Version tested: Xbox 360
You can say what you like about GRAW. Admire the lovely visuals, wax about the intuitive control system, or the tense duck and cover squad-based gameplay, but you can't say the single player portion was exactly polished. It had some of the most infuriating, sofa-punching difficulty spikes of any of the big games of 2006, with inconsistent checkpoint spacing, the worst night vision system of any game ever (seriously), ridiculous health issues, ammo problems, graphical glitches, you name it. There was a real feeling of the game being so close to greatness, but being rushed out before it was ready. Happily, almost every single thing that we complained bitterly about last year's version has been fixed. In many respects, GRAW 2 is the game that last year's version could and perhaps should have been - though this is an admittedly shorter game than last year's.
In the 'fixed' column there are an extraordinary number of improvements which make a vast difference to the enjoyment levels over the course of the game. For a kick off, the game now looks superb all the way through, with not a single hint of a glitch, bug, or any of the general craziness that seemed to routinely affect the original. Not only that, Ubisoft's Paris studio has gone even further in terms of creating the kind of gritty visual opulence that you expect from a next generation system. The general standard of the lighting and effects adds a host of subtle improvements to what was already one of the show-piece next generation titles. This isn't a title that will inspire moans about v-sync tearing or frame rate glitches - it's very much a sign of next generation game development moving to the next phase. Flying over entire cities, watching plumes of smoke billow out of ruined buildings has never looked so good.
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More significantly, Ubi has really listened to a whole host of complaints. Perhaps our chief bugbear about the original was the check pointing, and the fact that sometimes it'd expect the player to wage war for an obscene amount of time before deigning to save your progress. Hand in hand with that is the fact that you now have a medic on hand to help you out on a limited number of occasions when the battle turns up the heat. Previously, you would be able to heal others an unlimited number of times, but not yourself, which meant you'd often find yourself facing the last portion of the battle with next to no health - making thing unnecessarily tough for you. This simple gameplay tweak has eliminated this needless frustration at a stroke, and instead allowed Ubi to deliver a game that's both challenging and fair.
Night vision, as well, has been completely overhauled, and makes a dramatic difference to the playability during the phases of the game when you're playing in gloomy lighting. Despite the events of the game taking place a day after last year's Mexican adventure (which, for the record was set in 2014), the Ghosts' Cross Com 2.0 system utilises a sort of brightened negative effect when flicking to night vision. Like a clearer version of the system we're used to in the Splinter Cell games, it gives you an instant advantage in the dark and makes the darker portions of the game thoroughly enjoyable.
Ubi has also ensured that downed enemies stick around for longer, allowing you to scavenge for ammo when you need to, though they still vanish once you get far enough away from them, On the other hand, we'd still like to know why the corpses disappear from the battlefield at all, when it's pretty obvious that their dropped weaponry might come in useful at some point. Clearly it's a memory saving trick that developers like to use, but if Doom (from 1994) can do it, why the bleedin' hell can't this one? Maybe next year they'll get around to fixing this little quibble. In the meantime, though, the presence of a mobile ammo/health unit called a 'Mule' can be called upon now and then to follow you around - but it's not something you can always rely upon.
No going back
Strangely, Ubi still doesn't believe in allowing you to load in a previous checkpoint if you want to, meaning that you have to go back and play through a level from the beginning if you've missed a secondary objective. A small, but significant point if you're keen to gain all the achievements that the game offers.
On the whole, though, the game plays magnificently. Offering more variety and tactical depth than Gears of War, a more intuitive control system and more open-ended levels, it deserves warm applause for taking a linear approach while letting the player think for themselves. On the surface, the duck and cover gameplay shares more than a few similarities to Epic's huge-selling shooter, but scratch the surface and there are more than enough differences that allow GRAW 2 to stand out in its own right.
The general premise is pretty consistent throughout: simply head in the general direction of an objective marker (displayed as a yellow square on the tactical map, and as a position relative arrow on the screen) and take out any enemies you come across on your travels. Sometimes you might have to do this on your own, but mostly you're accompanied by up to three squad members who you can direct as you see fit. Sometimes you might just want to have them following you, while other times you might want to send them off to cover a particular area while you outflank your unwary foe. By simply issuing basic 'go to' or 'attack' commands with the dpad and pointing your reticule at what or where you want them to go, it's a system that hasn't really been bettered by a console game.
Better still, you can even effectively be in several places at once, thanks to the new ability to view a video feed from your various units by holding down the right bumper. This not only makes it strategically beneficial, but allows you to point at what you want them to attack, despite maybe being halfway across the map. The same applies to when you're guiding attack helicopters or tanks to their destination - you and your squad can sit tight from a safe distance while the big guns can take out all the APCs, tanks and other hazards that would otherwise prove impassable to a bunch of elite soldier. Like last year's version, this feeling of being in command of a cohesive war machine gives it a distinctly different feel to the Rainbow Six games - however similar they may look on the surface.
As always, Ubi mixes up the ground-based action by throwing in the occasional on-rails shooting section. Although such well-worn gaming clichés can feel done-to-death in most games (including the dreaded mine cart section in Gears), they provide a sense of light relief in GRAW 2. At no stage are they as perilously difficult as one or two were in the original, and certainly not a frustrating obstacle to learn your way through. If anything, they offer Ubi the chance to do those spectacular fly-throughs that make the game an incredible spectacle at times. The rumble is enough to rattle a pacemaker out of your chest, though, so watch out if you've got a dodgy ticker.
But as consistently entertaining as the game is this time around, you might want to reconsider which difficulty level you tackle the game on this time. With so much stinging criticism thrown at them (certainly from us, at any rate), Ubi has noticeably toned down the 'normal' difficulty to what we'd normally class as 'easy', and as a result most experienced players will rip through the campaign in little over eight hours. The AI is unquestionably more forgiving, and seems to react slower than usual. This allows you a crucial amount of leeway to get a bead on them before they fire back, while the targeting itself appears to be somewhat more generous than it used to be. For example, medium range shots with an average machine gun or assault rifle appear to pick off enemies much quicker than you might generally expect, meaning that you don't even have to zoom in to score a swift kill. Such decisions make progress through the main campaign fairly swift, but with many achievements to go for, it's the sort of game you'll happily play again on the hardest level - if only to extend the lifespan of the game.
Perhaps predictably, Ubisoft still hasn't really nailed the narrative side of the game to any great degree. It does a sterling job of seamlessly integrating the mission briefings into flythroughs, and patching video feed updates to your cross com, but there's still no sense of actually caring about the characters or the purpose of your missions. Once and for all, Ubi needs to go that final mile to really get under the skin of the players, and breathe life into the team you're in command of. From there we might start actually giving a toss about the cause we're fighting for, rather than seeing each Ghost Recon campaign as a series of anonymous shoot-outs. It's a small point, but these Tom Clancy games are crying out for an injection of personality.
That said, Ubi does deserve a pat on the back for the subtle ways it communicates with the players these days. Team mates are constantly barking at you for straying into cover, and helpfully letting you know where enemy threats are emerging from. This kind of audio feedback might go unnoticed by many, but you'd be half as effective without their help.
As with last year's acclaimed version, the multiplayer is likely to be hugely popular again - if not more so, thanks to yet another example of the seriousness that Ubisoft places in online console gaming. For starters, the visual quality of the multiplayer modes now matches the single player campaign, which was something that was a bit jarring about last year's version. This fact in itself makes GRAW 2 one of the best looking online games ever, and given the sheer breadth and depth of options available, it ticks off practically every conceivable box in our wish list.
Top of that list is undoubtedly the new co-op campaign - probably our favourite element of last year's version. This time around, you can dive into a completely separate campaign storyline set in and around the Panama canal over six missions. With support for up to 16 players simultaneously, the action is ramped up considerably from the more closely associated single player mode where - at best - you've got help from about six or seven AI players at once. With a whole gang of players able to pitch in, the gameplay hinges on a series of dynamic objectives which require a fair bit of genuine team-work to accomplish. Thankfully, getting injured doesn't instantly result in instant death this time - and in both competitive and co-op modes, you've got a limited amount of time to call upon team mates to revive you, Gears style.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg, with Solo, Team and Co-op variations of Territory, Objective, and Elimination modes, not to mention Team Mission and Team Battle. And then within those, there are specific variations and rules you can apply, such as Bounty Hunter, Last Man Standing, Seek and Destroy, Sharpshooter, Thief (for Elimination games), Hamburger Hill, Domination (for Territory games), Escort, Flag Carry (for Objective games), a new co-op Helicopter Hunt mode, co-op Firefight and tons of others. Within those, you can customise the match rules to the nth degree, from the usual time restrictions to the weapon set, and all manner of advanced settings to cater for even the most particular player requirements. And for the really dedicated player, you can even set up and manage your clan, giving you a chance to get your trueskill ranking up in the ranked matches. The more casual players are well catered for, though, with player matches easy to come by and the usual slick search engine.
Needless to say, the new maps are considerably more ambitious than last year's, which instantly makes trawling through the familiar modes that we know and love a more appealing prospect. There are 18 maps in total (with one 'exclusive' map downloadable if you link your Ubi.com account with your Xbox Live one), ranging from those suitable for smaller matches to the more expansive large scale affairs - and everything in between.
GRAW 2 is unquestionably a better game than last year's version in almost every respect, but will inevitably suffer in some people's eyes by 'merely' consolidating what was already on offer. It's apparent very early on that Ubisoft decided to stick with the same acclaimed formula, and make a more accessible version of what everyone already liked. In itself, that's fine, but Ubisoft has historically approached 'expansion' sequels to previous Ghost Recon (and Rainbow Six) console games by pricing them accordingly. Anyone who remembers Island Thunder and Summit Strike will remember that they, too, were better than their parent games, and put out at a sensible price. If Ubisoft was brave enough to admit that GRAW 2 is the same kind of offering, we'd insist that it was a must-have game for any strategic shooter fan; especially for those of you who spend a lot of time online. As a full-priced offering, though, the goal posts have moved, and it's hard not to feel a little short changed by the short-lived single player campaign and how similar the whole thing feels. In many ways, GRAW 2 is the classic quick-fire sequel - short on new ideas, but big on polishing what we know and love. But these days, isn't that what people want?
8 / 10