In the lead up to the Xbox 360 launch, this was one of the games that I was most excited about. It had already been made clear that Halo 3 wouldn’t be rearing its head for a very long time, but screen shots of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, or GRAW, looked very promising indeed. In fact, despite much being made of the next generation graphics in Project Gotham Racing 3, it was this game that showed the most promise when it came to advanced visuals. Unfortunately GRAW slipped somewhat and didn’t turn out to be an X360 launch title, but now that it’s actually here, was it worth the wait?
One thing is obvious from the minute you fire GRAW up – those early screen shots may have looked great all those months back, but they don’t even come close to preparing you for the visual spectacle that this game has in store. GRAW is without a doubt the most amazing looking console game I’ve ever played, and to be honest I’m hard pushed to think of a PC game that can match its visual impact. The environments are detailed and convincing, the character models intricate and well animated, but it’s the lighting effects that left me dumbfounded. There has been a lot of talk in the graphics industry this past year about HDR lighting effects, but no other game comes close to GRAW when it comes to HDR.
Over the past year we’ve seen HDR effects start to filter into PC games with varying degrees of success. I’ve had several chats with both ATI and nVidia about HDR implementation, since most games just seem to white you out in bright sunlight, but fail to implement any effect when walking into a dark area from a bright one. And that’s it, the sum of most HDR implementations seems to be a white out effect, followed by your vision slowly coming back into phase.
Things are very different in GRAW where the HDR lighting effects add a whole new dimension of realism to the proceedings. Never before have I felt so immersed in an environment – not because of the detailed models or convincing textures, but because of the realistic lighting. There’s one level set in a train yard where you end up having to peer around a train carriage into bright sunlight while trying to pinpoint enemy gunmen and take them out. One of the bad guys is perched on top of another carriage with the sun directly behind him, making it difficult to even see him, let alone get off a clean shot. Add to this the fact that when you duck back into cover from bright sunlight, you’re left feeling vulnerable as your irises slowly re-open and get accustomed to the dramatic drop in light intensity.
Once you get past the lighting you start to notice some superb atmospheric effects that make the environment even more convincing. Water is beautifully done in GRAW and rainy levels are a joy to behold. I found myself constantly dying in a multiplayer map set in a dockyard as I just wandered around gawking at the scenery – the way the rain drops splashed into the surface water on the floor was just mesmerising. As if the rainfall wasn’t enough, random flashes of lightning would briefly illuminate your surroundings and reveal detail that you had no idea was there – if you’ve ever seen ATI’s Toy Shop demo, it’s similar to that, but fully playable! At the opposite end of the spectrum there are subtle heat haze effects that highlight the hot and arid locations – look through your scope and the horizon will waver as the heat rises off the ground.