When Ubisoft first revealed Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands many moons ago, it was easy to describe the action that was shown as being a kind of mash-up of the more tactical gameplay that you’d expect from earlier titles in the Ghost Recon franchise and the open world goodness of one of the publisher’s other franchises: Far Cry. Now that the game is here, it’s safe to say that description is pretty accurate and on the surface, it’s a combination of gameplay styles that most definitely has potential.
In Wildlands, Ubisoft tasks you with taking down El Sueño, who – along with the main players in his Santa Blanca cartel – has turned the country of Bolivia into one massive drug-producing state where everyone is involved one way or another with ensuring the cartel’s ongoing success. Taking control as the leader of a four-man team, you must infiltrate the cartel by carrying out missions which allow you to disrupt their activities in the areas of production, influence, smuggling, and security. Complete enough missions in a chain and you’ll get a shot at taking down a one of the Santa Blanca buchons, who each control one of the country’s provinces. Take out enough of the buchons and you get to eliminate an underboss. Take out enough underbosses and you get to the main man himself.
When you first look at the map that lays this all out, Wildlands comes across as being something of a daunting prospect, but it’s one which only really reveals the amount of playing time required after you’ve spent an hour or two roaming around the wilds of Bolivia. After a couple of hours, you might have taken down one of the five buchons required to get to the first underboss but what’s more likely is that you will have wondered off in search of all that the country has to offer.
When you’re done taking the grand tour on bikes or in cars, vans, planes, or helicopters, you can choose to take on the story missions more or less in any order that you wish. If one mission starts to annoy or you feel that you could do with levelling up some of your skills before you attempt it again, you can ditch it and take on another that’s in an entirely different path. This is certainly a refreshing approach that makes the game seem even more free-roaming than it first appears, even if doing missions out of order can cause your teammates to get confused and start rambling about characters that you killed hours ago, as if they’ve never heard of them before.
Indeed, the setting is – in true Ubisoft open-world game fashion – a large and sprawling one which is pockmarked with side missions and lashings of collectables, most of which ultimately contribute to the levelling up of your character or the unlocking of new skills and abilities. The remainder of the goodies on offer involve unlocking increasing levels of rebel assistance which – should you need them (and you will) – are useful items to have in your arsenal. Being able to call in a swift mortar strike or requesting ground troops proves to be essential to completing some of the tougher missions later on.
Other tactics at your disposal include the use of drones and binoculars to mark targets for your squad to eliminate, a whole host of standard weaponry – all of which is customizable via the now franchise-regular Gunsmith system – and commands that can be given to your three AI-controlled squadmates. The deadliest of these is the “Sync Shot,” which allows you to order your squad to take down a specific marked target. You mark the guy, wait for a second or two, then wait until they’ve confirmed line of sight before holding the X button to call for them to pull the trigger. This works every single time you use it and the fact that your cohorts seem to be able to get a bead on their mark through walls, trees, vehicles, and anything else that might be in the way, means that this is instantly the go-to move at the start of every mission.
Sadly, that isn’t the only thing that makes missions feel like they’re all just a little bit of history repeating. What takes a large chunk of enjoyment out of your time in the Wildlands is that every single mission – barring a couple of optional side missions where you need to steal a plane or helicopter – feels identical to the last. You roll up to your target, scope the place out, take out the snipers with the sync shot, then either kill everybody else or sneak in to the area in which you’re ultimately supposed to be.
If you find something that could cause you problems – an alarm or a guard – you sneak in and take it out. There is a challenge (sometimes) to getting this absolutely right and there are times when the game provides a real sense of accomplishment when you do so. In the case of Unidad bases though, if you trigger the alarm, you might as well give up there and then since the game cheaply throws a seemingly infinite number of troops your way. The repetitive nature of play even extends to collecting the pickups that are present away from the main enemy encampments. Take out the couple of enemies that are holding the fort, wander in, grab the pickup.
Taking the game into co-op mode is a good way of upping the entertainment level, but even this has its problems. Wildlands will allow you to jump into a public co-op game where you join up with three human allies and watch as they usually all want to take on the mission that will progress their particular instance of the game. More than once during this playtest, I jumped into public co-op to see that the three other players were spread all over the map, doing their own thing which, obviously, means that missions are stupidly difficult to complete. It’s something akin to herding cats.
Joining a game with people you know is much more fun, but again, due to a head-scratching design decision, you really need to have the full complement of four players because the game can’t handle two of you playing with two of your squad being controlled by the AI. The result is that you end up taking on the same amount of enemies with half of the firepower. Running around as a twosome through a base that’s half a kilometre across, being chased by fifty Unidad soldiers and two gunship helicopters as another enemy fires mortars at you from every angle, trying to find the thing that’s going to trigger the next stage of the mission (but which hasn’t been explained) is fun for about five minutes.
That unexplained mission target isn’t the only bug to be found in the Wildlands, either. One mission in particular glitched entirely three times in a row for me, each time failing to recognize that I’d completed it and also not allowing me to restart it without a full reboot of the game. In another mission, a generator that you must destroy inexplicably doesn’t succumb to two charges of C4, but instead only explodes when you fire a single bullet at it. You can add some confusing enemy AI (they’ll act as if they can’t see your squad if you’re in the process of being revived, for example, even though they’re stood a foot away from both your savior and your injured body) along with some ugly draw-in and skipping lighting effects – even on PS4 Pro hardware – to the list, too. Cap it all off with some of the most bro-tastic repetitive dialogue to be found in any open-world game released to date – “…and baby makes three” when you mark a third enemy raises a smile the first time around, but not the two hundredth – and the whole thing just feels more than a little below par.
When a little bit of polish is missing, it’s not the end of the world. When that missing polish only serves to contribute to an already nagging feeling that the game just hasn’t come together as the developer would have liked, well, that’s an issue. If you’re looking to beat every buchon and underboss in Bolivia, there’s easily a couple dozen hours of gameplay to be had here and it would be unfair to say that it’s a total bust. The game is undoubtedly best played with a full squad of human players and in that scenario, Ghost Recon: Wildlands can be great fun. It’s just that feeling isn’t likely to survive the repetitiveness of proceedings as long as the development team seems to expect that it will.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Dropping Ghost Recon's tactical action into an open-world is certainly an intriguing prospect, but the final product isn't nearly as interesting as it should be.