Reviewed: December 24, 2004
Released: November 16, 2004
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have a video game based on your life? As a former Army Ranger and Special Forces sniper, the Tom Clancy-inspired games offer an interesting insight into what myself, and hundreds of other dedicated soldiers go through on a daily basis.
Red Storm titles have always been a huge hit with the guys on base dating as far back as the original Rainbow Six in 1998. Even though we were able to critique these games at a level the average gamer would never be able to, it was still surprising at just how many things the designers actually got “right”.
As the various Clancy franchises evolved it was easy to see the unprecedented collaboration between the game designers and the military. Mr. Clancy has always had a knack of taking existing technology and projecting it into the near-future and often his visions aren’t that far off. If I didn’t know better I’d say he has a man on the “inside” of military R&D.
Ghost Recon first appeared on the PC in 2001 and in 2002 it made its disappointing debut on the PS2 and a slightly better showing on the Xbox. The designers took a long hard look at the series and retooled the design for their latest sequel, simply titled, Ghost Recon 2. With some significant new updates, new missions, new presentation style and challenging gameplay, this latest edition is a marked improvement over all of the previous titles and stands out as the best console version of Ghost Recon to date.
Red Storm has done something special with this latest version of Ghost Recon in that they have crafted a game that will satisfy fans of the franchise while the new tutorials and gradual learning curve will attract a whole new generation of gamer. Whether you are a veteran or an inductee you will still need to adapt to the slower paced gameplay that has been a trademark of the Ghost Recon series since its inception.
We join the Ghosts as they continue their operations in North Korea in an intriguing campaign that spans 15 challenging missions. The movies and overall plot are presented much like a documentary you might see on TV with the recounting of events and interviews with the various Ghost team members.
The gameplay revolves around a four-man fire team allowing you to control three of the men using the classic point and click command interface, or if you have three friends you can split the screen and tackle the missions in cooperative mode. There is also excellent support for System Link and Xbox Live with additional versus and cooperative game modes. More on that in a minute.
Unlike previous installments of the game Red Storm has mixed up the mission styles a bit as you progress through the campaign. There are a few new missions that now feature a great deal more action and less stealth. Hell, there is even a new Lone Wolf style of play that has you infiltrating a bombed-out village single-handedly taking down tanks with some actual weapons that are still in the early stages of design.
Probably the biggest change to the franchise is that the game now defaults to a third-person camera. You can still play from the first-person view but it’s now an option. While this certainly puts Ghost Recon 2 in the same visual style as other recent military titles too numerous to name, it does something even more important. It allows you to see your character and your team, and with the new (and authentic) hand-signal command system and improved character animations, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye on your men.
As previously mentioned, the first-person camera is still available for those resistant to change, although you are “forced” into third-person view for the stealthier lone wolf missions. These particular missions rely on you staying out of sight while using the new M29 assault rifle and it’s uncanny ability to allow you to see and fire around corners. Simply poke the weapon around your cover, line-up your shot in the viewfinder and fire.
As in the past, the levels are huge and the action is scripted so that when you trip that invisible flag in the game the enemies will activate. It’s certainly not as realistic as a true line-of-sight recognition model and it can prove annoying if you are the type of gamer who moves quickly through the level. You can easily activate additional enemies before you have dispatched the previous set. Of course, if you play the game according to proper military procedures this won’t be an issue.
In the single-player game your team is controlled by some excellent AI but you are still required to order them around. In the past this was problematic at best, but Red Storm has integrated their context-sensitive command system from the Rainbow Six franchise, so now ordering your men around is as easy as pointing at a target or destination and clicking the Y button.
Additionally, if you hold down the command button you get the four-input command ring that allows you to pick from four basic command, flank left or right, suppressive fire, or halt. You also have single button inputs for regrouping your men and ordering a cease-fire. It’s a very intuitive command system that you will likely master during the opening tutorial.
Both enemy AI and your team AI have been greatly enhanced making for a much more realistic and pleasurable experience, not to mention exciting. The enemy vehicles show off some of the best improvements in AI, and they will relentlessly patrol the area and once they spot you, will descend upon your location like a hungry predator.
The human AI is also improved and even though the enemy spawns at the same trigger points each time you play, once they appear their actions are dynamically dictated by your own, so no two encounters will ever unfold the same way twice. There are still a few quirks like sniping a guy from 300 yards and the man next to him is oblivious of his dead comrade.
The team AI is some of the best of any game going, even Rainbow Six. There were some missions where I had to give very few commands at all. Your men will act and react with uncanny human authenticity. They seldom stray too far from the path and they fight with appropriate weapons and tactics and even take cover when they start to take damage. I found the computer was often more “cooperative” than some of the human players I played with online.
Since the very first Rainbow Six game Tom Clancy titles have become synonymous with online gameplay and Ghost Recon 2 delivers the goods with support for up to 16 players in a variety of modes that will test all sorts of gameplay skills. You have ten versus modes, most of which are right out of Island Thunder and eight multiplayer maps and there are new maps already in the works for future Xbox Live content downloads.
The new Seek and Destroy mode is perhaps one of the best improvements to online play. It’s basically a big game of “tag” and the person who gets shot is “it”. They are then decked out in Lone Wolf gear and everyone else tries to hunt them down. You only get points by killing soldiers while you are “it”, so it’s in your best interest to become that Lone Wolf and stay that way as long as possible.
Thankfully, Ghost Recon 2 shares the new online engine used in the latest Rainbow Six titles. Unlike the first Ghost Recon that was virtually unplayable online, this one is, for the most part, a fluid experience with only a hint of lag on games with 12 or more players. All of my 8-player matches were flawless. We now also get the benefits of the new Live 3.0, so you can enjoy Clans and leaderboard rankings.
Ghost Recon 2 is a visual masterpiece, or at least is seems that way when compared to the unimpressive original. The biggest improvement has to be on lighting, which translates into shadows and a much more detailed texturing system complete with bump maps and specular highlighting. At least that’s what the PR hype tells me. I just know if looks fan-damn-tastic.
The jungle environments are full of lush details, trees, shrubs, tall grass, and plenty of realistic textures. The cities are exceptionally detailed and show off some realistic battle damage. The skies look great and the water texture, which has ceased to impress me, is also superb. The teen rating means no blood, which takes the edge off the game and can even make if difficult to determine if you are hitting anything. I think we can stop sanitizing war and depict it in all it’s bloody realism.
Character design is amazing with realistic uniform textures and equipment modeling. Now that you are playing in a third-person perspective Red Storm had to step up this area of the presentation and you will be treated to some of the best looking character movement in a military action game. Even the subtlest of animations have been taken into account and realistically depicted.
With so much detail in the levels the designers had to rely on a bit of fogging to keep the framerates up. Even so, nothing really pops into your view, but rather fades in much like the haze of a real battlefield. You’d be surprised how dusty an urban environment is, even after several days of seeing action.
As always, Ghost Recon 2 features the same stirring patriotic music we’ve come to expect from any Clancy title. It’s most predominate in the menus and setup screens then fades into the background when you enter the actual battlefield.
Sound effects are outstanding and the game features a rich 3D Dolby Digital mix that literally envelops you in the overwhelming sounds of battle. Machinegun fire rattles in from all directions and helicopters and jets scream by overhead. Explosions are deafening and will rattle your room if you have a decent sub-woofer hooked into your game system. The weapons all have realistic effects, most of which are sampled from their real-life counterparts when available.
Speech is generally kept to the cutscenes but you do get the assorted library of random catch phrases and order confirmations in the battlefield. All of these are just as excellent as the rest of the sound presentation. The entire Ghost Recon 2 sound package just screams authenticity.
The single-player campaign will take anywhere from 15-20 hours depending on your skill, but Red Storm has provided plenty of post-campaign content. First of all you can now play all of the campaign missions in Lone Wolf mode, so if you don’t want to contend with AI issues or deal with the responsibilities of command, tie off that bandanna and strap on a few belts of machinegun ammo and blast the bad buys in true Rambo fashion.
Actually, it’s not that exciting. Going at this game alone, even with the benefits of the powerful M29, requires a lot of stealth and patience, even more than the normal four-man mode. It’s almost an entirely new insight into the gameplay and certainly appealing enough to justify a complete replay of the entire main game in Lone Wolf mode.
Look for future levels available on Xbox Live, and with the new online network code and Xbox Live 3.0 features, this is one Ghost Recon game you will be playing long into the new year.
Ghost Recon 2 is a textbook example of how to make a sequel. Admittedly, after playing the first Ghost Recon they could only go up in quality, but Red Storm has obviously listened to the gaming community and created a quality installment in the Tom Clancy library.
Everything from the graphics, sound, and presentation down to the tweaked AI and finely tuned gameplay borders on near-perfection. The inclusion of the Lone Wolf mode not only gives you a peek into the future of military weaponry, it also offers one of the most visceral gameplay experiences in what is traditionally a team-based game.
Whether you are a Red Storm veteran or just a newbie hanging around the recruiting office checking out the literature, Ghost Recon 2 is definitely a tour of duty worth taking and a must-own addition to anyone’s Xbox library, especially those who enjoy military action titles.