Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter pounded onto the Xbox 360 and was a good example of next-gen technology. But Ubisoft knew that they could do much better and set about creating the sequel, a sequel that directly follows on from the events of GRAW.
If GRAW was the cake then GRAW 2 is surely the icing because after spending quite an amount of time with the game, I can finally tell you from my experiences that GRAW 2 is as close to near-future warfare as an armchair soldier can get. Ubisoft have built on the already robust engine used in GRAW and delivered a powerful sequel to the original packed with more content and even more action.
The single player puts you in the 3rd person shooter role of Scott Mitchell again and this time you're dealing with a big civil war in Mexico. The US army has appointed itself peacekeeper and can't officially intervene however, the public eye and the eyes of the press from all over the world is upon them.
It's time for the Ghosts to do what they do best, enter Mexico and perform all sorts of special operations. Its typical Clancy and right from the get-go the story and immersive nature of the game's in-engine produced scenes drag you right in. Those familiar with GRAW will feel right at home and the game's tutorial helps those who're new to the series get right into the thick of it.
A simulated combat zone is produced for you to try out the various features, the new Cross Com 2.0 is a must have tool and replaces the old Cross Com from GRAW. Once you've used this device you'll never want to play GRAW the old way again. So let's take a look at what's new for the player in GRAW 2.
GRAW 2 comes packed with brand new weapons, new equipment and new technology for the player to use in the battlefield. The Cross Com 2.0 allows the player a greater freedom of control over support options, squad members and other battlefield elements.
The interface for the Cross Com has been redesigned; it is now in full colour and allows the player to directly control certain battlefield support. The UAV can be piloted in an overhead camera and used to pick out targets covertly. At any time the Ghost leader can view the camera of his squad members, switching effortlessly between them with a click of a button.
It is also possible to use the Cross Com 2.0 to give direct move orders and attack orders (context sensitive - should you have a sniper in your squad for example, you can give a snipe order) to your support and squad. Having this extra layer of tactical control allows you to keep Scott Mitchell in cover and outflank your enemies, and you'll need to do that a lot to keep from being pegged in GRAW 2.
Amongst the new support you can be granted is the MULE, a remote control armoured vehicle that contains a supply of equipment. The MULE can be used as mobile cover as well as a healing station and allows you to change gear to suit your particular role. You might find you come across an armoured vehicle, the MULE allows Scott to switch out to the AT weapon and then back again to something like a counter-sniper rifle capable of punching holes through thin cover.
At certain times Scott will be given control of tanks, APC's, air strikes and other toys that he can use via the Cross Com 2.0 - Ubisoft have been careful in spreading out the 'wow' factor of these devices and gameplay mechanics so they don't swamp the player and lose the feeling of first-time awe.
Along with this support, the HUD has been beefed up with more detailed information; it's quicker to respond to pin-pointing threats and actually makes you believe there's been an improvement in the technology that the US Army uses in the game's story. There are many more guns and weapons in GRAW 2 compared to GRAW and the developers have included a fly-by-wire rocket launcher that you can use to great effect in the story to decimate enemy armour and emplacements that are dug in.
It's not all guns and gadgets of course, the gameplay has been tweaked in several areas and GRAW 2 features sharper controls. The cover system remains largely unchanged but the bugs that plagued the original have been quashed. It still doesn't quite beat the cover system used in Rainbow Six Vegas or Gears of War.
There does seem to be a little lag in the turn of the character, when aiming, especially in sight mode. When you're looking down a scope, it can take what seems like an age to get a bead on a running target.
The orders system remains mostly as it was; it's been sharpened as well, with the inclusion of a better implemented context sensitive direct order command. You can quickly tell your squad to shoot at a particular target, take out a tank or a helo, or patch up a wounded team-mate.
New to the team roster in GRAW 2 is the medic, this fellow can heal the player and also carries more medkits than anyone else.
The on-rails shooting sections (usually in a helicopter) have been tweaked and they are a lot more fun to play. They are visceral actions moments that don't detract from the immersion this time; they actually flow fairly well with the story and are enjoyable rather than frustrating slogs through waves of merciless highly accurate foes.
Fans of the solo approach will be pleased to hear that the Lone Wolf combat system returns, along with several well designed solo insertions (one at night) that allow you to sneak around and take out soldiers from behind cover - most of the time they never know what hit them.
Night vision has been tweaked and Mitchell's vision modes have been overhauled and tweaked, to near perfection. The new enhanced vision is a joy to use and picks out targets clearly over a decent distance, removing smoke and fog if the battlefield is obscured somehow, either by smoke grenade or natural phenomena.
It's not just the gameplay that's been tweaked in GRAW 2 either, Ubisoft have listened a lot to the feedback they got from the original and have made significant changes to the AI. Your squad actually (most of the time) tries to function as a cohesive unit, based upon their engagement mode (Recon or Assault) they'll make tactical decisions and change position depending on what's going on.
I always like to give an example of this rather than just talking about it in general terms, so I can pull a particular moment from an early mission where we are in cover behind a wall, there are bullets everywhere and my team's under heavy fire from the ground based forces in the distance. I have the sniper, Alicia Diaz in my squad and she's tucked nicely on the right hand side of the area, in cover.
I pop Scott's scope up and get a view of the area, a quick check with the UAV and it confirms that there are at least twelve or more soldiers dug in. I switch the squad to Assault and they begin to exchange fire, even Alicia shoots off a couple of good shots without being told who to aim at.
It feels like a battlefield to me, because my team aren't silent, they're calling out enemy positions and talking back to each other, even to me. I take a few shots at the bad guys and the gunner informs me that it was some nice shooting, I'm feeling confident now and I pop up again, spot a rebel who's making a break from cover to move to another section and give the snipe order.
He's out of Alicia's line of sight, I know this now, I just checked in Cross Com 2.0 - so before I do anything she informs me she needs to move, does just that, comes to my left and leans out. Bang, rebel dead, and then she moves back to different cover at the right.
That's good AI.
My team are moving cover, taking shots and generally plugging bad guys. They call out enemy positions, they give me constant updates and we eventually get the job done. It's silent and there's a feeling of accomplishment coupled with teamwork, I start to actually give a damn about these soldiers at my side.
That's great AI.
The enemy provide a fantastic challenge, they use cover and flanking techniques, and they work in squads and will often make sure they have something extremely solid between you and them - especially Armour like tanks or APC's. They will press you hard and they are relentless with varying levels of accuracy, often however they will just saturate (suppress) an area with fire whilst shouting out orders of their own or taunting you (a fairly human reaction).
They are fond of grenades if you remain in one place too long, they will use them to attempt to flush you out. Your squad and the enemy have pretty good grenade avoidance AI as well so they will attempt to get the hell out of the way of one before it goes up.
Great gameplay, excellent AI and solid controls are married to some extremely gorgeous graphics. I can say that the explosions in GRAW 2 are without a shadow of a doubt some of the best and most pyrotechnical I have seen in a shooter to date. When you call in that airstrike for the first time and the bombs and rockets hit, you'll be treated to a visual spectacle that nearly takes your breath away. It's one of those sad 'punch the air' moments in games that you hope no one sees.
The graphics of GRAW 2 are a step above the previous title and are brimming with smoke effects, particles and lighting. The tutorial level that takes place as a simulated mission moves swiftly from day to dusk and the change is apparent as the real time lighting kicks in, the shadows lengthen and the dust creates impressive glowing beams of light from the sun.
The level of detail in level design and the architecture means that you are looking at some of the most detailed war-zones on a modern military shooter to date. Ubisoft have put a lot of time and effort in every element of these massive engagement areas, and it shows. The back alleys of Juarez coupled with the wide open vistas of the Mexican mountain ranges and deserts are brought to life near-perfectly.
Ubisoft have also taken the time and effort to make sure that the Ghosts look good as well; they have the latest in battlefield equipment and the latest gear - all of it looks damn-near authentic and extremely well detailed. I love the gleam on the Cross Com 2.0 for instance and the details on the various weapons.
Every weapon, every support, every vehicle enemy or ally has been detailed to the same level. Usually there's a loss of detailing on the enemy units, but not this time, they are fully realised characters in their own right with a visual personality as well as their AI.
It isn't just the look of GRAW 2 that holds it together, but the animations as well play a significant part in the whole experience. Some games have been accused of having stiff or clunky animations for characters and other elements, I can tell you now that GRAW 2 has some of the best character animations this side of Epic's: Gears of War and Ubisoft's own R6 Vegas and I am a sucker for good quality animation to be honest.
So with excellent top-notch next-gen graphics that don't slip a frame even when things are getting pretty insane, good quality animations and detail in terms of level design and character/equipment/assets GRAW 2 also delivers on the audio front with a belting epic war-rumbling soundtrack and some gritty visceral sounds for weapons and vehicles. The hammer of staccato gunfire and the zip of ricocheting bullets make you duck your head on a good TV and sound system.
GRAW 2 is also packed with returning voice talent from the previous title as well as some new voice actors, once again Ubisoft have made sure that the performances are in character and produced with a passion for the role and job they're doing. There's nothing in the game that voice-wise, drags you out back into the real world and makes you go - my god that's a lame sounding accent.
You'd think that Ubisoft would be content to stop there, no; GRAW 2 is also loaded for multiplayer gaming. There are the usual split-screen, network and Xbox Live options for play and Ubi have made sure you can customise the game modes to a limited extent to get the experience you're looking for. (Yes you can play a mix of split screen and Live unlike Vegas!)
There are a bunch of returning game modes and some new content makes an appearance. Along with the return of my favourite mode of play: co-op. The co-op missions have been extended to include multiple varied objectives and a six map story that allows you to play with up to 16 people online.
These engagements are far from the smaller ones in the previous title and focus on large scale warfare, with AI dotting the map on both sides at times. You are given a limited load-out compared to the singleplayer and I think people will be a little put out to see that some of the weapon choices have been removed.
No fly-by-wire tank-buster for instance, this would have been an excellent tactical choice when used in conjunction with the Cross Com 2.0 and a team-mate as a scout.
The UAV is back in mp, but controls just like the first version, there's no direct stick control in mp.
You can also play any of the maps in various co-op modes Vs the AI, just like the previous game.
There are far more options for customising your character this time around, and if you own previous Clancy titles like Rainbow Six Vegas and Splinter Cell: Double Agent then you will unlock several new pieces of headgear for use in the game.
Along with co-op there are the usual adversarial and team-based modes, including a new mode that pits teams of players with AI support against each other. Without going into massive detail with all of these modes I can say that every game I've played of GRAW 2 online so far has been a blast, with some excellent team-work provided by people using their communication and Cross Com 2.0 to plan their assaults and defences.
We've also put the network game under rigorous co-op testing, between the campaign and the co-op terrorist hunt style matches. Once again, these have been excellent and the map design coupled with the AI has been a test of both tactics and team work. There were no disconnections and no real gripes, except my usual one with this series in particular.
You can't go into cover during multiplayer, I'm not sure why this is the case but I really wish in GRAW 2 they'd have implemented it. Gears doesn't suffer because of it, Vegas has become a definite favourite because of it and well, the US Army can do it - why the hell can't the Ghosts?
Not bad though when you consider that's my only real gripe about the game. GRAW 2 is a marked improvement from the first game and deserves to be added to any shooter fan's collection. Be warned though, it is 3rd person like Gears.