Some fans might not agree with this, but probably the most improved game series of 2004 was Ghost Recon, getting a long overdue and very welcome visual overhaul that made it one of the most enjoyable tactical shooters released all year. Fast-forward a few months and suddenly Ubisoft's Red Storm studio has pulled a third game out of the bag, somewhat unexpectedly (at least when it made the announcement a while back), with the French publisher also using brand as the spearhead to its concerted next-gen assault.
By virtue of Ubisoft's recent pre-E3 event, the Xbox 360 version of Ghost Recon 3 took the honour of being the first next-gen game we saw running. Admittedly it took the form of a relatively short looping video running on a large HDTV, but what we saw was impressive enough to make us believe it will quickly become regarded as one of the lynchpin titles in Microsoft's Xbox 360 launch period.
Beautiful, pin-sharp visuals, exceptionally convincing character animation, lifelike environments, wince-inducing explosions and bewildering smoke and particle effects make it an instantly arresting and impressive spectacle for all those who enjoy squad-based action; and that definitely includes us.
In the absence of a hands-on (we hope to get one at E3 at some point this week, so check back soon for an update) we managed to wrestle the key facts out of Ubisoft's Adrian Lacey, and pulled out the best bits of an informative Q&A prepared on all you need to know about one of this year's essential squad-based tactical shooters.
As ever we're dealing with the future here: It's 2013. "The face of war has changed. Enemy lines blur, and there is no longer a clear opponent". Clearly we need a "new type of soldier". Bring on the Ghosts.
Apparently by 2013, the U.S. Army will bring in the "Integrated Warfighter System" - IWS if you will. This combines "advanced weapon systems, satellite communication devices and enhanced survivability" into an all-in-one combat system
As such, the game's setting sees these ghostly types tackling the insurgents wreaking havoc in the heart of Mexico City. With an against-the-odds task to take control of the city again, the Ghosts find themselves hopelessly outnumbered, but armed with super-weapons and equipment that give you the edge.
For proof, look no further than the revolutionary satellite Cross-Com, a communication device powered by satellite technology. Attached to your monocle (how quaint), it provides "full situational awareness and command of the battlefield", allowing players to "command the Ghost squad and remote allied forces and drones, and direct artillery and air strikes", not to mention "see what the squad sees and receive visual and auditory intel from allied forces and unmanned drones". It looks great. Picture-in-picture feedback, giving you a real sense of battle.
But much more than that we didn't really know, so what better than to hand it over to Ubi to answer the main burning issues...
Eurogamer: First of all, what's the basic purpose of the game?
Ubisoft: The Ghosts have been ordered to participate in a Joint Operation designed to capture Mexican military officials engaged in illegal technology sales to Columbian rebels.
Three leaders are attacked by Mexican soldiers opposed to what they consider an unreasonable concentration of military power in civilian hands (and even worse, in politicians' hands).
The Ghosts, as the only US Special Forces on the ground, are ordered to meet up with Secret Service agents protecting the US president and ensure his safety until he is extracted. While the president is on route to the Airport, the Ghosts secure the Mexican president. Thanks to the Ghosts' actions, the Mexican President will "green light" US intervention on Mexican soil in order to re-establish Democracy.
Unfortunately, the US president never reached the Airport and is now in enemy hands. The Ghosts must now hunt down his captors in a war-torn Mexico City and fight off a well-equipped Mexican force.
Eurogamer: Will newcomers to Ghost Recon be able to get into the game?
Ubisoft: Yes, the game design has been written to allow the player to develop with the game. The idea is to immediately immerse the player and let him pick up his pad and be part of the experience. The first mission puts you into character and allows you to familiarize yourself with the Cross-Com system and how it will assist the gameplay. Basically you are given the chance to accustom yourself to the controls before all hell breaks loose!
Eurogamer: How many levels and missions are there this time?
Ubisoft: 12 single-player missions, with an average of six sub-missions within each; 7-15 additional multiplayer levels.
Eurogamer: How long do you reckon the game will take to play through?
Ubisoft: In terms of single-player, about 20 hours.
Eurogamer: How did you feel GR2 fared with long term fans?
Ubisoft: Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon 2 shifted its game design from a 100 per cent tactical shooter to a more action-based game in order to broaden the audience. Fans of the original Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon questioned this shift.
Eurogamer: So where are you pitching Ghost Recon 3 this time? More authenticity?
Ubisoft: Yes, we're keeping the realism that the core fan base has loved since the original Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon, but we are looking to give the game a huge boost with the help of next generation technology in terms of immersive gameplay. In terms of tactical gameplay, you now have Intel from unmanned drones which you control, you can call in Apache Air strikes which will work in conjunction with your team. You order your team to move in on enemy positions. The vision of the Integrated Warfighter System is that you now have situational awareness on the battlefield near, mid and far range.
Eurogamer: Tell us about this new 'Cross Com' system?
Ubisoft: The Cross Com lets you receive information, news reports, briefings, and interact with your troops on the ground, all while you are carrying out missions.
Eurogamer: What game engine have you used for the Xbox 360 version?
Ubisoft: YETI, a Ubisoft proprietary engine built especially for next-gen consoles.
Eurogamer: What new gameplay features and abilities have you included?
Ubisoft: The `Cross-Com" communication device is the biggest new feature for the Ghosts. This device is powered by satellite technology and gives the ghosts full visibility and command of the battlefield.
Eurogamer: What new weapons and devices feature this time around?
Ubisoft: The Ghosts will be decked out with next-generation military technology. Their weapons, communication systems, and combat suit will feature an unprecedented level of technology for a military shooter.
Eurogamer: Can you give details on the various online features available?
Ubisoft: Ghost Recon 3 will expand on both Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon 2 online and online features of other Clancy games bringing back what fans loved while offering new twists and innovations.