Five years on from the last Ghost Recon outing and more than a decade since the original, Wildlands attempts to redefine and reinvigorate arguably the toughest, deepest and most complex Tom Clancy franchise. For the most part, it achieves that goal.
It might be the best Ghost Recon game yet, but that means we’ll have to throw out what we already know and appreciate about the brand. In many respects, the core philosophy remains intact, but this is still unlike any Ghost Recon game we’ve played before.
Structurally, it embraces open-world fundamentals and true player freedom: the main goal of taking down El Sueño can be achieved by following any path you so desire, which is an appealing and refreshing approach towards a singular objective.
The world is scattered with an endless stream of cartels: take them down, gather some intel, interrogate, and investigate to move a step closer to the primary target.
The challenge was always in trying to honour Ghost Recon’s structured albeit flexible approach to tactical warfare, while also offering players unbridled open-world freedom. It’s hit and miss for Wildlands, but this is still a game that can be marvellously fun in large pockets.
Is it equally as tactical and strategic? What really separates Ghost Recon from those before it is that it doesn’t really care how you approach an objective. Some missions are designed to fail you should you not remain completely and utterly unseen by the target, but these feel like scripted efforts to help maintain the brand’s recognisable stealth appeal.
In other situations, the game world throws what seems like an endless stream of faction forces at you, which act as arguably the toughest — and most frustrating — opponents in the game. “Wildlands” is a particularly fitting title in many regards, because sometimes the world goes from peaceful — bordering on dead — to utterly insane.
Entering this wild world alone makes for a slightly more predictable experience. The AI partners are competent enough, and can be surprisingly efficient whenever things get really tough. But they simply don’t make up for the reaction time and creativity of a human player.
Where some missions genuinely need four team members to complete — yourself and three AI — only two or three humans players are really needed. That’s not to say the game is unplayable or unenjoyable when played alone. In fact, I should probably commend Ubisoft for having offered relatively smart AI partners (although, don’t expect Einstein).
It’s hard to gauge at this point how either approach — be it with AI or human partners — really works at later stages in the game, because I simply haven’t gotten that far in yet. But I have concerns about random difficulty spikes, which are fuelled by the unpredictability of the game world. Some may see this as a positive trait, and I can appreciate that.
However, so often would we be undertaking a mission — having followed every directive perfectly and remained completely out of sight — only to have a passing Unidad faction spot us from a car or helicopter. Once that happens, you’re essentially battling the limits of the mission and objective — which you’ll probably fail for being spotted — while also taking on what seems like an endless stream of faction forces.
I appreciate the approach here because the idea is that you’re an alien in this world, and a threat to the factions. But there aren’t really any cues to let you know about what’s coming. Hearing over the radio that forces are inbound doesn’t help: are they come from the north? South? Air? Water? I’ve lost count the amount of times I lost a mission because I got caught up in an endless firefight with Unidad forces.
I’m not sure how Ubisoft could address this, because I don’t think they should tone down the actual difficulty. But perhaps the approach could be a little more thought-out. Better audio and visual cues would certainly help, or maybe Unidad could be a little less vigilant and not just attack whenever they spot us in the bushes. Seeing a drone, car theft, combat, or something suspicious, I can understand, but at the moment it’s just a matter of being spotted and attacked.
Thankfully, when stuff like this does happen you stand to be packing some pretty intense heat, because Wildlands customisation options are perhaps the game’s second selling point behind the open world.
What I really like is that the game at least attempts to offer some sense of individualism to the character creation process — evolving what was a fairly limited and boring feature in The Division — and exploring different ways in which players can tweak and adjust their main protagonist.
Further, the sheer depth of weaponry and weapon customisation on show is very impressive, although it suffers from Ubisoft UI syndrome by being buried beneath intimidating menus and options.
Ubisoft open-world games tend to buckle under their own weight, throwing so much at the player without some sort of structure that’s immediately obvious. You’ll eventually find yourself breezing through the menus, but I continue to be turned off and frustrated by how much I find myself battling Wildlands’ UI.
It helps that many weapons on offer can be redesigned and customised with what seems like a endless stream of sights, scopes, launchers, and more. The Bolivia game world is a cartel hotbed, after all, so there’s a lot to find in order to stack your own ammunition crates.
My favourite weapons stand to be the sniper rifles, because they just feel great to fire. That goes for most weapons in the game, even if they haven’t been customised, but the sniper rifles actually offer a legitimate element of differentiation in feel and power, something I feel many open-world, third-person shooters lack. Wildlands encourages you to constantly change and evolve your loadout, because the situation can change so drastically, so often.
One moment you may find yourself in a long-range battle with factions, the other you could be in a house moving from room to room. That would demand a sniper or assault rifle, and a shotgun or LMG, respectively. Having a nice balance between every class is so important, because the wild landscape and situations it offers up can change so often, in unpredictable and troubling ways.
Everything about Wildlands is big, bombastic, and deep, and while in most cases that stands to be a big positive and selling point for the game, it also stands as the game’s biggest issue.
Ubisoft tells us that Wildlands is the biggest open-world game it’s ever made. That’s obviously true, but it’s also far from being the most refined world it’s ever made. At launch, the game is riddled with bugs and glitches. I lost count of the amount of times my female partners had male voices, or the times NPCs suddenly started floating and clipping through objects.
Sometimes missions would fail without any clear reasoning why. In one instance, the target simply sat in their car in a car park: it’s hard to follow someone if they’re not moving. I moved forward to see if I could trigger something, and the mission failed because I was seen. We restarted the mission and the guy finally decided to leave the carpark.
In another instance, my friends and I were attempting to leave a dangerous region while under fire. I jumped into a helicopter, which instantly teleported into the sky and about 1km away from my friends, who then died under enemy fire. Throw in constant framerate drops during heated battles, screen tearing on Xbox One, and some questionable textures and animation issues, and Wildlands can be a real mess at times.
The good news is that only one or two of these issues were true deal and game breakers, but it’s hard to ignore the sheer number of funny glitches and bugs plaguing the game currently. It’s clear that there’s still a lot of work to be done. I wouldn’t say it’s a deterrent, but you should definitely be prepared for a game that isn’t quite as refined as Ubisoft probably wants it to be.
The Final Verdict
Wildlands can be big, fun and dumb at the best of times. Its earlier missions are all a little too similar, but moving beyond the first three hours, the world really opens up and welcomes/threatens you with open arms/militarily-armed factions. I need to spend more time with the game’s online features to really know what sort of game Wildlands wants to be, but at the moment I can see the potential for something special. It still needs a lot of work under the hood, however, even if its most glaringly obvious technical issues don’t completely break the game.