The first thing I noticed while watching a team of two Ubisoft developers play through a new level of Ghost Recon; Future Soldier wasn't the Zambia setting or the rolling wave of dust and smoke created by a crashing plane, it was how clean everything looked.
Gone were the screen-filling, often distracting augmented reality icons that both helped set the upcoming third-person shooter apart from others of its ilk and make it a bit of an eyesore.
The change, while strictly limited to the user interface, had a surprisingly deep impact on how I viewed the game: Suddenly I was interested in Ghost Recon again.
When I saw (and played) the game just prior to E3, it showed a future soldier armed with weapons that had a floating circle around it, a sort of halo that delivered pertinent information to players. The perspective also displayed the word "minefield" floating over the danger in the game off in the distance.
But seen at Gamescom this week much of that was either missing or so toned down that I didn't notice it. After the demo ended I stayed after to double check my memory.
Roman Campos Oriola, lead game designer, confirmed that following E3 the team decided to tone down the augmented visuals of the game. They did it partly because they felt the abundance of information was cutting down on how players went through the game and partly because they seemed to recognize that the game was a bit cluttered.
When I asked him if the user interface had changed, Oriola's initial response was: 'We've polished it." But then he added that there are indeed less things on the screen.
Oriola also pointed out that the level shown at E3 was a "proof of concept map" one designed to show off a lot of different things in a short period time. "It was too condensed," he said.
The map shown at Gamescom seemed a little less loaded up with floating icons. Called simply "Zambia". Oriola said that it will be the second mission in the game. In it you and a team of three other soldiers are investigating a weapon smuggling operation.
The mission, like most of the game, allows you to approach the level and its enemies with guns blazing or by sneaking through. The level opens with you and your squad blending into the sand and rock background of the area with the help of the game's active camo. The soldiers seem to swirl as sand blows by.
Walking into camp, Oriola sets up in a tent and deploys a drone to scout the area. He's in the process of marking enemies when he's spotted and the bad guys open fire on him.
Throughout the battle there are still signs of the game's once over-the-top interface (grenades are framed with hexagon markers for instance) but it's relatively toned down.
The level wraps with a cargo plane taking off, losing an engine as it circles and then crashing in the distance A billowing wave of smoke and dust engulfs the soldiers as they walk toward the crash site. Switching vision modes, the enemies and vehicles show up as white on a blue backdrop.
Free of the distracting eye-candy, I start to see Ghost Recon: Future Soldier for what it is: A sandbox shooter that will play more like Crysis 2 then Call of Duty. And that's exactly what I was hoping for.