Ghost Recon Wildlands Review
An open world identity crisis that somehow remains enjoyable
If I had to guess, I would say that Ghost Recon Wildlands is the product of a bunch of different teams working in isolation on different components of the game. There is so much inconsistency to Wildlands’ tone and gameplay I can’t see how else a product such as this might have been created. It is remarkable, then, that there is so much enjoyment to be gleaned from the final result, mostly thanks to some solid gameplay mechanics and one of the best and most beautiful attempts at a visually realistic open world I have ever seen.
Wildlands sees you and three teammates, the Ghosts, infiltrating Bolivia to dismantle an industrial-scale drug cartel run by a comic-bookish villain by the name of El Sueno. From the moment you arrive in Bolivia, you are free to go wherever you want in the vast map, with the progression structure of capturing or killing the lowest-ranking Cartel “Buchons” and working your way up to the big man himself. As with most Tom Clancy games, the story is not the draw here, but Wildlands is unique among its tactically-minded peers in that much of the writing is aggressively bad. Your handler, Karen Bowman, might be one of the most obnoxious characters I have ever encountered in a game, with dialogue that tries to be edgy and clever coming off as juvenile and awkward. Fortunately, most of the story content comes in the form of optional videos talking about your next target, meaning you only have to endure the slightly less painful radio conversations and occasional cutscene.
In stark contrast to the attempted tongue-in-cheek dialogue, the game tries to deal with some pretty serious subject matter; driving around the world, you will find Cartel gunmen hanging civilians and rebels off of sign-posts. Some story missions contain some genuinely dark moments, like finding someone you were supposed to extract tortured and crucified, or one cutscene where your character and Karen force a Cartel member to keep snorting cocaine to the point of a heart attack to extract information. To make matters even worse, whenever you get into a car, the radio will be turned on, and is in the style of other satirical open world games like GTA or Saints Row with goofy music and radio announcers, though thankfully it can be turned off. Tonally and narratively, Wildlands is an absolute mess.
Fortunately, the game side of Wildlands holds up much better. The structure remains fairly similar for most of its duration; move into a new province, collect Intel to unlock story missions, then complete said story missions while keeping an eye out for optional activities and items that will improve your character. Once you complete enough story missions in an area, you will unlock a mission to either kill or extract your primary target for the given region, slowly inching your way up the Cartel ranks until you gain access to the head honcho. While there are four ‘branches’ of the cartel you can work your way through, you only need to complete two of them to finish the story, though this still amounts to a lot of gameplay.
The first major factor that will determine your gameplay experience is whether you play alone or in co-op. Going alone, you are given three AI squad-mates who you can give basic orders, and who will be invisible to enemies as long as you are undetected. Playing this way makes for an easier and more predictable experience, but is probably preferable to playing with strangers online, even though the game will frequently prompt you to do so, and the matchmaking facilitates this well enough. Playing with friends using voice-comms is the way to go, as it makes for a more challenging and dynamic experience that will keep repetition at bay for longer. The actual missions and activities are identical regardless of how you choose to play, and progress carries over seamlessly from co-op to singleplayer.
Initially, coming from more traditional cover-based shooters, I found the general feel of the movement in Wildlands to be a little strange. There is an automatic non-sticky cover system where you simply need to crouch and move to a wall to take cover, but the camera automatically switches between your left and right shoulder depending on where the edge of the cover lies and which direction you are facing, and this can be disorienting initially. However once I got used to this, and learned how to manually switch between shoulder views on the fly, I found this style of movement to fit the slower pace of the gameplay fairly well.
Many missions play out in a way that will be familiar to Far Cry veterans, but with a more tactical edge. Generally you will need to get into a cartel-controlled location to destroy drug caches, or to kill, interrogate or extract someone important. Most missions take place in compounds or towns, where it is helpful to find a nearby hill and scout out the area using binoculars, your drone or a sniper rifle. Enemies you see will be marked, with markers appearing on your mini-map and in 3D, even through walls. If you haven’t spotted all enemies in an area, it will glow red on the mini-map, which is useful if you want to avoid surprises when infiltrating. Markers will also appear for special objects like alarms, generators and drone-jammers which can be disabled.
Apart from a handful of missions that require either action or not being detected, you are generally free to approach these areas how you please. I personally found a lot of enjoyment in staying back and using a suppressed sniper rifle to pick off as many targets as possible, using the returning sync-shot mechanic to coordinate fire with squad mates, and then sneaking in to finish off any stragglers. Equally valid is a more Sam Fisher-esque approach, going in with silenced close range weapons using distraction lures and stealth takedowns. Even silenced weapons make a bit of noise however, and if they think they hear something, enemies will investigate, which also comes into play when shooting lights or through windows. How stealthy you can be is also affected by the time of day; going in at night makes it much easier to avoid being seen, and you can turn off generators to create darkness wherever you go.
If an enemy sees a body, or if you miss a shot and a bullet goes whizzing by their head, they will enter a more alert state. At this point, you have a brief moment to take them out, otherwise they alert the rest of the base and sound the alarm if there is one, with all nearby troops transitioning into a more aggressive state. It is still possible to remain hidden under these circumstances, but generally at this point things will move towards open combat.
On the higher difficulties, both you and your enemies will go down quickly, making firefights tense and exciting, and good positioning important for survival. You can take off your silencers on the fly for improved bullet penetration and damage, and weapons generally sound great both silenced and unsilenced. In areas with alarms that haven’t been disabled, helicopters and reinforcement vehicles will come in and make your life difficult. If you are playing solo with AI team mates, you can be revived once per combat encounter, though playing co-op with humans it seems you can be revived an unlimited number of times.
Once I got a feel for the movement, weapon handling and AI behavior, I found these types of infiltration missions highly enjoyable. The high quality animations and stunning environments make for some great immersion, and the UI is very customizable so you can remove excess clutter. The first time I snuck into an enemy base as it was getting dark and a thunderstorm started to move in, I couldn’t imagine how things could get any cooler, and this was totally unscripted.
While most of the time you will be fighting the Cartel, you will also need to deal with a local militia group called the Unidad. They patrol the map with cars and helicopters, and often will throw a wrench in your best laid plans. Once you get into a fight with this group, a ‘Unidad-partrol level’ meter will appear, similar to how police work in GTA games. Generally speaking, the best way to deal with them is to find a nearby vehicle and flee. While it can be frustrating to have your stealth blown by a random Unidad helicopter that is flying over, the unpredictability these guys bring to the game is ultimately a good thing.
Unfortunately, the other major aspect of Wildland’s gameplay does not hold up as well. If you choose to go loud when you are supposed to kill or capture a target, they will most likely attempt to get in a vehicle and flee. At this point, you will need to give chase, usually by getting in a nearby vehicle and attempting to ram them off the road. The problem is that the vehicle handling is really quite poor, especially when using a keyboard. Ground vehicles have no sense of weight and overly-sensitive steering, making it feel like you are driving a giant RC car. Even though there is a good variety of car models, they all feel pretty much the same. Trying to chase down an enemy and ram them off the road can be an exercise in frustration, especially when playing with AI-squad mates as they will not drive and are ineffective at shooing enemy vehicles, forcing you to deal with escaped targets single-handedly.
Outside of these situations, vehicles serve their purpose of getting you across the vast open world map well enough when there are no fast travel points near your objective. Air vehicles like helicopters and planes handle better than their ground-based counterparts, and mostly come into play as part of Wildland’s side content. Outside of story missions, pretty much everything you do will be in the service of improving your character. As you play, you level up and earn skill points that can be used on passive upgrades like improved toughness and weapon stability, or to unlock items and abilities like C4, diversion flares, and the ability to call in support from the local rebels. Some skills are definitely more useful than others, but overall there is a decent amount of depth here.
In addition to skill points, you need to collect resources to unlock these skills. There are a variety of resource types, and while you will find small quantities of resources lying around, you need to complete side missions to obtain significant amounts. These come in the form of convoys you must destroy, supply planes and helicopters you must hijack and deliver to set locations, and communications devices that you must hack into. These side activities are OK the first few times you do them, but quickly become repetitive. Fortunately you can skip most of them and still get enough resources to unlock the skills you want.
Apart from skills, character progression comes in the form of new weapons and attachments as well as cosmetic items. Due to the more lethal nature of the game, finding new gear isn’t as important as in other open world games, but it is still satisfying to find a new weapon or assault rifle that has improved stats over an older version. Even finding a new sniper scope can be exciting as it will allow you to improve your effective range and accuracy.
The map in Wildlands is absolutely huge, and there is an incredible number of available missions. As a result, by the time I got around two-thirds of the way through the story or around 25 hours in, I felt I had seen pretty much everything the game has to offer, and repetition started to rear its ugly head. Even though the mission and location variety is pretty good, there are so many missions that many of them start to play out in the same way, especially the ones that require you to infiltrate a base and blow stuff up. Unlocking certain skills can make certain mission types trivial, like the grenade launcher for convoys. Once battle fatigue sets in, being deliberate about finishing off missions in specific Cartel branches can let you get to the end of the game more quickly, and as you reach higher level bosses, the missions become more challenging and elaborate. When playing with friends, things are dynamic enough that this won’t be as much of an issue as when playing alone.
Perhaps more of an issue than the eventual repetition is the general lack of polish. Wildlands has a lot of complex, realistic terrain, and navigating over rocks and cliffs either on foot or in vehicles is generally clumsy. You can sort of slide your way down all but the most sheer of drops on foot, while vehicles will bounce over rocks and get stuck in crevices. Some bugs are more funny than harmful, like seeing two vehicles get stuck together and start spinning and flying around, turning a convoy mission into a weird game of dodge the glitched-out trucks.
More serious are the scripting bugs I experienced in co-op. Mission-critical prompts might not appear, forcing you to restart the mission, or you might fail a mission for unclear reasons; one time, I was in car chase with open gunfire on both sides, then abruptly failed due to being detected. Another time, I was supposed to extract someone from a convoy for interrogation, but found the person standing in the middle of the road. I started interrogating them, but after a minute the NPC vanished into thin air and I failed the mission. Upon respawning, the mission objective marker simply vanished off the map. Wildlands would have greatly benefited from a bit more time in development.
On a brighter note, it’s much more difficult to find fault with Wildlands audio-visual presentation. As mentioned earlier, the open world map is absolutely massive, with a great variety of terrain ranging from the scrub brush and snowy peaks of the Andean plateau to the rainforest on the edge of the Amazon jungle. Draw distances are massive, and terrain looks great from a distance, yet remains remarkably detailed up close. The day-night cycle and excellent weather effects add to the atmosphere hugely. Ubisoft raised the bar for how good open world games can look last year with The Division, and do so again here.
Performance is generally fine, with an excellent options menu that shows you exactly what each setting does, letting you find-tune a balance of performance and visual quality. I did experience some stuttering issues when the frame rate went above or below 60, although it can be locked at 60 without turning Vsync on. While the radio music that plays in vehicles is goofy and a poor fit, the original soundtrack of low-key Spanish guitar is pretty good. As mentioned previously, weapon audio is solid, and the ambient environmental sounds like crickets and jungle noises are well done.
Even though there are a lot of obvious issues with Ghost Recon Wildlands and it lacks any sort of consistency it its style of gameplay and tone, I rather enjoyed the majority of time I spent with it, especially in co-op. In an age where big budget tactical shooters are a rarity, the strong core gameplay shines here, and the stunning and varied locations do a great job of sucking you into the experience, even if things start becoming a bit stale towards the end. While I suspect playing purely solo would make the experience lose its appeal long before the end, if you have a couple of friends and enjoy tactical gameplay with occasionally goofy vehicular segments, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Wildlands.