Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter has been a long time coming. The game showed poorly at X05 last October, missed the November 2005 launch, then finally re-appeared in February for a March 2006 launch. Since then, we've had ample time to play and beat it in every imaginable mode, a rarity in the business, so that its launch is almost an afterthought. Having spent the last weekend playing it non-stop again, I've reached many of the same conclusions I arrived at before and a few new ones. GRAW, as we've come to call it, is a first-rate game, one that not only looks next gen, but plays like it.
The list of impressive additions is long and detailed, just as the feature list is, but the core elements to this game emerge from the single-player campaign's integrated presentation and graphics, which tie the game together like few before it. Both are impressive and well-handled and more significantly, they affect and enhance the most important thing, gameplay. GRAW is fundamentally the same methodically paced, squad-based sniper game of yesteryear, but the formula has been enhanced, polished, and realized in ways it's never been capable of reaching in prior generations. Of course, the online portion is vast, impressive, and deep in replay value, and it may very well be the reason to finally get on and stay on Xbox Live for the first time in this console's short history.
Let's start with the storyline. Still a Tom Clancy game at heart, GRAW puts you in command of Captain Scott Mitchell and a trio of ghosts as they enter Mexico City, Mexico, to oversee the implementation of the tri-country trade pact, NASJA. The game commences with a functional training session, but it's the first in-game, real-time cutscene that gets you pumped. You start in a helicopter and overlook the enormity of Mexico City, one of the highest populated cities in the world. Mitchell perches in the open side of a Blackhawk, hands clasping a heavy caliber machine gun, as it flies over what looks like 20 square miles of finely detailed urban architecture, countryside, and concrete.
The storyline hasn't changed much as a narrative, but the way in which it's told and presented is skillfully and artfully handled. When the helicopter lands, there is no rendered cutscene, no cut to load screen, no transition from the ideal graphics to the unfortunate and actual graphics. Nah, when you fly over that beautiful, enormous city and land, you step out right into it and start playing. You're going to experience this seamless transition again and again, but the feeling just doesn't get old. The resulting emotion is one of continuity, of unending intensity and spontaneity. Technically, you get a real-world feeling, or at the very least, you're given very good reasons to believe in the continuity of that world, without technical distractions or limitations snapping the spell.
A band of rebels, however, spoil the fun, killing the Canadian Prime Minister, seizing heavy weaponry, and causing civil disorder across the huge metropolis. Oh, and they threaten to take over the city. Your ghosts and you must save the Mexican president and vice president, recover vital information, and repel the uprising to restore order. Of course, that's quite a task for a small group of four, but you've got help. GRAW outfits you with modern warfare combat gear, weaponry, advanced electronics and communications gear, and some killer gadgets that make James Bond look like he's playing with Tonka Toys.
Your gear consists of a light-weight bullet-proof vest, an extensive set of weapons for riflemen, grenadiers, and marksmen, and a visor-equipped helmet with video and audio transmissions via the Cross-Com and the Nar-Com, two devices that quickly become your best friends. The visor idea sounds similar to Nintendo's Metroid Prime, but it looks and functions much differently. The Cross-Com, located in the upper-left hand side of your screen, enables you to communicate with your team, to see through their visors in realtime, and yours through theirs, and to command your squad, be it the ghosts, a cypher, helicopter or tank. The Nar-Com is a transmission device enabling communication to executive-level personnel, in addition to receiving local news broadcasts. The broadcasts would be more useful if there was something roughly interesting to say, but this Clancy story is essentially a generic recap of America's military operations in any number of countries in real-life, so you've heard them before. Again, this story isn't terribly good, but it's presented in an impressive and deft manner. It's so good in that respect, in fact, the bland story is easy to overlook and forgive.
This new weaponry comprises nearly the entirety of the game's most prominent feature list. Instead of cutscenes, we receive continuous streams of info on-screen in real-time. We're updated with news, fed new objectives, and can check a 3D tactical map that is once again not just a neat little 3D map via the Cross-Com. Just like everything else, the tactical map becomes functional as a real-time tool that serves to take tactical advantage of the enemy. Let's say you start a mission without a ghost squad, but with an AUV Cypher, a motorized spy drone that can ascend and descend into enemy territory to pick up enemy locations. Using the back button, players call up the tactical map and point the drone to an empty area at a high altitude. When it reaches the spot, press the left bumper and the drone lowers in altitude, picking up any enemies in the area. These enemies appear as red diamonds on the tactical map, indicating your position against theirs. You can change the map angle and positioning to see if there are marksmen in skyscrapers waiting to snipe you, or if there are tanks, anti-armor gunmen or plain old soldiers. Once spotted, the Cypher indicates all this information on the map. This simple tool seems useless, or at least, unnecessary at first, but it proves highly effective when outnumbered in the single-player campaign, and it's priceless in a multiplayer combat situation.
Moving your men isn't as complex or as sophisticated as Brothers in Arms or Full Spectrum Warrior. You have less control over dictating their exact locations, but the game does an impressive job of placing your squad quickly and in spots close to, or near, where you want them to go. Moving them is as simple as pressing up on the D-pad. To order them to regroup, pressing down does the trick nicely. You can also command them to act passively or aggressively, using the left bumper to switch modes on the fly. The ghosts usually do a good job of staying alive when in passive mode, attacking only when ordered or when shot at. They tend to take damage quickly when in aggressive mode, but you've got limitless health packs to patch them up and, interestingly, there is no major penalty for letting them all die in every mission.
Moving yourself proves far more reliable. You can drop down to a crouch or go prone. When running and pressing down on the left analog you launch into a dive. While prone you can roll left or right using Y. You can also climb over some objects, and you can stick to nearly any walls, enabling cover tactics. Just like previous Ghost Recon games, the sniping is excellent. The newly implemented controls enable a sweet breath-holding function, steadying the scope while aiming. When exercised, a meter indicates how much time you have before you run out of breath. When prone, you can see enemy soldiers' feet if they hide behind crates or cars and you can shoot out their ankles to draw them out. Or, if in range, hucking a grenade will quiet their rebellion right quick. Grenades are still pretty cumbersome, requiring you to press B to pull up a weapon menu, scroll through to pick grenade, and then holding the trigger and releasing, using a meter to show intensity and distance.
Moving the Cypher and any other additional support provided works in exactly the same way. Press up and down on the D-pad to order to attack or regroup, respectively. Using the tactical map, press a spot on the map, and the units will follow. There seems to be an approximately 5% chance your team won't actually move from its spot at all. In a few different missions they simply wouldn't regroup, no matter where I stood; 100 yards way, 50 yards away, or even 10 feet away in plain site. This glitch happens very rarely, but it will happen.
In the single-player campaign, the 12-plus missions are spread out with an excellent amount of variety, so sometimes you're on your own, while in others a team of ghosts will join up. Or, you might be lucky enough to have Blackhawk or Bradley tank support. To switch between the use of ghosts and UAV, or ghosts and a tank, simply pressing left or right on the D-pad enables command of the desired team. I like the instant access and quick control. It's intuitive and uncomplicated, yet provides excellent results. Also, it's just plain cool to see through the video camera of the unit you're controlling in real-time. Red Storm does an excellent job of re-creating the low-def visuals of such a video screen, replete with static waves, interruptions, and occasionally fuzzy pictures.
Speaking of level design, the missions are long, multifaceted, and seamlessly woven together so you'll hardly notice you've moved to another level. Red Storm's game renders the whole notion of levels redundant, to be honest. To complement the game's continuity, the mission variety is superb. You'll start in a typical hunt-and-destroy mission and then an APV shows up, replenishing ammo or a new ghost team, updating your objectives and so forth, and while you're standing on the streets checking the Cross-com update in your visor, a pack of enemies will take position three blocks down and just like that, you're off.
In one mission, you land in the countryside and must use the night visor to tromp through a poor shanty village book-ended by military camps, taking out each one with C4 explosives. You'll have access to a Blackhawk soon after, to take out a power generator -- still at night with the visor on -- and then after you'll have to infiltrate an entirely new section with Bradley tank support, followed by a foot campaign to eliminate three enemy tanks. Using all the vehicles is way fun, and while sniping and helicopter usage has been done before (namely in Rainbow Six Lockdown), it's exceptionally well handled here. Getting into the helicopter brings spontaneous joy. Sometimes it's just for a ride, other times it's to mow down Mexican rebels cursing out your momma. Here, the reticule appears and as the copter pitches and swerves through the sky, you must cut down down the enemies, managing the machine gun from over-heating with short, accurate bursts. In several sections, you must clear the ground of all rebels to land the copter before being taken down yourself. Every single one of the copter missions is kick-ass fun.
In another mission, you'll have to take out communication devices that scramble your visor, creating a disorienting vision on your screen, after which you'll need to climb into an enemy camp, plant C4 explosives on tanks, and then escape from helicopter fire (while using the night visor). In yet another totally different mission, you'll have to clear the streets for a Bradley convoy, but you're restricted to the rooftops and snipers run rampant across the skyscrapers along your path. Later on you'll reach the ground, when a copter, with a general in it, crashes. In this one, you'll have to chase it through enemy camps, find the escort, and then defend him against an onslaught of swarming Mexican rebels. Later on you'll engage in helicopter dogfights, use rocket launchers and extremely powerful sniper rifles, wield the corner-friendly cam rifle, enabling you to reach around corners without getting in harm's way, and more. The biggest complaint I have here are the escort missions. No matter how important or how insignificant the person is, you can't control their direction, and they regularly walk into harm's way like a gyrating cheerleader in a crowded fraternity house. In some cases, I wonder how I survived some of these levels, given the lunacy of the escorts I was supposed to protect. These AIs usually run out into the open to get cover and to make matters worse (or better?) the enemy AI still focused on my ghost and I.
The enemy AI isn't collectively brilliant in either Normal or Hard mode, but in Normal mode it behaves with adequate hostility and aggressiveness to keep you from walking down the middle of a street without cover. Ubisoft has balanced the Normal AI to take cover from fire, advance from cover to cover, and to throw grenades and react fiercely when you're in sight. Marksmen will take you down regulalry if you don't use the Cypher, and Ubisoft has played rather tricky with enemy AI placement in the last few missions, especially in the radio tower level. At the end of that mission, a platoon of sneakily placed AI hide behind every known obstacle in hopes to waste your good efforts. And since the game only has a few save points during a mission (about two to three on average), it may mean re-doing a huge section. The AI doesn't act stupidly often, though I often wonder why the enemies constantly yell out that the ghosts are weak-willed women. Tsk, tsk.
What makes the game so worthwhile no matter the level are the outstanding visuals. The character models are superbly animated and detailed, with creases in clothing and good motion capture, and you're equipped with perfectly re-created guns and lots of little details. The environments are exceptionally well done, both from a pure respect for the massive level of polygons on screen to the healthy diversity of textures used to create a real and distinct city. What's more, the environments are interactive. People are used to guns leaving bullet holes in walls, but they're not used to the wall-piercing sniper rounds that do away with barriers altogether. With these sophisticated sniper rifles, you can see enemy outlines as they take cover behind materials, and you can peg them with a single shot. Not all materials are pierce-able, so you'll have to experiment. But cars will go. You can shoot through their windows, blow out their tires, and destroy them by blowing up their engines. Interestingly, the enemy is just as likely to blow up a car you hide behind as vice versa. The vistas are different in GRAW because of the game's increased technical power -- enabling high levels of detail from far away -- but also because of the city's verticality. Snipers hide out on rooftops, just waiting for you to make a big mistake.
Adding to the destructible environment and excellent views (by the way, there is no pop-up or pop-in of any kind to be seen) is the incredible lighting. Every surface is normal or bump mapped and the texture work is exceptional, so when light hits them, it reacts in realistic ways. Of course, Red Storm has found the perfect opportunity to show off its lighting talents. First, remember when you first saw those old Xbox games and all the windows were reflective in, say, Spider-man? Well, multiply that times every single reflective object in the vast metropolis of Mexico City. Second, you'll find light shimmering through old train yard stations, hitting hundreds of windows and passing through and hitting rafters with amazing results. The HDR (High-Dynamic Range) effect is also impressive. Using what Ubisoft calls "colors of war," players see and almost feel the effect of the blazing Mexican sun. Thanks to its closer proximity to the Equator, the city is hotter, brighter, and is realized in a different set of colors, which Ubisoft dynamically changes when players switch from passive mode into a fighting mode. When you walk out of a building, the bright sun creates the effect of your pupils dilating, and the effect actually affects gameplay. Lastly, while the graphics look superb in the single-player campaign, they lose significant detail and some special effects while online. Needless to say, GRAW looks good in 480p and excellent in 720p.
Full Steam Online
The Tom Clancy games have always supported multiplayer and online functionality, and GRAW is no different, except that it's bigger, better, and more impressive than any other console Clancy game before it. The game supports System Link and Xbox Live with up to 16 players in both adversarial and cooperative modes. Gamers can compete against eight others in three to four different adversarial modes or against the online AI with 15 real-life buddies in co-op mode in four modes. That's right, you and 15 others can vie against the computer AI online. This is really good fun, besides being a trip. I mean, 15 others guys on your side all scouring the landscape alongside you? It's just awesome. Each online map was created distinctly and separately from the offline maps, so you'll feel like you're in a similar location to the offline maps, but they're different in design and playability. The basic co-op campaign isn't a standard two-player version of the single-player campaign like Doom 3, for instance. Instead, Ubisoft created an entirely new storyline, created new maps, and has enabled players to take on different territories to play out the campaign mode.
Adversarial is sweet, too. The countless options -- from spawn points to limited spawn vulnerability to no re-spawn games to enemy ID switched on or off to all or single voices to a relatively deep customization function -- create endless sets of scenarios for players to switch back and forth to, keeping the online modes the reason to replay the game again and again. The lobby system is solid too, though it doesn't allow players to choose servers, from what we can tell. Players finish a game, check their stats for the at session, and with the press of a button, return to a second lobby where the host can pick a new game and players can change their class on the fly. Once in the game players have one more chance to switch weapons and class before starting a session. For Luddites without an online connection, gamers can play cooperatively with up to four players on the same system in the campaign mode (split-screen), which gives offline players a big sweet bonus they don't always get. This too is handled relatively well.
The maps are generally large and the AI similar in aggressiveness to the offline single-player campaign. The difference is up to you, of course. If you want to ramp up the intensity, just turn off re-spawning -- that way you get one chance to live. If you do perchance croak, a handy view cam enables you to switch from player to player to see how they're doing. The online maps are much more open then the offline ones, so there is more to pay attention to because you won't know where the AI is coming from. Voice chat is handled pretty well, enabling the option to hear and talk to everyone on your team (except after you die). Talk in this game is so crucial, and the real key is to get a bunch of friends online to play with. Once you find good team mates or Xbox Live friends to team up with, you'll find GRAW an exceptionally deep and satisfying experience.
From a purely technical angle, the online game doesn't look nearly as good as the offline single-player modes, but the levels are nonetheless large, filled with potentially more people -- up to 32 onscreen simultaneously (16 humans and 16 enemy AI), and all of it online. The framerate generally holds at around 30 online, and during the numerous times we played online, there was almost no significant lag; at least none worth mentioning.
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