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Ghost Recon Commander makes every shot count on Facebook

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Ghost Recon Commander makes each shot count ... literally.

Ghost Recon Commander
Ghost Recon Commander

If publisher Ubisoft has its way, the next big Facebook game will be a decidedly intense experience packed with gunfire, explosions and drug dealers.

If publisher Ubisoft has its way, the next big Facebook game will be a decidedly intense experience packed with gunfire, explosions and drug dealers.

In the world of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Commander, players won't ask friends to water their crops, they'll hire them to go on anti-terrorist sweeps or hostage rescue missions. Players can level up a Special Forces operator by sending him out on missions and then controlling his actions in the battlefield. Viewing the colorful world from above, players use their mouse to move their tiny soldier around the map, set off explosions and shoot at enemies.

Released earlier today, Commander's timing couldn't be better. The game, packed with tactics, nuance and design depth, comes at a moment when longtime fans of traditionally casual Facebook games seem to be growing bored with those relatively shallow experiences.

Commander's general premise is fairly straight forward: send your soldier out on missions, kill the enemies before they kill you, and complete the objectives. Player start by selecting which of three classes they want their soldier to be, and then start working their way through the game's ten levels to complete them on all three difficulties. Once completed the levels can be replayed for higher scores.

The missions themselves seem fairly easy to complete, at first. Clicking on the map moves your soldier to that spot, clicking on an enemy fires at the soldier. Players are tasked with killing enemies, rescuing hostages, gathering intelligence, all by moving around the map with their mouse.

But Brenda Garno Brathwaite, lead game designer and COO of developer Loot Drop, points out that there's a lot going on behind those mouse clicks.

During an interview, Brathwaite called in coder Steven Markgraf to walk me through everything that happens when you have your soldier fire at an enemy.

First, Markgraf explained, the game checks to see if your character can actually see the enemy. Then it checks if your soldier's weapon is within the range of the enemy, and checks your soldier's accuracy with the weapon. Then it checks to see if, after firing a shot, the bullet hit any of the objects, like trees or fruit stands, that are between you and the enemy. The height of the object influences the chance of your bullet striking it instead of the bad guy. Finally, if you hit the enemy, the game checks to see what sort of damage you did based on where the enemy was hit.

Each click triggers this complex series of checks by the game, but they all happen instantaneously in the background of the game. All a player sees in their browser is a little message that pops up saying either you missed the enemy or how much damage you did.

The missions become even more tactically satisfying when you bring along some help.

The game allows you to hire mercenaries from a pool of pre-created soldiers or from the soldiers your friends are using when they play their game. If your hire a friend's soldier the friend gets payment from you, but no permanent damage is done to their soldier, even if they die in the mission.

The goal, Brathwaite said, was to create a system that not only rewarded cooperation, but also those players who take the time to level up their character. The higher level a character is, the more sought after he is likely to be.

Once in a mission with a group of players, you can set them up at choke points, send them into areas to flush out enemies or use other tactics to finish the mission.

Time outside the game's missions is spent in a player's basecamp. The basecamp is a place where players can use the money they earn during missions to purchase and place special items like a field hospital, firing ranges or specialized clothing. Each of these purchases add abilities or increases certain aspects of a player's character and team during a mission.

For instance, buying a ghillie suit and placing it in your basecamp makes it easier for your team to sneak up on enemies. Buying target ranges can increase your soldier's accuracy or the range of their weapons.

While you can play the game for free, there are some ways it tries to get you to spend.

Players health and ammo are both permanent. When you fire a short, or lose health, it's gone until you level up, when you pick up dropped items from enemies, or until you wait long enough to heal your soldier and replenish their ammo.

The other option, for impatient gamers, is to spend cash on ammo boxes. Players can also spend real cash on better weapons, clothing, gadgets, or structures. Some items can be purchased with the currency you earn on missions, other require skull tokens which can be purchased for cash.

The game is still being balanced, but Brathwaite said the plan is for players to get about 15 to 20 minutes of play in before they run out of ammo and have to either wait or spend cash to buy more.

"My model is like the arcade model," she said. "You can play for a pretty long clip and then if you want to play more you can buy more bullets or health.

"It's a dual economy, but the economy is pretty generous. I don't want players to feel constricted, like they can only play for ten minutes and then they have to get out of the game."

And the game has some other interesting hooks as well. It is currently tied in to the upcoming PC and console game Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. At the end of missions players are give a choice between different rewards. Some of those rewards are for Commander, others are used to unlock things in the console game.

Both games are tied to publisher Ubisoft's own Uplay network, which can track a gamer's habits, successes and failures in all of Ubisoft's games and allow rewards to move between the titles.

To fans of strategy games like Age of Empires, StarCraft 2 and Company of Heroes, the gameplay might feel familiar, but the challenge developers Loot Drop face is creating an easy to play yet deeply engaging game for those gamers, as well as folks more familiar with games like Farmville.

They also had to figure out a way to make the game feel like it was taking place in real time, even though on Facebook, players may need to step away or ignore the game at any given moment.

"We had this cool design challenge," she said. "How do you make a game like this on Facebook? If it plays like a console or PC title, when you go away you are going to come back and be dead."

The end result was a sort of hybrid title that mixes real time and turn-based gaming that can appeal to both players who will be gaming sporadically, five minutes at a time, and someone who is going to sit there for an hour and play, Brathwaite said.

"As a longtime fan of the Ghost Recon franchise, I wanted to make a game that would appeal to me both as a fan and a gamer," she said. "Ghost Recon Commander highlights the tactical gameplay that fans of the series will enjoy in a social environment that's accessible to all types of gamers."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come.Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.