Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Ground Branch - the return of Ghost Recon?

Any of my mysterious and anonymous readers (I know you exist, I just don't know who you are) will know after all this time that I am a huge fan of the original Ubisoft Ghost Recon computer game (read about it's history at WIkipedia)...


This game was released in 2001 and what attracted me to it was it was one of the few decent action games available on the Apple Macintosh platform at the time. It allowed you to host multiplayer 'deathmatch', 'team deathmatch' and - importantly 'co-operative' games on your computer which you could advertise to the world using gateway/lobby systems like GameRanger.

This was my first taste of online multiplayer battlefield FPS.

Additionally, Ghost Recon was one of the very few games that was truly cross-platform. You could host a game on your Mac or PC and players from either platform could join the server for LAN games. At the time I was an IT Support assistant at a university and at lunchtime our office would hold Ghost Recon and Unreal Tournament LAN games between the PC and Mac sections! (Incidentally, Unreal Tournament one of the other rare games that featured this cross-platform ability.)

Screenshot I made in April 2009 when I re-installed Classic Ghost Recon (again!)
in order to get some nostalgic 'retro' gaming! It's a mark of this game's success
and popularity that even today there is a hard core of fans who still play it!
I amaze myself at some of the obscure stuff I keep! This is one of my original team
tactical graphics I made based on the Classic Ghost Recon map 'Castle'. It illustrates
the best way to move around the 'course' in order to clear the AI enemy in a team
co-op game! We would compete to do this in the best time and fewest shots!

However, what really got me to be a fan of the original Ghost Recon (and it's two subsequent expansion scenarios) was the very open framework of the game's code which encouraged a thriving bedroom industry of third party modifications and add-on files. It is absolutely no exaggeration to say that if you could think of an idea for an expansion then chances are that some clever coder had made or was making a mod to fulfil your fantasies.

One of my favourite Classic GhR mods was 'Udmurtia Spetsnaz'
which, as you can see' added modern Russian Special Forces
uniforms and equipment to the game. It was this kind of fan
lead customisation that made the original game so popular.

Whether it be a range of obscure weapons or uniforms, or a scenario which reflected a particular nation or campaign or war there would be a mod for it. And if there wasn't you could actually go onto one of teh many Ghost Recon fan forums and actually float your idea and see if someone would pick it up and develop a mod for it! In this was a really close-knit community was built up and fans of the game became rather

Anyway, this golden age of fan led gaming came to a calamitous end when Ubisoft decided that all this enthusiastic fan support should be translated into financial gain (for them) and they release the first of a series of very, very disappointing official sequels in the Ghost Recon franchise.

Screenshot from the second official Ubisoft sequel to GhR - entitled 'Ghost Recon
Advanced Warfighter 2'.
To be honest I thought it was an OK game, you can see that
the graphics were pretty good, but it failed to impress die hard 'Classic' fans and in the
end suffered because it was neither one thing or the other, neither appealing to the
existing fan base or to those who, by now, were used to titles like CoD or BF2.

Now I won't fire off a half dozen paragraphs about why fans hated the 'new' Ghost Recon games (actually I didn't think they were too bad), suffice it to say that they moved too far from the formula that had made the first game popular and - importantly - Ubisoft killed off the 'open' nature of mod access and creations.

Ground Branch - the return of Ghost Recon?
Ever since Classic Ghost Recon (CGhR) - as the original game has become known to die hard fans - was effectively replaced by Ubisoft with the 'locked down' official sequels those with fond memories of the game have either tried to keep the original limping along or have prayed to the great cosmic entity for 'something similar' to come along that would be a sort of Classic Ghost Recon but with modern graphics (literally that's what many fans actually - word for word - asked for)!

Hope for the future - Ground Branch?

There have been a couple of false hopes, like when ArmA was originally announced some thought this might be the answer to their prayers. And likewise, when the similar Operation Flashpoint rip-off game was developed to compete with ArmA Classic Ghost Recon nuts got themselves all excited. But, as it turned out, in vain as these games - while embarrassing a rather more serious approach to infantry FPS - turned out to be a little too much sim and not enough fun (and their user interface was a dog's breakfast).

What Classic Ghosters seemed to want was a game that struck the right balance between 'arcade' infantry acton games like Call of Duty and Battlefield and the great plodding 'sim' infantry productions like ArmA and Operation Flashpoint. Well, last year there seemed to be a chink of hope for us when a new game was announced by Blackfoot Studios called Ground Branch.



Ground Break was a Kickstarter development which sought funds from fans in order to get it to the release stage. It was enthusiastically promoted and supported by the largest Ghost Recon community hub - GhostRecon.net - and promised to be the game we all really wanted.


What gave this notion some credence was that some of the development team had actually worked on the original Ghost Recon and were savvy with the philosophy behind the game. Also one of the stated features of this new game was the intension to support 'mods' and a high level of character customisation...



While the original Kickstarter campaign failed to gather the necessary funds to take the development all the way through to release, as hoped, the response from fans was sufficient enough to keep the development team beavering away at the concept. And now it seems this perseverance has born some fruit as they have just announced that they are nearly ready to release "...our own Early Access on this [www.groundbranch.com] until we have a build that can officially go up on Steam Early Access".

Now, this has gotten me - and other Classic Ghosters - very excited as it all looks very promising. Now don't get me wrong, I DO NOT think this is the Hoy Grail of battlefield infantry shooters, it will not blow CoD, Battlefield or ArmA out of the water, BUT it will fill a particular niche between the action shooters and the tactical sims.



In a way it is a return to a BROAD gaming marketplace, rather than the modern narrow marketplace that holds only a very few predictable gaming 'models'. And this is what excites me, that games like these - which are more peculiar to a smaller market of gamer's requirements - are made rather than us constantly being force-fed the regurgitated and formulaic products that the big development companies dictate that we should play.

Even if Ground Branch as a game type does not appeal to you the philosophy of player/fan inspired development should do...Unless you really feel that you want to go on playing Call of Duty for the rest of your life!

Link: Blackfoot Studios official Ground Branch website and forum.

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