|Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter is the third in the series of futuristic tactical squad shooters. It comes out this week on Xbox 360, with regular console ports to follow next week, and a PC version due later this summer|
Three months in, and 2006 has been a trifle disappointing thus far. While Shadow of the Colossus, Dead or Alive and the recent SWAT 4 expansion recently hit store shelves, us importers were playing most of those titles last year, resulting in a bit of a gaming drought lately.
Well folks, that's all about to change, as on Friday Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter touches down on the 360. Not only is it the first must-have game of the year, but quite possibly the greatest title to hit the new Xbox so far.
The third in the series of Tom Clancy-helmed tactical squad shooters, Advanced Warfighter is a pleasing mixture of its two rather fab predecessors. The over-the-shoulder viewpoint and powerful control system of part two remains, while the action itself hints back more to the gritty street-level combat and top down squad dynamics of the first game.
More than that though, Warfighter can be described as the realistic tactical shooter taken to the next level. Here's a game that truly sums up the much over-used term "next-gen" in just about every way. Whether it be the truly epic city views that literally disappear off into the distance, the ridiculously high level of detail on the characters and buildings all around you, or the sheer spectacle of the impeccably realistic combat, every single facet of this game shows us something which we've literally never seen before.
(G)raphics (R)eally (A)re (W)onderful
Obviously, the first thing that pops out at you are the visuals. GRAW (as I'll annoyingly refer to it from here on in) features stunning graphics that seemingly do the impossible. It really is the first game I've ever played that somehow manages to render an entire, humungous city all at once.
|Mexico City appears nigh on perfectly in GRAW. It's the most detailed recreation of a city yet seen|
Set in Mexico City, the painstaking digital recreation leaves absolutely nothing out. A chopper insertion on the opening level - all played out in real-time - shows you flying in over the miles upon miles of mountain-incapsulated buildings and skyscrapers, without any fogging, LOD tricks or other such sneaky shenanigans...this truly is the real deal, folks. In fact, it's one of the flat out coolest sights you'll ever see in interactive entertainment.
Yeah, you can sit there and pick out the odd flaw with these visuals; very minor frame-rate lapses on the more noisy moments, and the complete lack of V-sync, but neither stop GRAW from being pretty much the greatest looking game currently on the market.
In addition, this is one awesome sounding title too. The gunfire in particular stands out as some of the best I think I've ever heard in a shooter, making weaponry an absolute joy to fire off, as gunshots echo and reverb throughout the massive environments surrounding you. I also dug the use of music in the multiplayer mode too, a trait long since gone in recent years, adding a ton of atmos to the enjoyable, yet soul-less feel so often found in many of these tactical online games.
Playing With Yourself
|You'll face troops, snipers, transports and tanks among others. Don't even get me started on the brilliance of the chopper showdowns|
I'll come back to the multiplayer shortly, but for now let's discuss the single player campaign. On the whole it's a stunning affair, one mixing Black Hawk Down-style atmosphere and action, with a story and plot twists more at home in the likes of 24. GRAW features a turbo-charged Clancy tale that constantly throws up new and interesting moments to keep you hooked from start to finish, and regardless of how many trailers and vid clips you've snagged a peek at over the internet, trust me when I tell you the best bits have been held back.
The campaign mixes in intense long-range fire-fights with ridiculously over the top set-pieces that feel kinda like Call of Duty cranked up to 11 at times. The game's structure has a wonderful, almost real-time nature to it too, with missions leading directly into one another over the course of a day, as you're ferried around from one location to the next via chopper.
Unfortunately, the downside to this setup takes the form of one or two rather shoddy night-time missions that just pretty much did nothing for me at all. While atmospheric and moody, the problem with these levels lies in the fact GRAW's night vision mode - despite looking absolutely stunningly gorgeous - is actually pretty damn useless for the most part. The good news is that when the sun rises once again a few hours later, the game gets firmly back on track.
|GRAW's single player missions range from in-depth tactical moments that require forethought, to sheer freakin' balls-to-the-wall action sequences like this|
I found the single player mode striked a nice balance between hardcore action, and more strategic "thinking man" moments. I was getting my arse handed to me by two APCs for a good hour at one point, no matter how many bullets I fired, how many grenades I lobbed nor how many restarts I (continually) utilised. It wasn't until running off, hiding behind a wall, and directing my troops and vehicles from afar via the top-down map that I eventually secured the win...without actually firing off a single shot myself.
Such moments feel almost like you're taking a pause from the action to play an RTS mini-game of sorts, before picking up your gun and heading on in to survey the damage done, first hand. This sense of leading a team on the battlefield while outsmarting the opposition with tactics and quick-thinking is incredibly satisfying, and regularly results in a sensation I haven't really felt since, well, the first Ghost Recon way back on the PC.
That all said, for the most part your team are happy enough to get on and do their own thing, and never really necessitate much in the way of handholding. Think Republic Commando.
All in all the single player game is a short, yet incredibly tricky, and particularly rewarding experience, that even on the strength of its opening inter-city day time levels alone, showcases the best action yet seen in the series by far. But as enjoyable as the single player experience is, GRAW is destined to go down as one of the online greats due to its expertly realised multiplayer component. There's just so much here, it could almost be a whole other game...
Let's run through the list shall we? Solo deathmatch modes, team elimination shenanigans, round-based options, respawning games, territorial warfare, and yet most definitely best of all, a 4-mission long 16 player co-op campaign that rounds it all off spectacularly. Basically, whatever your style and taste in online fragging is, it's represented here, and represented well.
|Yep, best explosions ever seen in a game|
What I wasn't expecting however, were the extensive hosting options available on top of all that. Basically, when creating a game, every single variable can be tweaked to create the exact online experience you're after. This means restricting weaponry, forcing different viewpoints, fiddling with respawn timers, altering the number of lives, adding the use of drones, deciding how voice comms will work...and a whole lot more besides. It's actually a little bewildering the first time you fire it up.
The multiplayer mode handles slightly faster and more energetic than the offline single player stuff, and it's also worth noting that the graphics have been scaled back slightly in comparison too. This keeps things running relatively smoothly at all times though, and it still retains incredibly detailed and special effect-heavy visuals that put the likes of Perfect Dark and Call of Duty 2 pretty much to shame.
My fave part of the entire online roster though, is of course that 16 player co-op campaign. Although 4 missions may seem meagre, believe me when I tell you, these levels are massive
. They're also brand new scenarios built specifically, as opposed to spruced up ports from the single player game. Think Splinter Cell Chaos Theory...yet with 8 times the number of players.
Whether your squad's 2 or 16 guys large though, the number of enemies and difficulty pleasingly scales accordingly, and even with a team of whiny American teenagers, I can't stress enough what an utterly glorious blast it is. Proper story based online action with real objectives and a humungous playing area...all enjoyed alongside 15 of your buddies? That's pretty much a first. Even better, the way the missions are numbered and structured hint at possible future additions down the line too - downloadable missions, anyone?
Negatives? Well, there's no southpaw mode for starters, so lefties might be in trouble. Also, the enemy AI can be spotty at times too. On the one hand, troops regularly outflanked me and did a damn decent job of making life hell for my team, but at other times they could be seen standing perfectly still, opening fire without cover. A mixed bag, this.
|The night time missions failed to impress me I must say, and were actually a little annoying, truth be told|
Also, while GRAW is one of those ever so rare games that manages to pull off FPS controls damn near perfectly with a gamepad, it is however, a little "laggy", for want of a better term. After a few minutes this becomes unnoticeable, but after years of playing Halo, and even Ghost Recon 2, this felt a little sluggish in comparison. Still, the controls are intuitive and nicely mapped out, regardless, with a wonderful range of options and manoeuvres at your disposal.
On the subject of controls, also worth praising is the exquisite aiming system. You're given a nice, wide reticule, ridding shots of the fiddly nature so often common with console shooters. The forgiving nature of the reticule lets you aim roughly in the right direction, squeeze off some rounds, and take down your foe in all but a split second. For more tricky targets, you can also raise your gun slightly by holding down the left trigger, which makes lining up those more distant headshots an absolute breeze too. This view handles beautifully I must say, quite similarly to Resi 4 on the Gamecube, and it's how I tend to take down 90% of my targets.
Oh, and if it wasn't quite clear from all the above? Taking down bad guys in this game is just ridiculously
satisfying. Dear lord, it makes me wanna fly over to Mexico and start shooting up the streets for real.
The much-hailed "Cross-Com" system is also flat-out fab. In multiplayer games, you get a mini-feed head cam of your team mates at all times, one which you can switch between on the fly by flicking the D-Pad left and right.
|The way the camera reacts and responds to your movement makes you feel as if you're playing some kinda interactive movie, no mere third person shooter|
The hud in general is just brilliantly designed actually; set in the future as it is, GRAW features a detailed computerised targeting system you see, one in which all human and vehicular movement is scanned and reported back to you as friendly or hostile. Enemies show up as red, while friendlies are green and blue, and it has the pleasing side effect of cutting out a lot of the fat from your fire-fights. There's no confusion and friendly fire mishaps as a result, and it keeps the action focused and fast-paced. Some may use the term "dumbed down", but I'd merely call it streamlined, and either way the whole lot can be turned off if you wish.
The camera work also has to be applauded. I think the term "Third Person Shooter" sells this game short actually, it feels more like you're watching the game through a CNN news feed than some bog-standard gamepad-controlled camera system. The view jostles and rocks as you run around, it'll tilt and swivel around corners as you peek from behind cover, and as enemies open fire on your position, it'll even distort and "malfunction" as if stray bullets are piercing its innards.
Pleasingly, its over-the-shoulder viewpoint isn't locked in place ala Resi 4 either, you can switch sides like in Splinter Cell here, making peeking around bends and taking it slow quite the breeze.
Finally, I have to mention the death sequences. It uses a great combination of "clutch in pain" death animations, mixed in with full-on ragdoll physics that send enemies - and indeed comrades - falling to the ground in eerily realistic ways. Ace.
The Holy Trinity
|With visuals this good, it's safe to say that GRAW truly taps the 360's immense power|
Ghost Recon sits alongside Project Gotham 3 and Condemned as one of the three single must-have games currently out for the Xbox 360 in my book. Don't own these bad boys? Then I'm afraid all that power is going to waste. The future is right here, right now, and my god...it's beautiful.
A modified version of this game will be coming to PCs much later this year, for those who ain't console guys, and will supposedly feature a first person view and more of an emphasis on slower, tactical combat. The worrying thing of course, is that we heard all this last time around with Ghost Recon 2, before it was ultimately shit-canned and removed from the face of the earth.
Regardless, GRAW's been pulled off pretty damn perfectly here on the 360. It's essential purchase material for pretty much any sane gamer, with a wealth of on and offline game modes that'll keep you busy for months and months, long after that initial wow factor of those impeccable, near perfect visuals wears off. Presuming it ever does.
And with that, please excuse me. I have to hop online and blow away more Bush voters....