Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter Hands-On - Combat, Graphics, and the Ghosts Return to the PC

The Ghost Recon franchise is finally returning to its PC roots, and we get our hands on an early version of the game to see how it differs from the hit Xbox 360 game.

Ghost Recon is finally returning to the PC with Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. You may recall that the Ghost Recon franchise was born on the PC with Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon in 2001, only to see 2004's Ghost Recon 2 released only on the consoles. Well, now the series is finally returning to its roots, and it's important to note that the PC version of Advanced Warfighter is vastly different from the recently released Xbox 360 version. This is essentially a different game, built on a different graphics engine, with different (and larger) levels than those seen in the console versions, and we got to see it in action for the first time recently.

The Ghosts are finally coming home to their PC roots in Advanced Warfighter.

While the PC version is by no means a port of the console versions, it does share some things with the Xbox 360 version of the game. For example, you once again play as Captain Scott Mitchell, United States Army, as he leads his elite light infantry unit in battle in and around Mexico City. As with the console versions, basically the PC version recounts the Ghosts' attempts to rescue the American president from danger after a coup by the Mexican military turns Mexico City into an urban battlefield.

The PC version of Advanced Warfighter was developed by Sweden's GRIN, and not the Ubisoft team responsible for the console versions. Therefore, the PC version features its own graphics engine, as well as levels that are quite different from the console versions'. It's clear from the beginning that the PC version unfolds quite differently than the console versions. Instead of flying into the city on a Black Hawk helicopter, you'll find yourself standing in the belly of a C-130 transport. Then the cargo doors open and you and your unit parachute into the center of the city, loaded for bear. From that point, you'll have to lead your men around various neighborhoods of Mexico's capital, in levels that are different from those in the Xbox 360 version of the game. These aren't just bigger versions of those levels, but entirely new layouts and designs altogether.

At the heart of the game is the Advanced Warfighter concept, which is basically how the US Army plans to fight in the near future. Infantrymen will be integrated by sophisticated data systems that allow them to enhance their effectiveness on the battlefield, or at least, that's the theory. In Advanced Warfighter, this means that you will have unprecedented amounts of information at your fingertips at all times, thanks to the fact that a helmet-mounted reticule will feed you all sorts of information. You'll see everything from what your teammates are seeing to targeting information on friends and enemies, as well as navigation information. The PC version also features a tactical map that gives you real-time, bird's-eye imagery of the battlefield, which you can use to analyze enemy patrol patterns or issue orders to your unit. You can give movement commands, complete with waypoints, as well as designate fields of fire for your soldiers to cover.

The tactical map is unique to the PC version, and it's reminiscent of the old tactical map in the original PC game.

Unlike the Xbox 360 version, which takes place in third person, the PC version is entirely in first person, just like in the original Ghost Recon. This time around, however, you can see your rifle on the screen, rather than just a floating-aim reticule. You still have many of the abilities that you have in the Xbox 360 version. In addition to walking and running around the environment, you can slide feet- or head-first behind cover, or peek around corners. When you link up with your soldiers, you can issue quick commands to them simply by pointing to where you want them to go and selecting the appropriate option from the menu, such as a move or fire order. At your disposal is an array of weapons and equipment, ranging from rifles (which, between levels, you can modify with scopes, silencers, and other accessories), pistols, and grenades. Or you can take command of a remote control drone and send it flying ahead to scout the terrain, and then switch to the drone's camera view to see what it's seeing.

You'll always control Captain Mitchell, and you can't switch to controlling other members of your units, which was one of the staples of the original Ghost Recon. In addition, it appears that the multiple-squad feature of the original PC game is no longer in play. Instead, you control just your own immediate squad in battle. In this case, the artificial intelligence will have to be pretty sharp to compensate for the fact that you can't micromanage every soldier, like you could before. It's encouraging that, from what we've seen, the AI looks like it's up to the task, and we saw the soldiers in our unit react smartly to threats. They took appropriate cover and cut down enemy soldiers often before we knew that they were there. We did see a few issues, however, and we're told that tuning up the AI is something that GRIN is spending a lot of effort on, especially since the AI seemed to be an issue in the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Visually, the PC version looks to be on par with the Xbox 360 version, despite the fact that it uses different technology. However, you'll probably need a beefy system with a top-of-the-line video card in order to run the game well at high detail. The version of the game we played had trouble maintaining a smooth frame rate on our older hardware, though the developers may have yet to optimize the code fully. Still, if you have the processing power, the PC version looks just as good as the Xbox 360 version, if not better, from the incredible draw distances (imagine standing on the roof of a building and seeing buildings extend for miles) to the dust and grit particle effects that effuse the air. You'll also discover an environment that's fairly reactive, thanks to the sophisticated physics engine. You can take apart cars with gunfire, and then push the parts around, something that you can't do in the Xbox 360 version. The physics in the game are so abundant that the PC version will have support for the upcoming Aegia PhysX card, the add-on physics chip due out next month. If you have the PhysX card, you'll see complex physical interactions without a hit on your frame rate. We saw the game running on an extremely high-end system without the card, and there were still some impressive physics in action, such as a grenade sending dozens of boxes in the air. However, on less powerful hardware, the same demonstration can send the frame rates plummeting, so we'll see how Ubisoft scales and optimizes the performance in the final version of the game.

Though you can't control your other soldiers, you can see what they're up to.

Ghost Recon has been absent from the PC for far too long, and Ubisoft hopes that, this time, it can deliver a worthy successor to the franchise. Advanced Warfighter certainly offers a different experience than the original game, as there's much more of a focus on story and personality than in the original Ghost Recon, which felt like a random collection of missions conducted by anonymous soldiers. Still, it's comforting to know that Ubisoft recognizes that the PC version couldn't be a mere port of the console versions. Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to see multiplayer in action, so we can't report on the modes that will be available, but the game will ship with a multiplayer suite. Advanced Warfighter for the PC will ship next month, and we'll keep you up to date on developments until then.

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