A fan of all the Recon games me, I wasn’t sure about the change from first person to third with GR2, or the apparent dumbing down and removal of most of the tactical elements that made it so darned good to many. This latest Recon has been showing us its gorgeous, at times photo-realistic visuals since E3 (May) last year, and was of course supposed to be a launch title. Much awaited and longed for, in my experience, seldom has a game walked in to such a mixed reception…
You really have to mention the way GRAW looks first – for me it is simply the most “next gen” title we’ve seen on the 360 so far, with detail and scale and lighting effects that show up many other 360 games for the PS2 generation games with added texture detail that they are. GRAW is quite an eyeful, in more ways than one (but more about that later), from the initial training level right to the final mission you have things that’ll impress you. The detail on the character models, their uniforms, equipment and vehicles is hugely impressive, the draw distance is absolutely massive – several missions involve you being dropped in by Black Hawk helicopter, literally the entire Mexico City cityscape (no idea how accurate it is though) lays before you as you hang out the side, and sometimes you’ll even get to blast away at the rebels way below with the chopper’s devastating minigun.
We’re lucky enough to have two 360s here at Gamecell and so couldn’t wait to jump in and try the specially designed co-op levels – disappointment #1 comes here – there are only 4! Yes, I said 4. That’s: “FOUR”. We finished those in an afternoon and really enjoyed them – I’m sure they’ll be more coming as downloads but 4 just isn’t enough for a game that (for me) lives and dies on its co-op support. Remember, both Ghost Recon 2 and Summit Strike allowed you to play through the entire campaign with a team of friends. Linked-up we also didn’t suffer any of the Xbox Live problems that I’ll come to later.
Firstly it’s obvious that someone at Ubisoft liked Full Spectrum Warrior - the way you (playing as Captain Scott Mitchell) order your team around is now remarkably similar, as is the way they realistically form behind cover or behave at a corner. The campaign mode is a fascinating test of good shooting (your weapons really seem to do a realistic amount of damage now, and leave bullet holes all over the place (still either no or not enough blood though), leadership and teamwork – oh, and patience and vigilance. I say “teamwork” but what I mean is having eyes in your arse, so you can keep an eye on the various clowns that you can select to be in your squad. I call them Larry, Curly & Mo (the Three Stooges), but the Keystone Cops and Laurel & Hardy might feel left out – that’s where the patience requirement comes in – big time.
You have a cross com/cam system that shows you exactly what your squad are up to (this works in the multiplayer modes too) with a neat little picture-in-picture display that switches between the squad members. There’s also your “tactical map” which you can order your team to any point on – trouble is their pathfinding ability is, at times, pathetic and they often won’t be able to get there, saying “on my way”, when they aren’t or “firing” when they clearly aren’t, or sometimes a more accurate “can’t do that sir!” for no good reason. On one memorable occasion L,C&M strayed into enemy fire (despite me ordering them to hang back in a safe place), two went down hit, I ordered the other one to heal one while I crawled over to heal the most distant one (rounds pinging all around me) and healed him – I ordered them even further back to cover and with some nice accurate cover shooting, took out the enemy snipers and machine gunners, only to have my ears then assaulted with “WE GOT ‘EM!”> – hilarious!
The squad also won’t crawl or crouch when they obviously should, they really have no sense of self-preservation – The Conflict games did the squad thing much better. The tactical map is the least tactical map I’ve ever seen; it contains less tactical information than this month’s Maxim. You also have a Cypher drone (a small hovering reconnaissance camera platform) that you can order anywhere on the map that will highlight enemies on your HUD for you – this may be the best thing about GRAW and works really well, it’s your best squad mate by far. Sometimes you’ll get to order armoured vehicles or chopper support too – these sections are a joy to play, although the armed vehicles can only be ordered backward and forward along a set path. You can also walk up most slopes (a problem in GR2) and can even hop over low obstructions – although this feature isn’t consistent; one mission I clambered on top of a railroad wagon, then later I couldn’t hop over a knee-high wall or crawl under a military truck with 2 feet of ground clearance – oh dear.
GRAW has a “cover mode” (like Perfect Dark Zero’s, only it works, sometimes) that allows you to stick to a wall and lean round a corner/peep over the top of an object to shoot from cover. Like I said, this works pretty well most of the time, but sometimes lets you down and all of a sudden you’ll find yourself out in the open when you thought you were stuck to the wall and safe. You won’t get too much help from your squad either, even when they’re supposedly following you, they’ll stray into the open, expose themselves to the enemy (though sadly, not literally) when you’re trying to be stealthy (whether you have them set to “recon” or not). These guys are neither ghostly or recon-ey, and why can’t you order them around individually? The squad’s failings mean that, amazingly enough, rather than feeling exposed and alone you’ll feel relieved and unencumbered when you go solo on the odd mission, like you’ve been nursing or babysitting all day and are finally going out on the town to enjoy yourself. The only occasion I was glad to have these guys with me was when one was carrying an anti-armour missile launcher and managed to take out an awkwardly placed jeep – amazingly without dying or shooting himself in the foot. These clowns will get you killed if you’re not careful, fortunately there doesn’t seem to be any penalty for losing them along the way – you can change them after every mission but it makes little difference.
Even though there are only a shameful 4 co-op missions (which are completely different to the solo campaign mode and rather lightweight in nature), multiplayer modes are well catered for with solo, co-op & team Elimination, Territory and Objective modes. Sadly, regardless of which mode we tried, we (and everyone else we played with) had sporadic connection issues and glitches – the weirdest two being a brief period where the game slowed down to about 10 frames per second for everyone in the game, and the other the rare but strange and wonderful glitch that causes you to teleport to where you were looking at through your rifle scope! (no, really). If Ubisoft are up to their usual standards these problems will be patched and lots of downloadable content added, but they still render what I’d hoped would be the 360’s shining online experience to be less enjoyable that its Xbox predecessor – and that ain’t right.
Graphics this good mean that any glitch stands out like a sore thumb – actually more like a bloody, amputated thumb on a birthday cake. Amazing-looking maps feature everything from financial districts with glass-fronted skyscrapers to tin hut shanty towns and everything in between. But clipping (things disappearing into objects they shouldn’t) is something I had hoped would be eradicated once and for all this generation, and it’s here in spades – try healing a downed comrade when his head has ‘clipped’ into a wall for instance. I also sometimes got weird glitches where Scott seemed to hover, frame rate drops and horizontal tearing (noticeably worse in HD). I should also probably report that every time I play GRAW’s campaign mode for more than a couple of hours at a time I get a painful neck and headache - it happens every time too (and no, I don't always drink vast amounts of beer first)... (or do I?). I put it down to the sheer amount of information that the HUD bombards you with, and the realism and intensity of the battles – they really do grab you. But to be honest I imagine in real combat I'd rip the cross com attachment from my helmet and hurl it at the enemy (especially in the rather daft missions in which the coms are being scrambled - why make a game this good looking and then mess the sound and picture up repeatedly?), as well as offering Larry, Curly & Mo (or whatever your squad are called) a transfer to the catering unit – I know you’re their Captain and should have some responsibility for your junior squad mates, but these dumbasses couldn't assault an old, blind donkey on their own with any realistic hope of taking casualties during the battle.
Whatever you hopes were for GRAW, it’s here, it works, looks amazing and plays well enough (most of the time). The back story means that Recon doesn’t really feel like Recon anymore, it’s lost its military feel and gone a bit too “Bruckheimer” or “24” for my liking. But it’s certainly more accessible than earlier Recons, and the previously brutal difficulty has been toned down meaning you don’t need to be a gaming god or a cheat to see the end of the campaign. Yes there are a few gameplay issues but there's just something so darned satisfying about sticking yourself to a wall, seeing that an enemy is round the corner, popping out and blasting a few rounds into him – when the cover mode works as it should. Or then there’s when you grenade a truck and it blows; a huge fireball scarring the nearby building, and you then notice a car on the opposite side of the road is rocking on its suspension and leaves are falling from the trees - you realize just how much work has gone in to GRAW. Unfortunately it just doesn’t seem to have been thoroughly tested, and just like a beautiful woman with a big hairy wart on her nose, the flaws really seem to stand out more.