Ghost Recon Wildlands Review, Too Big for Its Britches
After spending past 10 years and setting 7 titles in futuristic setting, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon franchise returns back to its contemporary roots and modern-day setting with its tenth instalment called Ghost Recon Wildlands.
With Wildlands, Ubisoft has made good on their recent initiative to move away from linear narrative driven games to open-world experiences, and taken the series’ staple 3rd person tactical shooter gameplay into an open world environment; touting it as one of the biggest open world game that they have ever published.
Taking a game based on strict adherence to tactical coordination into an open world setting is a risky venture, as it can fundamentally change the gameplay where it can become too mechanically simplistic or too chaotic due to variables of the open world setting.
For better or for worse, Ubisoft seems to be unquestionably determined to produce only open world adventures, the only question that remains is how their insistence on doubling down on their staple open-world formula has panned out for the latest installment in the Ghost Recon series.
Set in Bolivia during 2019, Ghost Recon Wildlands follows an elite team of US special operatives called “Ghosts” and their quest to eliminate Santa Blanca, the drug cartel that has turned Bolivia into a cocaine peddling narco-state.
While this cookie cutter ‘war on drugs’ plot is serviceable as a contextual vehicle to give bare minimum incentive for moving from one mission to the next in the game’s vast open world, the fact that the story is told through stoic characters that lack any charm or personality, lessens any impact from its events and emotional stake that it aims to elicit from its players.
What is worse is that due to the Wildlands’ huge map size, the game takes place in a significant portion of the country instead of single city or a specific cordoned off area, therefore the generalizations it makes over the country’s local government, authorities and its citizens are reflected over most of the country where it takes place.
Ghost Recon Wildlands paints everything in its game-world with a broad brush, and not a flattering one at that. The game shows Bolivia in a light that is dismissive of the country’s rich culture and portrays almost all Bolivian NPCs as either corrupt, complicit, cowardly or incompetent.
The reason why this sort of “Yankee savior” trope seems to work for games like the Just Cause series is because it fictionalizes its locations and it plays its story and context in a campy and tongue-in-cheek manner.
Wildlands, on the other hand, plays its narrative with a straight face, which makes it come off as ignorant and lacking in nuance that is needed to tackle the subject of military intervention into foreign country.
Let’s set aside how the game’s huge map size affects its narrative, the more important question is how does the change to an open-world setting affect the series’ staple squad based tactical shooter gameplay.
Ghost Recon Wildlands lets player create a custom character from a limited set of creation tools, and that character takes the role of Nomad, leader of the “Ghost Team” that comprises of Midas, a tactical gunner, Holt the team’s engineer and Weaver, the designated Sniper.
Due to the open nature of the game’s world, player team can reach the location of the missions from which ever direction and whichever way they choose. Players can parachute from a helicopter, walk overland, navigate water via boat or drive towards their objective using every variety of on-road vehicles like jeeps, cars and motorbikes at their disposal.
While that sounds amazing in theory, it is quite a different story in practice. No matter if you are driving a four-wheeler, a bike, a plane, a helicopter or a boat, vehicle handing is universally loose and clunky. Combine that with the fact that the missions, outposts and points of interest are too far away from each other, the act of traversal often becomes a chore.
However, once the player team is at the objective the game returns to its roots, and becomes all about organized infiltration and coordinated stealth kills; the mechanics of which are handled pretty well.
Missions in Ghost Recon Wildlands range from interrogating someone, finding intel, extracting a friendly, executing an enemy or destroying a weapon/drug stash; all of which allow players the freedom to complete their objectives any way they like.
Players can mark enemies using binoculars and drone, they can use long ranged weapons to eliminate enemies from afar, sabotage enemy alarms and equipment, or infiltrate stealthily and take care of enemies using short-ranged weapons and melee combat.
During combat players can utilize a wide range of modern and realistic weaponry including handguns, rifles, grenades, C4s, mines and lures. The handling of these weapons feels pretty solid and the game even allows players to seamlessly switch between over-the-shoulder and first-person aim for maximum efficiency.
Even though there is a significant arsenal at the player’s disposal, using tactical and stealthy approach is always the viable option, as going in guns blazing will almost always result in getting overwhelmed by the enemy, leading to a swift death and the ‘killed in action’ screen.
Player can either play the game solo, with a team of 3 teammates, or partake in cooperative online multiplayer with three other players acting as teammates to explore the game world and complete various missions of their choosing.
AI teammates are fairly competent and can be relied upon to not trip up the set-up or get caught and alert the enemy. They are also fairly dependable killers and can finish up enemies in tricky locations if pointed in the right direction.
As the Ghost Team Leader, the player is can give squad commands to the AI teammates, telling them to hold their position, regroup at player location, go to a specific area or simply engage the enemy.
Player character can also integrate these squad commands with marking enemies through surveillance gadgets and then initiate a synchronized kill that allow the team to simultaneously eliminate multiple enemies.
Even though they are efficient following player’s commands, the AI teammates in Ghost Recon Wildlands lack any initiative; they are only good for enabling players in their plan and providing supporting fire when things go wrong.
Multiplayer is where the game truly shines. Seamless drop in and drop out works great in theory and just as well in practice. It is easy to get matched with a friend or a random player/team, and get going with a mission.
Playing with friends makes the game simultaneously more tactical and more chaotic due to the sandbox nature of the open world; making accomplishing a mission an exponentially more exhilarating affair than completing objectives with AI partners in single player.
However, as good as the multiplayer element is incorporated in Ghost Recon Wildlands, there are still some clunky elements that pop up when playing with others online.
It’s odd that since Wildlands is a four-player squad based game, it does not allow players to mix and match AI bots. If a player is matched with one other player in a two-player squad, the game doesn’t add two AI teammates to fill in the missing squad members. Yet during missions one can still hear dialogue of the two invisible teammates even when they don’t exist.
Apart from these audial discrepancies, the game also faces similar inconsistencies and polish in its overall graphical presentation.
Ghost Recon Wildlands features an in-game world that is absolutely massive in its size and truly backs Ubisoft’s claim of it being one of the largest open worlds they have ever produced.
The game does a commendable job covering Bolivia’s rich bio-diversity and features dazzling vistas of all sorts of terrains ranging from swamps, mountains and rain forests to deserts and salt flats; all of which are visually affected by the dynamically changing weather system and day-night cycle.
While the game world features an impressive draw distance it does suffer from texture pop-ins, especially when it comes to water and vegetation. The game also contains character models and animations that, while serviceable, does not match the quality of care put into realizing the landscapes of its open-world.
There are also instances where things clip in the environment, players and vehicles get stuck in geometry and other glitches that pop up their ugly heads; which seems to be the downside of giving players the freedom to explore such an incredibly large amount of open world sandbox environment.
Aside from the freedom of exploring the world, Wildland’s huge in-game world is also filled with a lot of cookie-cutter content which includes a slew of collectables and side missions that involve gathering intel, chasing convoys, tagging supplies and helping out rebels to improve their support capabilities.
Completing missions also awards player with skill points that can be traded in the skill tree menu to upgrade player character attributes.
Skill upgrades offer incremental benefits to the player character, including increase to physical attributes like health and stamina, weapon handing and aiming improvements, new abilities for the drone, upgrading abilities of AI squad as well as unlocking use of items like parachutes and mines.
Another way players can upgrade their abilities is by adding to their arsenal. This can be done by discovering weapon crates to receive new weapons, unlocking gear customization options and getting special weapons from defeating bosses and completing major story missions.
Progressing through main missions in the game is a fairly repetitive process. Every region in the game world is home to a cartel boss, and reaching him or her requires the player to complete a set of 4-6 missions to uncover their whereabouts and then finish that area’s boss.
After that you go to another region, rinse and repeat this process until you reach the head honcho of Santa Blanca.
There is a micro transactions element to the game as well, where a player can spend real money on XP boosters and premium currency packs to buy weapons and items, however it does not affect the game in any major way as all the weapons and items are obtainable in game and it doesn’t cause unbalanced multiplayer as there is no PvP component to the game.
If all you are looking for is large number of missions to provide opportunities for tactical multiplayer fun, then there is plenty that here in Ghost Recon Wildlands and you might just forgive many of its shortcomings.
However, players looking for a well-structured and tightly built singleplayer campaign with a wide variety of tactical missions, might face disappointment experiencing the repetitiveness of what Wildlands’ massive open world has to offer.