Ubisoft talk Ghost Recon: Future Soldier

We talk (really) modern warfare with Ubisoft's Aziz Khater

The Ghost Recon series has been looking towards future warfare long before Infinity Ward decided to drag its Call of Duty series out of World War II, kicking and screaming onto a more contemporary battlefield.

With Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, Ubisoft Paris is really going to town with the gadgets, bringing shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, invisibility cloaks and mobile drone turrets into the fray, giving you more choices beyond the standard run and gun action.

We caught up with the game's Product Manager, Aziz Khater to get a little insight into the latest in a long line of Ghost Recon titles, to discuss the challenges of implementing weapons and gadgets that have yet to exist and what impact future advances in military technology might have on the battlefields of tomorrow.

Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is coming out at a time when a lot of other publishers are bringing out similarly-themed modern war games. What makes this one different from Modern Warfare and the upcoming Medal of Honor reboot?

Well first of all, as you say this is one of the most competitive genres in the gaming market. Ghost Recon was one of the first games to stake a claim on modern combat at the time, and we really want to take things a step forward with Future Soldier. We want to take it further than Modern Warfare 2, and we really want to put the player in potential future warfare, 20 or 30 years from now.

Basically, I think there are some differences in the type of game we have other than the standard run and gun shooter, where you blowing shit up and running from everything. In Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, it's more about thinking than shooting, but we have the same production values and you can do this using multiple gameplay mechanics as well.

For example, we showed two specific experiences that will help you progress through the game. The Recon soldier, who travels slowly and silently to stealthily get the job done, and some long-range shooting using the Sniper. And you get two different approaches to playing the same level in that way. So I think that the game is quite different from our competitors, while offering a real squad experience. You're not just following one guy, who is shooting everywhere - you're actually part of a squad. That is one of the key differences.

Ghost Recon's always been a series known for its future technologies. How much of it is based on real stuff and how much of it have you taken a bit of artistic licence with and created yourself?

As is usual with all Ghost Recon titles, we have been working with lots of military companies for this project, including multiple weapons manufacturers and so we have connections with them. So all of the things that we have included in the game are based on authentic technology. Not exactly things that are being used or are planned to be used, but technology that would be reasonably believed to be invented and on the battlefield in that time frame.

In fact, we liaise a lot with our military partners for information, and we are always finding that universities - particularly ones like Tokyo - are posting videos of really distinct devices out of materials trying to reproduce optical camouflage systems, so we have taken it and pushed it a little bit to imagine what it may be in the next 30 years or so. So basically all of the technology that we are using has roots in the military.

How much of a design challenge is it to create a game based on wars that haven't taken place yet?

For us, the conflicts of tomorrow won't involve huge armies of soldiers, it will be based around small teams of really elite fighters - you could say that the guys in Future Soldier are the closest to being superhuman. There is only one person in every million that is selected for their physical and intellectual abilities for this purpose, so the wars of tomorrow won't be about sending large numbers of soldiers into combat, but more about small teams of elite troops to the places where they need to be, behind enemy lines where they can immediately solve the problem and eliminate any threat before it happens.

It'll be about using the most advanced technology like we have in the game, such as the remote drones that could be deployed, but devices like this already exist on the battlefield. Today, they're more like robotic guns that you can remotely control, but for Future Soldier we had to - again - push it a little bit. Tomorrow, we think these kinds of guns would be used to replace humans completely, to avoid casualties, and the only way to defeat them would be to have these really, really elite fighters.

And you'll be able to control those drones in the game?

Absolutely. And not only use it as a recon element like in the first Ghost Recon, but also use it to fight. It's a very exciting part of the game.

What other gameplay mechanics can we expect to find except for the controlling of the drones?

Well, I can't really tell you much right now or the PR will kill me, but what I can tell you is that we have some really fun, new mechanics including a brand new system of order, which is much more clear than the previous one. There are no more complex orders when it comes to managing your squad. It's just like what you see on the screen, you just have the minimum of information on screen that you need to allow for better visibility.

We see it as more like the iPhone. It's easy to use - one device that can clearly display all kinds of details and information that you need. So you're HUD is clear and straightforward, so you can point anywhere in the screen and you'll get information about the topography for example, which will perhaps give you the best places to snipe and so on. We think this makes a pretty big difference to the game.

You mentioned the iPhone, but were there any other technological inspirations?

We look at everything around us for inspiration from a technological standpoint. But mostly of course, we look towards the most advanced high-tech weapon technology being developed by the military.

Is it going to get progressively harder to do the future Ghost Recon instalments after this one, now that you've established this future setting? Is it going to be more difficult for you to continue to create futuristic weapons and settings?

Well, this game is coming 3 years after the previous one, so we are really treating this like a major project. There has been lots of research into electronics, prototypes of the game itself and different directions that we've tested, thrown away and restarted, and the Beta - due a couple of months before release - will further ensure this will be as good as can be. Maybe some of those discarded ideas will be revisited for the next instalment based on consumer feedback.

Have you put any thought into the dangers and impact of future war?

You get lots of ideas and scenarios from all kinds of media - movies, games and books for example - which put future warfare in a negative light. We try to project Future Soldier as a middle-ground - not that the future is or isn't scary, but rather 'this is what combat will be like in 30 years time.' So any dangers and impacts of future war would be told straight from the setting and the consequences, rather than the narrative. It's just reality, this is how the world of tomorrow will be. This is maybe a more positive spin on war, in that we can avoid casualties. Troops sent into missions will try to avoid killing, they'll try to avoid civilian casualties. These elite soldiers will be intelligent, educated to avoid conflict and they'll be the closest thing to superhuman.

So, advancing war technologies might not necessarily be a bad thing?

No, I don't think it is, really. From our point of view, the future is mostly about a way of weakening the enemy while avoiding loss of life, and I feel that's a benefit of unavoidable warfare. Rather than humans fighting in armies we completely avoid that scenario.

Do you think that this is now a case of history repeating itself, according to your visions of the future? Treyarch is developing Call of Duty: Black Ops, which has players doing exactly the same thing, with small, elite teams, doing undercover work during the Cold War, to avoid large-scale warfare. Is there a parallel between those eras?

Perhaps. You talk about Call of Duty and its gameplay, and there is no parallel there in the product itself because we at Ubisoft own this kind of elite spec-ops theme. This is a type of game we know how to do right, and will continue to keep doing it while looking forward to the future.

You said you were one of the first to push the envelope in terms of looking towards a future or modern warfare gameplay setting. Do you think that Activision and now EA owe Ubisoft something for following in your footsteps?

Maybe so (laughs). The point is that these are two different games in style and feel, and we are pushing that envelope further than Modern Warfare 2 in seeing right into the future of combat. Right now lots of competitiors are doing this, but we were the first ones, so we'll have to step it up further to retain our originality.

Ghost Recon: Future Soldier is slated for release in March 2011.

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