When a two-year-old last-generation game and a downloadable arcade shoot-em-up are widely considered the most fun to be had online via an Xbox 360, there's an obvious gap waiting to be filled. Ubisoft hope to capitalise with the latest incarnation of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon, dubbed Advanced Warfighter, or GRAW as it's known by those familiar with the game.
We sat down with North Carolina developers Red Storm, who have a separate team working exclusively on the multiplayer aspect of the game, for an impressive hands-on preview across ten 360s, each blessed with a HDTV. And sweet it was too.
GRAW looks every part a next-generation game. Graphically it's stunning. The HUD is all futuristic urban Ghost, providing a view of the battlefield Ubisoft believe will become reality in 2013. Colour coded outlines on enemies and team-mates, and windows popping up all over the place with real-time information only adds to the futuristic Universal Soldier style. But after a couple of hours with the game, you see through the next-generation bells and whistles, and what remains of GRAW is a tense, solid team-based shooter.
Each of the ten maps, all based on actual areas outside Mexico City, support 16 players at once. Variety is the order of the day - expect environments spanning rural, desert, beach, urban, junkyard and ship deck areas. Oh yeah, there's a temple map as well.
Fans of the series will be thankful that Ghost Recon's trademark tactical squad-based shooting still forms the nuts and bolts of the game. It would have been easy to simply tick the online play feature box by providing elimination and territory modes and allowing mass carnage to ensue, but Red Storm has concentrated on making the online experience a tense, tactical battle of wills. And it benefits as a result.
'The first thing that strikes you while waiting in the lobby is the sheer magnitude of options available.'
The first thing that strikes you while waiting in the lobby is the sheer magnitude of options available. There are over 1,300 possible custom game modes. Eat that Halo 2. All the standard modes are included, from solo elimination to team territory battles and objective-based missions; Ghost Recon fan favourite siege makes a welcome return too. But why stick to the pre-sets when there's so much scope for customisation? One of the best is the facility to adjust the number of respawns a player has. Previously, only two options - none or infinite - were available. Now the game host can set it to whatever he or she wants.
Before you get to any of that jazz, players need to get their hands dirty and create their Ghost. The main consideration is class. Choose between rifleman, grenadier, automatic rifleman and marksman. They follow standard videogame conventions - riflemen are all-rounders, marksmen are excellent snipers. Skills in these areas come in the form of attribute bonuses, but your class doesn't restrict your weapon selection. So if you fancy yourself a keen eye from a hundred paces, that doesn't mean you can't get up close for some shotgun shenanigans; your Ghost just won't be tailored for it.
Online play in any game is part skill, part looking cool. Looking good while taking a rocket up the ass dulls the blow somewhat. In GRAW, you could potentially spend a few days customising the look of your character. From headgear to facial camouflage, anything goes, although Red Storm was at pains to stress that all the gear is authentic stuff. Also available is the opportunity to aesthetically code team members, for added cool factor, or for mass camouflage.
The mass of options might suggest that random games might prove unplayable. Red Storm told us that hardcore Ghost Recon fans can learn maps effectively enough to cope with any custom options that are set by the game host. Like some players in World of Warcraft who remove all their armour and weapons, class modifications can be turned off to force everyone to battle it out on a level playing field.
The pre-game lobby allows only the game host to change options. However, all players see the same menu as the host, to make it easy for everyone to learn how to host a game. The first game we played was a complete free-for-all, just to get the juices flowing - Siege on Hamburger Hill, which is a grassy area with a base in the middle. Unlimited respawns = ten Rambos running around like headless chickens. Savage.
One of GRAW's unique selling points is the Cross-Com, a small window that appears in the top left of the HUD. It provides a birds-eye view of the map based on the sight of a drone that can be ordered to scout the enemy, revealing their positions as diamonds. It can also be used to see through the eyes of your team-mates and to flag up enemy positions and weak spots. The Cross-Com proved to be a key part of strategic play, but at this stage we were more concerned with some murder/death/killing.
As soon as you spawn you pick from an armoury including shotguns, automatics and distance weapons. The trick here is to adapt to what is going on in the map and pick the weapon that is most needed at the time, whilst considering your attribute bonuses. So, for example, if you are a rifleman, and your base is under siege, pick a close combat weapon and get stuck in.