Ghost Recon Phantoms Review (PC)

Finally out of beta as Ghost Recon Online, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Phantoms is the online, 3rd-person multiplayer component from the Ghost Recon games, splintered off into its own free-to-play world. But don’t roll your eyes just yet as Ubisoft have done a fantastic job of creating a high quality online shooter with the kind of emphasis on tactics and team-work that you'd expect. If the player base can swell to improve matchmaking then Phantoms could be your tactical shooter of choice on the PC for years to come.

For the dozen or so hours I put into the game, Ghost Recon Phantoms was a tale of two design choices. The first, an excellent system of introducing players to the game in a closed environment for just the first five levels where every aspect of the game made playing it a joy. The second, the free to play model and matchmaking system breaking down as you progress from that early stage into the general game - a problem that may be rectified quickly if the player base increases. That concern alone shouldn't put you off the game - it's an excellent tactical shooter and even better if you aim to join a clan - but it's worth being aware of.

Wouldn't be a military shooter without some secret Russian base thingy

Before we get too critical let’s break down the different classes first. There’s just three to choose from but they each come with such distinct skills that I never felt Phantoms was lacking in that department.

. First we have the Assault class with shotguns and assault rifles. As you might expect this is the class for going head to head with the enemy or laying down suppressing fire with the MGs. This is also reflected with the two skills you’re given.

The Blitz ability lets you run down the map at full pelt while holding a riot shield in front of you. Aside from looking a little ridiculous this skill can devastate any sucker unfortunate enough to be caught in the charge slamming them to the ground and leaving them incapacitated for a few seconds, giving you the option of ending the charge and wasting him or letting your teammates take care of it.

The ADS skill releases everyone's favourite anti-liberty device, a personal drone, to unleash hell onto a cover location. This isn’t just a proxy for unloading a clip into a wall to keep the enemy in check, it’s about blasting a cover area with so much heat that even well-protected soldiers can take damage. Excellent for combining with a flanking manoeuvre although if you're deploying this attack you can do little but stand about like a lemon until it's finished.

The Support class uses light machine guns and you’re granted the Blackout ability to knock out enemies players HUDs and technical systems. Sound dull? Well how about a 7-10 second force field that renders you impervious to damage but still able to fire on the enemy? Totally overpowered but also totally awesome when you need to defend against a coordinated push against a control point.

Recon is the most popular class that I’ve seen out there and it’s not hard to see why. The combination of SMGs and bolt-action rifles means this class can snipe dudes from afar and deal with close encounters too. The Scan ability visually reveals nearby enemies and if you feel like a touch of Predator action then the Cloak ability will be invaluable for getting behind enemy lines.

These skills are the cornerstone of what makes Phantoms different and interesting to play. The key to this design is how other players respond to these tools and how the free-to-play model integrates with it. Surprisingly, I found the player-base already filled with those willing to talk (either by voice or chat) and crucially, wanting to play that way. Linking up with your comrades and co-ordinating attack or defence has led to some of the best online multiplayer experiences I’ve had in a long time.

There's a pretty good mix of maps from streets to subways

Those skills I mentioned are crucial to winning or losing a match so their deployment is highly important. With long cool-downs you really only get a chance to use them a couple of times but this places even more emphasis on combining them with your comrades and getting the class mix just right. A Blitz charge can be disastrous if no-one is there to back you up - then it can turn into a match-winning move. This risk/reward side to Phantoms is what makes the matches enthralling and exciting - far more than any Call of Duty multiplayer session can be.

So let’s tackle the massive free to play elephant in the room and how it affects the balance of play. Since Ubisoft launched the game from its years-long beta state they’ve updated the matchmaking system and made sure that a players equipment, as well as their experience and level, comes into consideration when creating matches. This means, in theory, that someone running up Daddy’s credit card bill shouldn’t be matched with a player with just the baseline equipment. It’s a logical step and a great way of ensuring those playing don’t feel like they’ve got punked by pay-to-win players.

Those weapons and armour can be bought or upgraded in the shop and there's a ton of customisation built into the game. Weapons can have different barrel types, silencers, stocks or ammo plus cosmetic effects too. All weapons, skill items and armour also has a tiered system as well, needing you to unlock each tier as you go in order to purchase (with real-money or in game currency). It means you can't just buy the best from the start and that there's a good sense of progression with such a lot to unlock.

The other system Ubisoft have used is a beginners bracket that only allows those from level 1-5 to play together and closes off that option once you’ve reached level 6. This is a system you’re starting to find in most free-to-play games and I’ll admit the best part of my time with Phantoms was spent in this bracket.

Once you step out into the big bad world the game changes. The matchmaking system I just extolled seems to break down a little due to the lack of players in the game. I consistently matched against guys who were toting seemingly vastly superior weapons and kit, doing a great job of wiping the floor with me.

I’m happy to admit I’m less than stellar at these kind of games but the obvious advantage was there and it seems that once you graduate from the beginners bracket then you’d better start taking it seriously or you’re toast. That’s all well and good - there’s clan support for those who want to take that route - but for those wanting a more, dare I say, casual experience may find it hard going.

Phantoms is quite upfront about its free-to-play nature offering a multitude of weapons, consumables, XP boosts etc. You can, if you so wish, subscribe to Phantoms for a monthly fee (called the Athena Armory Access) to unlock more XP boost abilities, weapon proficiency upgrades and members only items.

The old walking-blindly-towards-cover tactic. Never ends well

These will all give you an advantage over non-paying members but if you're pumping real money into this game at that rate then you’re probably clan material and us lesser mortals shouldn’t be too affected by that - certainly not if the matchmaking system does its job.

It’s easy to criticise this free-to-play model but the core of the game remains excellent and the mismatching of players may be down to a current small active user base, rather than an inherent design flaw. Despite these concerns the first 6-8 hours of Phantoms is highly enjoyable and although I had the option of using money to gain an advantage I stuck with the stock weapons and still had a blast - that’s really pretty awesome for a game that costs nothing.

Top Game Moment: Running behind my Assault-class comrade as he charges forward with a riot shield and mopping up the fallen enemies.

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