Soldiering is hard work. So is being an Ubisoft franchise hero, a Tom Clancy one especially. The French publisher demands its action stars march to the same annual beat as most virtual sportsmen, no matter how taxing and ambitious their adventures, whether they're grizzled spies or foppish Iranian acrobats. After Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter delivered an early hit on 360 in March of last year, 2007 was always likely to find Ubi demanding its brave men hit the (pay)dirt on the double.
All the same, squad leader Captain Scott Mitchell is being rushed back into battle with so much haste it's unseemly. Never mind a vacation; he doesn't even get much of a change of scene. Taking place a mere 24 hours after the end of last year's game, GRAW 2 sees Mitchell still suppressing the Mexican rebellion. After being routed from Mexico City, the plucky rebels are gathering in and around Juarez, near the US border, and actually preparing to invade Texas. Needless to say, it's time to load up with cutting-edge death gadgetry, assemble a few gruff team-mates, ride a Blackhawk in and 'neutralise' their 'threat'. No rest for the wicked.
It has to be said, a change of setting would have been nice. GRAW was a very impressive-looking game, one of the first titles on 360 to really show some next-gen leg. It goes without saying that GRAW 2 will follow suit, although the preview version we've played - much more extensive but less polished than the current marketplace demo - still has a lot of rough graphical edges for a game so near release (it's due 9th March on 360 and later in the month on PS3 and PC). But the dust-blown landscapes and crumbling barrios smouldering and smoking in that moody late-evening sun are a little over-familiar, no matter how seductively real they are, and how convincing the explosions.
You'll be fighting the same enemies with the same tactics, too, either alone or commanding a squad of three, using cover heavily and relying on flanking manoeuvres and suppressing fire in typical Ghost Recon style. As before, the game is more about the feeling of tactical squad deployment than the actual strategic reality of it, and is at heart a mostly just a very slick, tense, slow-paced shooter with some simple squad options - no bad thing, of course. From what we've played, GRAW 2's single-player leans even more towards carefully planned, flashy cinematic action (and away from true strategic depth) than its predecessor did.
After a training level, Mitchell is raced by Humvee to a desert location outside Juarez where he uses the Cypher, an aerial drone, to scout ahead and help him destroy some rebel gun emplacements and clear a bridge on his own. Although so little has changed since the first GRAW, military technology has certainly moved on some in the last 24 hours. Drone control is much improved, with the cross-com camera feed, previously restricted to a tiny window in the top left, now available in an excellent full-screen view (this goes for your team-mates' camera too). As before, the aerial drone can be commanded like a squad member to scout ahead and feed information on distant enemies back to your futuristic HUD.
This really comes into play at the start of the second mission in conjunction with a new gun and a new ground-level drone, the Mule. The Mule is a robotic weapons stash on wheels, basically - strongly resembling a Big Trak, for all you nostalgic thirtysomethings out there. Not only does it provide access to your full armoury wherever you want in the level if you can keep it intact, but it also serves as some invaluable portable cover. Like the drone, it can be controlled directly or commanded.
The new gun is a sniper rifle with armour-piercing rounds that can smash through thinner walls. Paring it with the Cypher in the mission in question means you can get a bead on enemies you can't even see - your HUD sketching out their outlines cowering behind the crumbling walls of a derelict hillside village - and take them down, once again using the left trigger to hold your breath and steady your aim. Most satisfying.
After that you finally meet up with your squad and use them to clean out a rebel camp while being bombarded by mortar fire and stirring, militaristic music. The big change here, and a welcome relief to GRAW players, is the addition of a medic unit. This relieves you as captain of the onus of running around the battlefield to heal your team-mates, often putting yourself at undue risk in the process, although the option to perform first aid yourself is still there. The medic saps your unit of firepower to some extent, but overall will make the game much more flexible and forgiving to play.
More than that we cannot discuss, sadly - details of subsequent missions are on a need-to-know basis only, and General Ubi has declared that you, consumer, sorry soldier, do not need to know. Suffice to say there will be some on-rails set-piece relief from the squad action, a little more drama and fun, maybe a little less white-knuckle tension. There's a little more care evident in the level design too, especially in areas such as check-pointing, which GRAW players will be glad to hear.
There's every sign that GRAW 2 will deliver the crowd-pleasing soldiering that saw its predecessor nab BAFTA's Game of the Year gong last year, and we haven't even seen the co-op and competitive multiplayer modes yet - which most agree are the stronger half of the package. There are two major causes for concern, though. One is that it's simply far too close in appearance, content and well, everything, to GRAW to feel like anything other than re-treading old ground. Sometimes with yearly updates, you have to question their reason for existing in the first place, and this is very much one of those times.
The other is time. Has Ubisoft given itself enough breathing space to give GRAW 2 the layer of polish that was notably lacking from the original? We won't have to wait too long to find out.