Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter is the game that lent serious legitimacy to the Xbox 360. It was one of the first "must have" games for that system, delivering graphics and gameplay that just weren't possible on any previous console. Between the critical acclaim and the impressive sales, it was inevitable that there would be a sequel. What's startling, though, is the speed at which Ubisoft produced Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2. Just a few days short of the first anniversary of GRAW, we have the follow-up, and as you'd expect, it's a better game, though it's also a noticeably shorter one.
GRAW2 puts you right back in the steel-toed combat boots of US Army Captain Scott Mitchell of the fictional 5th Special Forces Group (the Ghosts) for another grueling battle south of the border in Mexico. While you needn't have played the first game to enjoy the second, it certainly helps to understand the overarching plot. A Mexican civil war has erupted between mutinous army units. For various reasons, the elected-civilian government and the US have been drawn into the conflict. In the new game, the fighting threatens to spill over onto US soil along with the threat of nuclear weapons, which gives your superiors even more reasons to scream at you over the radio to defeat the rebels.
What follows is more of the intense infantry combat that was featured in the original GRAW. You will go on both solo and team missions to achieve a varied set of objectives, from rescuing a Mexican journalist who has clues to the insurgency to neutralizing enemy encampments, and more. The action unfolds on both sides of the border this time, and the game ably captures the first-world and second-world settings. The Mexican side of the border faces even more turmoil than in the first game. The visuals in GRAW2 are also more stunning than in the original game, thanks to sumptuous atmospheric lighting and effects. The incredible scale remains; you'll again look out over vast cityscapes consisting of hundreds of buildings as you fly over in your Black Hawk Helicopter. But now, you can also take in the stunning vista of a setting sun over the desert or gaze at gigantic pillars of smoke rising from the fires of a war-torn Mexican city.
GRAW2 features a similar mix of on-foot and in-vehicle action sequences as its predecessor. Most of the time, you'll be on foot, hugging every bit of cover available as you engage a mix of Mexican Army rebels and foreign mercenaries. The cover system remains solid, and you can "hug" most cover simply by moving up to it. Once there, you can swing out or up to engage an enemy before dropping back to cover. It's this system that makes the GRAW games feel more authentic than other shooters in which you can only stand in the open. On top of that, the squad system in the game lets you command a small infantry squad, so it's not just yourself that you have to worry about.
Control of your teammates, vehicles, or drones is a lot easier now thanks to the improved communications system. Now you can get a full-screen video feed from any friendly asset on the battlefield, which essentially lets you be in two places at once. You can find some cover, tell your men to move to another position, and then use their video camera to locate and call out targets for them to engage. A cool new battlefield drone called the Mule has many uses, which include battlefield resupply and healing, mobile cover, and remote-controlled scout. You're able to control the Mule directly from the camera view or give it movement orders on the fly. The overhead drone that was cumbersome to use in GRAW is also improved in the sequel because it's far easier to control, and you can view its video feed in full screen rather than in a postage-stamp-sized window.
Thankfully, GRAW2 manages to eliminate some of the frustrating gameplay elements that appeared in the first game, such as the annoying rooftop sniper hunts that were more of an exercise in trial and error than actual skill. Those have been replaced with some riveting set piece battles, including a Black Hawk Down scenario, as well as desperate defend-and-hold situations. And while you can go through the game stealthily if you want by using suppressed weapons and sneaking about, it's just as much fun--if not more--to go through guns blazing. The large battles in GRAW2 are pretty awesome because usually vehicles are exploding around you, helicopters are buzzing above, and the situation is going crazy. Perhaps the best moment in the campaign is when you're temporarily deprived of your high-tech gear, so you lose all of that oh-so-helpful targeting information that can make the combat in GRAW2 feel a bit too easy at times. Suddenly having to locate and identify your targets raises the intensity quite a bit.
The artificial intelligence in GRAW2 seems to be on par with the previous game in that it's OK and not brain-dead. Your teammates do a dutiful job of following you around, but you'll still need to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to combat. However, one of the nice new features of the AI is that it does a fantastic job of calling out enemy locations. For instance, if there are two bad guys next to a red car shooting at you, your teammates will yell out that very fact. Their "awareness" of the level and ability to describe that to you is a nice touch, which adds an extra bit of authenticity to a firefight. And the rest of the sound in the game is also fantastic. With that said, it's worth noting that the plot feels like it's starting to veer toward a territory of silliness, even for a video game. General Keating, your immediate superior, is more overbearing than ever by constantly telling you what to do and behaving like he can rewrite the intensity of the situation by simply yelling louder. And then there's the moment when the president of the US gives you a personal pep talk in the middle of a huge firefight, which suddenly makes GRAW2 feel like it's emulating the over-the-top histrionics of the television show 24.
The main downside to the campaign is that it's very short, and you can get through it in maybe four or five hours at most. That's probably how Ubisoft Paris managed to get the sequel done in a year (most games require 18 to 24 months), but a short game means that it's over before you know it. The briefness of the campaign is reflected in the distribution of the achievement points because most of them are weighted toward the multiplayer aspect of the game. The good news there is that GRAW2 offers a huge amount of multiplayer goodness, even more than the original. Considering that GRAW remains one of the most popular Xbox 360 games on Xbox Live, this says a lot. There's something in the multiplayer suite for everyone, from a six-mission cooperative campaign that takes place in Panama to an incredibly open-ended competitive suite.
There's not just more multiplayer content in the form of new maps and new weapons, but there's also stronger gameplay. For example, the graphics in multiplayer now match the quality of the single-player game, something that didn't happen in the original GRAW. The new levels are fairly big, large enough to make even 16-player games feel roomy, and their design is inspired. For instance, "Crash Site" is set amidst the burning wreckage of a downed US transport aircraft. Maps can come in several variations, reflecting different times of the day and lighting conditions, which is a nice touch that shows off the cool new effects.
The host can set up a wide range of competitive games, from objective-based to simple team deathmatch. With all the variables that can be adjusted, from the amount of respawns, the weapon restrictions, the objectives, and such, there are effectively countless custom modes that can be created. But there can be a lot of silliness in multiplayer as well. For instance, the new helicopter hunt mode has you and your teammates doing nothing but shooting down gunship and transport helicopters out of the sky with rocket launchers. This task isn't too easy because of the speed and maneuverability of the helicopters, as well as the fact that they can strafe you with rockets.
Meanwhile, the six-mission co-op campaign is also a lot of fun because you can romp through a separate storyline along with up to 15 other players. The gist of the co-op story is that a Panamanian strongman is funding the Mexican rebels up north, and a separate team of Ghosts is dispatched to get the job done. Battles rage around the Panama Canal and its outlying areas, with dynamic objectives and other neat new features adding an extra layer of challenge and coordination to the entire affair. Previously, you just had to worry about killing all the bad guys as fast as you could, but with dynamic objectives, your team has to coordinate its actions to accomplish secondary goals. These goals include blowing two radio towers simultaneously or else risking the appearance of enemy reinforcements.
The teamwork in the game is also enhanced in co-op and competitive modes by the new aid system. If you're shot by something that wouldn't instantly kill you, such as a rocket, your character will drop and roll around on the ground wounded. You can choose to die and instantly respawn, but if there are friendlies around, they have a limited amount of time to patch you up before you die. This adds an extra bit of urgency to the voice channel as players cry for help and others rush in to save them.
There's such a wealth of content in the multiplayer suite that it alone makes GRAW2 an easy purchase for multiplayer fans. If the original game is any indication, there's going to be a large following for GRAW2 for a long time, which makes this a safe investment. The flip side to this is that if you don't have Xbox Live, then GRAW2 is an iffier proposition. The single-player game is fun, but its brevity is certainly an issue. Still, if you're a fan of modern combat, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 makes a compelling case for a game that you have to play.