Tom Clancy's immensely popular brand of militarily and politically charged storytelling has spawned a number of action games over the years. Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell are practically household names these days, and in 2001 the Clancy name was further strengthened in gamers' minds with the release of Ghost Recon, a squad-based, tactical first-person shooter that emphasized realistic strategy and mission structures rather than over-the-top, run-and-gun action. Though Ghost Recon has seen a number of expansion packs since its release that merely added new locales and weapons to the existing engine, the series has never gotten a proper sequel--until now. North Carolina-based Red Storm is hard at work on Ghost Recon 2 for the Xbox, and we've spent some time playing a prerelease version of the Xbox game to see what direction the series' creator has taken Ghost Recon in its first real follow-up.
Before we delve into Red Storm's new offering, some clarification is in order. You may have heard that Ghost Recon 2 is also coming to the PlayStation 2 and GameCube at the same time as the Xbox, but the former two systems are actually receiving an entirely separate game, developed by Ubisoft's Shanghai studio, that will serve as a prequel to Red Storm's Ghost Recon 2. The two games feature some of the same mechanics but feature different storylines, missions, graphics, and so on. Ubi Shanghai's game takes place in North Korea in 2007 in the midst of serious turmoil, and Red Storm's game will see the Ghosts returning to the region in 2011 to clean up the effects of the events in the PS2 game. Though this may initially cause some confusion among gamers, Ubisoft's decision seems to have been a good one, since the PS2 and Xbox versions of Ghost Recon 2 we've played seem tailored specifically to the abilities of their respective consoles and will likely turn out to be better for it.
Anyway, how does the gameplay in Ghost Recon 2 on the Xbox compare to the well-established model used by its predecessor? In short, the game has gotten a little more user-friendly, with intensified shooting action and slightly less strategizing. Fans of the first game know that it relied heavily on allowing you to control two squads, alpha and bravo, and to switch between any of the soldiers in these teams at will. This let you set up fairly complex attack strategies by using one team to flank an enemy position while attacking head-on with another, and so on.
Ghost Recon 2 eschews this team-based model, instead casting you as a single team leader that you'll play for the entirety of each mission. You'll still be able to give commands to your artificial intelligence-controlled teammates via controller or verbally through a headset, but you just won't be able to play as them. On the upside, while you'll be somewhat at the AI's mercy when it comes to keeping your teammates alive, you'll now be able to act as a medic (or order one of your other Ghosts to do the same) in order to revive a wounded comrade and get him back into the action.
Fortunately, what Ghost Recon 2 may have lost in strategy, it seems to make up with sheer excitement. Like the PS2 version, Red Storm's game features mission objectives and scripted scenarios, which are a little more on the action-movie side and help to dress up the flow of the missions nicely. The first mission, for instance, has you under attack by an enemy helicopter almost immediately after you approach an airfield, and you'll have to take cover from its Ghost-shredding machine guns while lining up a shot with your rocket launcher to take it down (which happens in a rather impressive display of pyrotechnics). In the same mission, you'll have to destroy a giant propane tank to demolish a guard tower, and other missions feature objectives such as planting explosives to remove a bridge or painting an enemy industrial installation with a laser target to guide an incoming air strike. These sorts of scripted, big-event objectives would admittedly be harder to pull off effectively if you had the ability to switch between multiple soldiers in different parts of the map, so it seems the designers have made the trade-off in order to spice up the action.
Another change fans will need to get used to is the new third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective in Ghost Recon 2. The previous games were strictly first person, but this time around, you'll see your Ghost onscreen at all times while you're playing. The camera is set so that the character is close-up and doesn't obscure too much of the action, and other than actually being able to see your soldier, the gameplay doesn't differ any in this respect from the original Ghost Recon. You'll still be able to enable first-person view if you want to, although we found the game seemed to be tailored for the third-person perspective. When you zoom in, you'll go to a standard first-person view as usual, and fans know this is a view you'll use quite often while trying to pick off enemies from afar without sustaining much damage yourself. In case you're wondering, the damage model is just as realistic--and just as punishing--as it was in the original games. You won't sustain more than two or three hits before going down for the long dirt nap, and in this respect, the game seems just as tactical as its predecessor. You certainly won't keep yourself alive if you just run in with guns blazing.
Since Red Storm's Ghost Recon 2 is only coming to the Xbox, the developer has been able to pull out all the stops in creating the game's visuals, and it shows. If you were to put the previous Ghost Recon games on the Xbox next to this one, the difference would be so great it would be hard to believe that they were running on the same hardware. Ghost Recon 2 features nicely detailed environments with a lot of varied terrain and lesser effects, such as realistic-looking ground foliage, which really help to sell the locales. There are some nice lighting and filter effects, especially when something big happens (such as a tank exploding), giving the action a more cinematic flavor at times. As you'd expect, the character models have gotten a big upgrade too, with plenty of unique-looking, detailed characters.
Ghost Recon 2 really seems to bring a lot of improvements to the table, with its massively upgraded visuals and different but familiar gameplay. The game will also have a 16-player Xbox Live implementation with 3.0 features and both competitive and cooperative modes. There is also a "lone wolf" mode that will let you play through the missions with modern equipment and abilities--such as a gun camera, airburst grenades, and called-in airstrikes--taken from the Army's Objective Force Warrior program. How will longtime Ghost Recon fans react to all these changes? We'll find out when the sequel ships later this month.