|Platforms||PC, PS4, XBO (reviewed)|
|Release Date||March 7, 2017|
Ghost Recon: Wildlands is the latest entry in the near-future, tactical shooter series and sees the franchise make the move into an open-world setting. The game takes place in a fictional version of Bolivia, which has been overtaken by the Santa Blanca, a previously minor Mexican drug cartel that has destabilised the country’s government and turned Bolivia into a narco-state and the world’s largest manufacturer of cocaine. After a DEA agent is murdered by the Santa Blanca the US Government sends in the Ghosts to dismantle their operation piece by piece.
The open world of Wildlands is about as by-the-numbers as I’ve ever played. While its scope and beauty are both impressive, these are merely distractions from what is otherwise a fairly shallow experience. Bolivia is almost incomprehensible in its size (I unlocked the achievement for driving 100km after taking out only 2 of the 26 cartel bosses), but it’s packed full of repetitive activities and nothing to really do or see aside from some admittedly breathtaking scenery.
This game is very blatantly a checklist of things that need doing. While all open world games are, when boiled down to their basic components, Wildlands doesn’t try to mask this fact. It’s baked right into the premise and narrative of the game itself – you’ve got to knock off the 26 cartel bosses in a methodical fashion. Each one you kill gets you closer to a Lieutenant and once you’ve wiped them all out you get a crack at the kingpin himself. The entire story is that you’re crossing names off a list like you’re in season one of Arrow.
Where other open world’s mask their repetitive nature with story and narrative, or by mixing up gameplay elements and mechanics, Wildlands doesn’t even try. The opening propels you into the world with your boss swearing revenge for her friend, and each member of the cartel comes with a slick backstory that plays out in an optional video, but that’s as close as you’ll get to any kind of meaningful narrative. Aside from some lowbrow back-and-forth by the main characters that swings wildly between quite funny, incredibly cheesy and supremely awkward.
Wildlands is aiming for emergent storytelling over any kind of strong narrative arc. When played cooperatively you’ll get these stories in spades. It can be a fun game to play with friends. When you’re all working together like an elite unit, taking out groups of enemies and cartel bosses with miltiary-like precision. Even when it all goes sideways and you’re pinned down by mortars while your friends lay dying in a pool of their own blood. It can even be fun when played with strangers. As long as you don’t mind your stories ending with things like “and then we crashed the helicopter into the side of a mountain.”
But eventually you’ll come to realise that you’re repeating the same tasks over and over again. It’s in single-player that this realisation comes quickest, with no wacky hijinks or coordinated assaults to distract you from the fact that you’re basically running the same mission on repeat. Even as the landscape changes from jungles to deserts to salt flats to mountains and back again, it’s only the scenery that’s changing.
Just about every main mission in Wildlands has you arrive at a base, outpost, mansion, village or any other term for either a collection of buildings or a single building. From there you’ll need to murder your way through a collection of same-y looking enemies to get to a slightly different looking enemy who you’ll need to either kill or interrogate. Every now and then Wildlands mixes up its objective to thrust you into point defence or smashing stuff up or even obnoxious stealth missions.
But it’s the same gameplay loop time and again with only the slightest variations in scenery and final objective. You drive/fly to wherever a mission is taking place, tag enemies with your binoculars or drone and then stealthily clear the base out. At least until you mess up. At which point the suppressor comes off and all hell breaks loose. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re at a casino to smash up some slot machines or assassinating a pair of psychotic lovebirds – it’s the same thing time and again.
And it wears thin after a while. When you enter each region for the first time you need to lure cartel bosses into the open so you can kill them. You do this by disrupting whatever operations they’re running – whether they’re schmoozing VIP’s, in charge of cocaine production factories or running the local propaganda radio station. In theory it’s a fascinating mechanic, but it’s ruined in practice by the game straight up telling you exactly where to go and what to do the instant you step foot in a new area.
There’s no need to explore or get creative. The second you enter a new region of Bolivia the game drops a bunch of icons on your map that show you where to gather the intel needed to unlock the critical mission path. Wildlands has a fascinating premise. It presents you with an entire country that has been converted into a giant narco-state that you need to dismantle. But the path is already laid out in front of you.
All you have to do is follow the instructions step-by-step and check each item off the list. This could have been forgivable if the gameplay kept things fresh, but it doesn’t take long to realise you’re stuck on a monotonous treadmill of repetition, performing the same task on a loop. The combat and stealth feel good, but when there’s no variety to your tasks the deluge of content very quickly begins to feel like a list of chores as opposed to a series of enticing video game objectives.
Side content doesn’t really fair much better. You’ll generally be running the same types of missions, but instead of advancing towards the ultimate goal of killing the Santa Blanca, you’ll instead be assisting the rebels. Completing side missions yields a bonus of some sort. Sometimes you’ll unlock abilities that allow you to call in support in the form of mortar strikes or rebel squads. Other times you’ll be gathering critical resources that tie into your Ghost’s progression tree.
Skills, abilities, upgrades and special equipment are a strange thing in Wildlands. By earning XP you’ll gain skill points that can unlock anything from grenade launcher attachments for your assault rifle to stamina boosts to upgrades for your drone or other equipment. While these can give you a wider breadth of options during missions, they’re not actually essential to clearing any challenge the game throws your way.
While it’s an open world game with RPG elements, Wildlands is still a third-person shooter at its core. Enemies don’t “level up” in any way – sometimes they’ll wear more armour or there’ll be more of them, but they still die to a head shot. I constantly found myself forgetting to even spend skill points because they’re kind of superfluous to the experience. They’re also bizarrely gated behind the amount of resources you’ve collected for the rebels, requiring you to collect food if you want to increase your stamina.
Whether you’re sneaking through enemy compounds or blasting your way through them as loudly as possible, combat is the one saving grace of Wildlands. While playing for extended periods sees monotony set in, there’s some enjoyment to be had clearing out the various regions of Bolivia. Weapon variety allows you to tailor your character to whatever play style you want, with a fairly deep customisation system allowing you to collect parts for all of your weapons and personalise them further.
It has to be said, however, that the AI in Wildlands is pretty terrible across the board. Enemies certainly present a challenge in great numbers, but they’ll never present you with any sort of tactical challenge. To the game’s credit they’re very quick to spot you in the open, but aside from that they’re pretty dumb – constantly running back and forth in the open and failing to use cover in any meaningful way. It’s only en masse that they’ll prove an issue, which the game itself even seems to realise as its response to a firefight is to quickly summon reinforcements.
It balances itself out, though, because your Ghosts are no better. If you’re playing alone the game will give you three AI companions who tag along your escapades in South America. They’re useful for exactly one thing – sync shot. By marking enemies with a sync shot your companions will line-up killing shots on them, which is synced to you firing your weapon. It’s an extremely effective way to clear out small groups of enemies quickly. In every other regard, however, they’re almost entirely useless.
Civilian AI fares worst. The mass production of cocaine must have seeped into the drinking water of fictional Bolivia at some point, because the way the general population react to anything is just baffling. They drive through firefights like nothing is going on, routinely go about their business or run directly through the middle of a pitched battle. Constantly. Accidentally killing civilians can result in a game over, so you’ve got to be hyper aware of your surroundings. Unless you’re blowing up an objective that has civilians in it, which is apparently fine?
From a technical standpoint Wildlands is fairly solid. It holds its framerate well and I only ever encountered a smattering of very minor bugs. The biggest issue I found with the game is being able to pit the Unidad and Santa Blanca factions (who are supposed to be working together) against each other. Whenever I was in a mission with mixed enemies I found that I could easily get the two factions to fight each other by dropping a single body, allowing me to easily circumvent entire levels and easily make my way to objectives. I’m not sure whether this is a bug, but if it’s an intentional part of the game I’d say the US is going about destroying the cartel the wrong way.
It cannot be understated how impressive a technical feat Wildlands’ open world is. Incredible draw distances allow you to see the country sometimes sprawl out before you in all directions. It lends weight to the phrase “if you can see it, you can go there” when you catch glimpses of mountains and buildings miles away that you’ll eventually visit. It’s also to the game’s credit that it features such a huge variety of land types to travel between that don’t feel jarring. Transitioning between the jungles, deserts, mountains and more feel thoroughly natural. The game’s fictional version of Bolivia is definitely an achievement from both a technical and aesthetic standpoint. It’s just a shame the game itself feels so empty.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a very monotonous game. Solid gameplay mechanics quickly give way to empty repetition as the game never really varies its core gameplay loop at all during its running time. Regardless of your specific mission objectives, you’ll never break free from the endless cycle of clearing out buildings populated by the same enemies you were fighting ten hours ago. Playing the game with friends or strangers over the Internet can mask some of these issues (add 1 point to the final score if you’re planning on playing exclusively with friends).
Eventually, however, the game is brought down by its repetitive gameplay. The world itself is excellent, but it’s devoid of anything worthwhile to do. There’s not enough variety in the enemies or gameplay to sustain you playing for more than a few hours. There’s potential here, and if Ubisoft Paris can vary the missions, tweak the AI and throw in a more compelling narrative, then this is a great sequel waiting to happen. But as it stands Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a fairly average, forgettable experience.
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