It was no surprise that the venue for testing the multiplayer elements of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 was hidden away deep within 900 acres of barren farmland. The dusty warehouse was packed with dozens of tanks, missiles and other intimidating weaponry that wouldn't have looked out of place in the back garden of an eccentric dictator.
Alongside the impressive collection of military muscle were a number of Humvees and Armoured Personnel Carriers, each neatly packed with enough 360s and HD screens to start an online war, which was exactly what we had turned up for.
The olive green surroundings may have suited the game perfectly, but GRAW 2 could certainly show off its merits without them. With Pro-G having already tucked into some single-player missions, the focus was on the multiplayer frag-fests that were hugely popular in the first GRAW.
Allowing up to 16 players divided into two teams to compete on Xbox Live, the emphasis is very much on squad-based combat, just as it was last time around. This means that you will certainly want a headset, or your fellow players in earshot, as you are doomed to fail unless you coordinate your efforts. Once you do get your team working as a unit, the intense and often challenging multiplayer clashes become very exciting indeed, and GRAW 2 appears to have plenty to offer a 360 community already heaving with decent shooters.
'GRAW 2 offers a thrilling multiplayer experience and Ubisoft must be hoping that it might even give the mighty Gears of War a run for its money on Xbox Live.'
There is enough new on offer here, with 18 additional weapons, 6 original co-op missions, a ton of maps and a host of customisable multiplayer modes, but this is a refinement of GRAW rather than a complete reworking. That is not to say there is no reason for owners of the original to buy this sequel, as almost every part of the game has been tweaked and improved, and plenty of fresh content is available.
The visual style of the game is fantastic and, like its predecessor, is one of the best looking titles among its competitors on the next-gen consoles. In HD it glistens with remarkable detail. Every wall and floor tile of the predominantly South American setting is incredible to behold, and lingering smoke and huge explosions are enough to tempt you to finally splash out on that high-definition TV you haven't yet managed to justify. Although still a separate to the single-player game, the visuals this time around are far closer to those you'll see while playing alone, which is a good achievement for a game that's had such a short development cycle.
Putting aside such shallow graphical concerns, the gameplay of this sequel has been greatly improved. The Drone of the first game returns with a subtle change that is greater than the sum of its parts. This hovering remote robot can be placed anywhere above the map and used as an eye-in-the-sky. If used correctly this will give you a huge tactical advantage, with glowing markers being placed over the heads of other soldiers that the Drone spots, while also signposting them on your HUD. New this time is a full-screen version of the Drone's perspective, which is far more useful than the original mini-window that still appears in the corner of the screen.
The Drone is now joined by the manually operated Mule, a nimble mobile artillery unit that can be used to distract and attack enemy divisions, offering yet more tactical depth to a game already loaded with strategy.
A very small number of the additions to GRAW 2 have less impact, and only really create more bullet points to place on the back of the game's box. The additional weapons, for example, are relatively similar and do little to improve the actual experience of playing, though it must be said these empty improvements are rare.
GRAW 2 offers a thrilling multiplayer experience and Ubisoft must be hoping that it might even give the mighty Gears of War a run for its money on Xbox Live. Almost every skirmish is brimming with a satisfying balance of highs and lows for each player involved, bringing drama and tension to the fold. Death can be frustratingly sudden for your hi-tech Ghost, but with each re-spawn you will feel recharged with a determination and enthusiasm that will push you through another gruelling round.
The level design itself is generally superb, with a nice mix of scenarios that will ensure varied gameplay throughout. While some of the more basic areas will offer even advantages to each team, the inclusion of levels like the fort, which greatly favours the players with the higher ground, is a bold and worthy inclusion that will enable squads of different handicaps to compete.
There are also some looser, more wandering multiplayer games, where each combatant looks after himself. These offer more traditional frag matches and, despite losing the gripping strategy of a team-based battle, are filled with the kind of daft excitement that gets you cursing and whooping at your TV. They are certainly a welcome compliment to the more serious challenges on offer, though you'll have played them out in plenty of games before.
It will take hundreds of hours and thousands of dedicated online fans to prove GRAW 2 as a long-running multiplayer shooter in a market already packed with budding contenders, but for now it's looking like it will far exceed being a footnote in Xbox Live's history. Check back for a final verdict in March.