As harsh as it may sound, we've never had a huge amount of time for the Ghost Recon series. Throw us any another Tom Clancy game or expansion pack, however, and we'd bite Ubisoft's arm off. Rainbow Six? Lovely. "Open Flash UND KLIER! ...You're taking shots, Ding!!" Splinter Cell? Give us a rubber-suited George Clooney movie man voice anyday. Creeping dark death and the president from 24 barking at us again for alerting too many guards - we can't get enough of its shadowy stealth action. (Although we've no idea why people don't notice the three green blobs on our bonce.) But Ghost Recon? We shrug. It's always suffered for looking like a game with six year out of date visuals, which is undoubtedly unfair. Often, when you're expected to cast a critical eye over practically everything released, you may overlook stuff prematurely and never go back to it. Until someone gets around to releasing a far superior sequel, that is.
At a London press event earlier this week, Ubisoft unveiled the latest build of both the PS2 and Xbox versions, and revealed that both are entirely different games, designed to make the most of the two most commercially viable platforms. Clancy followers will note that, to date, the company has worked hard to try and faithfully port games like Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six from the Xbox to PS2, but always ends up having to make compromises, usually at the expense of the PS2 owners. This way, Ubisoft assures us, the end user gets a game specifically designed to make the most of the console, rather than shoehorning level designs and graphical effects that simply don't make the transition.
Two for the price of... two
On a more commercial level, making two games in parallel apparently doesn't create too much extra work for Ubi. The French publisher reasons that even if the same game was ported to other systems, engines would have to be rewritten regardless, so having picked up massive experience over the last two years porting the likes of Splinter Cell and coding Pandora Tomorrow from scratch, Ubi's Shanghai team figured it could just as easily develop its own vision of a Ghost Recon sequel alongside Red Storm's effort. Although Ubi wouldn't admit this, it must also be hoping that the hardcore fans of the series will be tempted to buy both versions of the game, although it must also be fully aware that there many well be a strong backlash against this kind of tactic.
Although the PC and GameCube versions were notably off the menu during the 60 minute presentation, members of the development team present admitted that the PC version will be based on the Xbox version and is being coded at Red Storm, while the Cube version is being handled in Shanghai. To add to the development tentacles, the online portion of the PS2 will be developed in Paris by a 30-strong team to ensure it's making the most of the Sony platform - a similar situation to the Pandora Tomorrow development.
So, with that slightly confusing situation out of the way, what of the game? Much was talked about both versions of the game favouring dramatic movie-inspired action moments, but still being mindful of keeping the realism high on the agenda. Set in the near future in North Korea, it's the usual good guys vs. bad guy stuff. You know: evil general diverts humanitarian aid to bolster his army in the wake of a massive famine, blames food riots on China, bang, invades China with 'tacit support' from its Russian allies, and suddenly there's the very real threat of a nuclear exchange that the Ghosts must quickly defuse before it all ends in massive bloodshed. The ultimate aim being to get rid of this megalomaniac.
"Feel the chaos!"
It's this plausible scenario that Ubisoft is keen to turn into something much more immersive than previous efforts, wanting us to 'feel the chaos of war' armed with the usual high tech gadgets that give them license to deliver a cutting edge take on the popular, but overpopulated squad-based combat genre.
On a basic level, it hard not to be impressed by what looks like a stunning game in prospect compared to what's gone before. Everywhere you look there's been a massive overhaul. The general scenery, for starters, is an order of magnitude better. Gone is the blurry muddy texturing, blocky vegetation and staid environments of old, and in comes a lush, brutally realistic environment, complete with all the weather effects, realistic looking water, lighting tricks, normal mapping and particle trickery you could wish for. From a few hours admiring the results on a big screen and some hands-on messing around with the three levels we were able to play, even complete newcomers to the genre can't fail to be drawn to what is shaping up to be the perfect companion release for the R6 series - if not its superior, for now at least. The instant sense of atmosphere and immersion sucks you right into the action, and an intuitive control system makes it a breeze to do exactly what you want to do within a matter of seconds.
Anyone up to speed with the Rainbow Six 3 games on console will be immediately at home with the mindset required. Ghost Recon 2 is not and was never designed to be a gung ho shooter. Run and gun and you will die - every cover point needs to be observed as carefully as if you were running around for real, as death is literally around ever corner. Red Storm has conjured levels packed with detail, non-repetitive scenery, with thoughtfully designed layouts that will test your mettle every step of the way. But it's not simply one of the best looking games of its type, initial run-throughs on three distinct early levels (1, 3 and 7 out of the 14 the final game will feature) immediately prove that Ubisoft is continuing its good run of form with undoubtedly one of the most promising games of its type.
The first level we tried out has your Ghost squad tasked with taking out a bridge with demo charges. Taking the suggested weaponry (jump straight into the action or customize your arsenal as you see fit with two firearms and two other slots for other essential items such as grenades and explosives) you inch your way forward through an area with plenty of woodland cover, eventually to a bridge guarded by NK forces - right click on the stick sets you into a zoom mode as you expect, D-pad up and down cycles through your stance (upright, crouch, prone), while D-pad left/right sorts out the lean function.
If you fancy, you can bring up the command menu by holding down X, and order your team to stay back, flank left or right, or suppress fire in the direction you command them to. But even if you do nothing but run forward, your team follows intelligently, and reacts as you'd hope, spotting enemy patrols, taking up appropriate cover positions and nailing them. Elsewhere, the control system maps Y to the night vision toggle, and B to the fire rate change, which allows single shot, three bullet, or fully automatic. Anyone au fait with Rainbow Six 3 will slip straight into the system - anyone else will find it slick and intuitive, and, if you fancy it, just speak them instead - although, to be honest, that was one gimmick we simply gave up on in R6, on the basis that there really is no room for error in a game like this, and the voice recognition - as impressive as it is - isn't wholly capable of doing its job.
The first key aim is to take down the bridge, and, having planted some demo charges in the areas directed, the resulting explosion is ample proof of the kind of scripted events that add to the sense of immersion - and fruits of the Havok physics at work, which give the Red Storm team room to pull off some superb effects, not just in the reactions of downed enemies, but in terms of your surroundings. It may well be amusingly dubbed "this year's lens flare", but Havok physics often make the scenes much more realistic, and helps complement the visual improvements elsewhere. Having crept our way carefully through a building section and picked off numerous foes, it was evident that we'd need to be a lot more careful if we were planning to succeed when the game arrives in our laps in a few months' time. One shot in the wrong place and it's game over - with headshots deadly - although obviously you can get away with being shot a few times elsewhere.
Street fighting men
Another level tasked us with saving a downed pilot in the midst of a heavily-wooded area that you spend ages ducking and weaving in and out of - we'd have loved to be able to report more if we were a) any good at the game and b) most of the essential audio element wasn't being drowned out by a dozen other demo pods in the vicinity. One thing we didn't really get the chance to experience was the promise of allied 'specialists' who appear to give you a hand during various points of the mission. It's not just you out there - there's a war going on - and apparently you'll be able to command them in a similar fashion to your other squad mates. In addition, the promise of being able to silently communicate via hand signals wasn't something we fully got to grips with in our limited experience - although it looked mightily impressed during the demo at least.
Moving on to the PS2 version, which we were shown but unable to play at this stage, it's a distinctly different proposition. Although all the basics, such your squad, weapons and controls are all the same, the visual limitations have given the Shanghai team an interesting challenge that they appear to have risen to very well. Taking a permanent over the shoulder view, you control a slightly offset Ghost, taking a left of center position on the screen, with your reticule occupying the traditional centre spot. When zoomed in, the character's head and shoulders occupy the main lower left portion of the screen, giving you the full view of the action while giving the game a more distinct look. It's a good effect that works well, and without doubt should be adopted more often in third-person games. Aside from that, Ubisoft's representatives were at pains to illustrate a colour saturation effect that kicks in during the heat of a battle. In short, the colour literally drains away from the scene, which is, we're told, to give a more emotional feel to the game, as well as a subtle cue to the tension unfolding in front of you - inspired by the likes of Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan.
Visual experiments aside, while it's plain to see that the PS2 by no means matches the Xbox for flair, it's interesting to note that the wide open environments have been retained, and that every effort to squeeze performance out of the system is being taken to make sure compromises are kept to a minimum. Without doubt, it's a major improvement on what's gone before, although sadly the usual issues of a lack of texture memory impact in a memory intensive game with huge maps such as this, so players will have to trade in the lushness evident on the Xbox. Even so, it's by no means unimpressive, largely thanks to the physics and the hugely improved character models that benefit from a vastly more fluid animation system and a much greater degree of personality - not just in terms of their looks, which are far more individual than before, but with the amount of dialogue ramped up threefold to deliver a much more immersive experience all round.
Improvements all round
The first impressions are very much of a series in the ascendancy - the fluid command interface works much the same on both platforms we got to see, and bears more than a passing resemblance to the refinements evident in both Rainbow Six 3 console titles. In gameplay terms, however, things branch off quite significantly, with sprawling environments and the opportunity for enemies to appear from practically anywhere. In contrast to R6's tight and enclosed building-based set pieces, GR2 has a much grander scale and vision, and with the promise of some excellent multiplayer features (more of which in a forthcoming feature next month) there's every chance its wide appeal will put it among the key considerations come the Christmas season.
As ever, it's best not to get too carried away until the full game appears in our homes - but there's much to look forward to as we approach the game's November 25th release date. Expect more on the new weapons additions and the hugely impressive multiplayer features in the middle of September, as well as an exclusive interview with Xbox producer Robbie Edwards.
Ghost Recon 2 will be released on Xbox and PS2 on November 25th. The Cube and PC versions are currently slated for 'November'.