count towards multiplayer but the developers have
tacked on another five arenas. Each represents a different (usually
more tranquil) part of the Cuban island. Smaller in terms of geography,
these will be good for multiplayer sessions with fewer players. The
developers have also added some anticipated reform to the respawn
section. Not everyone is a professional at Ghost Recon. While purists
won't use it, the respawn section is now expanded to support respawning
based on time, like the recently released Battlefield 1942,
Counterstrike, America's Army, so on and so forth. You can continue to
use team, individual or infinite lives but now you can mix all three up
with specific time-based rules, including limited invulnerability.
These should prove useful in the new competitive mode, Behemoth, but the
best addition is in the co-operative sphere.
Co-operative players will want to look forward to the Defend game type,
which pits a squad of Ghosts against a gauntlet-style rush of enemies.
Here, you'll be restricted to a radius around a smoke signal and will
have to use whatever cover around you to fend off wave after wave of
enemy soldiers. While it's slower to pick up than some of the third
party mods I've tried, the defense can get pretty hectic, especially
when you can't leave very far from the starting point. I often wish
they would actually tell me when I was about to leave the operating
area. As it stands now, if the entire squad meanders too far away,
you're considered captured by the enemy. But it's a much-needed game
mode to spice up the existing fare and it gets tricky, especially when
the enemy starts tossing grenade at you.
Unlike Desert Siege, the grenades don't appear to come in a scripted
manner in Thunder. Thunder's Cuban troops resort to grenades often,
particularly if you have bunched up your team in an enclosed area.
Coupled with the fog, they're a tough adversary to beat despite being
armed with whatever was left behind by the Cuban communists and the
tools of the drug trafficking trade.
On the other side, there are new weapons including an SD25 sniper rifle,
which should increase the appeal of the sniper since it is less prone to
movement and more versatile than the traditional longer barrel rifles.
There's also an FN M240G, which uses the same sound effects as the M249
SAW. With a smaller clip, it's considerably more controllable than the
SAW. Finally, the most interesting addition is the MM-1 grenade
launcher. I should stress it's a grenade-only launcher so a backup
weapon is much advised. One specialist or unlockable hero doesn't seem
to share that sentiment though. However, the MM-1 is great as a support
tool. I often take control of the lone sniper as platoon leader and I
found the MM-1 enabled me, as platoon leader, to play more effectively
at support in a different, up front manner.
While I was pleased with some necessary reforms to flesh out the
multiplayer component, a lot of these could easily have been done in a
patch. And some of the complaints that were addressed by Thunder were
ones raised for the original Ghost Recon last year. Here's one that
wasn't addressed. Platoon leaders continue to be bottled up with
tactical strategy and because you can't move and strategize at the same
time on the map, it's an inconvenience, particularly when someone throws
a grenade at you as you are setting your waypoints. There has to be a
way to make their lives easier, considering in the single player
component, you're always the platoon leader. Something has to be done
to enable them to effectively lead from the front, rather than stay
behind and give orders in hiding.
Finally, the difficulty level will undoubtedly spur a few people away.
It's not crazily impossible or unreasonable but it's not as easy as some
of the missions presented earlier. Those who have reason to loathe
Ghost Recon, won't find solace in Thunder. No one who thinks
Counterstrike represents the pinnacle of first person shooter realism is
going to change religions and suddenly embrace Ghost Recon via Thunder.
One year after the release of Ghost Recon on the PC, this venerable
franchise will be appearing on consoles. Much of the fanfare will be
stolen by the Xbox version due to the inaugural debut of Xbox Live.
There's no doubt Thunder brings some credible improvements to Ghost
Recon but it may not be embraced by fans as well as Ubisoft and Red
Storm Entertainment would hope, especially since the next installment of
Rainbow Six is just around the corner.