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Ghost Recon: Wildlands review — A miraculously massive and unfortunately uninspired game

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.

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Story impressions

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?

Gameplay

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

Tank + Aimbot squad mates = Easy mode.

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!

Pros:

  • Huge open world, brimming with content
  • It's quite fun for dedicated, 2 to 4-player squads
  • It's another Ubisoft open world game

Cons:

  • 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.

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This review was conducted on Xbox One using a copy provided by Ubisoft.

Jez Corden
Jez Corden

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

44 Comments
  • Thank you - have been deciding whether to get this. This helped tremendously.
  • I already own FarCry 3, The Division, and Watchdogs. Dont need to buy another copy. UbiSoft just recycles the same crap and has completely ruined one of the best tactical shooters of all time. Would it just be that hard to make a modernized Ghost Recon: Desert Seige style game?   I dont think it would be but then again it does not let UbiSoft get away with a half baked recycled game reusing the same assets and mechanics in a dozen other of their games.  OH and dont forget the season pass and microtransactions.
  • I watched a few gameplay trailers of this game and it looked boring and uninspired, I'm glad that my initial aversions are founded.
  • This is pretty much exactly what I expected; unfortunately that doesn't make the choice between PC and Xbox any easier. I want those hugely improved graphics, but all of my friends are on Xbox... Microsoft really needs to just mandate that all future titles be Play Anywhere so we can play with friends and enjoy nice graphics; and it forces devs to future proof the games by making them for the UWP.
  • I don't think they can really mandate that at this point. Do extra work or don't sell it on Xbox will likely turn into not selling it on Xbox. Not to mention the fact that Play Anywhere does not equal Cross Play
  • With Xbox being only slightly behind PS4 in sales the majority of devs would never walk away from Xbox. At least not this console cycle. And forcing UWP and Play Anywhere will pay dividends for the Devs down the road once Project Scorpio comes out; no need to make the Xbox One Version and a higher end Scorpio-only version, the same game would scale across both and PC.
  • I don't think you understand how this works. It will still be a different version optimized for console so there will be some level of devlopment across both platforms. Xbox isn't slightly behind PS4, it's about half behind. Theres also no proff that Play Anywhere will pay out more, since you have to buy it on the Windows store, and with people's loyalty to Steam (since Play anywhere is really only a benefit to PC gamers), that's gonna be a hard sell (especially with the price difference).
  • Agreed most developers will develop for xbox/ps4, but xbox isn't slightly behind, it is getting crushed.  Lets get that straight.  
  • hmm another fanboy or whatever they call them , i take it you have a ps4 and cant see past it,its funny that everyone ive ever spoke to that has both consoles say that even though ps4 has better fidelility or graphics they prefer xbox as the games play alot better and also when it comes to online capabilities xbox destroys ps4 which would be pretty obvious what with it being microsoft in that.Me i use pc and xbox but my brother has a ps4 which does have better fidelity on some games but overall settings and homepages and sound and online capabilities then it aint even a debate really.What are you all going to say when the scorpio comes along with its 6 teraflops to ps4plus less inferior model.I just dont get why ps4 users always come out with this crap as if your trying to convince yourselfs .Yes its better graphics but it stops there.
  • You wanna talk fanboy, look at yourself. It is an undeniable fact that there are around twice as many PlayStation 4s than Xbox ones. I am an Xbox one/PC gamer and I'm not disillusioned by the fact that if MS mandated that everything be Play Anywhere, less devs would build for the game. Look at EA, do you think they would submit to that with all the money grubbing they go for? Of course I wish that would work out, but I look at the facts and form an opinion based on that in the context of the discussion.
  • haha whatever
  • I still think that the original Ghost Recon was the best tactical shooter I played.
    One bullet can kill you and you have to switch to another team member to finish the mission. Enemies were smart and used cover well. Sometimes even taking cover behind the bodies of their fallen comrades, while others flanked you under suppressive fire.
  • Glad I don't listen to reviews!
  • And you made that decision by...reading a review?
  • Actually no I didn't read the review I was in the open beta!
  • I think I made valid points. What do you disagree with?
  • I just don't go by what the reviewer says I watch gameplay of other gamers and make my decision on that but with Wildlands I already knew it was a purchase also by playing the beta and letting the developers know what I liked and disliked. I feel when people don't experience a game for themselves that they are missing out. But c'est la vie.
  • Definitely, but I wanted to help people make a purchase decision, that's mainly why we write reviews.
  • This is why ALL games should have demos. But then again, the really crappy games won't get sold then based on hype alone lol.
  • There's going to be a Day 1 patch for this game. Hopefully it fixes the bugs. I'm probably not going to get this game after reading this review. Otherwise, wait till the price goes down 50%, lol.
  • I don't require inspiration for a good time playing a video game. This game is an absolute blast in coop.
  • That's pretty much what I wrote. I just don't want people to expect that they're getting anything super fresh from this game, because it does nothing unique really.
  • that's a sad headline....i like the Ghost Recon series...
  • Game isn't bad, I just wish it was a bit more unique. It's still fun.
  • I had a blast in the BETA's and can't wait to jump into the game tonight, im not bothered with the fact that it might be similar to other Ubisoft games, for me its all about the fun factor and this game was off the charts when i played with my buddies and even when solo i would try to come up with ways to take out the enemy.
  • Exactly. If you still love the Ubisoft formula, Ghost Recon might be the ultimate game.
  • This game is just as boring as The Division except now you have to drive really far to your missions. Doesn't help that every car feels as though its driving on ice. That's just my opinion though.
  • I agree on the vehicles, the vehicle handling isn't great. Pales in comparison to GTA, etc.
  • Sound just like all of ubisofts games at the moment waste of money
  • This game is incredible if you bump the difficulty all the way up, remove HUD elements, and play with friends.
  • I was a fan of previous Ghost Recon games and was looking forward to this.  But after playing for just over three hours I've come to the conclusion that this is a, don't buy.  I played with three of my friends and after playing a few missions and trying out the physics of the game we had fun here and there but over all we've either played this before or wanted more.  The controls still feel stiff and rigged.  Lots of draw in and pop up (I was playing on a PS4).  The story is bland and not very exciting.  Driving a motorcycle and car is not fun at all.  The AI in past games were better and took more precision to take down, which led to that moment when you did take them down it was a great achievement.  I was exhausted after playing this and not in a good way.  Oh well, maybe next time around.
  • I am loving it so far. It's a return to the GRAW style gameplay but in an open world, which is exactly what I wanted it to be. And once you get into the harder areas with the game on extreme difficulty, it's a blast with friends. That said, the helicopters are an exercise in frustration. The cars and bikes I can live with, but helicopters are awful.
  • I actually didn't mind the helicopters after some practice.
  • Try the helicopter.
  • Decent review, but the fact that you've never played a Ghost Recon game before means you shouldn't have been the one to review it. Also, playing in only 2 player coop is not how it was designed.
  • It's completely different to the original games, this is open world.
  • Not completely... Mechanically, it plays just like GRAW and GRAW2 did. It being open world doesn't change that.
  • GRAW/2 aren't the original games. It is open world, but you can still play it like a tactical squad based shooter like OGR and IT.
  • I didn't just play it in 2-player co-op, as the review details. Also I'm not sure what relevance playing previous Ghost Recon games has to do with it. I'm helping people make a purchase decision, whether they've played Ghost Recon or not.
  • MGS5 set the bar for these games, all the ubis seem kind of tired.
  •    
  • I my self agree with most, i was acually really suprised to find the game decently optimized. with my potato of a computer it ran on low/standard in a 25-30 fps with some small drops. The driving is insane though, its fun driving a tank off a cliff and riding it it as it speeds down a hill at crazy speeds with no damage if it hits other stuff..
  • Ubisoft is everything that's wrong in videogame today.
  • I always love seeing people cry about how "Ubisoft does this, Ubisoft does that, blah blah recycle" crap...  Honest to God, nearly every company recycles crap and has their flaws.  You have your yearly Call of Duty releases.  You have your Battlefield releases.  You have your Final Fantasys (let's be honest, 13 sucked and 15 was a waste of 16 years) and Kingdom Hearts (how many more x.5 or x.8s are they going to make before releasing 3?).  You have your Grand Theft Autos.  So maybe get off of Ubisoft's nuts and think about how a majority of games are going the S.S.D.D. route. As for microtransactions, so what?  Nearly every game has them now.  Not just Ubisoft, but Square Enix, EA Games, Infinity Ward, Rockstar, Blizzard... Oh, Season Passes?  Nearly every game has those too.  Even Dark Souls and Fallout.  Wanna know the funny thing about microtransactions in this game?  Outside of boosters, it's just for unavailable cosmetics and to unlock weapons/attachments without having to go out in the world, obtain intel, and find them!  They're not even needed! Now I've played Closed Beta, Open Beta, and now have the game and I still love it.  Sure, doing Itacua and Montuyoc again is like nails on the chalkboard, but I am playing with a buddy of mine on Extreme Difficulty and we're enjoying the piss out of it.  It was nice reading this article too because I will admit, I noticed some things that the reviewer had and do disagree in some areas. First off, vehicles suck... Unless you're flying everywhere.  Yes, cars and bikes don't have the same mechanics as our beloved Grand Theft Auto series has and it reminds me a lot of how Far Cry 3's driving was, but I still manage.  (Only thing I would like to request is a rock finder because seriously, hitting rocks is a pain in the ass!  Haha.)  At least you can base jump off higher rock formations to move down in elevation with haste.  Also the fast travel feature does help! Second, difficulty matters.  As I had mentioned, I am playing it on Extreme and I get my ass lit up like a Christmas tree.  Enemies have better accuracy and do more damage.  Also you have no idea where any of the enemies are; they do not display as a red glow on your mini map.  I can not imagine trying to play this game without any HUD or maps though, otherwise I'd be pausing my game every 30 seconds. Third, try not to play with AI if you can.  My God they are derpy.  Sure, there are skills that make your AI into "more efficient killers" (Born Leader perk) and can get everyone in your squad a Sync Shot mark, but it's more fun having human error and communication with others.  I was able to help someone get a 757m sniper shot by being his spotter during the Open Beta by telling him how far off he was.  Also, if you're doing a timed breaching mission, it's more fun to be able to breach all the doors at the same time; divide and conquer. Only thing I will say that I disagree with the reviewer on is the whole plot structure.  I get that people want to be invested in the story and always wanting more.  The way I look at it is that this isn't Call of Duty, where you see people selflessly sacrifice themselves to save others or awesome characters are killed off.  These guys are in Bolivia to take care of a job at the drop of a dime (as explained in the squad's bantering when talking about family).  To further this point, when Bowman asks if Nomad and his crew were involved with a coup in Moscow during the intro cinematic, Nomad answers hesitantly, "Naw, that must have been someone else.  We were never there."  That's their life and they are only there to do their job.  The only backstory you're going to get are from the Kingslayer Files and the only character development you're going to get are from their banters.