It's fair to say that GRAW made quite an impact when it launched for Xbox 360 in March 2006. While many 360 games from the launch period looked great, it was Ubisoft's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter that really showed what the system was capable of. Almost exactly a year on we find ourselves confronted by the sequel. With an awful lot to live up to and an incredibly short production cycle, disappointment was almost inevitable, so it's quite extraordinary to be playing a game that stands as one of the best available for Microsoft's console.
GRAW wowed gamers with its ultra realistic visuals, smart cover system and intense action. If you were one of the many Xbox 360 owners that loved that original experience, you're going to love GRAW 2; it's that simple. This sequel is essentially more of the same, but with a little more action, improved visuals and some incredible online support. In fact, other than a slightly short campaign, it's hard to see how such levels of polish were achieved in one year.
You once again play as Mitchell, the hero from the first game. Being a hero isn't easy though, so even before you've managed to get a bite to eat you're whisked off back into battle. This time the rebel forces are causing trouble on the Mexican border and it's up to you and your squad of Ghosts to put an end to the continuing hostilities, and the terrorist threat. The three-act campaign spans three days and covers barren desert locations, run-down villages and fully built-up developed cities on both sides of the border. It's diverse, action packed and never boring.
New to GRAW 2 is the ability to see through the 'eyes' of the units and machines that you have direct control over. Once again you can command your squad as you see fit, issuing them with basic instructions on the battlefield (move to, Recon mode, Assault etc). The ability to see the battlefield from their location helps immensely, especially if you approach the game from a more tactical angle - as does the ability to get a full-screen view from the Cypher drone, combat support vehicles and the M.U.L.E.
'The pacing is brilliant, the set-pieces are unbelievable and the sense of drama towards the climax is unrivalled.'
The M.U.L.E. acts as a mobile weapon storage vehicle and doubles as cover, but it's nowhere near as useful as your Cypher drone. Scouting ahead and identifying enemy locations so they appear as red icons on your HUD always feels great (not so much when your drone is shot out of the sky) and heavy weapons support from tanks, planes and helicopters always comes at the right moment - and in explosive fashion.
Weapons vary wildly, but there's plenty of choice for each situation you encounter. I have a soft spot for the gun that can shoot round corners (it's not as crazy as it sounds), but that might be my own cowardice creeping through. Gun-turret sections return and see you firing bullets like there's no tomorrow from the side of a chopper. As in the original GRAW, these sections looks superb and provide a nice change of pace from the stop/start nature of the on-foot gameplay.
We've seen some pretty stunning looking games arrive on the Xbox 360 over the past year and GRAW 2 is up with the best of them. No other game recreates the feeling of being in a war-torn environment as well as GRAW 2, be it the smoke that blows across the ground, the atmospheric lighting effects from fire and explosions, the pounding audio work, the incredible musical score that fits every moment perfectly or the incredible detail that has gone into each and every location. You know a game's got that something special about it when you can't stop playing, and GRAW 2 has nailed it. The pacing is brilliant, the set-pieces are unbelievable and the sense of drama towards the climax is unrivalled.
But it comes to an end a little too soon. It takes nothing away from the experience, but another act to the story would have been the icing on the cake. Thankfully the fun doesn't have to stop as GRAW 2's online functionality is among the best on the Xbox 360 and trumps the original in every way.
The most striking aspect to GRAW 2's multiplayer, at least for existing GRAW fans, is the increase in visual quality. In the original game the difference in visuals between the single-player and multiplayer experience was pretty huge, but now the two look far more comparable. GRAW 2's multiplayer maps look superb and are generally inspired in their design, with far improved lighting and more detail. The cover system from the single-player campaign still isn't an option, but the classic Ghost Recon gameplay is still great.
You can create and play in a variety of team-based (including clans - GRAW 2 allows you to create and manage your own clan) and solo game types with support for up to 16 players. Games are fully customisable by the host too, so the standard game types can be expanded to create numerous alternatives. Put simply, if you like military-themed third-person online shooters there should be something for you to love in GRAW 2. Four players can even play on a single console, either offline or against other players over Xbox Live.
On top of these team and solo versus game modes is a rather excellent co-op campaign. As in last year's game, this is a unique story built using the multiplayer game engine, but in GRAW 2 the quality has really been raised a few notches. You get six missions and as well as having to kill various waves of enemies you'll have to survive numerous dynamic objectives that require you to work as a team - unless you want to suffer the consequences of an uncoordinated attack. The ability to revive fallen comrades (assuming they haven't been sniped) also helps promote team-work, both in co-op and team-based modes.
GRAW 2 is unquestionably a huge success. A short campaign aside, it does everything GRAW fans would want from a sequel and once again confirms Ubisoft as one of the leading next-gen publishers. Yearly releases are often looked down upon as the work of cash-hungry publishers, but somehow GRAW 2 has proved that to be completely wrong. Who knows what Ubisoft has in store for the future, but the GRAW series is almost guaranteed to be remembered as one of the best the 360 had to offer. Let's hope they can perform the same miracle next year.