Ghosts in Cuba latest Clancy epic

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

The Ghosts are in Cuba.

The latest videogame to carry author Tom Clancy's blessing is "Ghost Recon: Island Thunder," from Red Storm and UBI Soft for Xbox. It's an excellent follow to last year's "Ghost Recon."

The game is set in a near-future, post-Castro Cuba where free elections are finally scheduled. But politics never runs smoothly on the island nation, and the Ghosts are sent in to try to protect the voting.

That chore takes them through eight new missions, from capturing tons of Soviet weapons to guarding election headquarters. The game is short, but it's packed with the kind of stealthy sneaking and gun-blazing action that made the original so popular.

At the start of each mission, you receive a briefing which details the situation and gives you a list of objectives which must be completed.

The soldier Ghosts are a crack recon squad divided into two three-member teams that can be controlled separately. Leave Bravo team to protect hostages while you take Alpha team exploring for bad guys, or send half your team in one direction and surround enemies with the second squad.

An objective in each mission is to come home with all six GIs still alive. You can complete the mission if even one Ghost remains, but keeping the team alive from mission to mission gives them experience points which make them more effective in later rounds.

As usual, each Ghost can be armed individually to fit the circumstances. If you're ordered to take on tanks, make sure you have a team member with a tank buster. Bring explosives to use on targets that need blowing up. Be certain you have a sniper along to pick off targets at long range.

None of the eight missions is particularly difficult, but there is plenty to keep you busy. That includes a lot of ducking, because the forces opposing you are smart and have been practicing their marksmanship. Your teams will suffer a lot of one-shot kills, so staying low and using cover is vital.

Visuals are excellent. The weather plays a role in several of the levels, and trudging through a rainy jungle is especially tasty. Walk under rain sluicing off a roof and listen to the sound change to a hiss as it hits your helmet and runs off. It's not revolutionary, but it's beautifully done.

You can also design your own missions, and there is a multiplayer mode which is compatible with Microsoft's online network, Xbox Live.

Graphics get a B. Backgrounds are well-rendered; there's not a lot of flash, but everything is solid and serviceable. The Ghosts look good and move in a realistic fashion; if you didn't know better, you could almost be watching a movie. There's not much new here, hence the downgrade.

Control gets an A. Everything works just as it should; the control scheme is easy to learn and logical in its layout.

Sound also gets an A. This is a game where less is definitely more. The ambient sound -- jungle noises, a tropical downpour -- is perfect, as are the weapons effects and the muffled, infrequent radio chatter between the Ghosts.

Give "Ghost Recon: Island Thunder" a B+. I wish it had been longer, but if you like action games that make you think, it's a must-have.

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