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GRAW 2: Single-player

Explosions of the future

From the HUD system alone we know it's Ghost Recon. But bordered by that thin blue line is a scene that's more Apocalypse Now than Advanced Warfighter - multiple Apaches and Little Bird attack helicopters soar through the blindingly blue skies around us, flanking our gunship. The dust storm created by this airborne Armada sweeps below us. Only the stirring Ride of the Valkyries soundtrack is missing, and the deafening roar of rotor blades covers our humming of that iconic theme music.

Make no mistake... Ghost Recon is returning to Xbox 360 bolder, bigger and more relevant than before. Ubisoft Paris, after building the foundations of the next-gen series with the release of the critically and commercially acclaimed GRAW, has used its time wisely and produced an experience with all the bombast of cinematic war. The game's evolution is just one part of an impressive answer; an answer to an unspoken question. In a short span of nine months, Ghost Squad had been superseded by teams from both Rainbow Six Vegas and Gears of War. How could the self-proclaimed 'Soldier of the Future' remain at the forefront of the Xbox 360 conflict with all this competition about? We're here in Ubisoft's Paris office to find out.

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The beginning of that answer lies, strangely enough, with a re-tread of past glories. The developer loads up a disc and we're greeted with a scene from the first GRAW - Scott Mitchell patrolling through a quiet town square in Mexico. Yet the setting is as new as it is familiar - it's a flashback through new eyes. After the original went gold, Ubisoft Paris recreated this one setting and built in all the features it had dropped due to time constraints. The change is both startling and surprisingly subtle - a juxtaposition that could only occur with the developer's continued strive towards photo-realism.

Our short patrol demonstrates changes made in direct response to player complaints. The streets are now littered with debris and destruction, prominent signs of the civil unrest. Flocks of birds take flight as we pass by - it makes the city feel alive, real. Everything in the demo, we're told, formed the basis of the sequel. A fully implemented day/night cycle sees shadows stretch and darken before our eyes. Billowing smoke plumes now react to winds and explosions, while smoke grenades offer graduated layers of misting. Similarly, shadows help create different strengths of darkness, dependant on the object's distance from the light source.

It's with these in mind that the developer takes us through the opening scenes of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2. Over the symphony of helicopter engines, the backstory to this new conflict is outlined to us. The events of the sequel spiral directly out of Ghost Squad's involvement in the rescue of the Mexican President, defusing the attempted coup d'etat from the first game. Those rebel forces recognised the American involvement in their plans and now threaten an attack on US soil. Ghost Squad is now part of a larger operation intent on stopping them before that happens.

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It's good news for Ghost Recon veterans as the series sweeps clean the focus on one cityscape and returns to the wide-ranging patrols of the earlier games. The setting is still predominately Mexico, but the battlefield will shift out of the cities and into the surrounding countryside, and across the border to the US. It's in that countryside our battalion lands. We jump off the gunship with the orders to take out artillery placements that line the area, and we choose our team members. Squads still number four, but there's now a greater distinction between classes, marked by division bars on each member's brief bio, dividing the likes of firepower and protection into marks of ten. This allows the player to customise their playing style - rely on Marksmen for a slow methodical approach, or stack up Grenadiers for an explosive solution to a problem.

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