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A Tom Clancy sequel that's better than the original!

Gary Eng Walk is loving ”Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2.” Plus: Samantha Xu has a bittersweet reunion with an old blue friend…

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TOM CLANCY’S GHOST RECON ADVANCED WARFIGHTER 2
(UbiSoft, Xbox 360; Mature)
Barely a year has gone by since Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, one of our favorite games of ’06, came out, so seeing an encore this soon raises our skepticism level to DEFCON 1. Quality games with first-class production values typically take years to produce, and GRAW, with its near-perfect blend of next-gen graphics, action, and gameplay, is an especially tough act to follow. GRAW2 could have easily been a rush job pushed out the door to make a quick buck. Astonishingly, it’s even more outstanding than its predecessor in nearly every way — the improvements are more than just incremental. Once again, you play as Scott Mitchell, the indefatigable leader of a squad of U.S. Army badasses. This sequel puts you back in Mexico City, where a full-blown conflict threatens to spill onto American soil. Even worse, a WMD is on the loose, which adds a very 24-esque panic to the proceedings.

Visually, GRAW2 blows away its forebear — and pretty much any next-gen game out there — because of its glitzy particle effects, which result in a lot of haze, soot, smoke, and rain clogging up the air in the game’s frenetic firefights. The near-future weaponry hasn’t changed a whole lot (not that it needed much in the way of upgrades), but there’s a better variety of air- and ground-support vehicles for your insurgent-stomping pleasure. Mission commanders also grant you access to the MULE, a remote-controlled, mobile armory that functions as your personal caddie for extra guns and ammo. Computer-controlled characters in the game act more like real people in GRAW2. Shoot at a rebel, and he’ll usually duck behind cover to avoid further injury or even try and outflank you.

And if GRAW2 offers a shorter play-through time than its predecessor, the enhanced online multiplayer component adds plenty of replay value. In short, this is a terrific title that builds upon a solid foundation established by last year’s original game. We also quite like the quick turnaround time in getting GRAW2 out the door: We’re keeping our fingers crossed for GRAW3 in 2008. AGary Eng Walk

SONIC AND THE SECRET RINGS
(Sega, Wii, Everyone)
Sonic the Hedgehog is like an old friend from high school you left behind when you went to college. And while you may be older, wiser, and not living with your parents anymore, he really hasn’t changed that much. Oh, wait, except that he uses a Wii remote now. Sonic and the Secret Rings is the latest installment in the once-storied franchise, and this time he’s trapped in the mythical world of the Arabian Nights. The levels are vast, detailed, and vibrant, taking Sonic from deserts and jungles to pirate and prehistoric worlds. Of course, because running and jumping can only keep you entertained for so long, the game mixes up the challenges of each level. This works — to a point.

But our biggest complaints are with the frustrating controls. A task as simple as jumping becomes more difficult by forcing you to time your leaps — which is tricky when Sonic is running at Mach 1. Attacking enemies also requires timed coordination. (Why, Sega, can’t this move be accomplished by pressing a single button?) Annoyances like these made me want to curse the cute blue dude loudly and bang the Wii remote on my head. Sonic and the Secret Rings is an ambitious but flawed effort to bring Sonic back into gaming relevance and is worth checking out only if you’re a fan of a certain spiky blue critter. B-Samantha Xu