In the video game yearbook of 2006, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter may go down as "most improved." The game was originally planned for release alongside the Xbox 360's November launch, but its ship date was delayed so that the North Carolina-based team at Red Storm could further exploit the potential of Microsoft's new hardware. Now, Advanced Warfighter is slated to see shelves in March. We spent a few rounds with the game's new-and-improved multiplayer, and it seems apparent from both the gameplay and the graphics that this extra time in development was time well spent.
To get this out of the way...this is still the same multiplayer Ghost Recon you know and presumably love. Associate producer Prince Arrington tells us that with a fan base as loyal and vocal as that of Ghost Recon, you don't want to mess with the core formula that everyone's used to. In light of the series' legions of fans, you can expect to see the same basic shooting action and controls, including the controversial third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective--but relax, there's an option to drop to classic first-person for the purists. You can also expect all the same game types, from standard elimination and capture the flag to territory-control modes like hamburger hill.
So if all this stuff is returning from the previous games, what's so new about Advanced Warfighter? Thankfully, it's not just Ghost Recon 2 with prettier graphics (though it does have those). Arrington says Red Storm's methodology in designing the new game's multiplayer component was to retain what fans loved about the past games' action, while also listening closely to their suggestions about how to improve it. Their most overwhelming suggestion? "Set our game types free." Players have reportedly enjoyed the action past games in the series have offered, but they just want to be free to tweak that action to suit their own tastes. With that in mind, Red Storm has made customization the highest priority in Advanced Warfighter's multiplayer mode.
Right from the get-go, you'll be able to tweak a number of aspects of your online experience. The multiplayer is once again class-based, and you'll be able to set up a custom appearance for each of the four classes, such as rifleman and marksman. Customizations include different faces (some featuring camouflage); a number of different uniforms; and a huge assortment of headgear, from various hats and helmets to even licensed eyewear like Oakley sunglasses. You'll even be able to apply these different headset presets to each character class in the game.
Beyond the cosmetics of character customization, Advanced Warfighter server operators will now be able to control just about every aspect of the games they're running. You can set fully customized kit restrictions that will disallow certain weapons, for instance, or control the sorts of camo that players can wear. Everything from night vision to spawn points to even camera control is available for tweaking when you create a new multiplayer game, so you'll potentially never play the same online game twice. In fact, Red Storm says there are hundreds of possible game combinations.
You can even tear into the rules of the game types themselves if you start to get bored. In capture the flag, you can actually turn the flag into an armed officer, requiring you to escort this character to the goal--which sounds like it will play a lot like the VIP mode in Counter-Strike. In a hamburger hill match, you can turn on the helicopter option, which will make a roving chopper come onto the scene and fight with your team whenever you control the contested territory. So while the game types you're used to from past Ghost Recons will be making their return, they've all gotten mechanical upgrades that should keep them feeling nice and fresh.
The maps you'll be playing on should be a breath of fresh air for series veterans, too. Advanced Warfighter will ship with 10 maps exclusive to the multiplayer mode, and the ones we saw were set across a wide variety of locales and contained distinctly different geographical features and obstacles. One map was set in a fishing village in a tropical region, which provided a small urban area full of back alleys adjacent to a forested area with slopes, large rocks for cover, and a couple of strategically placed radio towers.
The next map we played, Dry Docks, was a complete 180 from the first. This one was set amid a driving rain storm in the dark of night, and there were a number of empty pipes we could take cover in to wait for opponents to wander haplessly by. A third map called Boneyard was set in an arid region, and it contained what amounted to a graveyard of old military equipment, with burned-out tanks and the noses of fighter jets littering the ground, providing ample cover. The maps that we saw were enormous, which should well accommodate the game's 16-player online limit. We were also generally quite pleased with the diversity in both the mechanics and the aesthetics presented by the different maps.
Once you get into those maps, you'll notice one major new change in Advanced Warfighter's gameplay in the form of the drone. The what? The drone is a small hovering device fitted with a camera that links into your cross com (that is, your futuristic tactical readout) and feeds you overhead information about what's going on below. When your team's drone is deployed, you'll get to see a top-down display of the battlefield in a small picture-in-picture window, and any enemies that are spotted by the drone will show up in this video window as red dots.
The drone video is located in the periphery of your vision, and while it provides valuable tactical data, you can't look at it too much without eating lead on a regular basis. To keep you from having to look too intently at the video feed, enemies spotted by the drone will also be flagged in your regular field of view with distinctive red markers that show through all manner of cover. In other words, once you're spotted by the enemy's drone, you're done for. Luckily, you can shoot down the opposing drone, which should provide yet another level of strategy to most team battles. If you want to work toward blinding the other team, you can take their drone out--but since this takes considerable effort, you'll do so at some risk to your own safety.
It's clear from what we just played of Advanced Warfighter that Red Storm has managed to extract far more performance out of the Xbox 360 in the extra development time they've been allowed. Since the last time we saw the game at X05 last fall, it has graphically improved by leaps and bounds, with more detailed modeling and environmental work, plus a noticeably smoother frame rate. The postprocessing effects have been beefed up nicely as well, with appealing high-contrast lighting, for instance, and a believable rain effect on the Dry Docks level. Even the sound has been further enhanced by the developers. For example, during a demo, we saw how walking into a pipe would convincingly mute the sound of the rain outside, and firing a weapon inside this same pipe produced a deafeningly realistic reverb effect.
While it's clear that Red Storm isn't reinventing the wheel with Advanced Warfighter's multiplayer, it has obviously put some thought into maintaining what fans have loved about the series while finding ways to enhance the solid, fundamental gameplay that's already in place. In addition to all these solo and team-based competitive types, the game will ship with a four-mission, online-only cooperative campaign that Arrington described as "chapter one." Depending on player response and future plans with Xbox Live Marketplace, this campaign may be fleshed out with future chapters, though specific availability is yet to be determined. In any event, the game already looks like it will be packed full of content for Ghost Recon diehards when it ships in March. We'll make our final analysis at that time.