Reviewed: May 12, 2006
Released: March 7, 2006
As a huge Tom Clancy fan Iíve always been impressed by his ability to include forward-thinking military technology into his novels and subsequent games. In my particular military career Iíve been privy to some ďdesignsĒ that have yet to make it out of the R&D department and others that are already in the field (and in Clancy books and games).
Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter is the ultimate evolution of one of my favorite franchises and an uncanny vision of what our military will be like in 2013. Devices like Cross-Com have been in play for longer than you might think and the IWS (Integrated Warfighter System) is already being tested. By the time 2013 rolls around you wonít believe what military technology will be capable of. Optical camouflage (Predator cloak) anyone?
Ghost Recon has always relied on its multiplayer strengths, but for Advanced Warfighter the design team has packed in a solid solo campaign that finally evolves beyond offline training. There is a story, told both in cutscenes and interactive sequences within the missions as well as hours of verbal chatter.
You play as Captain Scott Mitchell who infiltrates Mexico City along with his fellow ghosts to stop the sale of some stolen military surveillance hardware. It just so happens that the U.S. and Mexican presidents and Canadian prime minister are meeting across town to put the final ink on a new treaty. What better time for a coup by a disillusioned Mexican general.
Within minutes of arriving in Mexico City you and your team learn that the prime minister has been killed, and the U.S. president is missing. Itís up to you and your men to once again save the day and your Commander in Chief. Yes, itís four men against an army in what might just be the best game the Xbox 360 will see this year.
While the odds appear to be against you, the ghost have the luxury of some of the best high-tech gadgets military R&D can dream up. I could bore you with the laundry list of specifics, but youíll see all that for yourself soon enough. The highlights of the IWS are the interactive HUD that includes the Cross-Com, Nar-Com, and a multi-function modular rifle. And the cool thing is itís not as sci-fi as you might think.
The Cross-Com is your best friend in that it allows you to see through the eyes of your men. Itís great in single player and invaluable in multiplayer. Just select your teammate you want to monitor and you get a useful PIP view of what they are seeing through their helmet-mounted, high-definition camera.
The Nar-Com is similar to the Cross-Com only it allows you to receive broadcast news as well as video intel from the big brass back at HQ. Getting your orders via radio has been a staple of this series since its inception, but the news broadcasts are a nice twist in that they actually reflect the ongoing state of affairs that are directly impacted by your actions.
Technology drives the gameplay and you are never really taken out of the ďexperienceĒ to navigate traditional game menus. Everything is integrated into the gameplay so even when you are reconfiguring your weapons or scanning a map of the city, itís handled with an in-game realism.
Take for instance, the cool new AUV Cypher, a futuristic hovercraft of sorts that can fly over the city and lock in enemy positions on a 3D tactical map that is downloaded and updated in real-time from the Command Center. You pick the path and destination for the drone and it will fly there and find any enemies, indicating them with red diamonds on the map. You can then rotate or tilt the map to see if those enemies are on ground level or potential snipers lurking above.
If the enemy spots the drone they will fire on it and eventually destroy it, so you will want to watch the elevation and only lower the drone in suspicious areas. Again, itís a useful tool in the solo game and invaluable in multiplayer.
The actual gameplay is surprisingly simplistic thanks to an excellent control scheme that is perfectly suited to the Xbox controller. Moving your men works very similar to other games where you issue squad orders, only the AI in Ghost Recon is so advanced you only need point in the general direction and your men will instinctively position themselves in locations you might not even have noticed.
Move orders like advance and regroup are handled with the up and down on the D-pad; left and right cycle through the squad to activate their Cross-Com feed. The LB toggles recon and attack modes while the face buttons handle switching weapons, context-sensitive actions, vision modes, and reloading. The left and right triggers handle aiming and firing and the sticks are used for movement and camera. You can also toggle between third and first person using the RB.
As the leader you are responsible for much of the action that takes place. Youíll have additional commands for crouching and going prone (even as a running dive) as well as the location-specific Y button that allows you to stick to walls for some excellent cover tactics.
The aiming system is flawless in its design with just enough inaccuracy when firing from the hip to force you to use the aim view. Damage is also location-specific and you can target just about any extremity for a realistic results including one-shot kill headshots. Sniping is handled with a new level of reality that includes a breath meter allowing you to hold your breath to steady your shot.
There is a decent selection of weapons when your modular rifle isnít up to the task. Rocket launchers are particularly devastating and sniper rifles let you eliminate targets from a safe distance. Grenades also pack a punch, but as always they are hard to get to and even harder to aim and throw with any consistent accuracy.
Enemy AI isnít the absolute best but it provides a decent challenge at the normal skill level and gets a lot tougher on Hard. The enemy is good about taking cover and in the later levels the designers get downright sneaky about where they place the enemy.
Solo gamers can enjoy a substantial campaign that spans about a dozen missions of incredible variety. Itís hard to get a firm count since all the missions blend together seamlessly and you really never know where one ends and the next picks up. You are even rearmed and reequipped in the field with periodic supply drops although the vending machine-style weapon cabinets are a bit odd.
Some missions you act alone and others you have full team support as well as the occasional assist from attack chopper or tank. Nothing is more satisfying than being pinned downed by a sniper and calling in a Blackhawk to take the bastard down. Youíll even get to participate in some aerial action of your own as you man the machine guns on your own chopper and tear up the town on an insanely challenging rail ride.
I knew the graphics in GRAW were good but it took one of my friends to come into the room and see the game on the TV (but not me playing it) and mistake it for actual news coverage of the war in Iraq. Itís an easy mistake to make at quick glance. The gameplay graphics are easily FMV quality and itís scary just how good this game can get.
It all starts with the character models that are constructed with more polygons than anyone would care to count. Dress them in authentic textured uniforms and animate them with ultra-realistic motion capture and equip them with detailed 3D weapons and equipment that is independently modeled and animated, and you have CG reality.
Most of the levels take place in urban environments and Iíve never played a game that has recreated a city with this much explosive detail. Everything is interactive in some way, at least in that you can damage or destroy it. Even objects that used to be considered useful cover (like walls) are no longer safe when your powerful sniper rifle can propel a bullet through solid objects.
The level of complexity is astounding. With so much cityscape being rendered I never saw any repeats in textures or architecture, at least within any given city block, and there were plenty of unique locations, often with mission-specific goals taking place once you get there.
The draw distance is out to the horizon, even when you are in the chopper, although the designers cleverly frame your view with the chopper door. But the real visual treats are reserved for the ground missions where you can witness the most impressive lighting and shadow system of any game to date.
Textures are treated with bump and/or normal mapping making them pop off the screen causing the real-time light source to reflect and bounce off everything in the game in a totally realistic manner. This effect is layered and processed multiple times creating photo-realistic levels that match the character animation. Even the pupil dilation effect of walking from darkness into sunlight is recreated flawlessly.
There are also subtle lighting effects that come into play to enhance your current level of aggression or simply make you feel the ďheatĒ of the Mexican sun. The Xbox 360 version is in a league all its own when compared to the Xbox and PS2 versions, and running this game at 720p or 1080i will make you glad you own an HDTV.
The HUD is cleverly designed to communicate all necessary information without taking you out of the game experience. Video displays are treated with realistic imperfections, lines, static, etc. and the various vision modes are realistic and useful. There is even one mission where a jamming device scrambles your entire display.
Clancy games seem to share that same military-style soundtrack and GRAW is no different. The soundtrack is more apparent in this game with audio cues that enhance the action and create the appropriate mental attitude.
There is almost an endless amount of speech that runs continuously throughout the game. It can be as simple as team acknowledgements to your orders or incoming mission updates from HQ or realistic news broadcasts. There is also a surprising amount of enemy chatter, which is more amusing than informative.
Sound effects are easily the best part of the audio package with realistic sounds for every weapon. There are also subtle sounds that bring the city and surrounding areas to life. The Dolby Digital mix recreates stunning 3D spaces but most of all it powers some of the best low-frequency effects of recent memory. Whether its tank bearing down on your position or the thunderous report of the sniper rifle, your neighbors will think you are being invaded.
The GRAW solo campaign is good for about 12-15 hours of intense and strategic combat action. There are 38 achievements youíll need to unlock if you want to earn the 1000 gamer points for this game, but only about 60% of them are in the single-player game. Achievements are also awarded based on the difficulty level, so there is a good incentive to replay on hard mode.
The rest of the achievements are reserved for multiplayer and some are just insane. Only the most dedicated ghosts will ever earn awards for 10,000 online kills, hosting 1,000 games, or playing for 8 straight hours online. Then again, there is a lot of multiplayer content here so it might take a while but youíll probably earn most of these.
Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter is easily the best multiplayer game currently out there for the 360 and just as easily the best multiplayer game in the entire Clancy legacy. The game supports online and system link play for up to 16 players and when you throw in 16 bots you have massive battles with up to 32 soldiers. You decide how to mix and match the teams.
There are numerous game modes that feature cooperative and versus gameplay in specially designed multiplayer levels. While not nearly as visually impressive as the solo levels, they are perfectly designed for larger groups of people and unscripted action. New maps are already available via content download and more are likely headed our way.
Picking the type of multiplayer game is only the first step. The host has an unprecedented number of game options they can use to modify each game experience. You can easily play this game for months and never have the same experience twice. The functional lobby gives the rest of the group the ability to pick their character class and finalize weapons. Voice chat is fully supported and you can talk to anyone on your team, at least until you die. Sorry, no recon from beyond the grave in this game.
One of my favorite elements was the cooperative campaign, which goes way above and beyond what any previous game designers have attempted. Much like the co-op in Splinter Cell, you just donít replay the standard campaign, but rather explore an original story, and specially designed maps created to work with cooperative gameplay elements. There is even an offline campaign mode that supports up to four players in split-screen mode and the power of the 360 makes it work.
Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter redefines the franchise while defining the Xbox 360 as a truly next-gen system capable of recreating reality on your TV. Visually, nothing can touch this game in level design, character design, animation, or special effects and the booming sound packs a punch.
But it all comes down to the gameplay and that is where GRAW really excels. Whether you are exploring the challenging single-player campaign or risking your job, family, and friends to play just one more game online, Ubisoft has created a whole new addiction that will be a tough habit to break. Iím not even going to try.