|The Ghosts are back for another tactic-heavy Recon outing. Once again we're in 360-ville, with a PS3 port due soon, and a completely separate PC title expected too|
I always think back to the previous GRAW
with lovingly fond memories. Not just the first title to truly make the 360 sing, that work of brilliance also played host to an endless supply of wondrous online encounters for me too, ones that pretty much didn't stop 'til Gears of War rolled around.
This follow-up ain't bad by any means, but with a GRAW sequel released so soon after its predecessor - one not even trying
to disguise its robust similarities at that - it's tricky to heap quite
such similarly lavish praise this time around. The troubling fact is, in light of the aforementioned Gears, and even fellow Clancy offerings like Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell, the year-old GRAW antics ain't quite as relevant as they once were. One might argue they've been superseded.
GRAW hasn't really matured much you see. Gears' beautiful simplicity and effortless controls haven't rubbed off on it in the slightest, nor has Rainbow's ace cover system and ability to play the entire campaign in co-op. Hell, they haven't even included face-mapping. These are no-brainers that one would have not just hoped, but 100% expected to come bundled in as standard, yet instead GRAW2 feels teleported in directly from early 2006 as if resulting months - and indeed titles - never happened. Detractors could claim it's a little late to the party.
That's pretty much all my bitching done with however, because if you can overlook the sequel's slightly dated core and stark similarity to its predecessor, you're in for quite the treat. "GRAW 1.5" seems to be the popular catchphrase among the kids - and they're kinda right - but I almost don't give a shit. I luuurved
the last game after all. As colorful as Vegas casinos are, and as randy as curb-stomping aliens heads apart makes Diggler Jr, it's those Mexican streets of GRAW that still do it for me above all else. I pretty much ate, shat and golden showered in GRAW for a solid six months straight...so a chance to do it all over again? Bring it on, I say. Déjà vu be damned.
So is there anything
new? Barely. It's still an over-the-shoulder third person shooter. You still control a squad. You still battle terrorists. Hell, the controls and even the ruddy menus are borderline identical to the last game, featuring zilcho alteration.
The only real new addition comes in the form of the reworked cross-com system - playable character Scott Mitchell's much-hyped, and admittedly cool as balls headset visor thang. Previously you had nowt but that small SWAT-style video feed in the corner of your screen - used to do everything from control UAV drones to order your squad mates around - but for GRAW2 its usefulness has been bulked up hugely like a sock in your pants.
|With a new-found - albeit optional - emphasis on tactics and strategy, GRAW2 lets you control vehicles like the drone manually now, in a quasi-first person mode|
Nicking a page outta the last Recon title on PC
, you can now call it up full-screen you see, the important difference this time being you can now send orders in this new full screen feed and essentially command your squad from there indefinitely. This gives you far greater control over your team, as you send 'em from cover to cover, designate targets, and complete mission objectives, all within a very easy to use, yet expertly powerful interface. The old semi-classic Full Spectrum Warrior has essentially been shoe-horned in you could say, and if you so wish, you can play 90% of the game this way, with Mitchell simply hiding behind a rock miles away, safe from harm, directing the action from afar like a full-blown strategy game. All this applies to vehicles too, meaning you can manually control drones now, and even pick off bombing targets for Apache helicopters and the like.
Of course, it's all optional. You're more than welcome to play it identically to GRAW if you prefer - and I'm sure most will - taking out dudes "manually" and directing your squad with the more simplistic D-pad method. These strategic revamps have the potential to impact the game hugely depending on how much or how little you opt to use 'em, but I guess ultimately come off more like a strategy fan's wet dream, than anything of real substance to the average FPSer.
A couple o' new guns and the almost too
useful new medic class aside, that's pretty much it for the new shiz though.
In terms of its single player campaign, GRAW2 follows the Resistance model of a horribly dull first act, that slowly but surely ramps up in quality into something far cooler. Kicking off in remote Mexican mountains, you'll have a harder time battling sleep, than Rebels, in a slow burn of a tutorial that takes a good long while before its ultimate pay-off kicks in. One demented chopper shoot-out and a spectacular air insertion into the war-torn city of Juarez later though, and initial worries disappear almost completely.
|Despite utilising similar tech to the last game, GRAW2 looks phenomenal, going toe to toe with some of the 360's best. Performance could be better, mind|
GRAW2 does dabble a little too much in these barren mountains and deserts than I'd have liked overall, but when you're smack bang in the middle of such cities, it's simply unmatched. The street level combat that worked so well in the first game comes back with a vengeance here, and has even been racketed up a notch in the chaos stakes to boot. Such wide open street violence is an engaging and hugely pivotal trait of GRAW, and one that Rainbow Six' more intimate close quarters approach can't begin to match in my opinion, and it shines through here just as strongly as ever.
It's funny to think how much this series has changed in its lifespan, that said. From its peaceful and realistic PC origins - in which it shared more of a tone and feel with the likes of Operation Flashpoint - to the kind of ludicrously over the top Hollywood rollercoaster craziness on display here, one can only giggle somewhat sheepishly in guilty embarrassment at how much fun it all is. Remember that insane embassy stand-off in the last game? An adrenaline-fuelled climax of noise and destruction that was arguably never quite matched up to ever again? There's tons
of that sorta shit this time around. Interactive cut-scenes, humongous defense missions, and in a stroke of pure brilliance, even a fab set piece in which Mitchell is seriously injured and his cross-com butchered beyond repair. You'll be forced to fight and battle your way back to civilization from out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a rifle for company, including - that's right - no red diamonds guiding your path. And rather superb it is too.
One might argue the series has somewhat strayed off-course in light of all the flashy new spectacle - particularly with the abundance of god-awful dialogue backing it up now. A fave being, "What's your name, son?" to which Mitchell replies in classic South Park-esque action movie piss-take fashion, "I have no name...I'M A GHOST". As worryingly cheesy as it all is, it does kinda work though, particularly in an edge of the seat, 24 sorta way.
Visually, GRAW2 does a fantastic job I must say. Sure, it uses the same engine as last time, but by no means sell this game short, as revamps to the smoke, explosions and weather effects all provide spectacular, even jaw-dropping moments that you simply don't expect in these post-Gears times we now live in. The aforementioned Juarez insertion springs to mind as a fine example, in which your squad soars in over surrounding mountains to find the glowing, fire-filled city illuminating its charcoal, smoke-tinged sky with surprising beauty. Or how about the way rain bounces and collides against your mini-gun and helmet as you poor down terror on waves of troops and transports below from the side of your chopper in the midst of a thunderstorm as another fine example. It's startlingly pretty stuff, and never really faulters, discounting some minor and occasional frame-rate issues here and there.
|Even multiplayer boasts improved visuals, with the shadow effects on the trees impressing in particular|
It's the new lighting system which deserves highlighting more than anything though, which - I shit you not - is quite easily the best I've ever seen in a videogame. The gorgeous sunsets, the stunning shadows, the sheer blindness of the vistas...dear lord, you're almost tempted to rip your shirt off and grab a tan while you play. What's particularly ace is how these new real-time lighting effects aren't mere window dressing either; the game uses them to fabulous effect, having missions start, say, in early evening, then slowly but surely mutate into night over the course of the level. It's a fab concept, and something I've never really seen done in a game before, and adds not only some great atmospherics to the look and feel, but also brings interesting new gameplay dynamics to the table, as you contend with changing visibility on the fly. Compared to the simply awful
night time missions found in GRAW, these fair considerably better as a result.
Just as cool is the audio however. Dialogue is seriously hit or miss, like I say, but the music more than makes up for it, once again bearing more similarity to your typical episode of 24 than a video game, and really bulking up the vibe and atmosphere ten-fold. Fab stuff, and somewhat surprising, this.
Slow start aside, single player GRAW2 turned out pretty good on the whole then. Exceptional stand-out set-pieces, amazing presentation, and some pleasing technical improvements all helped alleviate those initial fears of dullness, and in turn showcased some of the better Ghost Recon action we've seen in a good long while to boot. Unfortunately it's clock-able in a mere 5 to 6 hours however - partly due to startling ease - rendering it a short-lived affair to put it lightly. All ain't lost though, as once again, the game more than lives on past those end credits thanks to an all-too-impressive online suite...
|The new six-mission co-op campaign is a particularly vicious affair, even for Recon-vets who battled their way through the previous two chapters with ease|
It's me, so we have to start with the new co-op campaign. Boasting 6 massive missions this time - with no doubt more on the way - the co-op mode feels considerably more fleshed out and exciting than it did in the last game. Rather than opt for simple, static objectives as seen previously, these levels feel a fair bit more dynamic you see; there's a level entitled "Locks" for instance, where you have to sneak onboard a ship and plant a tracking device without being spotted. Stealth in a GRAW game? You better believe it. What's fab though, is that the game allows you to send off a member of your team to blow up a nearby objective to cause a distraction, one which attracts all nearby enemies and allows clear passage to your primary objective onboard the ship.
Likewise, the superb "Caldera" level tasks you with blowing two communication towers out in the jungle as a primary objective. Take out one at a time however, and the enemy uses the still-standing tower to radio in reinforcements, making your mission twice as tricky. Splitting your team up and bombing both targets simultaneously becomes a smarter tactic...but of course, you're essentially halving your numbers in the process. These fab little nuances and decisions really help push the co-op experience up a notch into something you'd expect more from a single player game than one with 15 buddies, and I tell ya, with a fully decked out team, there's really little else like it.
|Multiplayer boasts revamped modes, new skins, and even full-blown clan support. No face-mapping though|
Sadly lag and connection issues run rampant once again, so unless you have a close friend handy with a 24mb broadband line to take care of hosting duties, you'll more than likely be stuck with a mere 4 to 5 players instead. That's fun too, don't get me wrong, but it's a shame so few will ever get to experience what this game's truly capable of as a result, and it's exactly the sort of downer that makes one ever more angry with Microsoft for not offering dedicated servers for such high profile Live releases, particularly with the PS3 now boasting such coolness for free in many of its titles thus far. In fact, I'd be interested to see if the upcoming Playstation port includes such hotness, as it could quite conceivably make it the pick of the two.
Co-op ain't all there is to multiplayer GRAW however, with solo and team modes receiving similar rejuvenation. There's a pleasing wad of content, including 14 total maps, a ton of new skins, female models, full clan support, and even some new game modes such as "Team Mission". This is a quality new objective-based versus type that has got me dabbling in a side of the game I previously completely ignored (it takes a hell of a lot to pry the Dig off co-op).
While multiplayer still uses the aging Ghost Recon 2 engine at its core - not the insanely pretty one seen in the single player mode - it's worth noting that it's been hugely improved this time around as well. No longer the ugly retarded step sibling to the gorgeous looking single player game...multiplayer GRAW2's actually kinda pretty in its own right. Fantastic shadow effects, depth of field and a much improved sense of scale all contribute to make it look at least as good as the recent Double Agent and Vegas online modes, if not better. Performance can once again be an issue on occasion that said, with frame-rates a tad choppy at times and tearing aplenty...but it's unclear how much of this is down to rushed sequel syndrome, as opposed to the 360 perhaps starting to reach the upper limits of its power.
Solid if Not GRAWtacular
If you hated GRAW, there's absolutely nothing to see here overall, but for those like me who loved the last game and simply want more of the same, this one doesn't disappoint. It improves on its predecessor in some minor areas - namely visually and aurally - while providing a truly robust online package that'll no doubt last some good long months on top.
At the same time, it does feel a little lazy in terms of what you'd hope from a true sequel, and while I wouldn't go so far as to call it a mere expansion pack either, I'd say it certainly hovers somewhere in between. At its full whack price, that might not sit too well with the more casual GRAWer, which is fair enough I'd say. It's a shame though, as by passing up on this they'd miss out on a solid, enjoyable and pretty fucking gorgeous shooter, and one I foresee being the next big Live title as well.
In the grand scheme of things, it won't linger so long in the memory, nor have the huge impact its predecessor did, but what can I say? It's GRAW. It's back. It's just as fun as ever, and I'm pretty sure it'll be my online weapon of choice now 'til Halo 3 rolls around...