An excellent sequel to the first

Action games exploit dubious what-if scenarios by turning them into games—ultranationalists in Moscow “rebuild” the Iron Curtain, Kazakhstan’s destabilized by a Pakistani warlord, rebel insurgents attack a North American summit in Mexico and drive the presidents of both the U.S. and Mexico into hiding. Add “Mexico invades the U.S.” to that list of near-future paranoid fantasies and you have the premise for Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2, a dolled up sequel that tries so hard to be intuitive it virtually plays itself.

In fact GRAW2 could almost be a “dummies” version of GRAW, swollen with so many high-tech death-dealing extras and set against such ridiculously underpowered dim-bulb A.I. combatants that it’s more like a dippy third-person shooter than a pensive tactical action gamble. Yeah, we get that in pitched combat with all its modern toys, the U.S. cleans up, but—not to put too fine a point on it—what’s fun about shooting fish in a barrel?

Down Mexico Way

Fresh off GRAW’s Mexico City fiasco, you’re back as Captain (where’s this guy’s promotion?) Scott Mitchell, leader of an elite team of “ghosts,” i.e. special ops riflemen, grenadiers, gunners, marksmen, and medics (if you’ve played GRAW, note the new classes). It’s 2014 and Mexico’s embroiled in a civil war between loyalists and rebel insurgents that’s bled across the Rio Grande, turning the desert and mountain border areas of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua and El Paso, Texas into a deadly free-fire zone. 12 missions comprise a three-act 72 hour span in which you’ll help the loyalists thwart those rebels by satchel charging anti-air targets, rescuing hostages, counter-sniping, neutralizing dozens of hostile strongpoints, thumping tanks and other AVs with rocket launchers, scuttling fleeing vehicles for extra points, and fielding the occasional solo sortie with limited or malfunctioning gear.

The hoopla this time (aside from a satisfying visual upgrade) is the game’s improved heads-up display or “Cross-Com 2.0,” now offering window or full-screen visual squad feeds from which you can issue attack and move orders directly. Weapons are easier to swap as well: just pair the “B” button with a d-pad tap. You also get a mobile M.U.L.E., basically a squat little ATV drone that follows you around and replaces GRAW’s gamey static ammo stations for anywhere-you-go first aid, reloads, or weapon trades. All told, think of GRAW2 as more angles, more firepower, and more opportunities than ever to trigger visually stunning kabooms, which is great news if you’re big on metric tons of billowing smoke and ballooning explosions with cool flaring squibs. For the rest, brace for disappointment, because GRAW2 pops its tactical clutch and throws the gearshift in reverse.

I See You

Imagine a game with two sets of flaws, one set masking the other, and you get the original GRAW with its judiciously apportioned support tools designed to make you actually work your zones, along with an interface just clumsy enough to guarantee you’d take a beating from that game’s pitiable drones. Now keep the interface but add a couple billion dollar’s worth of cutting edge taxpayer toys (27 new sidearms, assault weapons, and rifles) that amount to battlefield omnipotence, and you expose the original’s second carryover flaw: crappy A.I., which sad to say and for all this sequel’s improved visual splendor, makes GRAW2 a tactically sleepy cakewalk.

For starters, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) you only dinked with in GRAW is back, and in practically every mission, offering unprecedented battlefield visibility. Hold your controller’s right bumper to get a first-person hover-view, then thumbstick your way around to mark-off targets like cruising cardboard cutouts on a firing range. With foreknowledge of everyone’s positions, each mission becomes a facile scoot-and-shoot. Peek, then cap the strutting, ditzy bad guy, who if you miss will only warn some of his buddies.

And boy, are they dumb. So they throw a few more grenades and try (with all the subtlety of lunging, gun-flailing mannequins) to flank you. So what? At least in GRAW their tendency to entrench made head-on assaults difficult. Here their feeble attempts to flank or retreat simply expose them to lethal fire, like fish in—okay, you get it. Or take two insurgents crouched behind a car: the one closest to you won’t just peer out ala Rainbow Six Vegas, he’ll expose his entire body to take the shot. You’ll point (vaguely—the auto-aim’s infinitely forgiving), fire, and drop him, then instead of staying down or sprinting for better cover, his buddy will slide into place and do precisely the same thing. Crank things up to hard and these guys do more damage…which is precisely the sort of “give the worker-bees bigger bullets” trick that been a crutch for crummy A.I. for years. If this is supposed to be “vastly improved A.I.,” someone check my meds, because with the difficulty cranked, I still breezed right through GRAW2’s perfunctory (10 hours, if that) campaign.

The Good

At least they got the squad A.I. right. In addition to chatting smarter (they’ll rattle off directions and specific enemy locations now), they’ll also use cover more intelligently. Tell them to attack, and instead of charging with their backsides in the wind, they’ll probe more expansively—even back up hundreds of feet before engaging the enemy. The only downside’s the fact that you’re still limited to “attack/move” or “stay by me,” which means they’re only ever capable of rushing (never crawling or slinking) toward their intended destinations. We’re way overdue for this series to let us issue direct commands to individual squad members, or split up teams in more ways than this awkward 3-on-1 business.

But okay, special kudos to the design team for including six extra co-op missions (they’re set in Panama, notably more difficult, and a blast to tackle with pals). As well, some terrific multiplayer maps, each packing computer A.I. with an actual pulse. Which would of course be hotter if you weren’t already planning to play online or shoulder-to-shoulder against live humans anyway. Multiplayer fans should also be pleased to note Ubisoft fixed spawning (it now occurs in broad areas, not fixed points) and tacked on a few seconds of invulnerability after re-spawn to thwart camp teams.

Still it’s not quite enough to bless GRAW2 with more than average-plus marks. In fact the question you’ll want to ask as you make your own pre-buy pros and cons list, is whether this sounds like a full-bodied sequel…or just a $60 up-tweaked mission pack.