I was hoping Ghost Recon: Wildlands might shake things up a bit for Ubisoft. In light of Far Cry Primal’s lackluster reception, Steep’s mediocrity, and The Division’s, er…divisiveness, the French publisher’s open world games have been going through a bit of a rough patch of late (Watch Dogs 2 aside). Announcing plans to take an established franchise like Ghost Recon and turn it into a multiplayer sandbox game was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser—but I decided to give Ubisoft the benefit of the doubt. Surely the series’ roots as a tactical squad-based shooter would necessitate a divergence from the overstuffed collectathons Ubisoft has become known for?
In retrospect, that may have been too much to ask.
Wildlands is a very familiar game. It borrows heavily from Far Cry, slaps in a third person camera, and gives you an impressively large landmass with a whole lot of things to find. This setup isn’t inherently bad, but if you’re one of the many players who have been turned off by the quality of writing, mechanics, and/or bugs in Ubisoft’s recent titles, take heed: Wildlands is an offender on nearly all of these fronts. It still manages to find redemption as a compelling (if not particularly polished) co-op experience, but without a good group of friends, you should probably spend your money elsewhere. The stealth system and campaign missions are structured around the assumption that you’re playing co-op, so when you replace your buddies with AI teammates the game loses most of its lustre. It’s the thrill of working as a team to perfectly execute a plan (or completely blundering one and overcoming the ensuing chaos) that makes Wildlands worth playing.
The core loop is very simple: as operatives tasked with taking down the powerful Santa Blanca cartel, you choose and enter one of Wildlands’ sizable Bolivian provinces, find enemy intel marked on your map to unlock missions, complete those missions to draw out the province’s boss, kill/capture them, then move on to the next. The environments in each province are pleasant to look at and have a good bit of variety—something the missions themselves are lacking. The vast majority are copy-and-paste variants of the same three objectives (kill every dude in a base, interrogate a guy in a base, or blow up some stuff in a base), so the game’s long-term appeal rests upon players’ willingness to change up tactics and work together. There is no in-game incentive to execute a mission with perfect stealth and well-coordinated sniping, but doing so is genuinely satisfying and provides some of the best multiplayer fun I’ve had in recent memory.
The closest analog to Wildlands’ particular brand of open-world sneak-and-shoot is Metal Gear Solid V, though that comparison perhaps warrants a more positive view of the game than it deserves. The concept is familiar, though; as in MGSV, you spend most of your time infiltrating bases guarded by an assortment of foot soldiers, snipers, alarm systems, and vehicles, and get to approach these encampments however you’d like. Critically, a low damage threshold for player characters means a guns-blazing approach will get you dead quick on all but the easiest of missions, so some tactical thinking is required. Do you look for a breach in the perimeter and go in on foot, or do you parachute onto a nearby cliff and drop targets with a sniper rifle? Do you go in by the cover of night and shoot out the lights Sam Fisher-style, or do you call in a rain of mortar fire to do your dirty work for you? All of these are viable ways to play Wildlands, which is probably its greatest achievement. Sure, it’s often janky and doesn’t have anything near the depth or nuance of a game like MGSV , but it has some—and lets you do it all with your friends to boot.
"[Actually] playing these open-ended scenarios is where Wildlands stumbles a little"
The actual feeling of playing these open-ended scenarios is where Wildlands stumbles a little, though not enough to knock it down. Shooting and running around are…okay. Not awful, but not particularly satisfying, either. The real fun comes from the overall execution of the mission, not the moment-to-moment trigger pulling and cover-taking, though this may be a turnoff to the Tom Clancy faithful. Following the precedent set by other recent Ghost Recon titles, combat is a blend of third and first person, with a camera that follows characters as they move, but shifts to a traditional FPS perspective when they take aim. It works, but something about the speed of the transition between first and third person feels off, and an overly aggressive aim-assist feature in all versions of the game makes murdering cartel members far too easy (unless you choose to manually disable it, which I cannot recommend enough).
Most of this gameplay completely loses its appeal without friends, however. Your character is already overpowered in combat thanks to the ability to control your own personal drone to permanently mark enemies on your HUD, but playing with AI teammates breaks the game completely—allowing you to order your squad to kill any marked enemy instantly (with a short cooldown timer), regardless of whether they can actually see the enemy. This turns challenging scenarios into ludicrously simple mark-and-execute affairs, removing almost any need for planning or cautious play. However, certain missions swing the pendulum to the exact opposite end of the spectrum, and are nearly impossible to complete without human partners thanks to some questionable design choices. Insta-fail stealth missions are one infuriating example, as the timing of the AI’s execute ability will often go wrong and result in alarms being raised as guards see their buddies get shot. Missions involving car chases are also nasty—the AI is utterly incompetent at hitting targets from a moving vehicle, so you must find a way to force your quarry to stop their car with your own, a process that often took me over ten minutes of bumping and swerving to accomplish.
"[The driving mechanics] are downright aggravating to use"
More generally, I’m sorry to report that driving and piloting are where things in Wildlands take a turn for the straight-up bad. I have no idea what the team at Ubisoft Paris were thinking releasing an open world game with vehicles that work this poorly, but I’d like to think the final result is more a reflection of the difficult realities of AAA development than the abilities of the devs behind them. Awful physics, unresponsive steering, seriously questionable choices about how helicopters and planes are controlled, inconsistent rules about which objects can be driven through…I could go on, but the long and short of it is that you should do everything in your power to minimize time spent in things with wheels or wings (which, sadly, is easier said than done). I suppose on some basic level the driving mechanics do technically work, but in their current state they are downright aggravating to use and make getting around the map a real chore.
There are also unlockable skills and weapons to be earned as you progress through the game, but I found these aspects of Wildlands’ progression to be similarly underwhelming. Players earn XP for killing enemies and completing missions, but each level-up only earns one skill point (most skills require several to unlock), and leveling caps out at 30—a meager ceiling that is easily reached by the time the game is halfway complete. Instead of a focus on leveling, the primary way to unlock new abilities in Wildlands is by finding collectible skill points littered around the map. To make progression even more tedious, each skill also costs a predetermined number of resources (eerily similar to those required for The Division’s base upgrades), which must be earned through playing the worst content in the game: Wildlands’ freeform side missions. These generic timewasters mostly entail fighting a pitiful number of enemies located somewhere on the map, then either flying or driving a vehicle to a predetermined location. They’re very boring, rarely challenging, and often take upwards of ten minutes to complete. On the bright(?) side, I also found most of the skills entirely useless, especially as the game began to emphasize upgrading existing ones instead of purchasing new ones. I was able to continue upgrading my max ammo and grenade counts far beyond anything I ever needed, and gadgets like night and thermal vision were a complete waste of time (nighttime is comically bright, and the God-like spotting mechanic lets you see through walls without the hassle of putting goggles on). While there were a smattering of helpful gadgets and abilities, I found that even the best of them felt more like quality-of-life improvements than game-changers, while the worst should’ve never been locked behind a skill tree to begin with (i.e. the ability to open your parachute).
The unlockable guns are less offensive but equally uninteresting. Weapons and weapon parts can (surprise) be found in crates all across the map, but the minor statistical variations from one gun to the next meant that I quickly tired of testing every shiny new firearm I discovered and settled on a couple of favorites. There are many weapon types to choose from, but the stealth-and-sniping-centric combat means players will rarely want anything that isn’t both compatible with a silencer and capable at long range, so the assortment of shotguns, LMGs, and the like are almost entirely worthless. The impressively robust weapon customization system (officially referred to as “Gunsmith” in Ubisoft marketing-speak), which lets players pick between dozens of possible attachments and stupid-yet-endearing custom paintjobs, is impressive to look at but ultimately doesn’t offer any meaningful choice. Actual changes to gun handling are barely noticeable and sorting newly unlocked parts from old ones is a painstaking task, so aside from the welcome ability to select a scope that fit my needs, I rarely opened the Gunsmith tab.
There’s one more bit of Wildlands I have serious gripes with: the writing. I don’t expect that anybody is going into the game hoping for a story that does more than loosely tie missions together, but the script is such an inconsistent, cliched, and occasionally borderline offensive mess that it somehow brings the game down even more than its numerous mechanical issues. I do not exaggerate when I say this may very well be the worst writing I have ever seen in a AAA video game. The biggest problem is tone: Wildlands is entirely unable to decide whether it wants to be a light-hearted action comedy, a serious narco drama, or a critique of the war on drugs. During missions, your dudebro squadmates will make offhand remarks about feeling remorseful for killing cartel members, reminding you that most of them are impoverished young men who probably only joined to feed their families, then thirty seconds later crack a joke about how much they love popping the skulls of anyone who fucks with them. This is a constant, both in cutscene dialogue and the random conversations that play during combat and travel. Characters act sympathetically one moment, then shout Bulletstorm-esque profanities and boast about what badasses they are the next. The colorful cast of criminals you need to take down in the cartel is similarly conflicted, with cutscenes detailing backstories that are often tragic and interesting, but in-game behaviour that is almost always cartoonishly evil. Somewhere between preventing an underboss from turning a hospital into a cocaine lab and fending off the fifty or so armed narcos sent to kill a five year old girl and her mother, I lost all ability to empathize with any character in the game, and gave up on trying to sort out whether or not Wildlands even knows what it’s trying to say. As such, the terrible voice acting actually feels pretty appropriate, with delivery that ranges from overzealous to completely inappropriate for what’s happening in the plot. Characters can’t even seem to agree on how certain names and words are pronounced. Basically, everything connected to narrative in Wildlands is a dumpster fire.
My gripes are many, but I truly believe that buried beneath all the busywork and flaws, there is some real fun to be had with Ghost Recon: Wildlands. It probably isn’t worth full price, and definitely isn’t worthwhile without at least one friend to partner up with, but it stands as a solid co-op shooter with some good ideas mixed in. It certainly isn’t lacking for things to do and items to collect, so as long as you’ve got some friends and are willing to stick to the critical path, it’s a decent thirty hour experience that, while not consistently amazing, will deliver the kind of badass moments and funny hijinks that make the best co-op games so compelling.