Another month, another open world Ubisoft game. All about traveling from one region to another, doing all the area’s local faffing, finishing off barely connected story elements, then moving on to the next. Rinse, repeat, profit. But wait, this one has Tom Clancy’s name emblazoned across it, and it isn’t an odd MMO hybrid. Ghost Recon Wildlands, here we come!
Wildlands does nothing wrong, but doesn’t particularly do anything right. It’s about par for the course as far as Ubisoft open world games go. The standout element here is the sheer scale of the in-game representation of Bolivia. Which, in the near future of 20XX, has been overrun by a drug cartel called Santa Blanca. Because America are the heroes of the entire universe, a covert team of four Ghosts are sent in to fix everything, and with these four, you don’t need an army.
That whole U! S! A! thing lingers just enough to be irritating even if you give no fooks about nationalism and what not. Especially since, when a key mission is available, the squad will repeat the same conversation over and over until you finally get it done. There’s one conversation in particular, which talks about a child slavery ring, questioning why nobody has done anything before. Then going full on MURRICA asserting that the locals were waiting for the mighty U S of A to come in and save the fuggin’ day! After the tenth or so time you hear it, it really does get on your nerves to the extent even I was considering a room with colouring books and a video of frolicking puppies.
Honestly, it’s more annoying because of the dialogue repetition than anything else. Everything else is competent, for the most part. Though the much touted “do it your way” promise was utter baloney. I mean, sure, you could approach enemy compound number 17 from the East and take out the alarm first, or come in from the North and knock out the generators, or from the South-West and…yeah, if that’s what you mean by doing your own thing, there’s sure plenty of that. And hey, you could go in guns blazing (and die) or be slow and sneaky, or slower and even sneakier.
You can approach each of the in game provinces in whichever order you like. Feel free to get all the weapon parts, side quests and whatnot if and when you decide to be arsed. But story missions, those you have to do in sequence, per province at least, and there’s no versatility in your objectives. As in, if you are tasked to infiltrate a compound and kill someone in the face, then you have to kill them in the face. No taking them prisoner and exfiltrating. Oh yeah! And there are forced stealth sections too, which screw with Wildlands’ mechanics so that even being suspected will lead to an instant game over. That shit can go die in a hole, again, where it belongs. Even full stealth games have realised not to do that anymore.
Now then, having said all of that, I’ve still put in more than two full days of actual play time. Which should make it fairly obvious that these are far from being insurmountable barriers. The best thing to do is ignore what we already knew was total bunk and approach Wildlands on its own terms. Don’t go in expecting literary perfection, or perfection of any kind, and just take it for what it is. A cookie cutter, open world, third person action game with four player co-op and an emphasis on stealth.
Hooking up with friends, or alone, to spend some time out on a hillside, spotting all the enemies, then slowly picking them off one at a time with a sniper rifle. Or getting down into the middle and following them to secluded areas, or taking at out a group with synchronized shooting. All that, if you slow down enough to actually do it, can be a lot of fun. It almost makes you feel, you know, like a skilled covert operative.
Both methods of play have their own strengths and weaknesses. Playing with other, living people, be they friends or randoms from open matchmaking, naturally requires some degree of communication. There’s an in game text chat, of course, but things can happen so rapidly, that you really need voice comms to get anywhere. It certainly helps accentuate the teamwork focus and is rather rewarding. Calling out targets, marking them on the map, synchronising takedowns with a couple of words. When things work out the way you want them to, you really start to feel like, y’know, you’re a Special Forces unit who actually knows what they are doing. It’s great having one person just pop the drone and start roving around, spotting and marking the best targets to take down, whilst the rest of the group do the killy killy death part.
Meanwhile, if playing with the in game AI, there are other methods to approach the same sense of efficiency. Though you can’t talk to your squad directly, there are some basic commands you can issue from a command wheel. Unfortunately, there is currently no way to direct individual AI units, so all three will move as a group. But you can make them advance and start shooting as a distraction, or hold back and provide fire support if you want to take a more covert approach.
There’s also a sync shot, which starts at one, but can be upgraded twice, allowing your whole squad to fire as one. Simply mark the enemies you want your squad to dispatch, wait for them to move into position, then either instruct them to fire, or fire yourself and BAM! There’s a cooldown of course, but it feels really cool pulling it off. Best of all, your squad don’t seem to ever give away your position, even if someone is standing literally ontop of one of them. Which is a good thing, because they’re not the sharpest tools in the box, and will never drive a vehicle, leaving you as the designated driver at all times. But at least they aren’t inept, and should you take a vehicle they can’t physically get in or on to, they will teleport to you when you disembark.
Or, if you prefer, there are enough powerful vehicles around, especially the APCs and attack helicopters, that you can go in full on, retard rush, guns blazing and just dick about for ten minutes.
Vehicles are kinda’ clunky though, the controls are actually, somehow, both too simple and too complicated at the same time. Having separate non-conflicting configurations for different types of vehicles is a nice touch, but it can also get a little overwhelming if you start customising them. They’re all more than a little floaty too, which isn’t insufferably bad for vehicles that are supposed to be in the air, but ground vehicles feel way too light and flimsy. There are some settings to address this, such as a slider to change the steering sensitivity, but they don’t seem to actually make any difference. And the way you get your helicopter to move forward is…interesting. You have to hold pitch forward and throttle until you start losing height, then let go of pitch and hold the throttle or the chopper will immediately right itself and cease forward momentum. It’s just weird, but eh.
Despite the Ghost Recon and Tom Clancy pedigree, the narrative and story are about as dumb as can be, the dialogue only fractionally better. Music is forgettable and, most of the time, not even noticeable when it is there. Overall sound quality is solid, with a decent sound balance. This isn’t one of those games that requires you to turn the music volume down to, like, 8% before you can hear in the in game dialogue. Sound effects themselves…actually, some of the unsilenced weapons do sound and feel really beefy. The point I’m making, as previously stated, is its all par for the course.
Graphically, though an undeniably an extremely pretty game, even that is about average for Ubisoft. Impressive in a small, twelve man studio perhaps, but pretty much par for the course for a company with the resources Ubi have behind them. Whilst we’re on the subject, the optimisation is a bit odd. Trying to hit that mythical 60fps, even on some hefty hardware, can be a real pain in the heiny. However, whatever framerate you do manage to reach, it will stay pretty much rock solid no matter what’s going on. Typically only seeming to fluctuate by a few frames either way regardless of how busy the local area is, or the amount of shadows being cast, or anything like that. Though some people have reported their performance absolutely tanking when anyone is wearing a piece of ghillie netting.
There’s very little else to say at this point. It’s just another, Ubisoft, open world action game. At the risk of sounding redundant and terribly repetitive, it’s pretty much what you’d expect it to be. There’s a lot of fun to be had, with the difference between co-op and single player, with AI companions, to make for enjoyable experience in a group or alone. It’s just, y’know, a fun game to play without being anything groundbreaking. Probably, for most people, not worth it at full price, but most certainly worth playing if you want a game to just eat some time.
Enter the Matrix: Guns. Lots of guns. Lots and lots and lots of really cool weapons and gadgets all round.
Scale: Props really do need to go out for the sheer scale of in game Bolivia, it is genuinely huge.
Competent: Nothing is especially noteworthy, but almost nothing is done wrong either.
Optimisation: Hard to get a high framerate, but very easy to get a stable one.
Writing: Hamfisted and uninspired, but perfectly serviceable.
Forced Stealth: Seriously, just die in a Gods damned hole.
Vehicles: Cars are way too light and floaty, air vehicles slightly less so…bikes are really good though.
Oh dear, Ubisoft, oh dear. Where do I even begin. Are you just lazy, or are you just wholly incompetent? With a lot of Ubisoft games, I really can’t tell anymore. It’s like someone within the development studio has these incredibly ambitious ideas going on, only to get squandered by constraints related to time or funding set by the suits up top. Ghost Recon: Wildlands is just about the perfect example of this. It’s got an enormous and truly amazing looking world, where players can do things in whichever order they like, with a core gameplay concept evoking thoughts of “woah, imagine if ARMA had good controls and solid performance”.
Well at a glance, Wildlands is exactly that. It’s a military shooter that throws you and three AI or player teammates into a fictionalized version of Bolivia, where you’re tasked with taking down the Santa Blanca Cartel (current members: 60.000.000 thugs and drug lords). You’re never forced into doing anything in a particular order. But then again, it’s the same challenge that ARMA faces, where everything you do is just a variation of the same thing anyway; shoot dudes. ARMA quite successfully tackles this by giving the player a myriad of very well implemented skill-based mechanics that give you a reason to keep playing beyond just completing the missions. Wildlands tries to do the same but fails in just about every way imaginable. Vehicle handling is THE worst I’ve experienced in a modern open world game, there are tons of bugs, the enemy AI is non-existent and cranking up the difficulty doesn’t make your foes any smarter but instead gives them wall hacks and aimbots. Oh, and don’t get me started on how half-assed and broken the stealth system is. And of course, what would an Ubisoft game be without its abysmal “follow this guy” missions that cause instant failure and restart if you screw up just a little bit – or worse yet, if the game itself decides to just start screwing up for you. The very concept of the game carries no weight either. Imagine if taking down a specific branch of the cartel actually had some consequences like removing certain vehicle types from enemy patrols and the likes. But no, you just tick another name on the list and carry on. Nothing ever changes.
All in all, Wildlands is ironically excruciatingly tame. It gets samey very fast, and none of the game’s mechanics hold up for extended playing. Toss in one of the most forgettable stories in modern gaming, and you’ve got yourself a stew that reeks of bland. I honestly don’t know what those closed and open betas were for; nothing changed up until release, and virtually nothing has changed since either. But hey, at least we’ve got a full season pass worth of more mediocre content coming over the next months. Unless you’ve got a serious fetish for taking screenshots of beautiful in-game environments – of which Wildlands has plenty – I’d say stay away from this one.