Tom Clancy must be an extremely busy man. When he isn't churning out a new book every two weeks, he is putting his John Hancock on a successful series of computer games. The latest game to carry his name, an expansion pack for Ghost Recon called Island Thunder, manages to maintain the realistic graphics and gameplay as well as the convoluted military storylines that Tom Clancy is famous for. If you didn't like Ghost Recon or find that tactical first person shooters aren't your cup of tea, Island Thunder offers nothing that will change your mind. If you are a fan of Ghost Recon, expect more of the same from Island Thunder.
The setting for Island Thunder is Cuba in the year 2010. Fidel Castro's death has plunged the country into political turmoil. Under the interim president, free elections are promised to the people of Cuba, but powerful drug lords would rather their country did not change from Communism. A request for international assistance to safeguard the election is sent out and answered in the form of the Ghosts. The Ghosts are an elite infantry unit of the United States that places the newest weapon technology in the hands of only the best and brightest soldiers. It is up to the Ghosts to ensure that democratic elections take place, and so Island Thunder begins.
Island Thunder is a tactical first person shooter. This type of game is often referred to as a "thinking man's shooter", and that really is the best description for it. You are in command of three teams of commandos made up of two men each. You are in complete control of choosing what type of soldiers you want in each team, as well as equipping them with weapons. There are snipers, riflemen, demolitions experts and a few others at your disposal and it is up to you to put together the best teams to finish each mission.
The gameplay in Island Thunder isn't what you'd typically expect in a first person shooter. Rather than running down corridors with guns blazing, you have a wide-open environment to explore and stealth is much more important than speed or raw power. Sneaking through the jungle and taking your enemies out with a sniper rifle from a distance makes up a majority of the gameplay, so fans expecting a fast and furious FPS experience should look elsewhere. It is absolutely necessary to have a plan of attack in order to keep you men alive. If you go charging out into the open, you can and will be killed. Island Thunder is a military simulation, so tactical thinking on your part will get you that much closer to success and will keep your men alive just a bit longer.
In Island Thunder, you have to be a pretty good shot because if you fire on an enemy and miss, they will almost certainly shoot and kill you before you can line up for another shot. This is by far the most maddening aspect of the Ghost Recon series. The enemies are insanely accurate and getting shot by snipers that you are never going to see only serves to frustrate. More often than not I would get plugged by a sniper and be left staring at my computer screen, furrowing my brow in a useless attempt to figure out what the heck had just happened. Most of the time, I have to admit, Island Thunder is not very fun in the traditional sense of the word. The thing that draws people to it and keeps them coming back for more is the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction of finally passing a mission. The only game of recent memory I can think of that was like this was Stuntman on the PS2. Trying the same scenarios dozens and dozens of times isn't fun, but when you finally do complete a level you can't help but keep playing the game. Island Thunder is a difficult game even on the easiest difficulty setting, but it manages to be just enjoyable enough to keep you coming back for more.
Controlling Island Thunder is the same as controlling any other FPS. The W,A,S,D keys control your movement and you aim with the mouse. You can also lean around corners, duck behind cover, and crawl on the ground. The zoom function of the sniper rifle is assigned to the scroll wheel on the mouse which makes it easy to zoom in and out, something which you'll be doing an awful lot in this game.
The graphics in Island Thunder are really quite beautiful. There are eight missions that will take you from lush tropical forests to a beach resort to a city to a heavily guarded enemy stronghold. The graphics are extremely realistic looking and each of these very different locations manages to look outstanding. Rain and fog are also very well done and actually affect the gameplay. The rain soaks into uniforms and they really do look wet. There aren't many fancy special effects, but explosions and tracer rounds whizzing past are recreated perfectly. Overall, the graphics look great and add immensely to the realistic feel of the game.
Sound also plays a key role in making Island Thunder as realistic as possible. There is music on the menu screens, but not during the missions. This is acceptable, though, because I don't think there is a big dramatic soundtrack playing over every battle in the real world. Sound effects such as birds out in the jungle or the waves crashing on the beach help immerse you into the world. Soldiers cry out when shot and will say a few words now and then as well. The guns in Island Thunder sound realistic and, most importantly, they are loud. The sound, just as much as the graphics, does an excellent job of presenting a realistic atmosphere that draws you into the game.
Overall, Ghost Recon: Island Thunder is an exercise in both extreme frustration and sheer joy. The graphics and sound are outstanding and everything in the game just oozes realism. Playing through Island Thunder requires patience, though, so if the prospect of getting shot by enemies you can't see over and over again doesn't sound very appealing to you, then you probably already skipped Ghost Recon when it came out a year ago. For fans of Ghost Recon, Island Thunder is a great expansion pack that is well worth the $20 price tag. There isn't really anything new in Island Thunder other than a new story and new environments, but what more do you need?