Developer: Grin (PC), Ubisoft (all console versions)
Platform: PS2, Xbox, Xbox 360, PC (reviewed on Xbox 360)
ESRB Rating: Teen
My Advice: Rent it first. If the rental holds your interest, consider a purchase.
The Ghost Recon series has seen its share of changes since 2000. The first game was a sandbox-style shooter set in Eastern Europe. You could go anywhere and execute your mission any way you liked, adding immense replay value to each mission. Ghost Recon 2 was a console-exclusive shooter on rails, where stealth and tactics mattered less than twitch reflexes and luck. The focused gameplay of the second installment alienated fans of the first game, and rightly so. After all, the only thing the two games had in common was their name--the rest was completely different.
So I waited anxiously when I heard that Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter would mark a return to the careful gameplay of the first game, while also offering some of the arcade-feel that made the second game a little more frantic. This appealed to me, so I couldn't wait to get my hands on the game.
The story begins in 2013, when the Ghosts are tasked with protecting American, Canadian and Mexican diplomats while they hammer out the details on a joint-security treaty. As part of this treaty the Americans shipped over a great deal of American military hardware for the Mexican army to use. The Ghosts were sent along with this arms shipment as escorts and trainers, and that's where the gameplay begins. As the leaders of North America are signing a treaty to work together for their joint protection a rogue Mexican General is stealing the American weapons and leading a large portion of his army in an attempted coup d'etat.
The Cross-Com system is also added into the mix. Your Cross-Com is a small window in the upper-left corner of the screen that allows you to see camera feeds from your team and any vehicles at your command. This allows you to see what your team sees during a flanking maneuver, or to get a top-down view of the battlefield from a helicopter or drone. Your Cross-Com will also be the source of periodic updates from your commanders, and these updates are used to deliver story progression as well as updates to your mission profile.
The visuals are very, very shiny. The game excels at presenting realistic environments and physics, allowing for life-like destruction and carnage on the battlefield. When enemies are shot you can see a small puff of blood, and when bullets ricochet off buildings or cars you can see the debris they kick up. Add to this the realistic light blooms and shadow effects, and you have a game that's pretty enough to impress even the hardest heart.
The sound design is equally impressive. Weapons, especially the silenced weapons, have realistic sounds for firing and reloading. Bullets that hit gravel create a sound that's different from bullets that hit soil. In fact, the only sound-related complaint I had lies with the scream and angst-laden soundtrack the game uses between missions. Seriously, guys, I don't mind an orchestral score or some original electronica (a la Splinter Cell), but if I wanted to hear All American Rejects or Linkin Park I'd just turn on MTV.
So far so good, right? I wish I could say so. While this game excels in all of the technical categories, it falls far short of its mark in the Gameplay department. The AI in the game is pretty awful, both for your teammates and your enemies. Mexican soldiers will often respond to gunfire by charging your position or flopping down in the middle of the street to return fire, instead of seeking cover or working as a team to flank you. Similarly you'll find that your squad will often abandon the perfectly good cover you placed them behind, deciding instead to stand in the middle of the street to fire at the enemy. I got so frustrated with my squad that for the second half of the game I put them on follow, and didn't allow them to do anything stupid. This ensured that they'd stay alive and not do something stupid to get me killed.
The game also cheats with the computer controlled soldiers, giving them unlimited ammo for their weapons. There were times that I set my squad to suppress an enemy target for ten minutes straight, and they never run out of ammo. To provide some perspective, there were many missions that I had to finish with my pistol because I'd run out of ammo for my main weapon.
The process of choosing kits was also lackluster. In the original game, each class of soldier had five or six kits available to them, each allowing for a different choice of main weapon and sidearm, while all the kits included fragmentation grenades. Here, you only have four or five main weapons to choose from at any one time, and the mission profiles do little to tell you which weapon will be useful in a given area. So if you mistakenly choose the ZEUS MPAR anti-vehicle weapon in an area laiden with infantry you can rest assured you'll be spending a lot of quality time with your pistol.
My final complaint is that this series, just like the Rainbow Six series, just isn't real enough any more. In the original you might be lucky enough to survive being shot once (although more often than not one bullet would kill you), but if you did survive it became much harder to aim your rifle or to move quietly as shock began to set in. This time around, you can survive several shots on the normal difficulty level, and your teammates can survive anything provided that you apply first aid to them quickly enough.
In other words, all the things that made Ghost Recon a challenging, realistic military shooter have been stripped out, and what we're left with is a run of the mill shooter with about ten hours of single-player play-time in it. The game suffers in the second play because enemy locations are not random, so you can simply memorize enemy location and paths and use them to your advantage, taking all the difficulty out of most scenarios. The multiplayer portion of the game is fun, and allows you to play team based games, solo games or co-op games over xbox live, but the crowd is largely the same crowd that annoyed the crap out of you when you played Halo 2 online. While I found the multiplay to be more satisfying than the single-player component, I still would not give either a ringing endorsement.
There's a good game somewhere beneath the surface, I think, but unfortunately the developers were not given the time or the flexibility to find it. What we're left with is a series of improbable missions taking place in an improbable timeline with poor storytelling all around. The bottom line is this: if you enjoy shooters, you'll enjoy Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. You just won't get $60 worth of enjoyment out of it, and so I have to recommend that you rent this one.
Doc's Footnote/Addendum/Caveat Emptorly Bit: All indications are that the other console versions of this game are even more overwhelmingly craptacular than the shiny new 360 version, so buyer beware.