As a fan of the Ghost Recon franchise, I’ve been waiting impatiently for Advanced Warfighter to arrive ever since Ubisoft announced it would miss the Xbox 360 launch window. The wait is finally over, as the Ghosts storm Microsoft’s next-generation console. So the question arises: was it worth the wait? In a word, yes. Take a seat soldier, the briefing is about to begin.
Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter continues to follow the career of Captain Scott Mitchell and his elite Ghost team as they arrive in Mexico City. The Canadian prime minister and Mexican and American presidents have gathered to announce a new treaty: the North American Join Security Agreement. It signals a new era in North American cooperation, but a power-crazed Mexican general has other plans; a coup d’etat. The Canadian prime minister is killed and the U.S. president has disappeared. The Ghosts have 48 hours to rescue the U.S. president and eradicate the insurgency.
Ghost Recon fans will notice a number of changes in this latest instalment of the squad-based shooter franchise, starting with the user interface. The heads-up display (HUD) is noticeably busier, due in large part to the Cross-Com, a communications device that displays in real-time what your fellow troops are seeing. Text boxes above and below the Cross-Com also indicate which orders your allies are currently acting under (holding position, etc.). That’s on the left-hand side of the HUD. On the right-hand side is the NARCOM, a window that displays live video feeds from news stations, briefings from the Command Center, and on-field logistical support. The HUD features a thin blue outline similar to the visor outline in Rainbow Six: Lockdown, but whereas in Lockdown the visor would crack, in Advanced Warfighter the HUD suffers from noise when players are shot and injured or are in close vicinity to an explosion.
Using the Cross-Com, players become the hub of all connected U.S. devices, and that includes more than just your fellow Ghosts. In some missions you’ll have access to an unmanned drone, a mini-satellite that provides an overhead view of the battlefield and feeds intel on the number and location of enemy targets. In order to gain this tactical advantage, players indicate on the 3D tactical map where to move the drone then begin the detection process. It’s important not to allow the enemy to spot the drone otherwise the element of surprise is wasted. Players can also use the Cross-Com in tandem with the 3D tactical map to command support vehicles, such as tanks, Apaches and Black Hawks, at different points in the game. While this might seem like a daunting task, it’s as simple as pressing left/right on the D-pad to scroll through the available support forces, and up/down to issue orders.
Veteran Ghosts will also notice changes to the game controls, primarily in the ability to take cover. When players move up against an object, such as a wall, and hold the left analog stick, Mitchell will flatten his body and take cover. Players can then move along the wall, switch camera sides, peek around corners and shoot at enemies, all while remaining under cover. To exit cover, players can press the Y button or simply walk in the opposite direction. This process does take some getting used too and there are bound to be times where you’ll get stuck in cover mode accidentally when brushing up against various objects. You might be asking, “Why not just manually peek around corners like before?” The answer is simple: the developers have taken out the ability for soldiers to lean.
Taking cover isn’t the only new addition to the control scheme. When handling a weapon equipped with a scope, players will have to hold their breath to steady their aim and enable them to reach the remotest targets. This is where the breath meter comes into account. Players can’t hold their breath if the breath meter is low so it’s important to pick and choose your spots. Precise Aiming is another way to enhance your shooting accuracy. By pressing the left trigger, players enter the Precise Aiming mode. While the zoom won’t nearly be as effective as a scope, the Precise Aiming mode will increase your shooting precision, at the expense of slower movement.
Rounding out the new actions is the ability to do a baseball-like slide into a crouch position, or dive into a prone position. This action is ideal when moving from cover to cover in the heat of battle and is accomplished by clicking the left analog stick while running to slide into a crouch position, or by clicking and holding the left stick to dive into a prone position. Players will also surely notice that the old night vision goggles have been upgraded. The new E.N.V.G. goggles not only help detect enemies at night, but they also make it easier to spot enemies through the fog of war. You know what that means, smoke grenades finally make their appearance in a Ghost Recon title and believe me, you’ll be happy you have them as you progress through the challenging single-player campaign.
The AI in Advanced Warfighter is surprisingly effective. Unlike previous iterations in the series, where enemy soldiers generally charged relentlessly, here they prove to be a tough challenge, making use of cover no less. The same can be said about your fellow squadmates. They generally do a good job obeying the orders you issue them and only get disoriented in open areas when cover is minimal. The developers seem to have taken a page out of Full Spectrum Warrior in terms of commanding troops to flank enemy positions and the non-linearity of the single-player campaign helps in that regard. That’s not to say you won’t pull out a few hairs escorting a clueless NCP through Mexico City, or issuing an order to an Apache pilot to fire at a target, only to watch it hover aimlessly despite acknowledging your command. These things happen, but for the most part the AI is strong.
Perhaps the strongest element of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter is the presentation. Mexico City is brilliantly realized from the grand monuments to the quaint little shops. Vehicles look considerably better and not just the tanks, helicopters and transport trucks, but also the cars on the side of the road. You can even shoot out their windows and use them for cover. In the first level, I shot up the cab portion of a truck and the alarm went off, honking every few seconds. One of the front tires even fell off and began to roll down the road as I continued to shoot it. A lot of the environment is interactive like that; glass shatters, concrete walls show the wear and tear of bullets, and vehicles explode in a glorious display. The MVP of the visuals is without a doubt the lighting, which is enhanced depending on the time of day. The campaign begins during the day and when the third or fourth mission rolls around, the sky takes on this incredible orange hue. On top of that, the missions flow seamlessly as players are extracted by helicopter, briefed while on board and then inserted back into Mexico City for the next mission, all within a matter of seconds. The audio is just as spectacular as the visuals. Each weapon is distinct and realistic sounding and the explosions don’t just look great, they sound great too. The voice acting is strong and there’s even some music that cranks up during the missions and helicopter briefings, though the licensed rock tunes seem more befitting of a game based on the Vietnam War.
The biggest disappointment in Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter is easily the graphics of the multiplayer component; it’s simply not of the same calibre as those found in the singleplayer portion of the game. In fact, if somebody bought Advanced Warfighter and the first thing they did was jump online for some co-op or competitive action, they might think they accidentally inserted their old copy of Ghost Recon 2; the visual difference is that noticeable. I’d be inclined to refer to the multiplayer as Ghost Recon 2.5 because it appears to be running on a modified version of the Ghost Recon 2 multiplayer engine. It also explains why you can’t play the singleplayer campaign online, instead you have to settle for a 4-mission co-op exclusive campaign that takes place in Nicaragua.
With that said, the multiplayer component is as robust as ever, offering not only the aforementioned co-op campaign, but numerous co-op and competitive game modes, such as Territory, Elimination, Hamburger Hill, Sharpshooter, Siege; the list goes on. On top of that, you can create a custom game in Solo, Team or Co-op, which allows you to build a rule set from the ground up, including whether or not to allow drones, a key new strategic tool on the competitive battlefield. The customization doesn’t end there. Before you jump online, you can customize your own character and choose a class: rifleman, grenadier, marksman or automatic rifleman. Each class has specific advantages relating to weapon use, reload time and accuracy. There’s also a new TrueSkill ranking system that rates players on a scale of 1-25 based on how well they play in ranked matches. The only downside to the ranking system is that the matchmaking system is slightly flawed.
Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter is easily the most complete Xbox 360 title to date, offering an intense and challenging singleplayer campaign and a robust multiplayer component that is sure to keep soldiers on the virtual field of battle for months to come. Although the multiplayer graphics are disappointing, from a technical standpoint the rest of the game is truly next-generation. I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t run out and enlist in Advanced Warfighter, whether you’re a fan of the Ghost Recon series or not.