Review: Certainly, this game is the "killer app" it looked to be back at E3?
At E3 2005, I was able to get a good look at Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (just called Ghost Recon 3 at the time) and it certainly seemed like it was shaping up phenomenally well. At the time I said it would be a ?killer app? for the system, specifically because of its insane visual detail and, apparently, raw gameplay. However, nobody could have foreseen the complete egg this game would lay at X05 in October; the graphics were unpolished and low-res, the multiplayer wasn't complete, and the main gameplay only appeared so-so ? what a difference a three-month delay makes. Not only is Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter one of the best looking games on the Xbox 360 to date (right up there with Fight Night Round 3), but it also plays with a much more ?organic? feel than its predecessors.
The story revolves around Capt. Scott Mitchell ? who you control ? and his three ?ghost? teammates. Your squad has been deployed in Mexico City in order to diffuse a situation with some rebels who are led by a man named Ontiveros. Essentially, the Canadian, American and Mexican governments were meant to sign the North American Joint Security Agreement (NAJSA), but the rebels interrupted the proceedings. With the Canadian prime minister killed (a dark in-joke from Canadian-based Ubisoft) and the American and Mexican presidents MIA, it is up to the Ghosts to infiltrate Mexico City, find the VIPs, and eliminate the rebel threat. This narrative isn't all that original, but it provides a basic framework for the plausible near-future scenario.
What makes the story actually work is the way in which it is presented; essentially, the narrative is told through the ?Cross-Com? HUD of Capt. Mitchell. Since you and your squad are ?soldiers of the future,? you can expect to have latest gear for dealing with rebels throughout the Mexican capital. The main piece of equipment you'll have at your disposal is the Cross-Com headset; this headgear gives you a type of ?enhanced reality? for your combat experience, and you'll get video briefings and news updates through this device. Additionally, you can keep tabs on your various teammates by switching camera views within this interface. The addition of teammate views alone is enough to make the game experience of GRAW vastly different from its predecessors, in both single and multiplayer modes. The gameplay really benefits from having someone on your team ahead of you who can scout ahead and you can watch all the while ? a very creative use of the HUD, here. The Cross Com also highlights enemies with red outlines when you are in combat, and this definitely creates a hyper-realistic atmosphere for conflicts. Some might feel that this may make the combat easier than in previous Ghost Recon games, but, frankly, most of the combat is at such a distance that you need the enhanced targeting to manage all of the enemies in your path. A cool touch is the scrambling effect to your HUD interface when the enemy is jamming communications ? little touches like this just pile on and help immerse you into the game.
As said, the story isn't all that much, but having details told to you by newscasts in your headset, briefings in your ear, and interrogations onboard an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) is pretty cool. On top of this, you can get additional intelligence by sending unmanned drones around the map (this helps on missions where you are on your own). Even further still, you will, occasionally, be given access to tanks and Apache helicopters in order to support your squad. Not only do these elements integrate into the interface easily, but they also look spectacular in their execution as you can watch them through your headset and order them around at your discretion.
On top of the functionality of the Cross Com system is the graphical quality of this interface, and that of the in-game engine itself. The Cross Com calls to mind Metroid Prime on the GameCube, but, obviously, has a more believable look that helps you digest all of the incoming intelligence effectively. The video signal crackles when you encounter communications interference, and the people who talk to you are presented through grain filters and seem almost like holograms ? a trippy effect. The game can be played from the first-person perspective or third-person view, but the Cross Com will remain as an overlay on the screen, regardless.
While the Cross Com looks good, the real detail of this game comes from the cityscapes in Mexico City. There are towering skyscrapers and business districts, shantytowns and slums, and mountainous outskirts and forests to be explored. Each area is rendered in extreme detail, including graffiti on walls, breakable glass, cars on the roads, and great-looking asphalt. Adding to this is the stirring lighting and dust effects present when you are getting out of the chopper; the sun bathes everything around you and dust swirls around the chopper creating an awesome start to a mission. Of course, several moments in the game allow you to be transported in the chopper, and when you are in the air you can really appreciate the scope of Mexico City ? it stretches on for what seems like forever. This transportation sequence actually kills two birds with one frag grenade, as you get to admire the size and beauty of the city, plus bypass any loading screens by having these moments occur as cutscenes or briefings.
The detail on the player models is also extremely good ? as is usually the case from Ubisoft ? and each soldier has the appropriate gear and headwear accompanying his person. Animations seem mainly recycled from previous Ghost Recon games, but they were done so well before that it doesn't detract from the experience at all. The AI enemies you will face don't have nearly the same detail as the soldiers you control, but they each wear slightly different clothes and move in a much more believable fashion, especially when they die.
The visual detail and fidelity of this game just seems to mesh together so well and a hi-def display brings it all together. The absence of jaggies or low-res textures is a sight to behold, and the beating sun of Mexico can sometimes saturate so much that it feels like it will bleed off the screen.
Of course, all of this visual detail works in concert with the usual top-notch audio from the Ubisoft crew. This time around, special props go to the sound design for weaponry, as the guns really come to life with their jarring machinations and different operating noises. A lot of previous games in the series had many options for weapon loadout, but the sound design didn't make them distinct enough to properly immerse a gamer into the conflict ? well, at least not as much as has been achieved in this title. In GRAW, fully automatic gunner weapons sound devastatingly powerful, but equally impressive is the precise lethality of a booming sniper shot. Explosives are uniformly good, as are the various effects for cars, buildings, and vehicles of war being detonated by said explosives. The music and voice acting are completely appropriate for the tone and pace of the game, but neither of them stick out as particularly memorable; this is to say, you won't become too attached to the characters from their performances, nor will you swept away by the score (although, the title screen theme is catchy).
As said earlier, the Cross-Com HUD really sets this game apart in the way it plays compared to earlier Ghost Recon games or even contemporary next-gen shooters. After a few missions of shooting down pesky snipers, moving the drone into spying position, ordering troops to cover, and calling for air support, you do start to get the feeling of immense control through this interface. At certain tense battles in some of the middle missions, it really appears as if you're directing traffic in a very dangerous area, but somehow you can just manage to do it because of the information you're given and the way the game handles.
In terms of control, many elements remain from previous installments, but a few key refinements add, notably, to the experience. Aiming and moving is still handled from the thumbsticks, and you can execute context sensitive animations (climbing, opening, etc.) with the Y button. A new feature is a Perfect Dark Zero-style cover move where you press up against a wall (with the thumbstick) and you can peek out from cover to take out your enemies. This cover technique is handy for about 75% of combat situations, but I was surprised to find that, unlike other GR games, you can actually run and gun somewhat efficiently (this is not really an advisable strategy, though). A mini-map is accessible by hitting the back button, and this little display is pretty simple to use yet informative, nonetheless. In combination with the mini-map is the d-pad controls; pressing left or right on the d-pad selects a support unit (squad, drone, tank, helicopter) and then pressing up or down tells it to move, attack, retreat, etc. This does get a tad touchy in tense situations, but proficiency with this command will definitely increase after about an hour of playtime. Again, it can't be stressed enough how much control you eventually feel in this game and any firefight seems like it can be won because of the tools at your disposal.