Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 arrives on the PC slightly more than a year after its well-received, if problematic, prequel. It also arrives a good few months after GRAW2 debuted on the Xbox 360. Ubisoft have gone to great pains to point out that the PC version has been built from the ground up for the PC, rather than being a direct port, while putting more emphasis on sneaky tactics than the action-oriented Xbox 360 version. So, was it worth the effort?
You are once again cast as Scott Mitchell, who appears to be the answer to all the Pentagon's problems. There's trouble in Mexico, and those uppity rebels are in need of a good spanking. You, whether you like it or not, are the man for the job. The single-player campaign unfolds in the familiar, mission-based format where you start by getting a video briefing consisting of news reports and communications from your superiors, featuring what appears to be real life news footage. Your commanders are represented by CGI characters that don't look a million miles from the puppets used in Team America: World Police. The serious atmosphere that the game aims to create is undermined slightly by this, but it's not exactly a problem - more like an amusing distraction amongst the all gung-ho posturing that preceeds a mission. Once you choose an insertion point and skip through the text-based rundown of the mission, you can click through to the team and weapons selection. It's generally advisable to go with the default selections here - if the game slips an anti-tank rocket launcher into your backpack, you can bet you're going to need it. You can, however, completely re-equip your team if you so choose.
There's a very good tutorial on offer to ease you into the game. It introduces you to the basics of weapons use and team control and is actually very useful to pop back to every now and again when you want to get acquainted with a particular weapon. There are a couple of firing ranges you can use, and it's a good way to work out the differences between the myriad of toys at your disposal.
On entering a mission, the most immediate impression is that everything looks splendid and runs surprisingly well. It seems as if a combination of a year's development in PC hardware along with an optimised graphics engine has largely dealt with the resource hogging problems that plagued the original GRAW. You'll still need quite a beast if you want every single bell and whistle turned up to eleven, but we had it looking good and purring like a happy cat on a mid-range system (P4 3.4, 1GB RAM, 7600GS AGP video card with 250MB). There are some neat atmospheric effects, such as heat and dust haze that really add to the you-are-there feeling of the game. Add in some very convincing explosions, fireballs and bullet impacts, and GRAW2 will have you ducking under your desk when the bullets start flying. If you're one of the three people who own an Ageia PhysX card, the game will take full advantage of it. We weren't able to test the game with a PhysX card, but imagine it will happily chuck rubble and shrapnel about all day without breaking a sweat.
The sound is all top-notch. The weapons make a good variety of noises, everything from muffled silencer rounds and barking machinegun fire to the joyfully loud whumps of grenade and rocket launchers. The music is appropriately subtle, and only makes itself known during cutscenes.
Each mission charges you with making your way through a large map, completing various objectives and then typically getting the heck out of there as quickly as possible, while all the time trying not to get yourself or your AI companions shot. Generally, getting hit by anything is bad news, but it's not strictly a one-shot-and-you're-dead deal - depending, of course, on what you get hit by. Sniper rounds are not your friend! Generally speaking, approaching the game like a standard FPS will soon see you laying face down in your own pixellated blood. Stealth is the key word here. It's all about ducking from cover to cover, keeping your head down and picking off the bad guys before they draw a bead on you. It's compelling, gripping stuff. Some missions require you to go a bit more balls-out than others and you'll find yourself in more than a few pitched battles, but most of your time will be spent on tip-toes.
Accompanying you on each mission are a varying number of AI controlled team mates. Orders are issued to them with a wonderfully intuitive and simple system. Clicking your mousewheel brings up a list of orders - move, attack, stop, covering fire and so on - which you can then issue to all the team or just one member. If you want to get more elaborate, there's a tactical map that will let you string together a number of orders and have them executed on your command.
Well, sort of executed. The AI powering your squad can get a bit confused at times - your highly-trained buddies have a tendency to get stuck in corners, or take the most lethally dangerous route to a waypoint. You can nursemaid them along or issue step by step commands on the tactical map, but it both saps the realism of the game and stretches the patience of the player to have to constantly tell them to keep their frickin' heads down if someone's shooting at them. And goodness me, don't they like a chat! Their constant whispers of "talk to me, sir" bring to mind a needy teenage girl with a new boyfriend, rather than a steely-eyed killing machine. "Do you like Grey's Anatomy, Sir? Sir, what are you thinking, sir? Should I wear my hair short or long?" Shutup already!
Facing down you and your overly anxious squad is an enemy AI that can seem either oblivious to the fact that three of its closest friends have just been shot dead two feet away, or is so hyped up that it can pick you off from vast distances, through smoke, dust and fire. There's no doubt it provides a challenge - you won't be strolling through any of the missions - but again it puts a dent in the game's carefully created atmosphere to see the fearsome Mexican rebels lining up like so many tin ducks at a shooting range, or performing with superhuman, pinpoint accuracy.
Even though these AI problems can be jarring, GRAW2 is such a fundamentally solid and enjoyable game that you'll learn to work with the hiccups in the friendly AI and excuse the enemy AI's quirks as the result of too much sunshine and tequila. Oddly enough, turning up the difficulty level to either Hard or Hardcore seems to increase the competence of both AIs. There are still moments of blundering stupidity, but your squad suddenly seems to realise that This Is Serious and responds accordingly. It's almost worth ignoring the Normal level of difficulty, no matter how timid you are when it comes to these kind of games.
While GRAW2 is a difficult game, it's not unfairly difficult. Once you get in the swing of things and find the limitations of your squad's ability to keep themselves alive, you'll find most catastrophes are the result of your own impatience or poor planning, and that's exactly as it should be. Your squad can actually be a great help as long as you don't get too ambitious. Keep your head down, check every angle, scan for snipers, take your time and you'll get through. GRAW2 can be mildly intimidating on first contact, with all its rock hard stylings and military bluster, but quickly proves to be tremendously good fun. The fun factor is aided enormously by your ability to save anywhere, as long as you're not too close to the enemy. This means you can take on a mission in small bites, and a mistake won't see you losing an hour or more of progress. It also frees you up to experiment a little more on the battlefield, and try out new and different tactics. And what the heck, sometimes it's just good to get out a grenade launcher and see what happens.
GRAW2 offers a wealth of multiplayer options. There are the standard deathmatch varieties, in which you can fight alone or with a team (Rebels vs Ghosts), but the real attraction here are the co-op modes. You can opt to play through the entire single-player campaign with friends taking the place of the bumbling AI squad members. For a shorter co-op experience, hop into one of three co-op maps and go for it. While introducing real people into a game can bring its own problems, if you can wrangle enough like-minded gamers together with a few headsets (there's no in-game voice communication, so you'll have to use Teamspeak or similar), you've got some truly splendid co-op gaming ahead of you.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that GRAW2 doesn't require the DVD to stay in your drive after installation. It's a small but significant move by Ubisoft, and anything that can avoid the pitfalls of dodgy copy protection schemes is very welcome. Finally, the in-game patching system worked flawlessly and effortlessly for us. Again, it might not seem that exciting, but it really does seem as if the developers have made an effort to smooth out the usual PC gaming speedbumps, and for that they should be commended.
Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 is a great game with a few unsightly AI issues stuck to it like barnacles. While it can feel like you're taking a group of heavily armed pre-schoolers on a field trip to a hot zone, GRAW2's gameplay is strong and engaging enough that these issues can be worked around or lived with. If you have enough interested friends, the co-op options alone could make it a worthwhile purchase. GRAW2 offers enough depth and tactical sneakiness to see it outlive most run-and-gun fragfests, while remaining accessible and fun.