Release Date: March 6, 2007
An Army of Four
Ghost Recon has a long and storied pedigree that seen its ups and downs. Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter was arguably the first game on the Xbox 360 to hint at, if not show, what 360 owners could look forward to in terms of next-gen games. Fast forward to a year later — but feels more like six months — and Ubisoft blesses us with Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2. The question I ask myself when looking at this game is: Did Ubisoft bring out this game too soon, or should this have been the title that Ubisoft released last year? Many people have already dismissed Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 as GRAW1.5, and they would not be wrong to do so, but simply writing off GRAW2 as a mere expansion of last year's offering would be an unfortunate simplification.
It must be said that GRAW2 is gorgeous. There is a ton of post-processing effects and a variety of filters being rendered on-screen, and the game never falters in its frame rates, but the looks of a game really aren't what determines if it's great. Gears of War looked fantastic, it was the best-looking title anyone had seen on a 360 at that time, and it wowed everyone who saw it, but the game was also fun to play and compelling in both single-player and multiplayer. Perhaps GRAW2 looks as good or better than Gears of War, and perhaps it doesn't, but to my mind, that hardly matters. What matters is whether or not GRAW2 offers something gamers couldn't get from the original.
GRAW2 picks up right where GRAW left off, which essentially limits it right off the bat. The game takes place on the Texas border, and the Ghosts have to clandestinely infiltrate Mexico to put an end to a potential nuclear threat. The premise in itself isn't so new or original, but the developers are trying to bring gamers to new territories rather than the hackneyed regions that tactical shooters tread so often. That alone should be applauded, but there is something somewhat lacking in going off to fight the Mexicans, especially since that was what you were doing in the previous game.
The narrative is relatively strong, which is a good thing. Everything that comprises the storyline within GRAW2 is based on a very believable "what if" scenario. The story is propelled real time through various communiqués and a very nice use of real video feeds designed to look like any major cable news outlet. The main characters are largely few and far between and serve merely as plot devices to propel the story, which is a shame. Soldiers can pose very interesting characters, and while developers like to keep the main character neutral so the player can inject his or her own persona, the supporting cast can certainly serve more than simple sign posts telling you to "go here and do Y before Z happens."
A nice touch that does lend some personality to the characters, as well as serving as a good gameplay tool, is the in-game dialogue during fights. Your teammates will call out how many enemies they see, relatively where they are, and what kind of a threat they pose. Your team will relay pressing information about your enemy's disposition by shouting out, "Two by the green truck!" Then when a third enemy soldier appears, they'll correct themselves by shouting, "Make that three of them!" The design is relatively contrived, as the dialogue is merely a more polished version of things you've heard teammates call out in previous games of this type, but the corrections and jargon is a simple means of making your teammates feel and sound more human.
GRAW2 functions very much as GRAW did. The control, feel, and weight of the gameplay are largely unchanged. The context-sensitive cover system is still there and feels about as polished as it can be without migrating to a more player-actuated cover system like Gears of War. Blind firing is not very effective here, as you can only reach a majority of angles by peeking out using the "aiming" trigger. Disengaging from cover could be better, and mantling over cover could be smoother. It would also be nice if you could slide after running and assume cover if it were reachable, but the controls are tight and responsive, and for the most part, the game plays intuitively and as advertised.
Squad commands are tied in to the directional pad. The muddy d-pad makes for some annoying moments when trying to cycles through assets or squads. This is more because of the 360's controller having a bad d-pad as opposed to bad game design, but depending on the d-pad so much for command and control makes the imprecision occur often enough to annoy. New this time around is that you can take on the view of any of your teammates and order them directly through their eyes, which is a great means of getting your team into the right spot. You want to create true tactical advantage according to the terrain, but should you miss the mark and send your boys and girl to the wrong area, your team will react aptly enough and spread out to take cover in relation to any new or lethal threats.
New to your arsenal are a few vehicles and a revised version of last year's crop. You still have a UAV to use as a scout, which is vital to providing a firm understanding of the terrain and enemy emplacements. The U.S. Army has an unofficial motto: "We're not looking for a fair fight." The same appears to hold true here. As you choose your team's deployment, you can use an assortment of riflemen, automatic riflemen, designated marksman (in this case markswoman) medic, and complementing them is the MULE, and sometimes, an M2 Bradley IFV.
As for your team, you can use your sniper to engage targets in the open at long range to thin out the objective area, and your UAV scout drone helps designate where to look. Meanwhile, your MULE is much like a crutch and acts as both a moving munitions locker and impromptu hard cover. If you deploy the wrong loadout of weapons, you can always switch them your weapons for the right ones, and if you choose to go in one direction, only to find out it was not the best path, the MULE can act like a mobile bunker to cover you from incoming fire. Then there is the Bradley, which basically brings a 25-millimeter cannon to more than even the odds, unless one of Mexico's commandeered M1A1 Abrams MBTs show up. In that case, pop smoke, pop smoke and pop smoke and hope you've got some satchel charges on you, or barring that, grab an anti-tank missile from the MULE.
While GRAW2 is more than a competent single-player experience, the multiplayer boasts a very full suite of options. A new option, which is a welcome feature for the 360's online community, is GRAW2's clan management tools. GRAW2 allows gamers to set up and manage their own clan rosters and clan matches, which is a great tool that hopefully other developers will key off and use in their games. More importantly, GRAW2 boasts some massive maps for 16 players, with all of the same game modes available for GRAW. Even with packed games, the multiplayer code never falters. Unfortunately, you cannot make use of the cover system in multiplayer games as you can in single-player, and there is no readily apparent reason for this. Lag might be an issue, or perhaps play balancing is the most logical, but it seems that being able to take cover in a tactical shooter is an obvious design feature.
The best multiplayer features of GRAW2 aren't just the adversarial games. As a nod to GRAW2's single-player campaign, players can actually continue with six more missions which can be played co-op style with up to 16 players. The game ramps up appropriately, and the tactical savvy displayed by the A.I. adversaries is cunning, if not downright vicious. Once the single-player campaign is complete and achievements have been earned, the multiplayer aspects lend some serious longevity for both casual and competitive 360 Live players, and the clan management system allows for an easy inroad to building a strong multiplayer community. As an aside, players who have Rainbow 6: Vegas and Splinter Cell: Double Agent save games on their HDD will be treated to some extra headgear options to use in multiplayer matches. It's nothing huge, but a nice touch for loyal Ubisoft fans.
But the question still lingers....
Is GRAW2 all that? The gameplay is there. The use of high dynamic range lighting and particle effects is breathtaking, and even the railed shooting gallery segments are enjoyable breaks from all of the tactical warfare. GRAW2 is by no means a simple feat in rendering an amazing-looking game. Even so, GRAW2 still fails to distinguish itself enough from the original title, and both games seem, more or less, like parts one and two of the same entity. There is very little to differentiate GRAW from GRAW2 in terms of its looks and feel. GRAW2 is merely a continuation of the first title, which is a disservice to the core gameplay, graphics and multiplayer modes. Oftentimes, the multiplayer maps are mere revisions of last year's maps, and the single-player experience feels like a revision of last year's campaign.
If you did not play the original, GRAW2 will astonish and amaze you, but if you have, GRAW2's impact will be very much diminished. Perhaps this is a result of having the sequel follow up so closely on the heels of the original. The capabilities of GRAW2 would be much better served if the game took place elsewhere, and that doesn't have to be the Middle East or North Korea, since nasty things are also occuring in low-intensity conflicts in Africa and Southeast Asia. With the rendering capacity exhibited in GRAW2, Ubisoft would be remiss to keep churning out revisions of the same game every year just for the sake of having a new sequel on store shelves year in and year out. Ghost Recon 2 and Rainbow 6: Lockdown bear testimony to such a developing cycle, and for the Advanced Warfighter games to fall into the same trap would be tragic; however, GRAW2 is a step in the wrong direction.
Despite this spiritual criticism, nothing can take away from the fact the Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 looks great, plays well, and is a lot of fun played alone or with friends. It is a worthy purchase for those who missed GRAW and fans of the series, and it is certainly at least worth a well-played rental for those who purchased the original GRAW and liked what they saw.
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