Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier doesn’t have you murder quite as many people as you might expect. Your mission to take down a Russian separatist faction is less violent than the average soldier-shoots-people game. You aren’t tasked with mowing down hordes of thugs, just the slightly more “realistic” burden of a few dozen assassinations per mission. As one of four members of the elite U.S. Army Special Forces “Ghost” team, selectively shooting bad people is your specialty. That highly coordinated violence is also pleasurably wrought, whether it’s executed with three computer partners or friends online. The violence in Ghost Recon is fun, but that isn’t what makes the game troubling. It’s the game’s constant reminders of your unshakable goodness that give me pause.
On this point, it is insistent. At the start of Ghost Recon’s second mission in Zambia, the very first thing you do is to prevent a rape. The game lingers on it—a long scene of local militiamen threatening terrified, wildly gesturing people, until one enemy soldier is left groping a woman. None of this can be skipped, as Ghost Recon is also teaching you a lesson about how to play: In addition to quietly shooting people, you need to quietly stab them from behind, the tutorial explains. Your character asks his commander for permission to mete out justice, and then your choice is whether to stab or shoot a rapist. No matter what, you get to hear your character say how the bad guy is going to hell.
This is Ghost Recon’s constant refrain: You are virtuous. Later it seems like the game may ease up on its message and concentrate on more prosaic concerns. Each outing has you using another high-tech gizmo—that’s the “future” part—as you unfold the mystery behind a series of arms dealers and those pesky Russians. A sensor can be tossed into a building as you sneak through, for instance, to let you know how many enemies are ahead.
There are flying cameras and remote-control robots, too—every mission brings a new toy. But each time it’s punctuated with one of those moments to remind you of your general moral incorruptibility. After a jaunt to Nigeria to rescue a CIA agent, the Ghosts are back at a base and a marine starts arguing with “Thirty,” your squad’s class clown, for cutting in a line. Someone else tells the marine to calm down—everyone is on edge since we got back from a village of dead kids, he says, so ease off.
If Ghost Recon wants to engage in some serious drama about the horrors of war, that would be great, but this is a 45-second scene about characters who aren’t defined by much more than a nickname and a beard. Who they are and why they do what they do isn’t essential information, apparently. Ghost Recon simply needs you to know that they have to see some ugly things while doing the Right Thing.
The further you can get away from the characters in Ghost Recon, the easier it is to enjoy its virtual jungle gym. Playing through these missions with another living person is an exercise in improvised choreography. The primary purpose of those enemy-finding toys mentioned above is to set up simultaneous shots. You hit a button to mark four enemies, one each for you and your teammates, before striking at the perfect moment when others won’t see you or the bodies of your targets. By yourself, the process feels sterile and rote, a nasty pairing with the game’s righteous posturing. With friends, though, setting up a steady, stealthy four way shot feels more like a dance, no more morally troubling than a laser tag match at the mall (which is to say a little troubling, but not a lot.)
Pretend violence is fun. One of the first video games ever made, Spacewar, was built by a bunch of MIT nerds that wanted to fly around fake spaceships and blow each other up. It can be cathartic, a safe place to exercise stress and strategic thought. It can also be deeply meaningful in the proper context. Ghost Recon is fun, but its mawkish need to prove itself obscures its merits, claiming it’s something it’s not. Ghost Recon isn’t a grand story about good people doing good things, so why does it pretend?