Named after novelist Tom Clancy, the Ghost Recon series has enjoyed plenty of popularity for its realistic stealth-style gameplay. The latest addition to the series, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (GRAW), takes us to the city streets of Mexico seven years from now, where a North American security agreement signing, and the respective presidents involved, have been hijacked by terrorists.
As Captain Scott Mitchell, you lead a squad of four soldiers, or 'ghosts', as they are called. Together you and your ghosts must fight your way through the streets in a bid to locate missing VIPs, battle enemy forces, and support aerial assaults.
As you complete objectives, you'll be told of your next one via satellite video of your commander or helicopter pilot in the top right hand corner of the screen. This sometimes includes news footage or video of enemy sightings. It's an effective way of keeping the action moving rather than waiting through cut-scenes at the end of every level.
GRAW looks great -- but only if you have a beefy PC.
Thankfully little has changed in how you control your fighter, the game being easy to play for Ghost Recon veterans and newcomers alike. The scope view through your gun is still a useful way of scouring the terrain ahead, rather than feeling like you're walking ahead blindly. One new move added to GRAW is diving, which just like you've seen in the movies, allows you to throw yourself headfirst behind cover after a hectic dash. When it comes to issuing orders to teammates, you can command any of your ghosts to move, attack, provide covering fire, or stop in his tracks.
One of the chief innovations in GRAW is the Cross-Com, a satellite communication technology. This links you with your ghosts, allowing you to see from their viewpoint, and gives you a tactical map view that shows their position in relation to the wider battlefield. This is a strategic view, as it lets you plan your troops' movements and their proximity to each other should you choose to split up. Via the map, you can also set a number of orders in a queue for one of more of your ghosts, and execute them all at once. The effect of this could be each of your troops moving to a destination via a number of set points, without you as captain having to stop and direct them. It also allows you to order ghosts to move to positions that aren't in your line of sight. It's a nifty feature, and one that allows you to better position your ghosts in cover rather than try and judge possible cover positions from many metres away. In later stages of the game, you use the Cross-Com tactical map to coordinate air strikes on tanks and other enemy positions.
Which brings us to our first gripe with GRAW, that being the ghosts' following (or not following) of movement orders. While it is easy to instruct a ghost to move to a specified position, and while most times they'll do as told, there's still a tendency for them not to move to the precise point you ordered. For example, you and your team could be sneaking up to the corner of a wall where the enemy lies in wait, just hidden from view. Just hidden, that is, until one of your ghosts decides to walk out a few metres into the open and initiate battle. So much for the element of surprise.
Movement orders can also be a problem if you don't consider the alternatives to how a ghost might move to a point. On some occasions I forged ahead in battle, then called for my laggard troops to catch up. Rather than take the same route I did, one or two ghosts might take the long way around a building, exposing themselves to an enemy in waiting, and kicking off an unnecessary gunfight. Granted this sometimes could have been avoided by setting their movements via the map explained earlier, but when you just want your ghosts to catch up over captured territory, this can be annoying.
Environments in GRAW are extremely detailed.
One of the more realistic aspects of GRAW is its placement of enemy troops. Unlike some other first person shooters, you won't find many isolated enemies hidden in hard-to-believe locations such as behind a box in an empty street, as if it's been their life mission to wait for you. In fact, many gunfights in GRAW can be anticipated as you approach city squares or major buildings. The bad guys are usually holed up together and well-positioned so that if you move too far out of cover to nail one, someone else across the way will pick you off.
When it comes to gun battles, there's almost always something to hide behind. Vehicles, boxes, paved gardens, bus shelters, all offer a degree of cover and shooting positions. We particularly liked how while cars were effective cover points, they could also be destroyed in stages. Shots that burst tyres would lower the car, doors and other parts could also be blown off, before blowing up the car altogether.
As you might expect from a successful series, graphics quality in GRAW is nothing to be sneezed at. We were quite impressed with the level of detail in some of the buildings in the city. Many looked to have their own character and history about them, rather than simply being based on a common template that's repeated throughout the game. This is a crucial redeeming feature of the game. Since all the action takes place in the streets of Mexico, stock-standard structures would become tiresome fast. While your walled surroundings can also be damaged by a hail of gunfire, we did unfortunately notice a tendency for them to 'self-heal' over a number of seconds, back to their previous state. Nevertheless, the graphical quality of GRAW was still impressive, best demonstrated on one occasion by the way smoke billowed from some factories, each puff rising and spiralling as if carried by air itself.
Of course, the get the most out of GRAW, you'll need a pretty hefty machine. We were able to run it smoothly at the fairly low resolution of 800x600 using a PC with a 3.2GHz CPU, 1GB of RAM and a 256MB graphics card. As you can see, you'll need an impressive PC to run this game at any higher resolutions.
Outside the single-player game, GRAW offers 32-player online play, but the game shipped with only two game modes -- cooperative play for most single missions, as well as a domination mode where players try to control different sections of the map. Before we begin describing those modes, though, we should mention the myriad of problems we ran into while trying to test out GRAW's online play.
First of all, the in-game server browser is bug-ridden to the point that it's nearly nonfunctional. The interface you use to login won't work unless you press the enter key after inputting your screen name and your password. As bizarre as it sounds, if you try to use the mouse or tab key to navigate from one input field to another, the login interface will throw you a nondescriptive error message, rendering it impossible for you to browse online games or create your own server. Ubisoft also failed to ship dedicated server software for GRAW as of this writing. This means all the servers you play on are listen servers off people's computers, which makes for a much less consistent experience as far as network performance. Even when you manage to get past all those issues and attempt to connect to the relatively low number of online games that are running at any given moment, most of our attempts to connect to a game ended in failure. Either the browser is broken and is reporting online games that don't exist anymore, or the network software has problems handshaking clients with the available servers.
Overall, GRAW is a solid shooting experience. Although there will be plenty of times you're killed without even sighting the enemy responsible, frequent save points and ample cover positions for battle encourage you to return to the fray. If you can remain patient, you'll revel in the tension of every minute in GRAW.
Additional reporting by GameSpot.com.