I gotta tell ya, I'm a little tired of seeing Tom Clancy's name on a new game seemingly every week. I mean, the guy's become so synonymous with videogames that an entire generation only knows of him because his name is plastered all over titles like Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, Tom Clancy's Rainbow 6, and Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon. In fact, my 12-year-old stepson recently asked me if Tom Clancy was a big game developer. After I laughed heartily and explained who he really was, it hit me that the question wasn't really a bad one. I couldn't tell you the name of the last book Clancy wrote, but I can tell you the last game they released with his name on it because it's advertised on TV about three times every half hour. Some days, it seems gaming is an industry run almost entirely by Electronic Arts and Clancy; they're ever-present entities on the cultural landscape.
But, just when I'm about to swear off Clancy's tactical-war-espionage brand of gaming for good, he comes along with something that rekindles my interest. I'm like Michael Corleone in Godfather III—every time I try to get away, they just pull me back in. The latest game to make me reconsider the Clancy gaming empire is Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon 2, a title that genuinely improves upon its predecessor in just about every way one can imagine.
Rather than re-hash a real historical conflict (like, oh, say…World War II), Ghost Recon 2 offers gamers an opportunity to fight a fictionalized future conflict that has just enough grounding in present-day politics to be plausible. Here's the gist: North Korea's being naughty and it's up to Team America to swoop in and save the day. The game boasts fifteen missions, and with a title like Ghost Recon 2 (GR2), most players would probably expect to spend a lot of time sneaking around. Those players would also be wrong. The "Ghost" squad rarely relies on stealth, and functions more like an elite team of combat specialists than a reconnaissance team. Players will run-and-gun through levels without worrying much about sneaking around. Granted, while playing a straight up run-and-gun style will get gamers killed in short order, this is a title that firmly emphasizes action over stealth.
Players take on the role of the leader of a four-person Ghost squad. Since the gamer can't switch to any of the other characters, each is somewhat generic in terms of skill sets. As leader, commands can be issued to the squad at any time—everything from orders to lay down suppressing fire to flanking maneuvers, and so on. Unlike the first game, which was hindered severely by an interface best described as "godawful," GR2 has streamlined everything. Players now use the D-pad to issue orders in conjunction with the triggers on the controller S. Because of this, controlling the team is far easier and infinitely more intuitive than it was in the first game. The downside is that many of the fans of the first title have complained that this release has been dumbed-down. It hasn't—it's simply been made more accessible.
The new interface is hardly the only change in GR2. The most obvious is the new default third-person setting. The original game was a first-person experience, and the sequel can be played in the same fashion, but requires an option adjustment. I'm not really sure why the change to third person was made, but I like it. It makes the title look different from the other first-person squad-based Clancy game (Rainbow 6) and it showcases GR2 as a legitimate challenger to the SOCOM II throne. This is, quite honestly, the closest thing the Xbox has to Sony's popular squad-based shooter.
Another noticeable change is the sequel's appearance. GR2 is not the most beautiful game on the market, but when compared to its progenitor, it's absolutely gorgeous. Yes, the color palette is a little bland and the draw distance isn't as far as it could be, but the texture work, the environments, and the character models are such a vast improvement over the original that comparing them is like night and day.
In terms of gameplay, the title shines. There's a nice variety of missions so that it never feels like gamers are doing the same things over and over again. The addition of a "save anywhere" feature has eliminated a great deal of the frustration over the previous game's "try-and-die" mechanics—which is certainly appreciated because the game can be very hard. Your squad's artificial intelligence is great, but the commands are sometimes useless, since the environments are open, and littered with invisible "trip points" that spawn new hordes of enemies. Because of this, the player can be cruising along smoothly with a plan, then have to toss everything out the window after crossing into a new enemy spawn point. The game occasionally feels cheap because of this, but the real cheapness comes through in the title's escort missions. Squadmate A.I. might be great, but anyone who needs protecting by the Ghost team is invariably dumber than a box of rocks. These missions will try even the most Zen gamer's patience. Enemies aren't a whole lot brighter, but they're all excellent marksmen—they'll pelt gamers with a hail of bullets from hundreds of yards away at night in thick cover.
Aside from these problems, the game does seem realistic. There's a huge variety of weapons at the player's disposal, appendage damage (meaning a shot to the head can kill a player in one hit, while one to the arm or chest will not finish them off), and some genuine strategy is needed to really excel at the game. Adding to the overall package are the sound effects, which are really great with a surround sound set-up. Nothing immerses a player in the game more than hearing the bullets whiz over their head and past them to the rear channels.
Gamers with Xbox Live will be pleased to see that like all Clancy titles, GR2 sports a solid online mode. The game supports 16 players online and offers up a ton of different options. Missions can be played cooperatively online, or gamers can show off their skills in a more competitive environment. The game features a wide variety of maps (with more downloadable ones promised) and runs like a dream. The title also takes full advantage of the Xbox Live 3.0 features, meaning there's clan options and leaderboard rankings. All in all, it's a very nice package.
I have to admit, I came into GR2 expecting another typical Clancy game—which meant solid military action, but nothing I hadn't seen before. For the most part, I got exactly what I expected. GR2 isn't all that different from the typical Clancy title. However, Red Storm deserves kudos for taking all the issues that were inherent in the first Ghost Recon game and fixing them for the sequel. This is one of those rare experiences where the follow-up actually surpasses the original in terms of playability. Even people who were turned off by the first Ghost Recon might want to give this one a chance—it's all but impossible to compare the two games since they're so radically different. That being said, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon 2 earns my respect, and gets Tom Clancy's games a critical reprieve from me. Just remember, Tom, you may have won me over with this one, but you're still on probation as far as I'm concerned.