Saturday, June 27, 2009

Go Here, Shoot That: The Thinking Man's Shooter?

A whiff of superiority has forever hung about tactical shooters. The implication in making a thinking man’s shooter is that the others are for idiots; accordingly, games like Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 are slower-paced, more unforgiving and grasp at realism more than their run-and-guns on the lowbrow side of town.

But is that anything gamers are interested in playing? When granddaddy Rainbow Six was released in 1998, its hardcore realism found a surprising amount of traction, but over time, the series softened into its current apogee, Rainbow Six: Vegas, a game that strikes a balance between tactical action and entertainment.

GRAW 2, a Tom Clancy game, dwells in the same mindset. While billing itself a tactical shooter, it depends on the same accessibility and slick production as Vegas. Make no mistake, this isn’t a stern-faced simulator. This war is all rock-and-roll.

The Ghost Recon franchise split from Rainbow Six in 2001. While the Rainbow squad dealt with close-quarters fighting and hostage rescue, the Ghosts took to the great outdoors and went for a heavily-armed hike. Like the Rainbows, the Ghosts softened over time; the sequel was a third-person shooter, and the third game, billed Advanced Warfighter, took the franchise to the current generation – spectacularly. GRAW was a huge success, depicting a war-torn Mexico City with an unprecedented level of detail. GRAW 2 keeps you in Mexico, by and large replicating the experience of its predecessor.

GRAW 2 will punish you for run-and-gun tactics, but is what I’d call tactical action? I’m not sure. Here is the grand total of actions you can assign to your teammates:

Go there.
Come here.
Heal me.
Heal him.
Be quiet.
Shoot him.
Shoot everybody.

Is this what we call tactical? The original Ghost Recon allowed me to position individual squad members, assign fields of fire and sequence an assault with go-codes. GRAW 2 simply gives me three extra guns to roll with. Which, ultimately, I prefer – I mean, there’s a reason the genre moved in this direction. It was frustrating to see assaults foiled by vegetation, or broken AI. After a few disappointments, most players just told their cohorts to follow them and prayed they didn’t get shot in the back.

The AI in GRAW 2 isn’t anything to praise, either. Most of the time, my teammates just complained about not having a good shot on an enemy. I did the vast majority of the killing myself. One obnoxious bug made stuck my medic in a wall for the last segment of a mission – a grueling bridge-crossing where I could have definitely used his skills.

If GRAW 2 isn’t necessarily tactical, it does reward players for fighting and winning the information war. Most missions equip players with a UAV drone, which can be ordered to hover over the battlefield and spot enemy targets. This allowed me to identify and exploit weaknesses – even if my teammates did nothing but bitch once we had the upper hand.

It should be noted, however, that I am no tactical genius, and these “weaknesses” that I “exploited” were pretty clearly built into a disappointingly narrow mission corridor. Some of the battlefields feel like regular corridor-crawls, with obvious barricades to hide behind and rooftops to shoot from. There is, consequently, little variety to engagements.

This would be fatal, were the game not fun as hell. As in all Clancy games, production here is top-notch – Mexico simmers with smoke, heat and unrest, and the hazy lighting effects one-up even the first game. With the exception of your brass-balls commando character, the voice acting isn’t terrible, and the snap, hiss and pop of bullets sound realistic and terrifying.

Let me put it simply: if I couldn’t tell my teammates to form a human pyramid and shoot rockets out of their assholes, I didn’t care. I was too busy saying “ooh” and “aah” and enjoying the current state-of-the-art in tactical shooting. Who cares if it isn’t exactly tactical?