Genre: Tactical FPS
Release Date: March 9, 2006
Redefining the Genre
Ghost Recon goes down in my all-time favorite games list. My hopes and dreams of a new Ghost Recon were shattered when GR2 was announced as console only, but things brightened up for me when GR: Advanced Warfighter was announced for the X360 and PC. I gobbled up the 360 version and found it worthy of an Editors' Choice award, and when I saw the PC version looming, I figured it for a simple port of the console version, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Much to my delight, GRAW for the PC isn't just a rehashed port of an amazing console game; it is tailor-made for the PC and its new technologies, and it plays to the sensibilities of the PC gamer.
GRAW takes place in Mexico City and focuses around small-unit tactics in a dense urban environment. You play the role of a Special Forces captain, and you lead a team of three other Ghosts to quell a military coup and rescue the American president (thankfully, it takes place in the future, or else there might not be much motivation to rescue the president).
The game's narrative is told on the fly as you make your way through Mexico City's sprawling terrain. Your command and support echelons keep you updated on mission objectives, which begin one way and then mutate into new ones as you progress. Your foes are Mexican rebel forces that are part of the Mexican Army, and they carry a lot of American-made equipment and even drive American armor, which makes them a formidable force.
What the player will find is a subtle and savvy take on the tactical squad-based shooter founded by the original Ghost Recon; GRAW not only refines the series, but it also redefines the genre. The game unfolds logically and realistically and is carried with a certain degree of maturity that wasn't possible in gaming five years ago. The thing is this: Gamers are growing up, and they want and expect more from their games. GRAW and its development team understand this growth and have appropriately evolved their franchise to address the current PC gamers' wants and needs.
Let's begin with the first impression the game leaves you with – GRAW looks stunning. The X360 version blew me away with its use of realistic physics in a world that looked authentic and felt real. GRAW for the PC looks even better, with its specular lighting, bump mapping, pixel shading, normal mapping and draw distance. What is not readily known is that GRAW's PC version doesn't use the same engine that the 360 version uses. In fact, both games were developed independently of each other. They share a common narrative, characters and design concepts, but on a technology end, the games differ wildly.
GRAW is one of the first games to support Ageia's Physics Processor Unit, which can now be purchased from many vendors. While GRAW does an amazing job of using the Havok Physics set to realistically render impacts, animations and explosions, the ready incorporation of Ageia's impressive technology makes the experience even more immersive and impressive. You'll think that environments are actually destructible, but fear not. Even if you are not one of those "hardcore" gamers who live on the bleeding edge of technology, GRAW still looks, sounds and moves like the perfect predator.
Gameplay has been seriously adjusted to fit a mouse and keyboard. GRAW 360 worked about as well as I can imagine an FPS can work on a control pad. The close third-person perspective was a revolutionary idea that worked perfectly, especially when leaning around corners. I expected GRAW PC to follow suit, but it is played strictly from a first-person perspective. You have a reticule to aim, but aiming with the zoom brings up iron sights or a scope picture. Each weapon and setup has a different sight picture to read and adjust to, which seems like a simple design feature, but if you are looking for realism, it works perfectly. Your Ghosts can do it all. They can run, jump, slide and lean.
One of the best gameplay abilities you have is the ability to run across a street and slide or dive into cover, which saves you the time and effort of running, stopping and then finding the crouch key. The means of maneuvering your soldier around is seamless and flawless, which is crucial because if you don't maneuver and use cover, you will get waxed real quickly. GRAW PC, just as the X360 version, is a thinking man's game. You cannot run yourself into a fight and expect to survive. Switching weapons and firing modes needs some getting used to, but once you get your actions down, you can become a thoroughly efficient war machine, and the results are eminently satisfying.
GRAW PC also sees the return of the tactical map. Unlike the X360 version, you can bring up a satellite view of your immediate position that is updated in real time, with identified and unidentified targets. The Cross Com map is a crucial tool because you can issue maneuver and fire orders to your team. You can issue the same orders without the map for quickly reacting to a fluid tactical situation, but the map allows for coordinated assaults on selected targets or areas. You can also order around gunship support and use your aerial drone to recon an area through the map. GR1's tactical map was a revelation in gameplay and allowed you to plan out your advance and assault, but GRAW's map is an essential tool to winning the game. It is fully thought-out and implemented as well as I could wish it to be.
GRAW's biggest asset is largely anonymous – its AI. The best tactical FPS AI I have seen existed in SWAT 3 and SWAT 4 because the AI routines were random every time you played through a game, and NPCs reacted in such a human and realistic way that both titles were downright creepy. GRAW perhaps rivals both of those games with its AI, both for friendlies and enemies. A complaint about Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon has always been that your teammates get in the way or don't react properly to incoming fire. There was always the stack of dead teammates in a doorway that signaled it was time to reload the last save point for Rainbow Six, and in Ghost Recon, you oftentimes saw your teammates go down because they couldn't find cover fast enough.
GRAW makes sure that each of your teammates not only actively seek cover when fired upon, but that they also get themselves into cover before bullets start flying. Case in point: If you use the tactical map to order one of your men to cover a street by standing in the middle of it, he'll get himself within proximity of the spot you ordered and find hard cover where he can be protected while still covering the firing arc your ordered. Your men are also very effective at engaging enemies with the appropriate ordinance. If you order your grenadier to attack an armored vehicle, he'll use his grenade launcher or anti-tank weapon. If your designated marksman (sniper) encounters an enemy soldier at close range, he'll switch to his sidearm to engage the enemy more efficiently rather than line up a shot with his sniper rifle.
Meanwhile, your opposing force will move from cover to cover and lay down suppressing fires while they maneuver. Single soldiers will try to fall back, and if triggered, nearby soldiers will react and maneuver onto your flanks as real soldiers should. There are many canned sequences where you have to fight off a certain number of soldiers or armored vehicles, but the game largely plays on a fluid path with many routes to your objective. The railed sequences from the X360 version are gone, so there are no mini-gun sessions, but the omission is by no means a glaring fault. If anything, the removal of these sequences is a nod to realism, as you would not be tasked with manning a Blackhawk's door gun – they have crew chiefs for that.
GRAW does not enjoy the ready amount of multiplayer games as the X360 version, but you can link up through dedicated servers to play co-op and adversarial games. I was disappointed to see that you could not modify your soldier's appearance to the degree you can on the 360, but that's something most PC gamers can overlook. The biggest difference in online play is that the entire game is playable co-op style with four players. Each player takes a role as team leader, grenadier, designated marksman and automatic rifleman. As a team, you must make your way through the same missions, and you may well die through the course of the missions, but if your team leader gets killed, then the game's over for everyone. This may seem a little harsh, but the team leader is the only one who can access Cross Com maps and direct support elements, like gunships and drones.
What makes co-op mode all the more challenging is that you cannot save the game at all during missions. If the team dies, then the team starts over from the beginning, which can prove to be frustrating, but if everyone's doing his or her job, then things ought to go as well as can be expected. My recommendation for this is a good headset and a VOIP program, like Team Speak or Ventrilo.
The only discernable flaw I can find with GRAW is a holdover from a tried-and-true console design concept that is meant to instill "challenge," and that is the dreaded save point. Whenever you save your game, you are not saving up to that exact moment, but rather up to the last save point you crossed. With the level of difficulty you face through the game – and it ramps up as you go on – you are going to die very often, and it can get repetitive and annoying if you have to start over from five or 10 minutes ago, only to die at the same point over and over. GRAW's save point come at logical places and usually saves your game at crucial junctures in the mission, but if you reload your game without saving at a distinct save point, you will only have the most recent save point to access later on when you return to the game. The only good thing about the save points is that if you choose to restart the mission, you begin from the equipment selection menu, which is a built-in do-over if you realize that you've chosen the wrong gear and options.
That being said, GRAW also lacks a diverse arsenal. Granted, the game is striving for realism and authenticity, but you really only have four combat rifles to choose from, one machine gun and one sniper rifle. Each weapon has several attachments that you can use to modify the weapon's abilities and characteristics. Each weapon is graded according to its stopping power, accuracy, stability and weight. Different add-ons, like a foregrip, will increase stability but not allow you to attach a grenade launcher. Silencers do the job but at a cost to stopping power and accuracy (sub-sonic ammunition?). I would have liked to see more weapons and options. For instance, your designated marksman only really has one primary weapon to choose from: a Barrett M98 bolt action .50 caliber rifle.
While sexy to behold, 50 caliber sniper rifles are wholly impractical for this game's setting. A semi-automatic medium-range rifle would have more sense, like a 6.8 SPC SR-25 (Mk. 11) or an M-14A2. Either rifle is what a real SF soldier would carry into a city fight because a big bore bolt rifle is simply not suited for the task. The exclusion of these rifles is perhaps a design choice to balance gameplay, as a semi-auto sniper rifle would prove to be too powerful in the game, but with all the realism flying around this game's overall design, I think Grin could've worked it in.
I really cannot find much to fault with Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter for the PC. Whereas I found GRAW for the X360 to be the best 360 game I've played thus far in the console's lifetime, GRAW for the PC has immediately earned a top spot among my personal pantheon of greatest games. While many lament the death dirge of PC gaming, GRAW is illustrative of what sets PC games apart from console games; it's polished, refined and deftly executed. It begins with great visuals and sounds and finishes with exemplary gameplay. I'd readily recommend it to anyone who likes shooters, no matter what flavor that gamer prefers. GRAW is simply so good that everyone can play and enjoy it. It's worth upgrading your video card, and I'm planning on getting an Ageia card because of this game. GRAW PC is my front runner for PC game of the year. Go out and buy it NOW.
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