- Review Price: £40.00
In the lead up to the Xbox 360 launch, this was one of the games that I was most excited about. It had already been made clear that Halo 3 wouldn’t be rearing its head for a very long time, but screen shots of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, or GRAW, looked very promising indeed. In fact, despite much being made of the next generation graphics in Project Gotham Racing 3, it was this game that showed the most promise when it came to advanced visuals. Unfortunately GRAW slipped somewhat and didn’t turn out to be an X360 launch title, but now that it’s actually here, was it worth the wait?
One thing is obvious from the minute you fire GRAW up – those early screen shots may have looked great all those months back, but they don’t even come close to preparing you for the visual spectacle that this game has in store. GRAW is without a doubt the most amazing looking console game I’ve ever played, and to be honest I’m hard pushed to think of a PC game that can match its visual impact. The environments are detailed and convincing, the character models intricate and well animated, but it’s the lighting effects that left me dumbfounded. There has been a lot of talk in the graphics industry this past year about HDR lighting effects, but no other game comes close to GRAW when it comes to HDR.
Over the past year we’ve seen HDR effects start to filter into PC games with varying degrees of success. I’ve had several chats with both ATI and nVidia about HDR implementation, since most games just seem to white you out in bright sunlight, but fail to implement any effect when walking into a dark area from a bright one. And that’s it, the sum of most HDR implementations seems to be a white out effect, followed by your vision slowly coming back into phase.
Things are very different in GRAW where the HDR lighting effects add a whole new dimension of realism to the proceedings. Never before have I felt so immersed in an environment – not because of the detailed models or convincing textures, but because of the realistic lighting. There’s one level set in a train yard where you end up having to peer around a train carriage into bright sunlight while trying to pinpoint enemy gunmen and take them out. One of the bad guys is perched on top of another carriage with the sun directly behind him, making it difficult to even see him, let alone get off a clean shot. Add to this the fact that when you duck back into cover from bright sunlight, you’re left feeling vulnerable as your irises slowly re-open and get accustomed to the dramatic drop in light intensity.
Once you get past the lighting you start to notice some superb atmospheric effects that make the environment even more convincing. Water is beautifully done in GRAW and rainy levels are a joy to behold. I found myself constantly dying in a multiplayer map set in a dockyard as I just wandered around gawking at the scenery – the way the rain drops splashed into the surface water on the floor was just mesmerising. As if the rainfall wasn’t enough, random flashes of lightning would briefly illuminate your surroundings and reveal detail that you had no idea was there – if you’ve ever seen ATI’s Toy Shop demo, it’s similar to that, but fully playable! At the opposite end of the spectrum there are subtle heat haze effects that highlight the hot and arid locations – look through your scope and the horizon will waver as the heat rises off the ground.
Graphically GRAW epitomises next generation gaming, but there’s a lot more to a great game than graphics alone. Thankfully this game isn’t just a pretty face, and there’s a lot to be commended elsewhere. The single player campaign mode is challenging to say the least and there’s enough variety in the missions to keep you plugging away to the end. I won’t go into much detail about the storyline, but it’s fairly predictable US flag waving fare. Set in the near future, Mexico is plunged into turmoil as rebels attempt to overthrow the government – luckily the US is on hand to send in some crack troops and save the day. Like I said, very predictable, but no more so than your average mid-budget Hollywood action movie – throw Steven Seagal into the mix and GRAW could be easily a Channel 5 midweek movie.
It’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the control method, and generally it all works very well. The default view is an “over the shoulder” third person method – this works pretty well, especially if you’re used to the Splinter Cell series or even SOCOM on the PS2. Personally I prefer a first person view in a game like this and a quick trip to the options menu granted my wish. To be fair both views have their plus and minus points, but I’m so used to playing first person shooter games on the PC, that the over the shoulder view just feels a bit alien to me.
As with any urban warfare game, running blindly into enemy fire is going to get you killed pretty damn quick – the key to survival is making good use of the cover afforded to you. Thankfully Ubisoft has made it very easy to make the most of the walls, cars and barrels that litter the environment. Simply move towards a wall, keep pressing the stick forwards and you’ll automatically hug the surface. From there it’s easy to peek around the edge and take pot shots at your enemies without ever having to venture out into the open. A simple click of the contextual action button will make you step away from the wall and carry on with whichever Spec-Ops mission you might be undertaking. The contextual action button will do a multitude of things in different situations – it will make you roll while prone, jump over obstacles when confronted with them and plant explosives when necessary.
The left analogue stick will move you forward and backwards, while also strafing left and right. Clicking will make you crouch, while clicking and holding will put you in a prone position. The right stick obviously controls aiming, while clicking will zoom in, if you’re using a weapon with a scope. The left trigger takes a careful aim, but when used in conjunction with a scoped weapon in zoom mode, the left trigger will hold your breath in order to steady your aim. The right trigger is your primary fire button. As well as the “Y” contextual action button, you also have the “A” weapon reload button which will also switch between single shot and burst mode. The “B” button will cycle through your weapons, while the “X” button will switch night vision on and off. Obviously you can change the controller config, but I found the default pretty intuitive. If there’s one control aspect I didn’t like, it’s that there isn’t a dedicated button for grenade throwing – I find that if I have to manually select a grenade before using one, it’s too late.
But GRAW is a squad based game, that’s supposed to interject tactical aspects into the gameplay. I say supposed to, because often when you need to make use of the rest of your squad, you’re under such heavy fire that you don’t have the time to use them to full effect. That said, controlling the rest of your squad has been made pretty simple, with single presses of the D-pad up or down to send them to a location, attack a position or regroup around you. Unfortunately the AI is a bit hit and miss with your band of comrades. In one particular mission where you have to blow up some tanks, you need to make sure that you order your squad to go somewhere else before setting the explosives. If you don’t they will simply mill around the tank and get blown to bits when the explosives detonate!
Of course you can heal your squad members as many times as you like, assuming that you can get to them in time while the bullets are flying. You can even order one squad member to heal another and herein lies one of my major gripes. If you can heal your men ad infinitum, and you can order them to heal each other, why is it that you can’t heal yourself, or order any of your men to heal you? It seems that you’re so hard, that you laugh in the face of medical attention, right up to the point when you hit the deck, dead.
It’s not just your squad that you get to control though, you occasionally have access to air support and armour support. So you can get an Apache helicopter or a tank to take out armoured enemies for you – of course you still have to target the enemies before they can fire on them. You also get access to a kind of flying recon drone. You can send this to any area on the tactical map to scope out enemy activity, and hopefully save you from walking blindly into a trap.
If there’s one major problem with the single player campaign mode, it’s the checkpoint save method. The levels can be very long, with several save checkpoints throughout – as you reach each checkpoint your progress is automatically saved so that if you die, you will restart from the last checkpoint. Now, the big problem here is that if you stumble past a checkpoint with barely enough health to stand up, then promptly die, you will then restart from that same “near death” position. There’s no way to go back to the previous checkpoint, so if you find yourself caught in this trap, you’re left with two choices – keep trying to finish the level with almost no health, or restart the entire mission from scratch. If you were just allowed to restart from previous checkpoints during the single player campaign, it would save your X360 a lot of verbal abuse.
If the frustration of the single player save point method gets too much for you, or you finally tire of healing your comrades while no one sees to your medical needs, you can always try some multiplayer action, and here I’m glad to say GRAW excels. If you manage to join a game where the other participants are willing to play as a team, you’ll realise what a squad based, tactical shooter is all about. Forget about issuing basic commands to your computer controlled squad, simply tell your real, live team mates where to go, what to do and how to out flank the enemy. The multiplayer maps look simply stunning and add oodles of atmosphere to the proceedings. Although the general game styles are standard multiplayer fare, GRAW looks and plays so well, that you can’t help but enjoy every moment. For me, GRAW offers the best multiplayer experience on the X360, although that will probably change once Battlefield 2 rears its head.
But despite the fact that the multiplayer aspect of GRAW is undoubtedly impressive, it too is not without its issues. For a start, the control method is different from the single player version. Neat touches from the single player campaign like being able to take cover behind walls and obstacles are not possible in multiplayer mode. At first you don’t realise this and will be busy trying to stick to a wall and peer around the corner, while the enemy wonders what the hell your doing, all the time firing in your direction. Also, although there’s a cooperative mode, you can only play limited cooperative missions and can’t play through the main campaign mode with the help of your mates.
Ultimately Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter is like a flawed diamond – it’s beautiful from so many perspectives, but you can’t help but notice that it’s not quite perfect. The graphics are nothing short of breathtaking, and the gameplay can be totally immersive at times, but the annoying issues like the save points and inability to receive medical attention soon destroy the illusion of an urban combat reality that GRAW tries so hard to create.
If you want to see what makes the Xbox 360 so special; what makes it “next generation”, look no further than Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter. I’d be hard pushed to think of a game on any platform that is as visually impressive as this one. If the rest of the game had been as polished as the graphics, this would be a classic of epic proportions, unfortunately the annoyances and frustrations that you encounter during play, take some of the shine off. That said, even with its flaws, GRAW is a great game and one that heralds the next generation of interactive entertainment – if this is a taste of things to come from Ubisoft, I’m very excited indeed.