Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2
The ground shakes beneath me as another mortar hits home close to my position. I adjust my stance slightly, pushing back harder against the sun warmed stone of the raised flower bed that remains the only thing protecting me from certain death. I cough as the smoke and dust that clouds the air fills my lungs, breathing is the least of my worries however. A small respite from the shooting gives me chance to peer quickly over the edge of my makeshift cover before a hail of bullets sends me quickly to my knees again. In the brief moment I had to take in my surroundings I was able to pick out three armoured tanks and at least five soldiers on foot shooting from positions of cover behind abandoned cars. A feeling of panic rises from the pit of my stomach, not a feeling I'm very familiar with its potency threatens to overwhelm me, I shut my eyes and force my body to relax, allowing my mind to clear before I open them again.
Glancing to my right, to the next bullet scarred flower bed in the row, I can see three of my men also taking cover from the barrage of gunfire aimed at them. A wave of guilt washes over me, I've taken them safely this far, through the mess that northern Mexico seems to have become and they've followed me unquestioningly as I've asked them to risk their lives time and again in a conflict none of them instigated but are all duty bound to participate in. But now, laying there behind a pair of decorative flower beds in the middle of Juarez on a mission that the country they serve will insist never happened, I have no way of saving them, there's no way we can risk changing our position while under such heavy fire and we'd be slaughtered the moment we poke our heads up long enough to take any kind of meaningful aim at our assailants. I've failed them. My mind races thinking of ways I could have got us through this if only I'd approached it differently, if only I'd taken my sniper rifle to a rooftop and cleared the square myself before sending them in. If only.
Another huge explosion causes a fresh shower of debris to fall over me bringing my thoughts sharply back into focus. The tanks have started firing again, it'll only be a matter of minutes now before they've either destroyed our cover and us along with it or sent men to out-flank us and pick us off as we cower behind these flower beds. Suddenly there's a crackle in my ear and a video feed is patched into the visor on my headset, General Keating appears on screen, his voice cutting through the chaos around me as he urgently barks a new set of orders. Air strike, he's authorising an air strike to save us! All he needs is the co-ordinates ASAP as the planes are only moments away. I swiftly overlay the map of the surrounding area on my headset display and pinpoint the locations of the three tanks. General Keating vanishes instantly from my display and for a brief moment I wonder if the co-ordinates have got through alright. I don't have to wait long to find out, less than twenty seconds later a series of massive explosions rip through the square as the unmistakable sound of jet fighters screaming overhead confirm the presence of the promised air strike, my world slows to a crawl, my vision blurs and I can feel the earth erupt around me as yet more missiles hit home. When the ringing in my ears finally dies down and is replaced by the thumping sound of my heartbeat I hold my breath, listening for the sound of hostiles. The smoke begins to clear and I can see my men, all alive, looking to me for instructions, I motion for them to remain in cover before slowly peering round the corner into the square. The fiercely burning remains of three tanks and the occasional sound of falling debris is all that punctuates the now almost eerie silence. I stand up, signalling for my men to follow me across the square to secure a better position. Amidst the sudden calm of the destruction I'm running through the familiar beeping noise that means new mission objectives are being downloaded startles me bringing a wry smile to my face. We were safe for now, but this isn't the end, time to see what the powers that be have in store for us next.
And so ends the first act in Ubisoft's latest edition to the Ghost Recon series. It's often hard to describe to someone what makes a game great, what pushes it out from the packed ranks of whatever genre it falls into. Describe an average game and a great game to someone using the simple facts and it'll be hard for them to gain any real sense of what makes one better than the other, to do that you have to play them; you have to enter the game-world and take part in the events contained within them. In short, to understand them you have to experience them. The end of the first act, as I described above, isn't by any means the highlight of the game, its also clearly not the most difficult part, it was however one of the parts that's stuck in my head as being one of those gaming moments where I realised I'd become so submerged in the experience that it had ceased to be simply a game and had become instead an experience.
Reviews, by their very nature, are personal. The reviewer does his or her best to convey the main features of a game, the bits they felt were innovative and the bits they felt weren't before drawing a conclusion about how much fun they'd had playing it and awarding a score that purports to tell the reader, at a glance, if the game is worthy of your hard earned money. What is harder to convey are those times when a game is so good you just want to tell all your friends about it, when you want to keep starting sentences with phrases like 'There's this cool bit where....' rather than going on about the detail of the textures on some guy's trousers and when you lay awake at night with bits of it replaying themselves over and over again in your head.
Of course, for all my gushing praise you'll no doubt still want some traditional review style facts and some kind of objective critique to go with it, so here goes. For those of you who played last year's BAFTA award winning Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter there will be a certain amount of familiarity, indeed one of the most nagging criticisms to befall GRAW 2 is that it can feel very much like version 1.5 rather than a true sequel, but then the original was one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful Xbox 360 titles of last year so that's not automatically a bad thing. There are also some very definite improvements over last year's offering, the eagle eyed amongst you will notice a certain amount of graphical polish on the already spectacular looking engine with improved lighting and explosions the most obvious and impressive. The checkpoint placing has also been overhauled which will come as a god send to those who'd become used to fighting through long treacherous sections only to die near the end and have to redo it all again, although still missing is the ability to re-load any passed checkpoint meaning you can't replay specific sections of a level. You can also now pick a medic as one of your Ghosts which means effectively having a walking-talking stack of health packs around which come in very handy at times. In the spirit of keeping you stocked up on the necessities there is also a new unit called the mule that is available on certain missions, this can be directed around the battlefield and contains a useful supply of ammo and health within its armoured shell. The cross-com method of controlling the units under your command reappears in its new updated version 2.0 guise. Left and right on the d-pad moves between selectable units and up and down issues context sensitive orders. The most significant update to it is the ability to, at the touch of the right bumper, effectively see through the eyes of the selected unit in glorious full screen allowing you to issue orders with much greater accuracy and effectiveness than before, it also significantly enhances the abilities of the UAV drone as you can now get a proper birds eye view of the battlefield to help plan your attacks.
It's not all new though, and the series trademark tactical shooting remains firmly in place, honed to as near to perfection as it can be. Most missions revolve around getting from A to B making the best use of the available cover and killing everything in between but to GRAW 2's credit it rarely feels this simple in practice. The 'sticky' cover system works perfectly and when combined with the accuracy of the opposing forces certainly keeps the action tense, it would be cheap to mention Gears Of War at this point but there is an obvious surface similarity to the fluid duck and cover gameplay. The AI of your team mates is nicely up to scratch while not being always fool proof, you'll at least never find them rooted to the spot getting shot at simply because you asked them to go somewhere.
One area where things haven't improved from last year is in the length of the single player campaign. As great as it is while it lasts it doesn't last anywhere near long enough, not even as long as the one in the original game which wasn't exactly epic in length itself. It's a shame and does take a small amount of gloss off the experience if for no other reason that like all good things you wish it could last forever. However, to make up for the brevity of its single player campaign GRAW 2 has a frankly stupendous multiplayer side to it. Making a welcome return is the separate co-op campaign full of entirely new missions following its own story based around the Panama Canal. With 16 players supported online these games can be truly epic in nature and are a sign of what can be so great about online play when structured well. Away from the co-op campaign more traditional multiplayer action is to be found amid the broad and impressive list of modes available from Territory, Objective Elimination to name a few, each with their own wide ranging set of different rules and settings that can be tweaked to create pretty much any kind of game you can think of. There are, to start with, 18 multiplayer maps available with an additional one available once you've linked your Live account to a Ubisoft one, and while some are more suited to certain types of game they're all uniformly well designed guaranteeing an evenly pitched battle.
I'm sure there are many things I've not covered, new bit and improvements that warrant page space as much as any of the things I've mentioned here. But to go back to what I said earlier, it's really all about the experience, reading all the facts and features lists in the world isn't going to accurately convey the feeling of playing GRAW 2, the feeling of being sucked into a game world so beautifully formed and well designed that the individual features blur into the impressive whole. It may be a bit short, a bit similar to last years version and if you don't have access to Xbox Live then you'll be missing out on half the package, but as game experiences go this is up there with the best and as such comes very heartily recommended.