After playing the closed and open Beta’s for Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands, I had my concerns and hopes for how the final release game would turn out. A full year following the release of The Division allowed enough time for lessons and feedback into how Ubisoft handle a large scale shooter. Ghost Recon: Wildlands offers a very different playing world to The Division as well as playing style but keeping the focus on teaming up with friends to get the best out of the game. It was time to finally see if Ubisoft had finally ticked all the right boxes for a shooter.
It is hard to imagine but Wildlands is the tenth game in the Ghost Recon series, after the series jumped into the future for its last outing with Advanced Warfighter, Ubisoft have brought the series back to the modern day and for the first time using a true open world to serve as a playground for players. The setting this time is the country of Bolivia in 2019 which has seen the rise in power of a once considered small time drug Cartel in the Santa Blanca. They have become one of the world’s largest producers of Cocaine and their influence has quickly taken dominance in the country, bringing them to the attention of USA’s drug and security agencies. A terrorist attack on the US Embassy leads to the capture of a DEA agent who is then tortured and killed by the Santa Blanca, forcing the US agencies to call in the Ghosts, an Elite Special Forces unit charged with one mission, to take down the Santa Blanca organisation.
Just like in The Division, the first thing a player has to do is create their own Ghost and happily the customization options offer far more than in The Division with clothing choices and how you can make your agent look. The agent you create will serve as the team leader and will feature as such in all cut-scenes in the story and whilst your choices in how your agent physically looks cannot be changed once set, cosmetic changes to clothing can be made through out the game and the variety is rather satisfying.
To succeed in taking out the Santa Blanca, the Ghosts must dismantle the organisation within Bolivia to weaken their forces and power in order to get to its leader El Sueno. The plan is to take out his lieutenants by going to the region they control and taking down their operations in order to disrupt the organisation enough to gather the to locate and deal with that Lieutenant. Each region will reveal six main story missions to complete, each one unlocked by finding Major Intel Caches which give information into what operations of the Santa Blanca the Lieutenant is responsible for and providing targets to complete. I was impressed with the variation in these story missions as you move from region to region and start to dismantle the cartel’s operations. I found the opening and closing cut-scenes to each lieutenant intriguing as the game plays a cut-scene narrated by El Sueno himself, explaining the lieutenants place in the cartel from his point of view which gives insight into how the Santa Blanca grew to such power in the first place and offers a different angle from the standard “why we must take them out” military objectives that the player will follow in the missions.
Beside the main story missions for each lieutenant and their region, the player can also complete side missions to aid the Rebels in the region fight back. By completing these you will earn XP resources which are used to upgrade the skill tree to unlock new abilities or to boost already unlocked skills. Supplies can also be tagged for the Rebels to collect to help their cause and doing so will again build XP resources needed for upgrading. These side missions can range from stopping enemy convoys in order to tag their contents for picking up by the rebels to helping to spread their propaganda message by activating radio transmitters and defending them whilst the message is broadcasted. My personal favourites are the vehicle capture and delivery missions which involve taking vehicles such as helicopters, planes and prized high end sports cars from the cartel and delivering them to the rebels which earns high amounts of resources. I will admit that the Rebel side missions can feel a little repetitious in each region; the rewards for completing them makes them all worth it long term and give plenty of gameplay to compliment the story missions.
Wildlands is best played with friends or other players, it is a strategic shooter after all and you can see how feedback to The Division has influenced this side to the game. Joining a friend’s game is smooth as is using public matchmaking to find other squads to play with. The entire story can be played in co-op with four players teaming together and the sheer size of the playable area is staggering with impressed me with the lack of loading screens after being spawned in the world, meaning you can travel from region to region completing missions without any break in loading screens unless you die and require respawning. Real team work between players brings the gameplay to a different level as tactics can be used in tackling missions and just the fun that can be had in this open world playground.
For those who prefer playing solo, Wildlands accommodates this well with the three remaining members of the Ghost team becoming AI Controlled during the game. Now this side kind of breaks the flow if I am honest as it bends the rules a little too much at times. For example, if playing solo and you decide to take a vehicle and just race off to an objective, should your vehicle have enough room, the AI controlled characters will simply spawn in the vehicle despite you leaving without them. They will also just suddenly appear as soon as stop the vehicle, something that with other players will not happen as they physically will have to travel to where you are in order to join you. AI controlled characters can spot enemies and are useful in a fire fight without being too overpowered and serve has very handy medic should you get taken out and will revive you. So whilst best played with friends or other real players, playing solo is completely possible.
Visually the world of Bolivia is just stunning on screen, with some truly breathtaking scenery and backdrops to the action which can take place on ground, on water and in the air. Different environments force players to adapt their approach to missions as well as just navigating around the regions. Wildlands has one of the most impressive dynamic weather systems I have seen in recent years with a staggering storm system that recreates a lightning storm that will make you stop in your tracks to observe. The lighting is so robust in the game engine that you can see breaks in the cloud as sunlight pours through as lightning lights up the sky, and if a storm happens above a valley, each strike will light up the valley as well. Watching the sun rise or set is not only visually impressive but also highlights when night time is about to begin or end, thus adding a new strategy if planning on attacking an enemy stronghold or encampment as darkness adds a new tactical option for players.
Vehicle use is a strong element in Wildlands and the options are plentiful. From using off-road vehicles like dirt bikes or 4×4’s to the different sea based craft to taking to the air in attack helicopters or planes, navigating around the Bolivian country is tremendous fun. It is then a shame that sadly vehicle use has similar problems in handling as the first Watchdogs game. The camera can be a pain as vehicles will tend to be rather finicky to drive with a more arcade driving style than I had expected, depending on the type of vehicle you use, it will take some time to get a feel for how they handle and especially at speed. I had hoped that feedback from the beta’s and from Watchdogs would have influenced the driving to be more refined but it certainly is not a game breaker but is an annoyance overall which I feel could easily have been avoided.
I am really enjoying my time with Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands, it is amazing fun with friends but still satisfying if played solo. The story is strong and gives enough gameplay within the open world of Bolivia to keep the pace strong but allowing players to do their own thing in their own time in terms of tackling regions and lieutenants. The gun play is great with enough weapons to unlock and customise to give new attacking options with the enemy offering just enough resistance to stop it at times from being a complete cake walk to completing tasks but never feeling too underpowered with a skill tree that rewards the player effort in collecting enough XP resources to upgrade them. Though the side missions do indeed feel a tad rinse and repeat after a while, overall there is enough here in the main story campaign to keep the action exciting and fun. Of course the question of how this is sustained long term hangs above Wildlands as someone who has played The Division since its launch, there is a fear that once you have done all there is to do in the world, what will be left to do in it going forward. This is something Ubisoft will need to pay attention to when it starts to release the two expansions planned for Wildlands, sooner rather than later needs to be their goal here.
Whilst nothing in Ghost Recon Wildlands can be seen as groundbreaking or truly unique, Ubisoft has managed to blend a good number of their games together to give Wildlands a solid foundation to launch with. The use of the tactical drone to survey and mark enemies has been influenced by Watchdogs 2, The Division style of weapon customisation works well here without the cover based system it used and the clearing of regions and upgrading skills on the fly is very much inspired from recent Far Cry games. But Wildlands succeeds in refreshing the Ghost Recon series, bringing it back to a more grounded modern day setting with the decision to go with a large open world drives the freedom to tackle the story however they choose to do so. In what could have been rather generic gameplay and story, Ghost Recon Wildlands offers great fun for fans of third person shooters and nothing will beat teaming with friends, tearing through the Bolivian countryside as you are pursued by Cartel forces and seeing a friend pop out of the boot of the car to return fire….a definite highlight of my time with this game!