The original Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter took the Xbox 360 by storm. After suffering through too many months with too many underwhelming launch titles, the Tom Clancy-inspired tactical shooter knocked us back with the force of a nuclear air strike. Everything about the game - the ultra realistic graphics, the hyper intelligent squad tactics, the futuristic military hardware and the expansive multiplayer modes - screamed "next-gen." A new standard had been set and there was no going back.
Now it's less than a year later and we already have a sequel. With such a short development window, can the GRAW franchise possibly revolutionize the genre and the console again? No... not exactly. But while GRAW 2 does not break any fresh ground, it provides so many satisfying improvements that the experience is actually more engaging and exciting than the first one. This is an absolutely fantastic follow-up.
To begin with, the story is better. Picking up mere hours after the last left off, Captain Mitchell is called back into action to prevent yet another group of extremist Latin American rebels from securing yet another set of stolen nuclear devices. While the premise may not have changed much - or at all - the way it unfolds has. CNN-worthy news footage pipes directly into your HUD, providing a scarily realistic look at the global conflict surrounding you, while Disneyland-worthy jeep or helicopter rides introduce and immerse you into each setting seamlessly. Events aren't as patriotically straightforward as before, either. You may be asked to destroy damning evidence against the US government or wage battle in fragile, economically depressed towns. The plot is no longer just black and white, but tinged with the slightest shades of grey.
The missions themselves are more diverse and memorable as well. One will find you creeping through a candle-lit urban cemetery, using night vision and camera guns to silently snipe around tombstones, while the very next will be an explosive, adrenaline-fueled race through the desert with no team and no technology to help you reach the extraction point. Depth and volume have been added to the maps, with formerly flat city blocks expanded to include accessible rooftops or tunnels and formerly drab canyons complicated with caves or bridges. Each new geographic wrinkle offers a possible new approach for successfully tackling the level.
And encouraging you to attempt all those different strategies are the improved GRAW tools and gadgets. Beyond the addition of the sturdy MULE, a kind of armored storage locker-on-wheels at which you can reload, switch weapons or even duck for cover, that improvement can best be summarized with two words: full screen. Both the picture-in-picture Cross Com, which displays your teammates' perspective, and the hovering UAV drone, which displays a top down perspective, can now be watched and controlled in full screen view.
The tweak sounds superficial, but in reality, broadens the scope of the gameplay quite a bit. In the first GRAW, scoping out the battlefield with the UAV or your squad, red "intel" diamond by red "intel" diamond, could take more time and guesswork than it was worth. When you can see exactly what they see, however, pre-planning an attack becomes a breeze... almost as enjoyable as the actual combat itself. You can potentially locate every enemy on the map and then position your men to wipe out all of them without moving your character an inch from the starting point. If the whole goal of tactical shooters is to stimulate your brain as well as your trigger finger, GRAW 2 has made another big stride in that direction with this seemingly small modification.
Similarly, GRAW 2's multiplayer doesn't boast any major changes, but the multitude of minor ones enhance the experience more than you would expect. The maps are completely unique from the single player campaign, but just as diverse; the airplane crash site, centuries-old fortress and flooded village are particular standouts. The full screen Cross Com and UAV can be used to strategize or coordinate during team play. The dynamic respawn system uses a battle condition formula to cut down on frustrating repeat deaths and place you in a different spot each time. The co-op missions are integrated into the main storyline through additional video. And hey, they even added female avatars.
So the story, missions, strategy, multiplayer... all better. You need only check out the available screens and video to tell that the graphics and sound are also loads sharper. Heck, even the difficulty is improved, with a new easy setting for intimidated beginners and a hard setting that's as cruel and punishing as veterans could hope for.
In fact, the only thing not enhanced for GRAW 2 is our review score. Despite its excellent quality, the game is being released onto a different next-gen landscape, one where Gears of War and Rainbow Six Vegas have also left their marks. GRAW 2 doesn't blow its competition out of the water like its predecessor did, but it easily matches them. Not bad for a "rushed" sequel.