"Xbox gets its first expansion pack, but is it really an expansion?"
Ghost Recon on Xbox sold over a million units so it was inevitable that the PC expansion Island Thunder would make the transition across to console. It is the Xbox's first expansion pack for a game but it doesn't require the original Ghost Recon. Can it live up to the pedigree set by its predecessor?
The year is 2009, Castro is dead and Cuba is in the midst of an election campaign. A faction known as the FDG is terrorising people who are supporting the other parties and it is up to you, the Ghosts to make sure a fair and democratic election occurs. The storyline winds through the initial movements of the FDG faction before the actual election day. You're part of a Ghost squadron, a military unit created from the best of the best around the globe and your mission is simple make sure the elections are a democratic vote with no casualties. It sounds easier then it actually is.
Ghost Recon: Island Thunder features eight brand new missions for the single player campaign. Missions will follow on from each other like in the original game and as players progress further into the campaign, the difficulty level rises with more objectives required and tougher enemies. Missions include seizing a faction camp, protecting a polling booth on the election day and storming a stronghold just to name a few. Each mission has unique objectives keeping the campaign fresh and intriguing.
There are two ways to play Ghost Recon: Island Thunder. Letting the AI team mates do all the work, or completing objectives yourself. The user interface in Island Thunder is superb and a true indication that Red Storm took its time with the Xbox port of the Ghost Recon franchise. Using the left trigger will bring up a command screen in which players can command their own or other squadrons, set waypoints and change which individual member they are controlling. Rather then getting into the action, players can send AI members further ahead to eliminate a threat. Very useful especially in missions where a tank or other enemy structure has to be destroyed by a demolitions expert. This replaces the planning phase players may have seen in Rainbow Six titles.
Before each of the eight missions you are briefed and must select members of a squad for the upcoming mission. If you don't have the correct equipment (for instance an anti-tank personnel on a mission which involves tanks) the game will warn you before commencing the mission. Casual gamers can choose auto-assign and the best team members left will be chosen, or you can choose your own soldiers from the list. If a soldier is killed in action they will not be available for the entire campaign and there is a limited number of each unit.
With Tom Clancy's name on the cover you can expect a high degree of realism and Island Thunder does not disappoint. The weapons each unit has, such as an M16 or M249 are based on what real world units like the Ghosts use. Each has been replicated well and just by looking at the soldiers in game, it is easy to tell which weapon they are holding. Also after giving orders, soldiers will not only voice communicate with each other but use true to life hand gestures.
There are numerous ways each of the missions can be played. Modes such as firefight, recon and defend add to the replay level of Island Thunder. Firefight places you in a mission environment with the task of taking down all enemies. Recon tasks you with getting your team members from one side of a level to the other unscathed and defend sends swarm after swarm of enemies at your current position. One nice addition would have been the lone wolf scenario from Rainbow Six, but these modes do add a significant level of replay. As the campaign can be finished in one sitting quite easily, most time will be spent here or on Xbox Live. Completing some of these tasks will unlock new soldiers to be used in the campaign mode.
The AI is hit and miss unfortunately in Island Thunder. At times they show a decent amount of individuality whilst other times they look plain dumb. Shooting an enemy unit dead, can at times draw no reaction from a unit standing next to them, at other times they can spot you a mile away and pick you off easy as pie. They will dive behind cover to reload or wait for when you have to reload before making their move. They can impress but they aren't without their flaws. This expansion is tougher then the Ghost Recon campaign, so playing through the original is recommended.
The missions in the campaign are set in three distinct environments; jungle, beach and cities. Each mission brings with it new dangers, for instance in the jungle environments, enemies hiding behind trees etc while in cities players will have no cover. Each environment is heavily detailed but the graphics haven't been greatly improved on since the original game. Missions are set both during the day, and in the evening as well as having varying weather effects. Fog and rain can greatly affect your accuracy making missions much tougher.
Graphics wise, Island Thunder isn't pushing the Xbox to it's limits but it does look great, especially the Ghost unit models. They animate well during tasks such as reloading and positional damage is included. If a unit is shot in their leg they will clutch their leg etc. Sound effects have just been ported from the original game but the voice acting especially from your commander is excellent, it gives a true sense of a military action.
Island Thunder is very Xbox Live oriented. Unfortunately because it's still not available in Australia (next month!) we weren't able to take this game online but once Live is available in Australia we will revisit it in an Xbox Live overview article. Multiplayer via split screen and system link is also available. The development team have ported four of the original multiplayer maps. Players can play on original Ghost Recon servers using those maps.
Island Thunder is a great expansion to an already great game however its not without its flaws. The enemy AI at times is laughable and only having eight missions means it can easily be completed in one or two gaming sessions. However that aside, players will find a very playable strategic simulator. It has pick up and play gameplay, but also features the depth to keep veterans interested.