Ghost Recon Wildlands
PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
What would you get if you were to mix together The Division, Just Cause, GTA and Splinter Cell? This is probably the question Ubisoft was trying to answer with Ghost Recon Wildlands, the new entry into the tactical squad-based shooter franchise that had us saving the world one sync shot at a time since its inception in the early 2000s.
On the one hand, being the stealth and open-world games fan that I am, I really wanted to like this new Ghost Recon – it combines two of my favorite genres, after all. Whether you’re exploring the enormous map of Bolivia alone or with some friends, Wildlands is just packed to the brim with potential: the suspense of sneaking through an enemy camp, the satisfaction of quietly removing personnel and disabling equipment, and the final showdown when the enemy force has been reduced to a fraction of its former size. There’s something satisfying in knowing the enemy is deprived of all support when the silencers come off and the C4 charges you so meticulously planted beforehand come into play. On the other hand, as much as I wanted to love Wildlands, I’m left with what can best be described as “lukewarm affection”. Even with all the potential contained in such a project, two beta cycles and a (relatively) bug-free release, Wildlands does not manage to rise above mediocrity in almost every department.
One example of this is the open-world itself. The game world is absolutely huge, that much is true. From forests to deserts to snowy mountain peaks, Ubisoft has recreated an amazing Bolivia that wouldn’t look out of place in any travel agency brochure. However, most of it is just dead space. There’s nothing to do in most of the map, and at the risk of sounding a bit of a nature-hater, I still believe that once you’ve seen one forest of cloned trees you have seen them all. The game map could have easily been half the size and still feel like it’s got plenty of room to satisfy my sandbox needs without having me drive forever through boring countryside to get to the action.
Likewise, the AI also feels underwhelming and incomplete. Sure, they freak out and sound the alarm if a dead body is found, but shut off a generator and plunge the entire base into darkness? Business as usual. There’s also the matter of movement and formation, which I’m fairly sure Bolivia’s armed forces learned from playing Lemmings. There is no fanning out, no flanking, no overlapping fields of fire and no tactic. Single file and guns drawn – like shooting slow fish in a tiny barrel.
While on the subject of AI, I have to touch on another painful topic: squad mates. If you’re playing Ghost Recon Wildlands alone, you get 3 AI bots that are basically 3 gods who stepped down from Olympus for the explicit purpose of being bossed around by you. As long as the squad leader (you) isn’t detected, your AI mates are all but invisible and can move freely about the enemy camp. All you have to do is mark targets for their armor-and-wall-piercing silenced laser cannons of doom. During that phase, I felt I could have been easily replaced by the little hover-drone tool used to identify enemy positions. On the flip side, once bullets start flying, your mates exhibit roughly the same intellect as the enemy lemmings.
The two things I have to give Wildlands full marks for are the graphics and sound. As I said before, the map is huge and gorgeous – an absolute postcard factory in between firefights. The attention to detail on everything from the dirt on the ground to the sides of bullet-riddled structures is what you would expect a major AAA studio to deliver. The game also has a radio station, which in a very GTA-like fashion will deliver news bits about plot events between talk show and music segments.
The level of detail doesn’t stop at the environments, though, as Ghost Recon Wildlands has enough cosmetic and visual-only options for your character to keep you in character creation for a literal hour (about 45 minutes in my case, a fact I’m both proud and embarrassed to admit). Everything from your boots to the hair on your chinny chin chin can be customized, dyed, tagged and replaced a million times until you have your perfect barbie doll of a GI. Ubisoft did learn a lesson from The Division, and cosmetics can also be altered at any point in the game, with the only constant is your character’s gender which can’t be changed once set.
Your arsenal gets the same treatment, only instead of purely-visual cosmetics there are tens of attachments and parts to scavenge and use. Barrels, scopes, magazines, over and under-rails, stocks, sights and in some cases trigger groups can all be modified and colored individually. You can easily have a team of 4 people using the same guns and none of the weapon parts repeat – that’s how extensive the system is. Oh, and there’s also about 100 weapons in the game, too; some are immediately available, some are collectibles in the world, some are mission rewards and some are unlocked through Uplay. I hate throwing around phrases like “most extensive arsenal in a video game”, but it might just be unavoidable this time.
I bet you’re wondering why does it take so long down the review to get into the game’s plot. The reason is simple: The plot is irrelevant. To sum it up in 20 words or less: You and your team are going to Bolivia, to kill the head of the Santa Blanca drug cartel. That is it. That’s the plot, motivation and conclusion all wrapped up neatly. To get to your final objective of “Kill the baddie”, you will complete province missions and to unlock a lieutenant. Once enough lieutenants in a branch are removed, the underboss mission is unlocked. Once a couple underbosses have a fatal case of lead poisoning, your final mission is unlocked. Of course, it can all be done in any order and from any branch, but there is such a thing as “too much sandbox”. Each province is completely isolated from the rest, and just feels like a standalone mini-campaign or a separate game.
As you can see, Ghost Recon Wildlands is a very polarized ride with the end result being good enough, but not as great as it could have been. Great visuals… but under-utilized. Great sandbox… but so much sand it loses the box. Great selection of tools and weapons… but enemies so dumb that it feels like a PhD flipping burgers. To really enjoy this game you should meet two criteria: enjoy freeform commando gameplay and have friends who do too.