Genre: Tactical FPS
Release Date: March 9, 2006
If you're the kind of gamer who's gotten an Xbox 360 by now, then chances are you can't get enough of console FPS. Ubisoft's Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter is probably already the next thing on your "to buy" list. On the off chance it's not, it probably will be by the time you finish reading this. GRAW is a game for hardcore FPS fans, with a stiff level of difficulty, a potent sense of immersive realism, and a fantastic array of gameplay options. While not exactly a stealth title, it does place a high value on making sure you find ways to see the enemy before he sees you. If someone gets the drop on you, then they'll be all over you before you can adjust your rifle sights.
The game's story is beyond simple: you play as Captain Scott Mitchell. You are a highly-trained special operative who can command squadrons, shoot guys, and stealthily sneak around. Your job is to go where the government points out and take out the bad guys, while accomplishing whatever other requirements your mission happens to have. While the action is all heavily inspired by the kind of realistic military fiction that Tom Clancy deals in, the game never sees fit to throw you into real world conflicts. Instead, you'll spend a lot of time shooting renegades from third-world countries and protecting vaguely defined political figures. It works on the exact level that a story for a game like this needs to: it sets up the action. The real meat of the gameplay is in immersing yourself in the mentality of a highly trained soldier, and slowly thinking your way through the game's many challenging missions.
One of the first things you'll notice when you start playing the tutorial mission is that GRAW's control scheme takes a bit of getting used to. It betrays a bit of "PC port" syndrome, with a lot of the controller's features used in unusual ways to make sure you have access to all the gameplay functions you need. Ubisoft gives the controls probably the most elegant mapping they could've managed, and lets you play around with customizing it in the Options menu. The vast array of options available to you is part of the game's stiff difficulty level; until you've mastered the controls, it's really easy to screw yourself over by hitting the wrong button at the wrong time. If you're a veteran of these kinds of games, or after you've had some time to adjust, you'll find yourself easily able to react quickly and find just the command you want. Even if you don't have a handle on the controls before the end of the tutorial, then you'll learn everything the hard way when the Nicaraguans start shooting you in Mission 1.
When you're on your own, you'll want to move cautiously from cover source to cover source, memorizing the locations of enemies and trying to set up headshots as quick as you can. As in most games, left analog lets you move and right analog controls the camera (and crosshairs positioning). The slow, tactical pace is good because it means you have plenty of time to position and set up your shots, as long as you haven't foolishly blundered into enemy territory. You can sort through your assortment of available weapons with the B button and reload with the A button. Y button lets you perform a wide range of context-sensitive actions, like crouching behind cover or climbing over obstacles. L3 lets you change up your stance, so you can opt to move while standing, crouching, or lying prone.
Which stance you move in is enormously important, as each has its own speed and can make use of cover in different ways. R3 controls how you're using your firearms sight for shooting if you're carrying a gun, tapping once for 2x zoom and twice for a handy 4x zoom that's great for headshotting terrorists. Squeezing RT lets you fire, while squeezing LT lets you hold your breath. This steadies your targeting crosshairs and makes more accurate shooting possible, but you can only hold your breath for so long.
Most missions have a discrete point at which you stop moving solo and pick up your team. Once you're commanding a group, everything gets a bit more complicated. You need to start thinking more about getting your team into the right position than simply about getting the drop on the other guy. Group commands are all delivered with the D-Pad, but the system for doing so is simple and intuitive. Hit down to regroup your troops, and forward to command them to attack a given position. If one of your men is wounded, you can approach him and administer first aid with the Y button. Keeping your men regrouped is absolutely vital, since there are plenty of instances where it's easy to evade enemies but impossible for the team to make it to safe spots unless you keep them with you at all times.
While in the tactical portion of a mission, you may also be given command of a drone for performing various tasks. In Mission 1, for instance, you're given a drone that can seek out the location of an allied soldier trapped behind enemy lines. By hitting Select and going to the tactical map, you can order your drone to remotely search the map for your ally. Once the drone finds him, you need to quickly order it back to protect it from enemy fire. You manage the drone with the same D-Pad that you use to manage your squadron, and can easily toggle between the two sets of commands.
The preview build we're using now featured only a handful of missions and the very barest bones of the multiplayer campaign. The first three missions cover an adventure in South America, largely a series of rescue missions where you first help extract a stranded soldier, and then move on to trying to rescue VIPs without losing them. In Mission 8, you've moved up to rescuing the President, while in Mission 10, you protect a general. The missions are all extremely difficult, and while there is a certain measure of repetition to perfecting your run-throughs, there's an enormous sense of satisfaction to completing one.
Multiplayer is poised to present a pleasantly meaty experience for players. Each player will be able to build an online identity, complete with default weapons setups for each of the character classes. The main classes we've seen in the single-player campaign are the gunner and grenadier, but at the very least, there's also a marksman and rifleman available in multiplayer mode. Each class has different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to things like breath control, firing while running, and reload time.
The game will ship with 16 predetermined game modes, and a special option that lets you create "over 1,000" custom gameplay modes. Options for online play include Solo, Team, and Co-Op variations of the various game modes, which can also be played in Elimination, Territory, and Objective modes. The Co-Op mode also contains four special Nicaraguan missions designed purely for cooperative play for up to 16 players, although Ubisoft advises that the "optimal experience" is with four to eight players.
Tech works differently when you move to the multiplayer campaign from the single player, particularly the way drones are used. In multiplayer, your tech will be focused on letting team members quickly communicate with each other in the field, and drones will be used primarily to ferret out enemy locations. As in the main game, though, you can opt to communicate with a drone or an ally at any given time. The final game will contain 10 maps, while this build offered five partially finished maps to play on. Each map is built around forcing a particular kind of combat style, such as close-combat heavy Boneyard or the sniper-friendly Rocky Cove.
This preview has said precious little about graphics and sound for the title, and make no mistake – GRAW is as superb in this respect as it is in all others. The unparalleled realism of the graphics is a huge factor in gameplay, allowing you to pull off stunts like figuring out where a hidden enemy is by zooming into x4 mode and catching a brief glimpse of his knee sticking out behind a barrel.
The title also cunningly uses minimalist sound effects. GRAW has precious little BGM music in the play experience, but that fits the game perfectly. Nothing builds tension more than peeking around the corner of a building into a seemingly empty area, hearing bird chirps and ambient electric hums in the background, and wondering if you should strike out, or if there might be some invisible enemy awaiting you. The little music that is in the game frankly feels a little obtrusive. GRAW sometimes feels far more like a simulator than a movie, where the best soundtrack is the sound of bullet fire and the curses of your enemies.
It's hard to tell just how much has changed between this build and the final version that will be on store shelves all too soon, but if GRAW manages to even half of what it's promising for the final build, players coming off of Call of Duty 2 will have a perfect title waiting for them. Even if you're not ordinarily a big FPS player, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter is a game that is impossible to play without marveling at the sheer depth and precision of nearly all aspects of its designs. This is a game that is set to become a fixture for most players' Xbox 360 libraries.
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