Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter finally makes its way over to the PC, and as far as the single-player game goes, this version of the game might be the most overall impressive of all. The massive urban areas you fight in are even larger and more detailed than the already spacious areas in the Xbox 360 version of the game, adding a great deal of tension since this added landmass makes for many times more possible hiding places for bad guys. Also, there's more interactivity to the world and flexibility with the tactical map, which gives you more precise control over your teammates. Unfortunately, all this added immersion comes at a heavy price, as playing the game is sure to put a strain on even the highest-spec machines. Barely make the minimum requirements? Don't even think of picking this game up, unless you're satisfied with big compromises in lighting, texture quality, and frame rate. If you have a machine that can handle the game, though, GRAW delivers a hardcore tactical shooter campaign that hearkens back to the original Ghost Recon games on the PC. It's too bad the multiplayer aspect of the game is so bug-ridden as to render it inconsequential.
You take the role of Scott Mitchell, a captain in the elite Ghost Recon squad in the US Army. You find yourself in Mexico City as part of the security entourage tasked with guarding a summit between the leaders of Mexico, Canada, and the US. Disaster strikes when Mexican rebels attack the summit, killing the Canadian prime minister and causing both the Mexican and US presidents to go missing. Over the course of the campaign, you'll explore the massive city--fighting rebel infantry, armored vehicles, and helicopters from within the dense, urban areas in the center to the dilapidated shanty towns on the outskirts. You'll do this solo and with the help of three teammates--who you can issue commands to--and supporting vehicles. Major landmarks, such as Chapultepec and the spire at Angel Plaza, are represented fairly accurately in the game's depiction of Mexico City. The story arc in the PC version of the game is the same as all the others, but the way the levels are laid out and structured is noticeably different than any of the other versions of GRAW. The game's campaign should last most players 12 or so hours, counting restarts from death--maybe more depending on your familiarity with hardcore tactical shooters.
The first thing you'll notice about the game is how breathtakingly massive and believable the city looks. You take several helicopter rides throughout the campaign, and the city is literally sprawled out all the way to the horizon with buildings and streets. Fires and smoke curl up into the sky from patches of fighting or factories. As you land, you find yourself engulfed by the metropolis and plying your way through the maze of buildings, streets, and alleys. The amount of area you can explore in each mission in this version of the game is noticeably larger than the corresponding mission in the Xbox 360 version--there's also more detail given to each building, leading to more nooks and doorways that you can take cover in. However, this added detail means more places for possible enemies to be lurking, which necessitates a much more methodical approach to movement in this version than in the Xbox 360 version.
The tactical-map feature gives you a nice tool to manage the bounding over-watch techniques you'll need to use to keep you and your squad alive. While you can still give a variety of simple commands to your squadmates (both singly, and as a group) from the first-person view, such as follow, move, cover, and attack, a nifty overhead tactical map gives you even more options. From this map you can issue waypoints to each of your squadmates and even set the direction they should face as they reach each spot. It's tempting to sometimes use this view to play GRAW like a real-time strategy game, as your soldiers are usually pretty effective at engaging and taking out enemies. The tactical map isn't just a static overlay--it's a real-time, overhead view of the surrounding area that lets you track movement of enemy infantry and vehicles. It's not a god mode, though, as enemies beneath rooftop areas or underneath trees can be obscured. As in other versions of the game, you'll be able to control support vehicles from time to time, such as UAV drones for reconnaissance or heavier vehicles for fire support against enemy armor and other hard targets.
The graphic detail that's so apparent from the city and environment extends to the character models as well, which are some of the best we've seen in a modern shooter. The guns you and your teammates carry are well articulated, and you'll notice folds in clothing and self-shadowing on character models and other models in the game. The animation isn't perfect--you'll see your teammates moonwalk over the ground from time to time--but in general, the human-character movements in the game look nice and realistic. The interactive nature of the environment bears mentioning, as many aspects of the environment are reactive to the battle around you. The game supports the AGEIA PhysX card for more advanced physics effects, which do offer some added particles and other effects to the game. You'll still notice principles of physics being used in the game without that kind of hardware support, though. Wooden fences break apart under heavy fire, for example, and trees and foliage sway as bullets whiz past. Vehicles never seem to come apart the same way twice when you blow them up either, but that nifty visual trick would always send our frame rates plummeting into the single digits any time we blew something up. Using the PhysX card didn't appreciably improve the frame rate or even the detail during high-stress situations either, which was a little disappointing.
To give you an idea of the kind of stress GRAW can put on your computer, the machine we tested on, a Pentium 4 2.53GHz with 1GB of RAM and a 256MB GeForce 6800 Ultra, is considered mid-spec by the game. You're not allowed to even try to set the texture detail to high with a 256MB card--that's reserved for the pricy 512MB behemoths. The game still looks nice and sharp at medium detail, but as we mentioned, frame rates can drop precipitously when there are explosions or even just lots of enemies in the surrounding area. All of our gameplay was done at a modest resolution of 1024x768-- anything higher than that led to an unacceptable frame rate. We also tried playing with a minimum spec 128MB card--with this type of hardware, the texture resolution is noticeably compromised and frame rates are even worse. Load times can be an issue depending on your system--on our test rig, it took close to a minute to get back into the game. To get the most out of GRAW, you'll want to have a pretty decked-out machine.
GRAW's focus on hardcore, tactical gameplay is what separates this version of the game from the other versions. Unlike the Xbox 360 version of the game, which you could play by having your teammates set to follow you as you took most of the shots, the PC version of GRAW not only rewards methodical movement and intelligent command of your teammates but often demands it. Yes, you and your squadmates can still absorb a few shots before dying, and you do get mysteriously healed at some checkpoints or if you reload a save. But since there are no quicksaves available, it can still be quite a challenge to get to the next checkpoint without dying if you don't advance intelligently from corner to corner and check all possible threats around you. The artificial intelligence on both sides can leave something to be desired, though. Sometimes after issuing an order to a squadmate, they don't take up position or face in the manner you intended, leaving them exposed. Enemy AI is also fairly nonreactive and scripted. You'll enter an alley and blast an enemy, for example, while another soldier just around the corner never bothers to check on the noise. Perhaps it's better that the enemies aren't so smart, though. With such wide-open environments to explore, and the odds against you as far as numbers, the game's challenging enough as it is.
Advanced Warfighter affords you a good amount of control over your character. You can peek around corners to minimize your exposed profile, as well as kneel or go prone, and you can even dive for cover if you try to go prone while on a dead run. You'll see the AI-controlled characters (both your teammates and enemies) frequently make use of the dive to get under cover. There's also a low-light mode that you'll need to use for darker areas of the game. You can sprint as well, but you'll need to lower your weapon to do so, which can be dangerous if you turn the corner into an enemy, as it takes a second to bring your gun back up. What you don't seem to have at your disposal in this version of the game are smoke grenades. That's a good thing in a sense, as GRAW is demanding enough on your computer, but they sure would have come in handy while assaulting some machine-gun nests. You do at least have a nice array of options in gun load-outs before each mission. Not only can you select from different types of rifles and machine guns, but you can also select from different attachments, such as red-dot scopes, silencers, and grenade launchers.
Outside the single-player game, GRAW offers 32-player online play, but the game shipped with only two game modes--cooperative play for most single missions, as well as a domination mode where players try to control different sections of the map. Before we begin describing those modes, though, we should mention the myriad of problems we ran into while trying to test out GRAW's online play. First of all, the in-game server browser is bug-ridden to the point that it's nearly nonfunctional. The interface you use to login won't work unless you press the enter key after inputting your screen name and your password. As bizarre as it sounds, if you try to use the mouse or tab key to navigate from one input field to another, the login interface will throw you a nondescriptive error message, rendering it impossible for you to browse online games or create your own server. Ubisoft also failed to ship dedicated server software for GRAW as of this writing. This means all the servers you play on are listen servers off people's computers, which makes for a much less consistent experience as far as network performance. Even when you manage to get past all those issues and attempt to connect to the relatively low number of online games that are running at any given moment, most of our attempts to connect to a game ended in failure. Either the browser is broken and is reporting online games that don't exist anymore, or the network software has problems handshaking clients with the available servers.
Assuming you actually jumped through all those hoops and managed to connect successfully to a game (or set up your own LAN party), the multiplayer aspect of GRAW is fairly enjoyable. The cooperative mode is available for up to four players, but if you have fewer players, the computer will control the rest of your squad. The team leader (usually the game host) has access to the tactical map and can issue orders to other players, which appear as waypoints on their screen. What's odd about the cooperative mode in this version of GRAW is that the game ends if the team leader dies. If you're playing with a buddy who isn't the team leader and he dies, though, he immediately jumps into control of one of the AI squadmates. Why this co-op mode is structured so strictly is anyone's guess. Also, a standard terrorist-hunt mode is noticeably lacking, but it's still fun to play and try to coordinate assaults with a few friends in the existing co-op mode.
The domination mode is a cross between a standard capture-and-hold mode and the onslaught mode from Unreal Tournament 2004. Zones are divided on a playing field, connected by a weblike network of nodes. In order for your team to capture a zone, it must be connected to a zone you already control. What's interesting about domination is that you don't need to be at any specific spot to contest or capture a zone. Simply enter an area, eliminate all enemies, hole up in any building or hiding spot in the zone, and you can make a capture. This adds to the tension, as there are fewer obvious areas to look for enemies, and any dark alley or window could be a potential death trap, but it can also make the game somewhat chaotic as zones often change hands frequently. There's a point system in the domination mode that rewards you more for capturing areas than killing enemies--it's often possible to be the team's points leader and have very few kills, while a sniper who sits in one spot and racks up lots of kills won't get many points at all. You use the points you earn to buy new weapons and attachments, but given how quickly and easily players die, having better weapons doesn't afford you much advantage against players who are observant and cunning in their movements. Unfortunately, GRAW only shipped with five playable domination maps, making the overall amount of multiplayer content pretty thin at this point.
At least there's some salvation to be found in GRAW's sound, which is an excellent complement to the fantastic graphics. The different guns all have unique sound effects, and they're all very sharp and impactful, which adds to the chaos of pitched battles. You'll hear enemies call out to each other in Spanish as they engage you, and the bullets ricocheting around you make the appropriate thunk or plink depending on the type of surface they're hitting. A lot of the voice acting in the game is pulled directly from the Xbox 360 version of the game, and some new lines and parts have been added as well, but the quality remains uniformly excellent all around. You'll hear dynamic music spool up whenever you get into battle or when a scripted sequence starts up, as sort of a cue for you to get ready for action. This music is generally pretty good and adds to the atmosphere but never dominates over the sounds of battle.
Given the steep system requirements and, at times, frustratingly hardcore tactical nature of the game, GRAW for the PC certainly isn't for everyone. Also, the major problems with GRAW's multiplayer implementation are a huge disappointment when contrasted with the compelling and challenging campaign. When you consider the overall package, GRAW for the PC just isn't as balanced and refined as it ought to be. If your computer has the necessary horsepower, and you're looking for a hardcore, tactical shooter experience, you'll have a grand time with GRAW's campaign. If you're fiending for some multiplayer shooter action, though, you'll probably be better off staying away from this one until a patch resolves the existing online issues.