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Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter

My initial impressions of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter (GRAW), admittedly based on only a single hourís play, was one of disappointment. From the briefest of introductory practice missions to the squint-inducing lens flare effects that blocked out some of the on-screen text, it seemed under-whelming. There were too many instructions and uses for each button -- the game seemed more suited to a keyboard and mouse configuration Ė and combat was more than a touch haphazard. Somewhat frustrated I put down the controller and turned off the game.

A few hours later I returned to the game, paid a little more attention to the practice missions and took my time. Thus ends the first lesson of the latest game in the hugely popular Tom Clancy series, patience. PC enthusiasts often scoff at the consolesí more action orientated, pick-up-and-play software with something approaching scorn. Until GRAW I hadnít really thought much of it. However now I can understand their position. I approached GRAW with the run-and-gun mentality commonly associated with console gamers, which I unashamedly am, and got killed quite easily. In doing so I learned that the current trend of more tactical, squad-based shooters drifting onto consoles such as Full Spectrum Warrior, Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, SOCOM, Rainbow Six etc seem to be a reaction to the headless chicken, bullet frenzies previously on offer. As my first real experience with this style of game, it was immensely satisfying to probe the strategy elements of the game and work through levels at a slower, dare I say, more realistic pace.

After three further hours play at my second visit, I was hooked. The graphics are gorgeous, breathtakingly so in some sections of the game, and although the aforementioned lens flare does irritate occasionally it passes from notice as the missions heat up. The game is based solely in Mexico City, a classic combination of urban sprawl and urban decay with environments ranging from shanty towns to business districts, and even palatial town houses. Unfortunately as great as the environments look, there is a sameness about them that sometimes makes it dreary on the eye. In addition there are no non-combatants in the game, the only people that inhabit the environments are you and the enemy Ė essentially making Mexico City, the largest populated city in the world, a veritable ghost town. Although this is only a minor annoyance there are some non-combat sections where a little vitality wouldnít have gone amiss, for no other reason than to make the game more convincing. Where the game does convince though, is during combat.

To direct a squad, in addition to controlling and moving your own character is no small feat based on the limitations of a console controller, but despite my early misgivings GRAW manages to do so fairly well. To begin with I had to really think about moving my squad, as I often found myself moving well in advance of them. Combining your own movements and actions with those of the squad takes a little getting used to if you are as unfamiliar with this type of game as I. However the commands with which you can control your three teammates are simplistic, direct them to a spot and theyíll move there. Order them to shoot at a target and they do so with a fair degree of accuracy. Other than that there really isnít a whole lot you need them to do, you canít for example order only one soldier to go to a location or send soldiers to multiple locations, they move as one or not at all. Although the missions compensate by not being too difficult, there is a lack of flexibility in exploring approaches to each mission. In addition to your fellow ghosts, at certain points in some missions you can command back-up fire support such as Abram tanks, armoured vehicles, UAV (spy plane device) and Blackhawk helicopters. Although it makes the game easier, there are sections where it is essential and the ability to call on support adds to the overall feeling of being involved with a larger, overall plan. Aside from the missions on-foot there are a few sections where you take control of the gun position on the Blackhawk, flying over enemy positions raining down mini-gun goodness. These breaks from the main action are fun and quite challenging, creating a cinematic feel to the game as you transition seamlessly between ground missions through a Blackhawk section.    

The game isnít without itís faults, particularly in the survival department. A small health icon, like a heart monitor, is situated next to each of your teammatesí names on the left-hand side of the screen, as well as one next to your own at the bottom left of the screen. These pass through three stages; green, yellow and red before death occurs. The icon can change rapidly through the three stages if youíre caught in a firefight or you can die immediately from a sniperís bullet, so there is some attention paid to realism. If your teammates take a bullet too many the health icon will flash like a heart monitor where the patient has gone into arrest. Only you can revive them, disappointingly though you can seemingly revive them indefinitely as long as you get there before the monitor flat-lines. This is not true of your own character, however, take a bullet whilst in the red and itís game over. Although I understand the tactical element and difficult decisions involved with reviving/not reviving a teammate during a firefight, it seems too easy to simply be allowed to send your team in guns blazing then revive them once the enemy is dead. Of course you wonít want to do that, and obviously during the solo missions it is impossible, but it is an option and a get-out-of-jail-free card on some of the harder missions.

Not that this spoils the game too much - for people like myself just getting used to games in this genre it walks the line between overly simple and too complex fairly well. The major negative is when it comes to controlling the few non-combatants the game has. Rescue missions are a significant part of the storyline and as a result you deal with several characters that need protecting or saving. However without the ability to order them to a location and make them stay there, it becomes very awkward because the non-combatants follow your character. Often they will move in advance of you, or get in your way while shooting, even take a bullet having wandered away from you. This makes each of these missions a bit of a chore because you constantly have to keep checking where the non-combatant/s are during the combat sections of the missions. Thankfully these missions are relatively short and spread out evenly across the duration of the game.

Talking of which, the longevity of GRAW is impressive for a game of this type. After youíve completed the campaign you can play missions at random from the whole game, there is a co-operative mode for up to four players off-line and up to 16 online, there are several multiplayer options including online play, plus a few extras for completing the game. As always Xbox Live is well supported and although Iíve only dabbled a little in the online modes they really are enjoyable and challenging, itís more gratifying to beat a human opponent than the computer AI. 

Overall Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter is the best Xbox 360 game to date. It combines fantastic visuals with some innovative next-gen techniques and engaging gameplay. Itís few faults are easy to ignore and the promise of what future Ghost Recon games could be is exciting. A must-have purchase.

Gameplay: Solid mechanics with some nice variety and great combat sections, also quite addictive. On the downside it is a bit repetitive and occasionally tedious.

Graphics: Stunning environments and detailed models make this one of the best looking 360 games to date. Let down slightly by the unpopulated levels and irritating lens flare effects.

Sound: Satisfying weapon noises and associated combat sounds, voice acting is passable although the environments are a bit quiet.

Multiplayer: Strong co-op mode with some fun and challenging multiplayer games gives life to the game long after the solo campaign is complete. 

Lifespan: The solo campaign can be easily completed in 10-15 hours play, but the options to play any completed mission, as well as on and offline co-op and multiplayer games, means thereís plenty of petrol in this tank. 

Final Score: 8.5/10

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