Last year's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter was a first-round knockout for Ubisoft in the next-gen ring. It showed up with few contenders, wowed everyone, and went on to sell massive quantities. Chalk one up for the French. One year later, Ubisoft Paris and Red Storm have again combined forces to bring us the Ghost Recon that last year's effort should have been, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 (GRAW 2). This is the "super plus alpha" version of last year's game, tweaked, polished, and enhanced in nearly all of the right areas. But after seeing screenshots and a few movies of the game, why then are you asking yourself whether you should buy it?
The answer is two-part. Either you loved GRAW or you didn't. Ghost Recon may sell well to the masses, but it's still an acquired taste. Some people love the slower paced, methodical gameplay, the gadgets and the precision techniques, and other people, they like their games a little faster, perhaps with different cover systems, maybe even a little more arcade-style. No matter. Ghost Recon has followed its distinct path ever since it showed up to the delight of PC gamers back in 2001. There is something else too: GRAW 2 won't wow gamers as much as last year's edition because GRAW 1 was the first on the next-gen systems. It took the first big gameplay and graphical steps, and this year's game, in comparison, takes much smaller steps. It uses the same engine and the graphics aren't that different. It's called a sequel, and GRAW 2 is very much one in every sense of the word.
Does that make this sequel crap, worthless, or part of some money-grubbing conspiracy? Hardly. GRAW 2 is a better game than its predecessor in most respects, but the oh-my-gosh graphics just don't ring in with as much force this year. Ghost Recon in 2007 is all about subtle tweaks and small steps, whether we're talking about the new cross-com, the extended co-op missions, or the legacy and Southpaw support.
GRAW 2 is a third-person tactical shooter based on Tom Clancy's legacy of military novels and this game follows a handful of Ghost Recon titles including Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, Ghost Recon 2, Jungle Storm, Desert Siege and Island Thunder, to name a few. Gamers are given a solid, if slightly short, single-player campaign available in three levels of difficulty, a six-mission co-op mode pitting players against online enemy AI, and a hefty multiplayer (MP) mode. The co-op and MP modes support System Link and Xbox Live for up to 16 players while the local, offline mode enables up to four gamers to fight. Ubisoft refrained from adding any more players to MP mode, citing that 16 is a magic number for its style of gaming. But one wonders if adding another eight or 16 wouldn't change things for the better.
In the medium level of difficulty, the single-player campaign starts off relatively easy, gradually ramps up, and then peppers players with a few challenging sections. If you've played any Ghost Recon games before, however, the single-player game will last no more than eight hours and will warrant a second time through on hard mode. What makes it easier than expected is all the new tech support. You have so much more support than before, whether it's the all-seeing Cross-com, a new medic to patch up you and your team, or more vehicles to control. The enemy AI is relatively smarter than before, but it's just not that tough to beat in normal mode. For players who frequent Xbox Live MP sessions, you'll want to play it in hard.
The ease of play is a little disappointing, as is the campaign's brevity, but the co-op mode will take care of that need. The co-op mode follows a set of missions that parallels the main single-player campaign and whether it's done with six or 16 players, the AI is relentless and cruel (in a mostly good way) all the way through. The missions are familiar types of sessions that range from clearing out all enemies, helicopter hunts, holding a base, or a combination of variants. Both the co-op and multiplayer modes are chock full of good customization options, whether it's switching out eye glasses and boots or gameplay options such as time limits, kits, or game types. The co-op modes definitely add replay value and depth to the game, although one wonders how cool it would be to play through the campaign mode with other humans. Also one must ponder how much better the co-op and MP would be if players could actually use cover like in the single-player campaign. Well, there isn't the need to ponder this too long; it would be better.
The game controls are nearly identical to last year's set-up. Players can still hold their breath while sniping, and they can switch weapons, stances, or decide between firing rates all on the fly. As mentioned above, Southpaw and Legacy control types have been added, and Ubisoft cleaned up weapon swapping, making it more expedient to swap weapons in the middle of battle. It also streamlined the cover system, which functions almost exactly the same way as before, only it's slightly faster. Swapping weapons off dead soldiers is still a little wonky and slow, as is getting close to a wounded soldier who's standing next to a weapon you want. You'll even notice a little tweak to the rail-based helicopter sessions. The chain guns take longer to overheat, so you can shoot for longer and with better accuracy. It unfortunately makes these levels easier, too. My few complaints regarding character controls are that rolling while lying on the ground, is just too slow, and tossing grenades in MP is ludicrously sluggish and clumsy looking. Can it be any clumsier or embarrassing looking? I mean, why does my ghost have a spaghetti noodle for a right arm?
If that's funny looking, the Tom Clancy-style story presents its own style of "funny." Gamers take control of Captain Scott Mitchell, the lead ghost captain who saved the US from the Mexican rebel threat in GRAW as he returns to the US. It's 2014, less than one year after last year's episode and the rising conflict between Mexican loyalists and insurgent rebel forces has thrown Mexico into full-scale civil war where much bigger issues, such as nuclear bombs, are worrying the military brass. The Ghosts are called upon to face an imminent threat to the United States as a new war erupts along the border towns of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas.
As expected, there is no real character development or narrative intrigue here. Instead, you get the balls-to-the-wall General Keating who has returned to make your life a living hell…I mean challenge His over-the-top antics, colorful language, and insane demands seem to parody none other than himself. Even the opening cutscenes, in which Mitchell dresses down the hummer driver, indicates Ubisoft is making fun of its own over-the-top dialog. The only problem is the dialog doesn't get better as the game progresses. Still, compared to, say, Gears of War, at least it makes some sense, and the thin plot lines don't fall apart too drastically.
New Tools of the Trade
Capitalizing on last year's successful Cross-com and Nar-com devices, Ubisoft enhanced and improved its communication tools with one big step. Nearly all of the addition support teams now offer first-person perspectives and commands to control them independently in real-time. Last year's effort forced players to refer to their tactical map (which has returned in identical form) to move ghosts, the spy drone, tanks and helicopters. This overly deliberate mechanic slowed the action down and didn't connect the action with your tactics well. Now, in addition to the map, players can press and hold the right bumper on the Xbox 360 controller and see from the view of any selected support team.
What's really cool is that, while seeing from their perspective, you can control the ghost team. It's hard to fully convey the change, because it's subtle. But by giving players more control of their team, Ubisoft simultaneously improves the same-side AI in a fluid and seamless manner and adds another layer of depth to tactical fights. For instance, by taking control of a ghost team in a battle, you can switch between all three of their perspectives, target enemies, take cover, or pick attack or stealth modes. Technically, one can play entire levels from the perspective of the ghost team; doing so is definitely worth trying for the challenge alone (if not for the Achievements). If you have helicopter or tank support, you can see from their perspectives and you can control them too. Just press up on the D-pad like you control your ghosts and the vehicles will move and shoot. A red icon indicates when your reticule is locked on an enemy. This is an excellent if understated set of changes that gives players more control if they want it. It also helps to eliminate some of the more stupid mistakes same-side AI regularly makes. Your AI still isn't perfect. I found it bottlenecking in certain areas or not moving to the exact spot I commanded it to go to, but on the whole, your team is more functional than before.
As for the enhanced Cypher, its newly added abilities are awesome. Yes, seeing the map from a top-down perspective makes the playing field easier, but at the same time it's really cool to see the map from that angle. The new Mule is almost an after-thought. It hardly affects gameplay at all, except to provide some cover and more ammo, if and when needed. Tanks and helicopter support were in GRAW 1, but seeing from their perspectives changes GRAW 2 more significantly than expected. The single-player campaign is so much more vehicle intensive now; you really feel like you're fighting a war instead of a series of fire-fights. In several sections you'll have copter and tank support, which bolsters the feeling of power. And finally, the implementation of air support, which is similar in functionality to Full Spectrum Warrior and Mercenaries, is the icing on the cake. Air support is only available in a few sections, but the enemy has no counter attack as powerful. When that American jet soars in and drops its payload, you'll witness some of the best explosions around. The screen shakes, it's filled with smoke and particles, and the Dolby 5.1 surround sound kicks the base speaker nice and hard.
Speaking of the kick-ass explosions, the graphical side of GRAW is a study in paradoxical subtlety and over-the-top effects. At first glance the visuals look underwhelming and similar to last year's effects. Again, last year's effort was fantastic, but this game, one year later, looks very similar. In both the single- and multi-player modes you'll see little changes. The lighting model produces what appears to be the same amount of HDR effects, but more objects catch and reflect that light, causing a greater sense of realism across the whole game. The character models are better textured, and even the dusty, rocky mountains of the US-Mexico border look crisp and diverse.
The physics system doesn't just affect player models. Instead, it's built into everything in the game, from the characters to the cars to the tanks, helicopters, and various other objects in the landscape. When said objects explode, the physics engine kicks in along with the great particle and lighting systems to create superb explosions that show off great smoke and fire, all sorts of flying particles, and bouncing bodies and debris. The camera shakes smartly to help encourage the feeling of a massive explosion. They're also really, really big. And sometimes chain explosions cause double and triple the visual orgy of destruction. You'll see all sorts of streaming smoke bullet trails too. Enemy gun fire streaks across the sky, helping indicate where they are, but also creating perfect smoke streams that add color and flair to the action. And still, while GRAW 2 isn't the leap over GRAW 1 that all graphic tarts had hoped for, this year's model is one of the best looking games on Xbox 360. You can certainly see the difference in the co-op and multiplayer modes, where everything is better textured, constructed, and lit.
While the voice acting in GRAW follows a slightly absurd level of military fanaticism, and there are some questionable adjectives leveled at the Mexican army, the sound effects are excellent. The clinking, clattering sound of your ghost running with all his gear on sounds perfectly real. The clean crisp shots of counter snipes, the deep "poomff" of a Zeus bazooka going off, and the perfect click of a gun reloading also combine to create great realism and accuracy in GRAW 2. Sadly, the music is actually the same as last year's game. You'll hear the same dramatic military themes running throughout the menus and certain missions endings and although they are familiar, they feel very routine, very old, and very ready for some re-thinking.
Co-op and Multiplayer Expansion
Ghost Recon games never under deliver on offline or online content. They're always packed to the gills with stuff. Some of that stuff is only relatively cool. For instance, Ubisoft has hyped the added customization options for a while now, and while better glasses, hats, and face masks are decent, the range of clothing still remains relatively realistic and safe. What about female playable characters? They're in and they're cool by me. The range of changes, game types, new maps, fixes, and gameplay options, however, are worth touting.
This game offers six deep co-op missions that offer primary and secondary objectives that create tension and drama for just one team. It also offers nearly twice as many MP maps as in GRAW 1, with a greater level of diversity. My only complaint about the co-op missions was that the enemy AI was particularly good at sniping from totally unknown spots, killing players off left and right. The difficulty level seemed to vary drastically between the single-player campaign and the co-op modes, so there is a healthy amount of adjustment to do. And yet it was addictive and challenging. The multiplayer and co-op modes don't permit the same cover system as the single-player campaign. This limits your ability to use cover as effectively and it's rather restraining. Some bushes and foliage that look like perfect areas to hide and snipe aren't actually interactive, thus eliminating even more cover possibilities.
Planned but not implemented in GRAW 1 was support of clans. It's here now. Teams can pick names, colors, fatigues, mottos, message of the day, and list the details of said clan. You can search for your own clan, challenge other clans, kick or invite players. This is the first real support for any clans on Xbox 360 and it should start up a healthy level of competition on Xbox Live this spring.
While our Australian counter-parts experienced rough times with the multiplayer aspect of GRAW 2, our experiences were top-to-bottom fantastic. As with any game, lag does come into play, but in all of my 16-player matches, lag never ruined a match or hit me over the head like in other Xbox 360 games. There are dozens of game types and variants, and hosts have a great many choices to pick from aside from maps and guns. On the subject of spawning, a good team in GRAW 1 could totally exploit another team's set spawn points. That's much harder to do in GRAW 2, which spawns players within a region. The game uses good cover, enemy location, and recent team deaths to put players in a good spawn spots. Also, during the first few seconds of your spawn, you're invulnerable.
The lobby system is nearly identical to GRAW's, so that means you can change your weapon class while in the lobby, but the host changes things like teams. It's worth noting that once the level has loaded up, you can change your mind and switch weapons one more time. The only unfortunate thing about this lobby system is you can't see the game in action after you die. You just sit in the lobby and watch the time clicking away or people die and slowly appear in the lobby.
Click here to see more Xbox 360 Video Game Reviews