It is 2013 and the Ghosts are back, in full force on the Xbox 360. Tom Clancy's: Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, otherwise known as GRAW to save on ink is the next instalment of the extremely popular tactical shooter series that had its humble beginnings on the PC.
GRAW marks the first true step towards a decent next generation console title and proves that you can teach an old dog, new tricks.
2013 and in a typical Clancy-esque manner things are hotting up for a hostile takeover in a foreign country. You're back as Captain Scott Mitchell and armed to the teeth with new weapons, equipment and new tactical options thanks to advances in military R&D.
You're pulled away from training and thrown right into the thick of things when one of your squad is pinned down under enemy fire.
Because GRAW is a console game first and foremost it doesn't have the control options that a similar game might have on PC. Does it suffer for this? No, not at all - thanks to the elegant control method and extremely helpful interface and redesigned HUD system.
You can pick from several difficulty settings, but be warned, GRAW is a pretty hard game on the easiest setting until you get used to how things work.
The control system is intuitive and thanks to a quick tutorial, you're able to get to grips with the basic features right away. The tutorial explains several elements of the game and the pacing is just right: from how to use cover and take down enemies from around walls and corners, to commanding your squad in simulated combat to achieve various goals.
Scott is an extremely responsive character and reacts well as you move him about; the analogue control system allows for slow movement or with slightly more pressure you can advance to a full blown run. A quick tap on the left stick will throw Scott to his knees into a crouch, whilst moving or holding down the left stick will cause Scott to throw himself prone again whilst on the move at a full run.
Attaching and detaching from a wall or cover is pretty simple, it is a case of pushing against the wall and Scott should slide up against it. Once attached you can move backwards and forwards along the wall, tap the right bumper to switch direction and peek out to get a good look at the situation.
The Y button carries out context sensitive actions for Scott, such as leaping over a wall, planting explosives or taking control of M60 mounted machine gun nests etc.
X toggles your Night Vision, holding it down allows you to select equipment in the menu.
B swaps between weapons, holding it down allows you to quickly scroll and get to the right weapon.
A reloads your gun, holding it down changes the rate of fire.
Clicking the right stick in allows you to activate a weapon scope if you have one; some weapons have more than one zoom level.
So far it's pretty standard stuff and you pick it up quickly.
You can carry one rifle and one pistol, dead bodies can be rifled for ammo and in some places you'll be down to just your pistol if you don't start stealing from the dead terrorists.
A new feature to GRAW is the advanced communications system that is based on the US military's designs for the Future Soldier/Advanced Warfighter project. The Cross-com is a monocle device that allows the soldier to receive Intel directly into his HUD, from operational support units and external media feeds. It provides a full communication system and is tied into the Global Information Grid.
Scott can give out orders with the D-Pad, tapping left or right switches between the Ghost squad and the asset on hand. You can press up on the D-Pad to issue an order based on context sensitivity - so if you're tied into a helicopter asset and your reticule is aimed at a nearby tank, you can press up and order an attack against it. This is true for your Ghost squad as well.
Pressing up on the D-pad moves the Ghosts to the position the reticule is currently aiming at. Tapping the left bumper toggles the Ghosts between recon and aggressive modes, changing the way they react to threats.
You can also use the Cross-com to order your assets, and in the case of the UAV the left bumper toggles between standby and detect mode. The UAV is a new addition to the series and allows you to get a heads-up Intel on the flashpoint, you can move it around and quickly drop it down to scan for enemies - be careful though some of the bad guys don't take kindly to having a drone around their private parties and will open fire.
GRAW allows you to experience different kinds of missions, from lone operations where you're cut off from your squad or sent in to cause some damage on your own to missions where you start of in charge of a helicopter mounted mini-gun before landing and hoofing the rest of the way on foot.
What is nice about the game and I really love the way this was done, each mission is part of the overall campaign and flows from one to the other, there's very little in the way of loading time on the 360 version and the execution of these story based elements is flawless. You're updated via Cross-com either from your support assets or a quick media report, Generals give you Intel or update other assets on the battlefield - it all adds to making the game come alive, Mitchell interacts with the other characters in face to face situations and basically it feels less like a game and more like a movie.
Multiplayer Exclusive Weapons
As you can see there's a great deal to choose from in GRAW in terms of weapons, some of the more exciting choices come in the form of the Modular Crye rifle and the wall-piercing countersnipe rifle.
We briefly touched on the HUD in gameplay, but this section requires a little more depth since it simulates what the future soldier might actually see via the Cross-com system. You can keep a track of your own status, that of your squad and various assets, weapon status and ammo counters are also displayed on the virtual HUD.
The Cross-com itself (back button) brings up a virtual map of the battlefield and allows accurate positioning of assets, both in SP and MP game modes. It is a simple system to use and requires only a few moments to activate; it provides information on enemies and their movements as long as they have been sighted/tracked by assets.
The Cross-com information is directly linked to the HUD. It projects a virtual information system that indicates target status, health and lights up potential targets, this is very useful for maintaining battlefield awareness and also has a definite cool factor attached to it. At a glance you can tag one of your squad and see how they are, or settle the reticule on the enemy.
When you're equipped with a counter-snipe weapon and the enemy is behind cover that can be penetrated, you'll get their outline as a clear indication that the shot is good. Pull the trigger and pop a round into their head, shocking the sucker behind the wall and making his allies run for thicker cover.
There are certain enemy assets that can jam your HUD as well, so watch out for those.
You won't find technical specs here, or detailed information on every aspect of the game's engine, that's not my style so with that said:
This is the game that pushes the 360 a little and definitely marks GRAW as the first of the next-gen titles to roll out for the console. The game looks beautiful and is full of graphical eye-candy that delivers solid frame rates and gameplay while providing all the bells and whistles that we were lead to believe would be there, advanced lighting techniques, shaders and copious amounts of bump-mapping bring the future battlefield to life in a richly designed environment.
It is a marriage of many graphical techniques, the models for the game are superb and the level of detail on everything is exactly what the gamer is looking for. The explosions are big and bold, the character models are extremely detailed and they work perfectly with the animations, moving through the gameworld in a lifelike and very realistic manner.
GRAW's developers have implemented military tactical movements for their troops and your squad animations are solid, they move how you'd expect them to and along with the superb levels of detail they start to show what the console is truly made of. There's one scene that I particularly like, where you're flying over the whole city and through the open door of the Blackhawk you can see that city, completely laid out before you - the Xbox and PS2 would struggle with the same view but the 360 pounds out that skyline without blinking.
When you get down and dirty in the streets or into combat with the heavy machine gun on the helicopter the 360 doesn't blink as explosions go off, men are killed and bullets fly past like confetti. There are so many enemies and assets on the ground at one time that it really is chaos; the 360 pours on the pressure by adding more into mix in one of the missions that will have you screaming and pulling your hair out until you figure out the way of beating it.
All of this is delivered with pulse-pounding graphical action and superb animations to boot, ducking and weaving through the streets using the spot-on control system as the 360 produces the backdrops and the game engine rumbles on in the background, delivering updates and mission briefs transports the player to 2013 where war is certainly hell and the Cross-com becomes more than just a little gadget, it actually helps keep you alive.
There's the usual mix of rag-doll physics and environmental physics, the game allows you to hide behind cover, some of this cover will be eroded or ignored by certain calibre weapons and some weapons will cause a car to explode when it's been hit a certain number of times or a key point gets destroyed. The rag-doll physics are implemented very well and tie into the superb death animations for you, the enemy and the various other entities on the battlefield. I expect to see the same kind of thing in Epics up and coming Gears of War for the 360 and many more games.
Ghost Recon has been plagued by some dumb-as-a-rock AI in the past and it's nice to see that team AI has been sharpened up, the extra clock cycles on the 360 must have helped. There are still some strange and stupid things that will happen when you give a move order to your team, and they pick the most direct route to come back to you - taking them at a full run through a heavy fortified enemy sector. But these are few and far between thankfully, and most of the time they're stone cold killers.
Enemy AI varies based on the unit in question and where you are in the story, they can be a little dumb to begin with and as you progress the game seems to sharpen their skills - in places they felt a little too observant but I let that slide since it sharpened my own skills and gave me a very lethal challenge as well.
The enemy use advanced tactics as they learn your position, they will flank you, they will hurl grenades and they will use cover, concealment and the advantage of height if they can. They'll run back a way to get a better position with more cover and even hit the deck if they come under fire.
Overall, the AI in this game is spot on with just a few quirks from your team.
GRAW saves between missions, at certain objective points and has some checkpoints in-between the action. These are few and far between; this is a prime source for gamer's frustrations if you read between the lines at some of the gaming forums. I would have liked to see a proper save mode so it is possible to put the game down and go to bed - a fact that really allowed me to enjoy the last Splinter Cell game.
System link, Local Play, Xbox LIVE are all supported in GRAW and there are numerous game mode play options available. You can also set up a Custom game to your specifications to tailor the gameplay to how you want it. There are death-match style games, team based games and there's even a coop game selection.
We gave the four player coop a try and the 360 only showed a tiny amount of slowdown in the game. We had put up the maximum number of enemies, but the frame drop was negligible and the coop territory game went well on the Treasury map. We had a tough fight of it but the Ghost team triumphed in the end by killing every single terrorist that came to take the location over.
The team of one Rifleman, Sniper, Heavy Rifleman and another Rifleman served us well and the game was a lot of fun. Several more games followed and there was a great deal of rejoicing later as several of the players went hunting on LIVE and tested out the gameplay. I received mixed reports of this, the play was stable and satisfying, some of the games experienced lag but overall there was a good positive feedback and vibe from my fellow gamers.
I can conclude that GRAW is fun in MP - just as fun as in SP mode.
You can also choose to have UAV drones in MP and the Ghosts can give out orders via the Cross-com. Left and right again switches the target of these orders.
GRAW has some excellent audio, spot effects, sounds and gun sounds. There are far too many for me to settle on just one I really felt delivered the best effect. The loud shotgun sound of the M-70 Sniper Rifle was really satisfying and elicited a couple of comments from players in MP as the Sniper opened up with it for the first time. The roar of tank engines and the whisper of chopper rotors is realised through the sound engine to transport the player into the battle.
The music in the game is of a highly polished standard and would do well in a Hollywood movie. The soundtrack is not annoying, it is orchestral in nature and features dynamic changes based on several factors.
The voice work in GRAW is spot on as well, these actors know their jobs and they deliver the lines with flawless perfection. The dialogue is definitely well written and Scott Mitchell is a real character with a decent personality and feels much more rounded than in his previous incarnations.
GRAW is a grand step in the right direction, there were no obvious pop-up issues and frame rate errors that stood right out and hit me. It is worthy of being called next-generation and sets the standard that other 360 titles really should follow in terms of production values, story quality and immersion. As well as the graphics, animations, sounds and level designs which are all top quality work.
It shows what the future of war might be like in 2013 and wraps the whole thing in a Clancy conspiracy to top it off. It is a hard game and will have casual gamers crying with frustration, if you persevere however you'll discover that GRAW is definitely worth it for SP as well as MP - hunting tangos has not been so much fun since the seminal Raven Shield on the PC.
I just hope that Ubisoft support GRAW with a wealth of downloadable content including new maps/models/weapons/stuff and modes. This is a game that every 360 owner needs especially if they're into tactical shooters. Each new mission advances the storyline and will take upwards of 60 minutes to complete if you want to make sure you're doing things right, many of them have multiple objectives and insane odds.
GRAW stands out from the crowd and prepares the way for the new generation of console shooters; with its port to the PC and additional features it will probably become the game to unseat other tactical shooters for online play. Time will tell of course, as with all things.