Developer: Ubisoft Studios; Publisher: Ubisoft
Released: March 7th, 2017; Reviewed On: PC
Testing Hardware: Core i5-6500 3.2GHz, 16GB RAM, GeForce GTX 1070
From the start of its plot, Ghost Recon: Wildlands tells you “Do whatever it takes” and follows in that philosophy until the very end of its 45 hour runtime. Giving players complete freedom in approaching its objectives, this tactical sandbox shooter drops you into a representation of Bolivia with one overarching objective to work towards – destabilize the Santa Blanca cartel. The game is bad at plot exposition, but that isn’t really what you’re here for. Instead, you’re dropped into a massive sandbox filled with missions, and choose how to approach each objective in whichever way you prefer, co-op or single player. Ghost Recon Wildlands has a few strengths, but ultimately falls into a generic sandbox experience that does little to engage the player with either its world or story bits. Its main course relies on co-op play, where up to four friends can team up to mess around its sandbox and create thrilling personal experiences. By yourself, you just wouldn’t find as much fun in the game’s repetitive sandbox missions, which often feel like going through an extremely long to-do checklist. While it’s impressive in scope, Wildlands falls short on many gameplay aspects, and this isn’t quite the direction I’d want a Ghost Recon game to take in an open-world setting, although it can engage on gameplay level.
Your objective coming to Bolivia is to take down a massive drug cartel that has grown so much, it took over everything, from law enforcement to politics. Playing as one of the members of Ghost team – a stealth unit that doesn’t officially exist – your task is to completely wipe out Santa Blanca’s influence in the region at whatever costs. The plot reason for being there is extremely contrived, revolving around a revenge plot more so than freeing up an oppressed area. In this universe, United States will only send a highly trained killer team if a DEA agent is murdered, neglecting hundreds of Bolivian lives that were lost before the Ghosts even get there. The story is totally forgettable, and at least missions are so light on exposition that they don’t hinder your progress with endless cutscenes, which I can definitely get behind.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands has you working through a dense list of underbosses and lieutenants to destabilize the cartel’s control of the region and ultimately draw out its head, El Sueno. Each figure of the expansive organization web generally exerts control over one of the provinces, which fall under four categories in their function. Broken down, these categories include security, influence, smuggling and production, but the only difference between underbosses ultimately comes down to mission setups. To remove supply chains, for example, you could be destroying Santa Blanca’s convoys on the road, whereas influence-wise, a mission could task you with sabotaging the cartel’s connection with local corrupt officials.
Players can tackle any of the underboss categories from the very start, with the only crucial difference being location difficulty, but it won’t affect the story outcome in any meaningful way whether you decide to remove security first, or any of the other three. Ghost Recon: Wildlands could have implemented a breakdown in the key part of the cartel once you’ve reached 100% destabilization in a certain field to make it more meaningful, but as it stands, killing underbosses doesn’t end up affecting Santa Blanca in any way. When you’re not fighting the cartel, there is the corrupt and well-equipped Unidad military force, which nonetheless ties to your main enemy in the game’s plot. Their presence isn’t as big as that of Santa Blanca, but they certainly aren’t lacking in military power.
Wildlands it totally playable in single player, and provides a serviceable experience with AI partners in a four-player squad. Your allies reliably shoot enemies and revive you when necessary, which doesn’t make them absolutely useless, although the game is definitely easier than in co-op, at least on standard difficulty. The AI also makes a habit of tagging the cartel’s henchmen and revealing their position in the immediate area, which helps with spotting, but the game already points out the general area of enemy presence in the vicinity, so danger never comes as a surprise. Your squadmates’ involvement is really arbitrary, and their only usefulness comes with the sync shot, where you can mark up to 3 targets for your allies to execute, simplifying stealth sections where you’d otherwise need to wait for enemies to spread out. The AI is nonetheless competent and usually helps with getting out of sticky situations, so playing the single player doesn’t completely ruin Ghost Recon: Wildlands, although I’d still recommend getting a few friends to play alongside you.
Drop-in co-op is the game’s biggest feature, and progression feels deliberately designed for multiple players. Tackling the game’s missions with friends opens up a lot of room for tactical play, where you strategically mark and execute targets, assault enemy convoys and assign tasks based on player loadout. It all comes together rather well, breaking up the monotony of repetitive missions to engage players in meaningful progression. Diverse visual customization options make everyone look distinct, which you wouldn’t find to a big extent in the single player experience. Ghost Recon: Wildlands feels noticeably more difficult in co-op, with larger waves of enemies that attack you from multiple angles, and being scattered around the objective you might not get revived as often as in solo mode. Mission progress carries over between sessions, which is neat and ensures you don’t waste your effort helping someone else’s game while yours remains stationary. Co-op is certainly this game’s big strength, and if you have a few friends to grab along, I’d definitely recommend tackling it with three other players.
I’m not completely on board with the mission design, which promises freedom of approach, but roughly a third of the campaign consists of stealth-heavy objectives that fail state if you as much as shoot an enemy before they even spot you. Apparently the cartel henchmen have some sort of magical sense, and know I’m in the area when they haven’t heard gunshots or seen a dead body. As the rest of missions don’t mind your mistakes and allow completing them guns blazing, instant fail states tend to be really infuriating, especially if you’ve gone quite ways in, but are spawned back outside enemy territory. On top of that, Wildlands usually sends you back a few minutes away from the objective if you failed, and running back to it isn’t exactly how I’d want to spend my time.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands is mostly meant to be played as a tactical stealth shooter, where you cautiously approach targets, and work in a team to execute a ghost playthrough. The game makes it clear with mission types I mentioned earlier, as well as in the lead-up to an underboss target, many of which will escape the area if alerted too early. Players are encouraged to utilize suppressors, mark targets prior to execution, and scout the area using a drone. There aren’t as many high-tech tools to see as in say Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, and the game feels lacking in this field considering you’re playing as the best task force in the United States. You won’t have trouble blending in against the jungle, but that sweet stealth camo from its predecessor would make Wildlands so much more appealing.
One area the game thankfully doesn’t disappoint is the vast array of customization options available to the player, from extensive character editor to deep weapon modifying through a Gunsmith feature, an expanded iteration of the same system found in Future Soldier. Ghost Recon: Wildlands loads you up with hundreds of hardware items, allowing you to customize weapons for distinct playstyles. Aside from suppressors and various scopes, you can add things like a grenade launcher underbarrel to turn an assault rifle into a weapon of mayhem. Alternatively, stealth it up with multiple stabilization boosters to approach missions from long distance. Character design can be extensively customized, although it generally serves the cosmetic look only without impacting gameplay. At the start you select between a male and female character, which is locked in once you’re in the game, but various looks are available to change at any time.
Each clothing item offers distinct variants, alongside a vast palette of colors, but what you wear never looks any different to military colors or camo options. That said, there are some cool touches to be added, like a cowboy hat, diverse backpacks and goggles. Cosmetic items don’t affect gameplay in any way, which slightly misses the target on realistic design of Wildlands. It isn’t a big complaint, but it would have been cool to have the need of changing camouflage colors based on the environment you’re in. The skill tree is pretty robust, although doesn’t feature anything of particular interest that would be really worth aiming for. Perhaps the only item of note is one of the ultimate skills, where you can get revived twice without a game over. To get to those ultimates, Wildlands requires at least one level of each skill to be unlocked, enabling you to see all character abilities in action. Aside from them, however, the rest of the skill tree is filled with incremental stat upgrades.
After a while, though, Ghost Recon: Wildlands just ends up going through the same motions over and over, showcasing the worst of its repetitive game design. Main progression boils down to acquiring intel on underbosses and completing the follow-up missions, which in turn lead to a final encounter, tasking players with either eliminating or capturing an underboss. Working through the dense list of targets eventually starts feeling like a drag, and simplistic mission design doesn’t provide any interesting points throughout the campaign. While there is some variety to missions, none really stand out from each other, falling under simple archetypes of kill, destroy and capture objectives. The only thing that helps your tasks feel any engaging is the fun gameplay experience, and lack of cutscenes leading up to them.
Sandbox activities are even less engaging, and their main purpose is to reward the player with upgrade resources, demanded by a contrived skill system, and unlock better options in rebel support. You could do completely without assist from rebels, as their actions don’t assist you in meaningful ways. Mortar strikes are only slightly more effective than your own grenades, and vehicle drop-off isn’t necessary as you run into plenty of traffic regardless of position in the world. Repetitive design is the main flaw in Ghost Recon: Wildlands, and its sandbox nature doesn’t entirely help combat it. You’d never avoid doing repetitive missions in the entirety of the game’s campaign, but at least the freedom of approach and fun gameplay somewhat offset game design.
The only interesting part of sandbox activities I found to be various types of world collectibles, which actually have some player value to them. Spread across the enormous map are medals, skill points, weapons and their additional attachments, which add to player arsenal in meaningful ways. While it is entirely possible to complete Ghost Recon: Wildlands in full using starter weapons, and their stats really don’t mean a lot, access to diverse guns gives players a more engaging combat experience. You could find a good spot from afar and snipe everyone in the area, or alternatively cause a carnage with an LMG, both of which provide sound alternatives to traditional stealth gameplay.
Skill points located in the world just add an extra amount to your overall player count, although end up being useful since much of the character progression tree requires at least 3 or more points. Medals are far more interesting, boosting character skills in a specific way, although like skills they mostly fall under incremental upgrades as a way to increase power. In the end while I wouldn’t go out of my way to acquire any of the collectibles apart from new weapons, their convenient location in mission zones usually makes up for travel, even if that leaves the remainder of the open world with nothing to do in it.
The map of Ghost Recon: Wildlands is absolutely huge, covering 20 distinct provinces, lots of small settlements, and hundreds of miles of open road. Its world size almost serves to the detriment of the game, requiring players to spend a good portion of their playthrough on travel. With missions spread out thin across a vast area, getting to them becomes a time sink in itself, and doesn’t help break up the boring mission design at all. To its credit, Wildlands gives you a vast set of vehicles to use, including bikes, boats and aircraft.
The sandbox isn’t as open as it seems, however, and the game really seems to prefer you sticking to the beaten path. It is extremely easy to get stuck on terrain in a vehicle, with endless rocks littering the ground, not to mention when you get thrown off a bike to your death from a big jump. Large mountains dotting the landscape don’t help with the travel either, with sharp slopes making it impossible to cut the trip in either direction, instead forcing players to take winding roads that can stretch for a long distance. In fact, anything short of a helicopter might as well be thrown in a bin if you plan to cover a lot of distance in Wildlands.
The more annoying part of travel comes with terrible vehicle handling, which feels extremely floaty like in Ubisoft’s The Crew, except made much worse. Cars bounce around the road and try to steer off the road more often than I’d like, and even though it doesn’t result in complete frustration, narrow mountain roads situated through the forest can really be trying my patience. Helicopters are even worse somehow, where landing them can either be successful on a rare occasion, or rather more often you’d slam it into the ground without intending so. A few times even, a helicopter would clip upward as I’m trying to get out of it, and then crush my character once it comes back down. This doesn’t happen too often, but given you’d likely spend most travel time in a helicopter for convenience, can lead to some frustrating retries. If you want to avoid large travel sections, you can use rebel outposts for travel, which you thankfully don’t have to liberate from enemy control like in most Ubisoft sandboxes. The camps are scattered far apart, however, so they can rarely get you straight to the mission zone, but can at least cut the boring travel times.
World design in Ghost Recon: Wildlands offers some interesting and diverse biome options, and players will find themselves in jungles, vast empty deserts and snow plains. It doesn’t make exploration any more engaging, but diversity in the world makes for a nice change in scenery every once in a while. The sheer size of it really is impressive, boasting vast draw distances and environmental detail, although textures lose sharpness ways in, and you’re left staring at low-res models of mountain ranges and fields. Wildlands runs really well on good hardware, and my GTX 1070 handled the game really well in full detail at 1080p, although it didn’t stop stuttering that appears once in a while. Rendering such a big world also doesn’t help the game populate its environments to full extent, leaving a lot of bland zones to get through on the way to any of the objectives.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands can be a rewarding, and at times fun tactical shooter experience. With a vast open world and an even bigger weapon arsenal, the game’s strengths lie in player experimentation, especially when teaming up with friends for co-op play. While the story is often laughably bad, and single player falls under a burden of seriously repetitive missions, Wildlands is at its best when it lets you loose in its massive open-world, even if travel times will leave you bored driving to the next objective. Without much exposition and cutscenes, the game’s missions throw you into action right away, making it an experience to unwind in if you simply want to shoot some stuff. Ghost Recon: Wildlands isn’t a perfect attempt at bringing the series into an open world design, and lacks the high-tech content of its predecessors, but its engaging gameplay and fun co-op provide a backbone for a fun shooter you might end up returning to despite a repetitive mission checklist