With no Halo to speak of (and indeed no speaking of Halo), a lukewarm reception for Joanna Dark and, in Call of Duty 2, multiplay conditions arguably harsher than the conflicts Infinity Ward was actually fictionalising, it's probably safe to say that anybody with an Xbox 360 perched there or abouts is resting a hopeful eye on Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. With GRAW, as it's affectionately known, now due out in Europe in March, we toddled along to sit in Microsoft's carpeted swimming pool (we didn't understand either) and see how it's shaping up - starting with the single-player mode.
One of the things that's bothered us about the early 360 games (you might have noticed this) is that we're perfectly happy to have spangly graphics and sound yes-it's-lovely-thank-you, but what we'd really like to see is people using the technology to create gameplay scenarios that couldn't be offered before. With GRAW, you get the sense Red Storm might actually be doing this. The idea is that you're a soldier in the near future strapped up in a computerised war-suit (not exactly a far-fetched concept), which includes something called a "Cross-Com". The Cross-Com's a sort of visual overlay, the principle "ooh" feature of which is the ability to flick between the viewpoints of your squad-mates in a little window-in-window in the top-left. You can also dispatch a drone flier to pinpoint and identify squaddies and enemies, who are identified by blue and red markers respectively and, when they're within line of sight, outlined in the same colours.
In other words, Cross-Com's your HUD, but where King Kong (peculiarly) won praise for dumping the idea of status bars and the like, GRAW might just win praise for finding a way to justify it.
The storyline is slightly sillier than the ideas that underpin the military concepts, but it's a fair enough backdrop. Set over a three-day period, GRAW's single-player campaign takes place entirely in Mexico City in 2013, as the US president of the day tries his hand at some diplomacy to do with drugs or something (we were looking at some guns and forgot to write it down), only for it all to go a bit wrong and him to end up kidnapped. Naturally it's up to you and the other 'ghosts' (newcomer? Think "best of the increasingly recursive best") to sort that out and deal with the rebellious group that has him. To wit you don't get to leave MC until you're done; you're bussed between what are in effect different levels by APC or Black Hawk, constantly receiving intel updates through Cross-Com with new objectives, riding in on a chopper clearing out enemies on the ground to create an LZ, and then tackling the 800-metre-square level-space however you please.
Therein lies the most interesting bit, really: Ghost Recon's always been about demonstrating tactical awareness in testing situations rather than twitch-killing, and GRAW's giving you a different set of tools to do this, with enemies smart enough to try and flank you, or to seek new cover when you blow up whatever they're hiding behind, snipers high up in buildings, and generally treacherous urban environments. To this end the Cross-Com will be hugely influential - you can't switch between squad-mates, so you'll have to read the situation and decide where to deploy people using the window-in-window viewer - as will initial squad selection, with marksmen, grenadiers, riflemen and automatic riflemen available.
Squad management will be handled through contextual Cross-Com commands rather than with headset voice comms ala the recent Rainbow Six/Ghost Recon games; if someone goes down, for example, you'll be able to use a contextual healing command to dispatch someone to help, and then chip in yourself if you want to expedite things. But really the idea is that along with all the usual precision-aiming where called for, moving between cover positions and peeping round corners, future warfare's about intel and tech, and how you apply them. On a basic level, making sure you have a rocket launcher in your team to deal with enemy armour. Or using the drone to identify entrenched enemies, and directing an air strike with the Cross-Com to hit them.
And of course, on top of that it has, er, spangly graphics and sound. The multiple Xbox 360 cores have allowed Red Storm to do really good multi-window visuals, high dynamic range effects add a tangible humidity to the atmosphere, walls are specked with bullet holes but windows crack and then shatter and solid metallic surfaces are dented rather than their surfaces broken. The play area may be 800 metres square, but you can see for 2km in any given direction - the game uses a Battlefield-style "you are leaving the battle area" prompt to keep you hemmed in without resorting to invisible walls - and if you look closely at each ghost you'll be able to pick out all their equipment.
All in all, what we've seen of GRAW single-player bodes extremely well. Without getting the chance to really get stuck into it ourselves, mind you - something we'll do soon when Ubisoft sends out near-final code - a lot of our enthusiasm's down to the potential. Ever since the old-days-Rainbow Six we've enjoyed surveying an area and plotting a course through it with guns. GRAW's filling in the finer details, and with its Cross-Com approach demonstrates a bit of ingenuity. Climbing out of Microsoft's pool, our heads are full of "makes a splash" puns. It's never going to be the 360's Halo, but it does look like one of the best fresh Clancy game prospects since Ubisoft started banging on about some chap called Fisher back in the day. And he was quite good for the Xbox, we seem to recall.
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter is due out on Xbox 360 and PC on March 10th (despite what Ubisoft's Feb 9th release schedule says, grumble grumble), with Xbox and PS2 versions due later.