Release Date: July 17, 2007
If the tedium of tossing around boxes in Cellfactor: Revolution left you wishing you had never invested in Ageia's PhysX physics-accelerator card, cheer up: hope approaches on the horizon in the form of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2. It will make you look at your card in a whole new, rose-colored light. Don't have a PhysX card, you say? Not a problem. With the exception of a single map designed to showcase the card's capabilities, you can still enjoy everything this title has to offer minus the extra-chunky explosions.
Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 is a realistic, squad-based tactical shooter that emphasizes coordination and strategy over run-and-gun shooting. In fact, there is no running and gunning at all, since you need to lower your weapon in order to run. You can't even jump! What you can do, however, is direct the movements and tactics of squadmates, allied fighters, artillery cannons, airstrikes, and even the occasional tank.
You have an enormous amount of control over the AI in your squad. This comes at the cost of complexity (you won't want to skip the introductory tutorial), but you'll be greatly rewarded for your time investment in the game's more difficult levels, where going solo can be next to impossible. The rules of engagement can be set generally to "recon" or "assault." In recon mode, your teammates will move stealthily, moving from cover to cover, and will not fire unless fired upon. If they do need to return fire, they will automatically use a silenced weapon, if available (you equip yourself and your team at the start of each level). In assault mode, your team will move as quickly as possible, shooting everything in sight.
I liked the idea of using recon mode to surprise the opposition, but I found the enemy so thick-headed that silencers were not necessary at all. Often, shooting one of two AI enemies in the head will induce no reaction whatsoever in the surviving team member, giving you plenty of time to take him out as well. Similarly, detonating a pack of C4 will result in a loud explosion that nearby AI don't seem to hear, or if they do hear it, they don't come running. The opposing forces have good aim and can take you out quickly when they see you, but they don't work together very well.
Your squadmates, frankly, aren't that helpful either. While you can control their movements and the general direction you want to face, they are not very impressive soldiers. I found myself frustrated with their inability to use a little common sense in executing my orders. For example, after ordering a rifleman to "attack" an MG emplacement up ahead and around a corner, the response I got was along the lines of, "Can't do it! I don't have a shot from here!" You have to hold his hand every little step of the way by ordering him to move to a specific position first, and then ordering him to shoot somewhere within his line of sight.
Orders can be lined up in succession much like they can in Supreme Commander. For example, you can tell Teammate 1 to run over to hide behind the pickup truck, take out an enemy perched in a watchtower, and then proceed to lay down suppressing fire in the direction of an alley to the south. At the same time, you can have Teammates 2 and 3 doing completely different things. They can execute their orders one at a time or simultaneously, depending on what you tell them.
The tactical map is excellent. Much like the overhead maps in real-time strategy titles, it gives you a bird's-eye view of the battlefield, allowing you to choose your strategy wisely. One feature I liked was that the "map" is really more of a satellite picture in which you're looking at the objects themselves, rather than a traditional map where objects are represented by symbols and icons. So instead of seeing blinking red dots inside a two dimensional box, you can see actual soldiers walking around on a recognizable rooftop. You can even zoom in for a better view.
You can give orders from the tactical-map view or through a "Cross-Com" interface that allows you to see from your squadmate's perspective. Using the Cross-Com usually allows you to make more precise movements and can sometimes make it easier to scout for enemies. An enemy standing under a palm tree, for example, would not be visible from the top-down tactical map view. (Note, however, that if conditions are windy, palm trees will sway, often revealing soldiers who would otherwise be invisible from the tactical view).
Not being able to jump is an acquired taste. It's disconcerting at first, because virtually every first-person shooter since Doom has used the space bar for a jumping ability. When I see a small crate or other low-lying obstacle, I naturally assume I can climb up on it to access a window or jump to another platform. Not so in GRAW 2. Usually an obstacle of any size in your path means you need to select another route. Occasionally, this can lead to preposterous results, like when a small wooden drawer on the ground prevented me from exiting a building. (I couldn't shoot it up, either). But in multiplayer, the lack of idiots jumping around like possessed jackrabbits was a welcome change from the typical online experience.
Overall, the gameplay feels like an amalgam of Counter-Strike, Rainbow Six, and Battlefield 2142. The focus is on teamwork, tactics, and the accomplishment of objectives. I was also reminded of Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45 in that shooting accuracy diminishes substantially when iron-sights are not used. Fortunately, while GRAW2 feels mostly authentic, it does not put such a high value on realism that it does away with crosshairs. Similarly, while there are no "medikits" lying around that instantly and miraculously heal all your injuries the moment you pick them up, you will usually not die with a single bullet. The game isn't exactly forgiving, but it's not as brutally punishing as ArmA: Combat Operations, for example.
Unlike traditional shooters, you do not play a God-like "Rambo" role. To survive and succeed, you need to calculate your movements carefully, so the pace tends to be slower than many other titles. You'll find yourself favoring a crouched position most of the time, with a constant eye open for available cover. You'll lean around corners for a quick peek at the enemy's position just as you would if you were really in the middle of a Mexican gunfight. Few titles immerse you in your environment as compellingly as GRAW 2 does.
As you'd expect, the guns look and feel authentic. Each weapon has its own unique handling characteristics, complete with realistic recoil, and each is useful in particular situations. Reloading animations are very well done, too. You'll find a smattering of mounted machine guns that are exceptionally powerful and have no recoil whatsoever, but capitulating to such temptation will make you an easy target for snipers.
Grenades are powerful, but their usefulness is diminished by the lack of an ability to control throwing distance. I was disappointed when I found I was unable to lob a grenade over a fence to take care of a gathering of bad guys a short distance away. When I tried, my grenade flew 100 yards past the intended target. (Fortunately, thanks to the aforementioned asininity of the enemy AI, the explosion alerted no one to my presence).
The graphics are gorgeous and the system requirements are reasonable, if a little steep. Palm trees sway in the breeze, helicopter blades kick up swirling funnels of dirt, and leaves fall daintily from the trees. Objects in the foreground are impressively detailed and textured. Hills and foliage in the distance, however, lack detail and tend to look bland and overly smooth.
Those equipped with an Ageia PhysX card will enjoy some of the most impressive and convincing explosions ever seen in a video game. Detonating a pack of C4 on a fuel tank will cause it to blast high into the sky in a blaze of smoldering metal, billowing smoke, and realistic heat distortion, often permeated with smashed planks of wood and other debris if structures were nearby at the time you hit the button.
There is a special bonus level for owners of PhysX cards, shamelessly named "Ageia Island," that makes full use of the hardware acceleration the card provides. (Note: a $20 coupon for the PhysX card is included with the game.) In this level, virtually everything you see is destructible. Wooden fences can be shot apart, plank by plank, and supporting structures can be destroyed, causing buildings to collapse, killing anyone standing underneath. Shoot a single bullet through a piece of tent fabric or camouflage netting to make a small hole suitable for sniping. Put a few bullets into the trunk of a palm tree and take delight as it breaks in half and collapses upon its unsuspecting victim.
I enjoyed all of these hardware-accelerated features for a while, but with the exception of the ability to shoot apart fences and tear up fabrics that can be used for cover, the impact of the PhysX card did not make a huge difference in gameplay. Why would you expend an entire magazine of bullets pecking away at the wooden floor beneath the sniper in the watchtower when you could just shoot him in the head and be done with it?
I was also impressed with the PhysX-enhanced dust, foliage and fabrics, but the water effects didn't "wow" me. Bodies of water look fine but simply didn't impress me the way they did in Half Life 2: Lost Coast. The sound effect of the surrounding waters was also a little off in GRAW 2, sounding more like a babbling brook than a lake or sea.
As with most PC titles, you can "quick-save" your progress, but to make things a little more challenging, you cannot save in the middle of a gunfight. While I had no trouble with this for most of the game, a notable exception is the Ageia Island level, where the developers apparently consider a good two-thirds of the map to constitute a single fight. My fondness and admiration for this physics-enhanced map suffered a huge setback when I was forced to play the same 20-minute stretch over and over again after continuously dying near the end of the level.
Sound plays a very big role in this game, especially in multiplayer. Getting struck by a bullet almost hurts because of the cringe-inducing THWACK! you hear as the bullet pierces your clothing and skin. Squadmates will often give audible clues to the whereabouts of spotted enemies. Playing with headphones in multiplayer matches, I found myself relying often on audible clues as to the location of my enemies. For example, when you hear crunching leaves but don't see a friendly on your mini-map, chances are you're about to encounter an enemy, so you need to prepare accordingly.
The first thing you'll notice when you switch to multiplayer mode is the meager server browser, which lists all available servers and does not allow you to set any filters. The next thing you'll notice is the paucity of players. You may also be annoyed by the small, hard-to-read font (a problem shared with the single-player component). Once you've looked beyond those shortcomings, however, you'll find a truly outstanding suite of multiplayer modes that will give this title long-lasting appeal to any fan of online shooters.
You'll find deathmatch here, of course, but GRAW 2 sports no less than three objective-based multiplayer modes. In Hamburger Hill, two teams battle for control of a central zone identified on the mini-map. You hold the hill when no enemy is inside the zone, and a canister of colored smoke indicates which team is in control at that moment. A ticket-based system awards tickets to the team in control of the zone. Siege is like Hamburger Hill, except that one team (the Ghosts) starts in control of a zone and the other team (the Mexican rebels) assaults. The assaulting team can win if they take and hold the zone for five seconds.
The highlight is Recon vs. Assault, which matches the "sneak and peek" recon style against the heavier firepower of an assault team. In RvA, the Ghosts must destroy three air defense anti-tank systems ("ADATS") while the Mexican rebels must defend the ADATS and/or kill the Ghosts. Each side has different classes of soldier with different weapon load-outs. A veterancy system tracks your progress for as long as you stay connected to a given server. The higher your rank, the more soldier classes (and weapons) are available to you as you respawn or resupply. Your veteran status is reset when you disconnect from the server.
Wrapping up the impressive collection of multiplayer modes is a pair of cooperative modes that allow the player to experience the single-player campaign with up to three friends, or play the multiplayer maps with your friends as allies instead of opponents. A server setting determines whether the objective is to reach an extraction point or eliminate all hostiles.
As in the Battlefield franchise, you can "spot" or "tag" your enemies when they come into view, thereby making them visible both on the mini-map and in the game world to your entire team by virtue of a red icon. Certain classes have upgraded tagging abilities, allowing them to do things like tag through walls and obstacles. Tagging helps tremendously, as there are a lot of dark corners in which to hide. GRAW2 also allows you to see which of your teammates have been tagged by your opponents by virtue of a purple icon. A specialized soldier class can "un-tag" his teammates.
Surprisingly, Voice Over Internet Protocol is absent. (Instead, you receive an offer for a two-week trial subscription to a third-party voice-chat service.) You cannot speak to your teammates; you can only type out messages. In a game that emphasizes tactics above all else, the omission seems particularly glaring. Then again, at least you're not forced to listen to all the whining and idle chatter that normally takes places over the VOIP channel.
A word about advertising. Players must really be spending a lot of time staring at those billboards in ad-filled games like Battlefield 2142, because GRAW 2 has more in-game advertising than any title I've ever played. I guess such advertising is here to stay, but I can't help being annoyed by the sight of a billboard for a 2008-model car when the game takes place in 2014.
Overall, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 is a strong contender among tactical shooters and a must-own title for any owner of a PhysX card. The story is forgettable, the dialogue in the cut scenes is cheesy, the single-player campaign is short, and the AI leaves much to be desired — but the fighting is top notch, the battles are intense, the strategic options are myriad, and the immersion factor is so compelling I can give it a strong recommendation.
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