It’s been less than a year since Xbox 360 owners collectively gaped at the first true display of their new console’s powers. Having been delayed from originally being a launch title in order to better fulfill sky high expectations, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter received great acclaim upon its release. Is its sequel, released barely a year after the original, a display of Ubisoft simply cashing in on its success, or is it really possible to create a great game in such a short timespan?
As stated above, GRAW1 was delayed because the developers were far from happy with the game’s state during the Xbox 360 launch period, and thus delayed it some four months for further quality assurance. Still, after the game was launched they were quick to say that the game wasn’t all they intended it to be, and that they would love to have another go at realizing everything they had wanted to do originally. So the big questions are now whether Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 succeeds in surpassing its predecessor’s achievements, or whether it’s merely an overpriced expansion pack for a game that was revolutionary in its time, but got far surpassed by now by Gears of War and excellent Tom Clancy sister title Rainbow Six Vegas.
Continuing directly after the first game’s events, there’s no chance for captain Scott Mitchell to get any rest and relaxation after three strenuous days in Mexico. On returning to his base it becomes evident that Carlos Ontiveros’ defeat was not yet the end of the Mexican rebel uprising. Being a superhuman US soldier, Mitchell is sent out again, undeterred by 3 days total lack of sleep, and travels into the border area to find out what’s going on with a bunch of missing nukes and missiles. Given that there is no official defense pact, the US cannot publicly enter the conflict, hence the Ghosts do what they’re best at, fighting with minimal support behind enemy lines.
It’s still 2014 though, and while Warfighting was already quite Advanced in the first game, the extra four days of technological research have brought some incredible new technology to Scott and his team. Satellite uplinks still allow you to communicate intel directly with headquarters, and spotted enemies are still marked with red diamonds on your display. New is that the CrossCom 2.0 is no longer restricted to just projecting small overviews in the top left of your view: it now allows you to take your support’s camera feed full screen, and give orders directly from their point of view. The consequences are immense, as being able to precisely guide your fellow ghosts directly to places of which you yourself have no direct sight increases the tactical options available to you greatly. And besides controlling the other ghosts, you can now directly guide scanner drones, tanks, Apaches and support helicopters using the same interface. While it was satisfying before to be able to pinpoint a target for a tank to shoot down, hiding out yourself while you guide the Apache to clean up some tanks before you and the infantry storm in to mop up the remainders is a massive improvement to the game.
The improvement wouldn’t be so big if support was still a sporadic affair. Not so in GRAW2, where the missions at first see you using extensive support from the Mexican loyalists, and later on public support from the US Army, up to and including full grade air strikes to bomb rebel encampments, and medic team mates to heal you and your men up after vicious fights. Tactics have become even more important, and the lone wolf tactic of just doing it all yourself is, while still possible, really no longer a realistic choice given the ease with which your support can clean it all up for you. A tad too much ease perhaps? Yes, definitely, I must say with much regret. The first GRAW had two difficulty modes, normal and hard, and its hard mode was definitely really hard. The sequel seemingly improves by offering three difficulties, but fails to offer true balance in this area: on normal mode the game was a breeze, and I finished the hard mode directly after that with 2 or 3 deaths in total. Most notably the gunrides, notoriously difficult before, have become far and far too easy in this sequel, with the gun overheating less quickly and far longer pauses between attack waves. While watching the statistics for the hard campaign, I noticed I didn’t get hit a single time while playing the hard mode.
Adding on the shame of the lack of resistance offered by the game comes that it doesn’t keep you busy all that long in single player. After already having completed medium difficulty, the hard mode kept me busy for approximately eight hours, and then it was all over again. Especially given the addition of an extra difficulty level, it’s a shame that the difficulty was toned down to a level where the game simply cannot challenge a hardcore tactical shooter fan enough anymore, and I didn’t even have to use the all-new medic for any mission. It would go too far to say that the campaign itself suffers greatly from the lack of challenge and duration though: the story has become far more intense, with more to shoot and get shot by, and in general far more action than the previous installment. It may only be eight hours, but those are filled to the brim with action and full scale military action involving multiple infantry and other support units.
Another couple highly notable improvements are in the graphics and sound departments. GRAW stunned us, but mostly because it was the first true display of the 360’s capabilities, and GRAW2 takes the game engine a couple notches further. Especially the explosions and weather effects are stunning at times, and the sights of burning Juarez from the sky and the gunride in a wild tropical storm surpass the standards set by Gears of War. Equally impressive are the blasts filling your room as explosions surround you, and your team is no longer restricted to simple repetitive sentences: all team members speak, and give intelligent comments about for example the number of enemies spotted. Epic music is masterfully used to enhance the atmosphere further during the most intense sections of the game.
The multiplayer department is regrettably not up to the same levels. As with its predecessor, GRAW2 tones down the graphic engine quite a bit while in multiplayer, sacrificing the majestic explosions and many of the effects vital to the campaign atmosphere. While the excuse is understandable, being that it succeeds in maintaining a stable high framerate even in heavy group fights, it’s a true shame that the multiplayer section of the game definitely fails to deliver what a true sequel should do. Much like the Chapter 2 DLC, we are given a pleasurable amount of new multiplayer content, spanning 6 massively cooperative missions parallel to the main campaign, and a large number of varied maps to rumble on with a huge number of game modes. While it certainly delivers content-wise, the failure to really improve on GRAW1 with better graphics and more detailed maps makes the multiplayer section more of an expansion than a worthy standalone full-price game. Even the much-criticized limitation of the first game that you cannot use cover in MP was not amended, and you are still limited to awkwardly leaning over to glance around corners. Still, it’s undeniably still fast and furious, and it’s just as good as ever before: it just missed some great chances to improve.
The lack of changes in the multiplayer section highlights that the game is essentially just an evolution of the first game, not an entirely new game. It is, to answer the original questions, a deluxe expansion set, with a ton of new content and a game engine that’s received a few more months of tweaking. Emphasizing its status as expansion set is the menu system, which is essentially identical to its predecessor, up to the same dramatic music. A minor improvement here is the support for clans and online clan matches, but while many multiplayer fanatics may rejoice at this feature, it proved unstable throughout: it locked up my box twice while connecting to the clanserver, and failed 9 out of 10 clan invites I tried to send when I eventually managed to get a clan up and running. Thankfully the achievements are much better than before, being evenly spread throughout all game modes, rewarding you for trying different playing styles as well as eliminating bullshit leaderboard achievements.
While a large part of this review was undeniably and unavoidably spent comparing the game to its predecessor, the game is released as a standalone package and thus has to be judged that way. The intensity of the single player campaign coupled with its at times incredible presentation makes it a must-have for any tactical shooter fan, despite its relatively short duration. The multiplayer is good by any standard, and will keep you entertained for weeks if you’re more into the tactical kind of Xbox Live gameplay. But yes, apart from all the good things it’s a shameless cash-in, that falls short of becoming a classic in its own right, and simply gives us more of what we loved last year, without truly innovating or leaving the treaded path.
Final Score: 8 out of 10 - Good (how do we rank games?)