Ghost Recon Wildlands Review
Over the last decade or so, Ubisoft has had two major focuses. The first is a constant evolution of the open-world game concept. Assassin's Creed, The Crew, Far Cry and Watch_Dogs show they're willing to use a large stage for games. The second focus has been a heavier use of online functionality in their titles. It can be focused like For Honor or a title that has robust online play, like TrackMania, or the subscription portion of the Just Dance series. The last two Tom Clancy games have changed dramatically because of these two elements. Rainbow Six: Siege was a team-based, competitive, online-only tactical shooter that blossomed into one of its strongest titles yet. Ghost Recon: Wildlands feels simultaneously familiar but very, very different.
Set in the present day, the game opens with the story of El Sueño, head of the Santa Blanca Cartel, reminiscing about the group's rise to power and subsequent takeover of Bolivia as a haven for cocaine production and trade. The government has struggled to fight them but decided to leave them alone, since the losses to their side were too great. Meanwhile, an undercover DEA agent was killed after the group discovered his betrayal. That was the last straw, and the Ghosts are sent in to dismantle the group and help the local rebel unit along the way.
Before talking about the big changes, it should be noted that most of Ghost Recon's basic tenets are still present. You take command of a squad of four soldiers and can issue general commands at any time. Everyone is affected by bullets in the same way, so it only takes a few good shots to down anyone, whether they're a regular person or a boss. You can crouch or lie prone, and you have a regenerative health system if you take more shots than you want, but if you fall, you can be revived by your teammates once per fight. You can procure new weapons if you run out of ammo at an inopportune time, and you can customize every part of the guns in your possession. Customizations include cosmetic paint jobs and modifications that can alter weapon stats.
The freedom to approach each mission any way you want is still here, but it's limited in some ways. You can go in with guns blazing like a standard shooter, but that'll likely get you killed quickly. You can take the stealth approach by cutting off power for alarms and sneaking behind people to knock them out. You can pick apart enemies at a distance by using your binoculars or drones to tag enemies while your partners snipe them. As long as the objective is met, there's no wrong way to approach a mission.
Aside from the freedom in tackling missions, the franchise's other consistent feature is its online play. There is no dedicated online mode here, as the game is always connected with drop-in/drop-out multiplayer. With no adversarial modes, your interactions with other players are in a strictly co-op sense, with the ability to work together for the whole game from beginning to end or on a mission-to-mission basis. We played on live servers, but the pool of players was limited to press and a few developers, so it was a little more time-consuming to find a partner to team up with for a few fights. With that in mind, online play was extremely smooth. As expected, the game is tremendously fun if you're playing with other people. If you're averse to human interaction or don't have like-minded gamers to play with, the AI is fantastic for solo play. The AI does a great job of healing you when you need it, and their attacks are good enough to handle the opposition.
The XP system from Future Soldier is back, but now, you can only purchase new skills and boosts for your soldier instead of giving you those things once you reach the required level. Your squad is comprised of soldiers who are generally good at everything instead of excelling at specifics. Unlike what you saw with Advanced Warfighter and onward, the character customization is more in line with something like The Division, as normal clothes are merged with military-style backpacks and boots.
The hook for Wildlands is also the biggest change for the series to date: the transition from a traditional mission structure to an open-world setting. Ubisoft claims that you're fighting in one of the largest open worlds it's ever created, and while the review period didn't afford us the time to verify this claim, the game really does feel that large. The country is divided into 21 different districts, each with numerous little towns and outposts. Some of the sections are merely mountainous jungles with a few paved roads and villages, but you can explore a variety of other environments, like partially snowy lakes and large salt flats. It is pretty similar to the truncated version of the United States seen in The Crew, though it wouldn't be surprising to learn that this version of Bolivia may not be as shrunken down as you'd think.
With a large world comes a need for vehicles to traverse it, and just about anything you can think of is at your disposal in Wildlands. There's the expected variety of vehicles, including APCs, boats, cars, helicopters, planes and trucks. All of the cars let your teammates ride out of the window to lay down fire when needed. You also have motorcycles, and while it might seem problematic for a squad to travel on bikes in multiplayer, that issue is alleviated in solo play since your missing team members respawn on your location once you're on foot again.
In some ways, the treatment of vehicles is much better than what you may have experienced in other open-world titles. All wheeled vehicles and boats don't feel loose when you're driving them. Even though most of the roads are unpaved, you never feel like you're fishtailing or unintentionally hitting objects. Vehicle durability is also much improved, as every one of them is tough. You can go off-roading with the most expensive sports cars or go headlong into a firefight, and it'll take quite a beating before smoke or flames are emitting from the ride.
However, piloting the airborne vehicles is very awkward. Flying a helicopter is so complicated that you'll look drunk, and planes barely feel any better. If you're sick of using vehicles, you can fast-travel to reach any neutral or rebellion-friendly outpost.
All of this open space means that you'll have tons of side missions and collectibles to keep you busy beyond the story missions. There are various Kingslayer documents to collect to fill in more details about the mission. There are various supplies that can be tagged to give you points in various categories, so you can buy upgrades. Some of the side missions ask you to infiltrate bases to bring back vehicles, free imprisoned rebels, gather enemy data, or perform pirate radio broadcasts.
The vastness of Wildlands leads to an interesting design decision in the form of mission discovery in each region. When you enter a new area, you're met with lots of question marks to indicate places of interest and possible locations of important intel. You're supposed to go to the places to pick up the intel and unlock the next mission for that region. It's a realistic way of going about things, but it becomes repetitive after 21 times, once for each map region. Subsequently, you can stumble upon those missions whenever you're close to their location, which makes for an interesting gameplay flow since you start breaking down things haphazardly.
Injecting the majority of the Ghost Recon mechanics into an open-world setting works better than expected. It shouldn't take very long to finish any of the missions. The ability to hit the missions in any order is a big plus, since it means you won't get stuck if you encounter a difficult one; you can simply skip it and move on. Interestingly, the game borrows from Just Cause 3 in that completing each story mission and map section breaks down the strength of the individual tenets of the cartel (influence, production, security and smuggling). Killing the sub-bosses of those tenets brings out the underboss, and killing those underbosses eventually gets you to El Sueño. The developers have made it so that you only need to clean out two tenets before El Sueño appears. It gives completionists plenty to do but ensures that those who want to see the game's resolution don't have to go through too much.
It's too bad that the takeover of each section and the subsequent weakening of the cartel's stranglehold on the country isn't realized as you progress through the game. There are more rebel patrols, but if you return to hideouts that you've already cleaned out, enemies respawn after a while. It means that subsequent travels through the same area will remain eventful since a skirmish can break out at any time, but you're never going to notice how much better things have gotten due to your involvement.
Wildland's radio broadcasts may rankle some people. Getting into a Santa Blanca vehicle or raiding one of their bases and outposts often triggers their radio station, which is headed up by DJ Perico and plays propaganda and music. The music is pretty good, since it aims for various Latin flavors instead of Top 40 pop hits. The propaganda ranges from expected recruitment dialogue to speeches from El Sueño about his beliefs. The best example of this is when he's recounting the death of a sicario and relating that to why he's never been captured by other enemies; it sounds pretty dumb when you're actually listening to it. The worst offender is the DJ, who does interviews with the Santa Blanca bosses and tells his own stories, which can be humorous but feel out of place in a game that takes things very seriously without diving into parody.
Ubisoft's previous experience in open-world titles has certainly paid off in Wildlands as far as graphics are concerned. The bad news is that there are times where you'll parachute into an area and see bases flicker in and out. The good news is that the overall frame rate holds up nicely at a steady 30fps. The various environments are well detailed, while the day and night cycle and the weather system make all of the environments look gorgeous. It's fascinating to see a rainstorm followed by muddy ground that subsequently dries up over time, and the lighting accentuates things. Elsewhere, character models are well detailed, and the facial animations for in-game cut scenes are good, if slightly off sync for brief moments.
The sound follows a similar path. Unless you're in a car, the music is mostly absent until you get into a heated firefight or are on the verge of being spotted, when tense tracks start to play. Interestingly, the radio option consistently plays on rebel or Santa Blanca vehicles, so it often feels like the locals are running around with broken radios. There are some absurd lines, but the voicework and sound effects are fine.
Your enjoyment of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands is going to depend heavily on how you react to the game's fundamental changes. On the one hand, the move to an open world makes it feel less like a traditional Ghost Recon title, and the inclusion of a radio station that sounds like it belongs in Saints Row or Grand Theft Auto doesn't convert those who want that classic feeling. On the other hand, that same open-world setting combined with the more traditional gunplay mechanics plays out well, there's plenty to do at any time, and it's loads of fun either playing solo or with others. Wildlands is a great game that is worth playing, so long as you aren't averse to change.
Ghost Recon Wildlands 8/10 Rating