Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a remarkable open world achievement, but the tried-and-tested Ubisoft formula is starting to get seriously stale.
As someone who hasn't played a Ghost Recon title before, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect going into Ghost Recon: Wildlands. The emphasis on cooperative play, tight, squad-heavy tactics and open world shenanigans held a ton of promise. And the few trailers I had seen made the game seem expansive — and it really, really is.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands is fun, but it is also painfully formulaic.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands in brief
Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a tactical shooter for squads of up to four friends. You must fight your way through a besieged Bolivia, where a global drug cartel known as Santa Blanca has sucked the authorities, government and populace into its brutal regime. Your mission, Operation Kingslayer, is to destabilize and ultimately destroy the Santa Blanca cartel, eradicating its boss of bosses, El Sueño, in the process.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands' story likely won't win any awards, but it's well presented and interesting enough to keep you moving. What really stands out for Ghost Recon: Wildlands is its country-sized open world, which is awe-inspiringly massive. Crammed with missions fans of Far Cry, The Division, and Watch Dogs will be familiar with, Ghost Recon: Wildlands will keep sandbox fans busy for dozens of hours, and for completionists, even longer.
Practically everything in Ghost Recon: Wildlands has been seen before.
The main downsides in Wildlands stem from its visuals, which struggle on consoles in some ways due to the game world's size and draw distance. More severe is its lack of ingenuity. Practically everything in Ghost Recon: Wildlands has been seen before, often in Ubisoft's own games. If "playing it safe" was a crime, Ghost Recon: Wildlands would get multiple life sentences.
If you're fatigued with Ubisoft's brand of open world adventures, you can probably skip this game. But if you're still eager for more map unlocking, convoy missions and outpost assaults (and clearly, millions are), Wildlands blends the best aspects of every open world game Ubisoft has ever made.
Keep reading for our full review.
As mentioned, Ghost Recon: Wildlands is set in Bolivia, South America, where a fictional drug cartel holds an iron grip over the citizenry, authorities and the government. The Santa Blanca drug cartel is responsible for feeding drugs to the West, and creating violence across South America and Mexico, leading to an intervention from the U.S. military. The Ghosts, a squad comprised of up to four players or a single player and three A.I. players, must infiltrate Bolivia and systematically work to wipe out the cartel's bosses, fighting towards El Sueño himself, Santa Blanca's boss of bosses.
I haven't fully completed the game's story as of this writing, but without giving too much away, it seems to be pretty standard fare for Ubisoft. While the villains are abundant and fairly varied, none are really given enough airtime to weave an emotional connection with the player and plot. The voice acting is well executed, however, even if the game's absence of in-game cutscenes harms the plot's delivery. Instead, as you shoot, blast, and battle your way through Santa Blanca's ranks, you will unearth documents, audio, and video files that provide a bit of exposition about the game's characters. There are occasional comic-book-style vignettes narrated by El Sueño, but so far it seems like story takes a back seat in Ghost: Recon Wildlands.
Your squad mates occasionally banter, discussing the task at hand, Bolivia, and past military tours, offering differing perspectives on their roles as autonomous soldiers. Ghosts, you see, are part of an elite black ops unit that undertakes special "off the record" missions. The Ghost team has been sent to dismantle Santa Blanca for good, putting an end to the cartel's reign of terror.
At first glance, Ghost Recon: Wildlands might seem like a very pro-West sort of game, which haphazardly celebrates the fact Western powers have the capability to violate foreign sovereignty whenever they like.
The game's dialogue offers a range of arguments and points of view.
Indeed, the Bolivian government complained to Ubisoft's home country, France, about the way Bolivia is depicted in the game: a lawless land where civilians live under the thumb of corrupt rule. I'm not here to pass judgment over Ubisoft's choices in this area, but the Ghosts do show that the game's writing team has a degree of self-awareness. The game's dialogue offers a range of arguments and points of view for the behaviour of Western nations, violent drug cartels, and the innocent people affected by their actions.
Ubisoft could've taken a safer route, creating a fictional nation and fictional socio-economic issues upon which to base its game. So, even though the plot is a little unnoteworthy, Ubisoft deserve credit for putting a spotlight on the reality that some of the pretty gruesome scenes depicted in the game really are happening around the world, as a result of the drug war, whether they occur in Bolivia or not.
Setting and visuals
The size of the game's open world is its biggest asset. It is enormous, and that word really doesn't even do the game's size justice. Ubisoft went all out to create a country-sized playspace for Wildlands, complete with NPC ecosystems, a wide variety of terrains and locations, and the means to traverse them. However, all this size doesn't come without hard tradeoffs on consoles.
It wouldn't be so easy to see those compromises, perhaps, if Ghost Recon: Wildlands wasn't so similar to Ubisoft's other games. The same animations, various assets, and even systems appear to have been ripped straight out of Tom Clancy's The Division, which is, by and large, a much prettier game. Ghost Recon: Wildlands suffers from aggressive texture compression, with very little anti-aliasing to smoothen out those pixelated edges. Of course, this is due to the game's massive sandbox format, which goes to lengths to reveal itself with immense draw distances. Ghost Recon: Wildlands will doubtless look best on PC, where the company won't have needed to make such harsh compromises.
Technical tradeoffs aside, Ghost Recon: Wildlands suffers from the occasional frame rate dip and screen tear, but it's nothing that will hinder your experience. It runs at 30 frames per second (FPS) on Xbox One, which is a bit of a shame too, given its focus on tactical, reactionary shooter combat. I'm not suggesting that's Ubisoft's fault, though. Wildlands simply exposes the limitations of this current console generation.
As a sandbox game, complete with jeeps, bikes, boats, and helicopters, Ubisoft is putting itself against the likes of Grand Theft Auto V and Just Cause 3. Wildlands isn't really on par with Rockstar Games' mastery of the genre, however.
Townships and villages are filled with NPCs, but they generally lack the polish and interactivity found in similar games. They bump into each other, ignore corpses, and sometimes randomly vanish and reappear at will, shattering the immersion. Most of Wildlands' open world feels like a fake movie set filled with copy and pasted props and soulless mannequins, standing in stark contrast to the dynamic NPCs found in GTAV or The Witcher 3. That said, it could also be symptomatic of Wildlands' near-mythical size, where compromises were once again made for the sake of scale. This is where the game really shines.
If you didn't get the message already, it's positively insane how big Ghost Recon: Wildlands is. You only truly get a sense of its scale when you're airborne, as it's one of the few games where you really can visit those mountains in the distance. The draw distances are very impressive, especially when combined with the game's dynamic day and night cycles and weather systems. Thunderstorms at dusk look terrific, and being able to see little points of light from distant cars and settlements, and knowing they are physical aspects of the game's world, is utterly remarkable.
Over the years, many games have missed the point of an expansive open world. There's often a correlation with the size of a game's world and the scarcity of raw actual gameplay. So does Ghost Recon: Wildlands fall into that trap?
Ghost Recon: Wildlands is heavily squad-based, and can be played either solo with A.I. teammates or with three friends on Xbox Live. For the most part, I played the game in two-player co-op, and many of my thoughts revolved around the idea that it's just such a Ubisoft game.
You travel around a large open world, killing lieutenants and mini bosses to access more bosses, unlocking localized points of interest and map access by completing repetitive actions. There are enemy outposts, weapon unlocks, skill trees, regenerating health, gathering supply drops, and so on. Many of Ghost Recon: Wildlands gameplay devices can be found in Watch Dogs, Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, and Tom Clancy's: The Division, and the game does little to hide that fact.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you enjoy Ubisoft's brand of open world games. But as someone who feels pretty fatigued by this particular format, I was a bit frustrated with the game's lack of originality.
After I got over that a bit, I realized I was still having fun, and indeed, there is a lot to love about Ghost: Recon Wildlands.
Indeed, there is a lot to love about Ghost: Recon Wildlands.
Infiltrating enemy strongholds, mansions, and settlements all play out in much the same way as they do in Far Cry 3 or 4, with a few key differences. There tends to be way more enemies to deal with, due to the game's squad-based focus. As you progress through the game's monstrously huge map, the enemy factions will begin to ramp up their counters, forcing you to seek increasingly creative engagement methods.
A typical mission might require you to blow up a convoy (Far Cry), execute or interrogate a specific target (Assassin's Creed), or hit multiple objectives within a time limit (The Division). You are rewarded with extra story missions, new weapons, new weapon parts, and skill points to develop your fully customizable character. What sets Ghost: Recon Wildlands apart, somewhat, is the sandbox-style breadth of options you have for achieving your objectives.
You can send your squad to take up positions, summon additional rebels to your aid, and get into huge firefights against armored patrol vehicles and helicopters. You can pilot helicopters of your own, raining death upon your enemies with Gatling guns. You can take a stealthy approach, sneaking around, executing enemies with close-quarters combat and silencers. And you can get creative, luring enemies into huge C4 traps.
There are a wealth of options to promote tactical play, too. You can set markers on enemies, which give visual feedback when one of your A.I. or human squadmates are locked on and ready to fire. You can then synchronize your takedowns, ensuring the enemy stays none the wiser. You also get access to a flying drone, which comes with its own set of upgrades, giving you the ability to scout out the game's large and varied locations to help you plan attacks.
Planning and successfully executing a flawless plan with a friend or two feels genuinely satisfying.
Planning and successfully executing a flawless plan with a friend or two feels genuinely satisfying. This is where Wildlands differentiates itself a bit. It's not really comparable to The Division, where most tactical play ends up lost due to how enemies absorb bullets like sponges. And it's not fully comparable to Far Cry either, owing to the inclusion of heavy vehicles like gunner choppers and tanks. Well-placed headshots, bullet drops, careful planning and reactionary, strategic play are really emphasized in Ghost Recon: Wildlands, where extreme violence is just as viable a strategy as a soft, stealthy approach. Some of that satisfaction is washed away, however, when playing solo.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands A.I. + tank gunner = ezmode. pic.twitter.com/up3tR0KS3u— Jez of Empires ⚔ (@JezCorden) March 6, 2017
In solo play, your A.I. squadmates take the place of human players, and Wildlands does a decent job of maintaining that squad-based strategic feel with them in tow. You can direct your squad to specific locations, order them into assault mode, and instruct them to guard a point. The ability to control them is very general, however. Your A.I. squad might defend a vague location, but they don't know how to protect a specific target, which is essential for certain missions. This makes some mission types far harder than they would be with human players.
On the flip side, the A.I. can make certain missions incredibly easy. Because the A.I. squad members have perfect aim, putting them in the gunner seat of a tank pretty much guarantees complete and total destruction of entire enemy bases, without you having to lift a finger. Once you have leveled up your squad a bit, you can also cheese missions using the sync shot system, directing your A.I. teammates to snipe specific enemies while you spot with your drone. It all feels a little trivial, but it's not as gameplay trivializing as the game's store, which odiously allows you to buy in-game unlockable weapons using real money. Sigh.
The difficulty ramps up and down depending on the mission type. Sometimes enemies will be covered head to foot in body armor, and some bases deploy signal jammers to prevent you from using your drone. As the Cartel gets more desperate, it'll start sending attack choppers, armored tanks and more, to try and stop your advance.
I never once found myself bored, or struggling to find things to do.
Despite the fact that Ghost Recon: Wildlands does very little that is unique, I never once found myself bored, or struggling to find things to do. There's a dizzying variety of missions to undertake, and not just the garden variety Far-Cry-style side missions either. Some of the story missions have interesting twists and turns, and even humor, with the occasional mechanic that is specific to that mission. The vast majority, however, won't really surprise the seasoned open world gamer.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands review — Conclusion
The game's technical compromises are clear on consoles, but the results are worthwhile. It's breathtaking to see an open world realized at this level of detail and magnitude, complete with dynamic weather, day and night cycles, and wildly varied terrain types and environments. It's still just all a little too familiar.
Over the years, Ubisoft seems to have cobbled together a standard formula for open world games, which they now disseminate to Watch Dogs, Assassin's Creed, The Division, Ghost Recon Wildlands, and Far Cry, doubtless with more on the way. This isn't necessarily a criticism, because the studio certainly isn't without creativity, having recently shipped the unique fighting game, For Honor, and the fairly original terrorist shooter, Rainbow Six: Siege. However, it's worth pointing out how unoriginal this all is for those who, like me, might feel a little tired of the format. But for some, that might be a plus!
- Huge open world, brimming with content
- It's quite fun for dedicated, 2 to 4-player squads
- It's another Ubisoft open world game
- Visuals struggle on Xbox One
- Some odd bugs, but nothing gamebreaking
- It's another Ubisoft open world game
Overall, Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a solid sandbox adventure for groups of up to four friends. In solo play, Ghost Recon: Wildlands loses a bit of its mojo, but the game's unprecedented scale and piles of content should prove euphoric for fans of open world games.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands launches on March 7th, 2017, for Xbox One, PC and PS4.
This review was conducted on Xbox One using a copy provided by Ubisoft.