Hey, wanna know what Canadians will be doing in 2013? Better not ask Tom Clancy.
In the world of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, the novelist's officially licensed video games, the story begins with the assassination of the Canadian prime minister at a Summit of the Americas in Mexico City, a plot point which is then summarily forgotten. You play a one-man U.S. Army Corps named Scott Mitchell, who is charged with busting up the guerrilla forces overrunning the city.
The recently released GRAW2 takes place one year later, with Mitchell cracking down on the Mexican/U.S. border which in Tom Clancy's future is guarded by a fortified wall.
What makes the Ghost Recon series work is a combination of first-person-shooter action and tactical strategy. In addition to its regular campaign mode, which follows this Mexican civil war storyline, there's also a kickass multi-player version with its own distinct maps and missions; it was the top game on Xbox Live before it was blown away by Gears Of War. The multi-player game can be played in team-based player-versus-player mode or as a cooperative campaign where you can play solo or join your friends in a number of stealthy scenarios.
What I like about the multi-player campaign in the original game is the options players are given you land on an island and then go and do your own thing. In GRAW2, the multi-player story parallels the main plot; it's set in Panama, and you're trying to cut off shipments of weapons to the Mexican rebels.
Another draw is access to Ghost Recon's catalogue of high-tech gear. Ubisoft's Montreal office is crazy for the game; online videos show its designers playing with actual military prototype helmets and armour. The core of this future equipment is the cross-com onscreen pop-up info and icons built into a soldier's sunglasses or a monocle. What's intriguing is that this seems to have been inspired by the virtual counters and crosshairs of video games, which, through Ubisoft's stabs at "realism," now make their way back to the screen.
Playing Ghost Recon can be frighteningly intense. There are two dominant modes to the multi-player campaign play: sneaky and all-out combat. The more combat-oriented missions just throw you into the middle of a battlefield and let you sock it out. I lost count of how many times my advanced warfighter bit it on the first map. The second was a stealthier mission, and after switching to marksman I lasted considerably longer. But it's still, most of the time, a one-shot-kill world, requiring a deathly level of concentration.
The new multi-player missions are again oh so hard. Huge levels island compounds, full train yards and, this being Panama, ships, locks and canals definitely feel bigger than those of the original, which really does encourage taking them on with backup.
Compared to the original, the environments are astonishingly realistic. The tension is palpable as you sneak through jungle palms, grasslands and over rocks. Excellent use is made of sunlight as well, from the blinding white of dawn to the equally obfuscating orange of sunset.
Since GRAW2 uses the same game engine as the original game, and essentially the same interface against the same opponents, it's hard to think of it is as a true sequel. It's more like an expansion, except, significantly, in the character design. Besides a slight difference in fatigues, the Mexican opponents still all look the same. I think they actually stamped the same face on them all, as with Lego men.
This odd juxtaposition of increasingly realistic environments with comic-book-style opponents is unsettling considering the game's political context. Like many forms of popular culture, GRAW2 puts itself on shaky moral ground when choosing its enemies. No matter how much you may enjoy the gameplay, there's something dehumanizing about hunting down identical opponents who shout at you in Spanish.
Making the enemy unrealistic suggests that the designers are absolving themselves of any responsibility for the implicit themes of their game: America is a fortress state that needs to be protected by extreme force; Mexicans are a hostile threat just waiting to pour over its borders. Just to put it in perspective, with our PM already out of the way, just imagine how you'll feel if the guns are aimed our way for GRAW3.