Single player review - Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter (Xbox 360)

This review is based on the single player campaign only. A multiplayer review shall be posted by this or another Joystiq blogger at a later date.

In terms of visuals, Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter is the first game to show what the Xbox 360 is truly capable of. The best looking shooter on any console platform bar none, Warfighter is a signal that the next-generation of graphics is here. Unfortunately due to unnecessary "feature bloat", an unbalanced single player campaign and a truckload of bugs, Warfighter's gameplay does not deserve similar praise.

I've already said that this is the best looking shooter on any console and since it's practically impossible to adequately describe how good this game looks, my advice would be to go check out the trailers, screenshots and in-game videos and decide for yourself whether you agree with this assessment. Previously the main graphical issue with console based FPS games was jaggies, which are nowhere to be seen in this game if you play it on a high definition television. What you can't tell from the screenshots is how the game's visuals are not constant throughout. The night levels which lack as impressive lighting as the earlier levels look positively bland in comparison with the amazing vistas featured earlier on in the game. Turning on night vision doesn't help either, mainly because it sucks. With night vision on, everything is horribly blurred making it useless for picking off targets in the medium-high distance range. This wouldn't be the first time a shooter has featured a useless alternate vision mode, but we expect more from a Tom Clancy game.

Sounds are another aspect of Warfighter's aesthetic appeal. Subtleties like hearing your character trying to catch his breath after a long sprint and the thumping of bullets hitting the brick wall that you're cowering behind adds impact to the amazing visuals. However, if you've ever completed a first person shooter before, you'll know what Warfighter sounds like: guns go "BAAM!", soldiers go "damn that hurt!" and your teammates go "nice shot", 'nuff said.

The voice acting is above average (the general's voice sounds satisfyingly gruff, the President sounds Presidential and your own character's voice sounds like any other virtuous soldier) but there's a complete lack of lip syncing - even in the prerendered CGI sequences. The relationship between the voices and the in-game models when displayed on the "Cross-com" (which we'll get to later) is exactly the same as it was with Starcraft's character screen, a game which is nearly a decade old. Where did the next-generation go?

The plot-line and the game's difficulty is a mixed affair: the first time I played the campaign I didn't care much about the plot as I was more concerned with the amazing graphics (seriously, have you checked them out yet?). The second time round (this time on hard mode) it was easier to pay attention to the plot-line--which strictly follows the "megalomaniac attempts to take over Mexico" script. Coming back to the point of balance mentioned in the first paragraph, the game's difficulty isn't constant throughout the game. Some levels you'll be able to breeze through, whilst others you'll attempt dozens of times only to fail miserably every time. The checkpoints don't help either. If you get hurt early on in a level (of which there are generally three) checkpoints, you'll be left with low health levels for the rest of the level. Trying to get past some of the harder difficulty sections with low health is not fun.

On the whole, the enemy AI is convincing. Instead of it seeming like each soldier has a personal vendetta against your existence, enemy soldiers react accordingly to the situation at hand. If, for example, there's a massive Apache helicopter blasting away at his position, he won't pop out of cover to take a pot-shot at you. Like any other squad based shooter, the intelligence of your team is essential to the game's quality. In the case of Warfighter, the team's AI is hit and miss. They can be essential to distracting enemy fire or for taking out a tank, but that won't stop them for running in front of you (and into enemy fire) when you're rattling off a clip. In another case, a grenadier team mate blew up the entire team by firing a grenade launcher point-blank into a wall. Luckily these kind of events are rare and in the main your squad is a help more than a hindrance.

The controls, like any other console based FPS, have a relatively steep learning curve especially for players new to Ghost Recon's "think before you shoot" style of gameplay. Even now that I'm halfway through the campaign on hard mode I've found that there are still moments where the controls feel clumsy, particularly when you suddenly encounter an enemy at short range. The "peek around corners" function is one divergence from how FPS games usually handle cover. Instead of pressing a button to peek around a corner you just push the control stick in the direction of the wall and you "stick" to the surface, allowing you to peek at enemies easily. In practice the function can sometimes be annoying because it takes about half a second to stick and un-stick yourself from the wall--an eternity if an enemy soldier has just run around the corner.

Claimed innovations such as the "Cross-com" (a multi-function video screen which shows what your team and other things are doing) aren't altogether that innovative or even useful in practice. It's certainly cool to be able to see a live video feed--complete with stylized interference--from the UAV, but since enemies are pointed out on the tactical map by big red diamonds, the Cross-com isn't required to control your UAV. The same goes for controlling vehicles, helicopters and your team. The Cross-com falls very neatly into the gimmick category.

Then there's the glitches: I don't know what IGN's Douglass C. Perry was smoking when he wrote "by the way, there is no pop-up or pop-in of any kind to be seen". Although the pop-up is barely noticeable, it's certainly there. On several occasions after peeking round a corner I noticed the telltale white flash of un-rendered textures rapidly loading. Then there's the "I believe I can fly" prone glitch, Helicopters that fly through other choppers without exploding and even the occasional disappearing head. All those fancy technologies designed to immerse you in the game are irrelevant if your team-mate's head suddenly disappears. If you watch a DVD on a good digital projector with a decent sound system, it's possible to be completely immersed for the duration of the film. Why can't this be the case with GRAW, or for that matter, any game?

After playing the game for around 15 hours (the in-game statistics tell me that I've spent 6 hours on the single player campaign on normal difficulty and 4 hours on hard--plus around 5 hours playing co-op with my roommate) my interest in the game has severely waned since the first couple of hours playing the campaign on normal difficulty. I'll admit it: like a lot of other gamers one of the main reasons I purchased this game was for the pretty graphics, which GRAW delivers with flair. However it didn't take me long to realize that once you scratch away the pretty surface, the gameplay in GRAW is barely different from the original Ghost Recon. Showcases like the "over-the-shoulder" view which demonstrates the totally amazing-looking sunlight are really just distractions from the fact that GRAW's underlying single-player gameplay is practically identical to its 5 year old tactical shooter father.

"Garcon! I'm still waiting for next-generation gameplay to go with my next-generation graphics..."

Overall score for the single-player experience: 7.0

This article was originally published on Joystiq.