Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter Reader Review
It's good to see world-wide recognition for the games industry as being part of people's lives in our current media-centric world. In what I believe to be its debut, the BAFTA Video Games Awards was recently held in London and awards were dished out to this year's best releases. Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter picked up Best Game category and so that really pushed me into getting the game and seeing what it was all about. The demo on XB Marketplace didn't convince me that it was a must buy and the multiplayer front-end seemed like a bit of a mess. I didn't bother to hunt the game down, but in this drought of squad/tatical shooter (still need to see if Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers is backcompat) I needed my fix and having gained an award, there couldn't have been much wrong with it.
And I could see why GRAW was also awarded best Technical Achievement - I'm playing the Xbox360 on a widescreen SDTV, and if I say something looks spectacular you better believe it because no doubt in HD it will be ridiculously delicious. And I had only started the training level. The detail and shine, zinging of bullets off metal, crunching of brick and mortar, roaring of trucks, the exploding tanks and cars - it was impressive and pretty immersive. And it gets even more so playing the actual missions where you're tasked with leading assisting soldiers or vehicules in your fight to stop a war. VIPs are taken and rescued, secret files are lost, located and picked up. It's a 'classic' on-the-brink-of-war scenario and only you can help stop it.
But enough of the story because what will really suck you in is the way GRAW engages you into taking the fight to the enemy. It doesn't force it, there's no time limit, and it probably isn't the story that will push you. There isn't any spontaneity on the enemy AI, no difference in play between plays, essentially meaning it's predictable after each time you die trying. But the draw is through the drama unfolding, not via the story, but the immersion of the firefights. You can have it FPS if you want, but I believe the third-person over-the-shoulder view is default for a reason - because you are made to watch, as if through TV, what is happening to you and around you. It's like it's been shown as a war report with a TV crew given special access to the soldiers' close encounters. There's just something about it that provides a sense of dislocated connection, like you're there but your safe yet you're not.
And this tension is helped by the visuals and audio because your vision is shortened in dust clouds, or by the adjustment of the eyes due to the low sun, or just the sheer scale (especially height) of the levels. The sound of a hidden, elevated, marksman's bullet zipping past, freezing you momentarily in your tracks before realising you're in the open, the quick dash for the nearest wall and ordering your soldiers to do the same. When you're put under pressure, it's done perfectly - you never feel completely overwhelmed, yet you know that chasing after the enemies will lead to a quick death - and if played smartly there's usually a way out of any situation. And as per all war-fighting games, wall-hugging is your best friend with GRAW giving you the peek option. It's not a new idea but it's definately one that was clearly integral to the game mechanics (it will save you many a time, but even though it's said that you'll be invulnerable when peaking, I've found that you can still get shot - which is fantastic, really - meaning that there's never a safe place to hide when wanting to be close to the action). With the peeking, comes the chance to step out and shoot although at the price of making yourself open. But if you are peeking, your reticle will be in the right place when you step out meaning that you can fire a quick accurate burst to dispatch the enemy. So you can either peek and risk getting shot, or not peek and risk getting shot when lining up the kill. Oh, and I have to mention the great and friendly method of wall-hugging - simply run into the wall and that's it. You don't have to have the camera facing the wall, your character doesn't have to run perpendicular into the wall, you can run at an obtuse angle and you'll hear the lovely (and rather fulfilling) sound of the character thumping against the wall, whilst still moving in your preferred direction.
There was one particular moment early in the game that really smacked me as to what Ubisoft were trying to achieve. Running up to the US embassy for your next objective, as you make your way down the stairs of an open central plaza - Boom! You see the whole explosion in its glory, correctly timed to fill the screen and with the deep, thunderous noise of explosion-cum-crumble of building (I'm playing it for a second time and it was just as effective as the first). You reach the objective marker but there's no time for rest as you're told that enemies are quickly approaching your location. And they aren't kidding, as you'll just have enough time to send an order and get yourself in a good position for the onslaught. Running over and around plaza are enemies and trucks, leaving you stuck, crouching under cover, making the best of quiet intervals to pop a few bullets off. And some masterpiece of instrumental music is marching along in the background, increasing in forte as the fight gets more hectic, and a slow fade of black-and-white-and-sepia washed across the screen. It was bloody amazing and extremely stirring (even when I was doing it for the second, third, fourth... time), and that combined with the TV camera-esque, third-person view, bullets and tracer-fire flying everywhere (not just at you), shouts from soldiers, you sheltered behind a low, small width brick wall - it all heightens your awareness and shows you just how much trouble you are in.
There are other moments like this, not quite as spectacular, but quite a few that come a close second. Going into and coming out of firefights is incredibly satisfying. There's not much, if anything, that gets in the way to distract you from the game. Although after playing Full Spectrum Warrior, GRAW's team movement wasn't quite as good - you wonder why the soldiers don't just line up behind you when you're wall-hugging at a corner and beckon them to come, instead they'll sometimes run into the middle of the road ruining a good stealth approach. And also the ability to heal downed teammates but not being able to be healed yourself is a bit silly (resulting in a Game Over). Loading speed is fantastic, some animation can be made a bit ropey, being able to slide to a crouch or dive to a prone position allows spontaneity, not very Advanced warfighting, more Slightly-Ahead-of-Now warfighting, crap reflections on windows, lovely sense of scale without being too overwhelming (or taking too long to traverse areas).
I've not played the multiplayer yet, I should do at some point. And I'm not paying for Chapter 2 content - I'll wait for that to be cheaper. The main focus, single player goodness, is just absolutely great and something that everyone really should savour, whether you play or watch it (or both as I've been ranting on about).
Turn up the volume and enjoy.