We've still got more than a month until Ghost Recon: Wildlands releases, but were fortunate enough to get an opportunity for a final look at the game prior to release.
The Ghost Recon franchise has been through a lot since its first appearance in 2001. From its early days on PC, to free-to-play iterations, handheld versions, even hitting Nokia's N-Gage back in the day, Ubisoft has still managed to find new, unknown terrain for the series to explore. Ghost Recon can now cross "open-world co-op shooter" off the list, too. However, no matter what changes the franchise has seen, there has always been one thing that's central to the series: tactical gameplay. It's interesting, then, to see whether this core concept can be maintained within an open-world setting.
As far as settings go, Wildlands isn't putting the Ghosts in completely unfamiliar territory. Back in 2004, in Jungle Storm, the special unit was sent out to close down a Colombian drug cartel, and now it would seem a similar task has been handed to them this time around, but they're instead facing an organisation called Santa Blanca, and it's not your run of the mill cartel. They have a dream and a vision. The leader goes by the name of El Sueño, and he came to Bolivia with a purpose; he wanted to wrestle control from the authorities and hand it over to the cartel. Law enforcement were to look the other way, and the government would be under cartel control, thus they would be able to grow their business without interference. This well thought out plan didn't take the locals into consideration, and since Santa Blanca took over Bolivia these innocent people have been living in constant fear. Enter the Ghosts.
Even if we only played Wildlands for a few hours in a noisy room full of other writers, we still got the impression that the game really tries hard to give off an authentic feel and create a mood befitting the franchise. There is a sense of local life in the small villages where the citizens are wandering around, attending to their daily routines, and there's palpable fear when a member of Santa Blanca is spotted. Via the cutscenes you can see the handiwork of this most brutal organisation - the stage has been set and we're properly motivated to rid Bolivia of its plague.
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This atmosphere is also achieved by what you could almost refer to as the main character of the game: Bolivia. We've heard many times that Wildlands will feature the biggest map ever made by Ubisoft, and that it will contain 26 bosses, 21 regions, and 11 ecosystems, and all of these environments are not just a beautiful backdrop for all the gunfights and explosions, they also play an important part in how you approach things and what tactics you employ. If you're standing in an overgrown swamp, for example, you'll approach the mission differently than if you're standing in a big, open desert with decent visibility. That's the idea, anyway. Unfortunately we weren't able to test whether this holds true, as we only had access to two areas, Itacua, which is one of the first areas you'll come to, and Montuyoc, one of the later and more challenging section. These two regions did, however, look very much alike, as they were both dusty, rocky, and sandy. We would have loved to have waded through swamps, or climbed up into the mountains, and judging from the footage we've seen, it does look like there will be more diversity in the villages and the environments.
One thing had us worried prior to our play session was the open-world. It has become something of trend; open-world games tend to sell well, but not all concepts are a great fit. Our first thought upon hearing about this massive sandbox was to question whether it could be suitably populated with interesting quests, objects, and so forth. Not that Ubisoft struggles to fill its open-worlds, far from it, but there needs to be a sense of exploration, where new and interesting things appear regularly, making sure that you're not just traversing an empty landscape from point A to B.
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These concerns weren't completely expelled after a couple of hours of playtime, but they were certainly alleviated somewhat. Thanks to the authentic feel of the world, you'll be more inclined to explore the various villages and embark on side-quests. The side missions we experienced were all to do with helping the local rebels by marking various resources that we ran into, speaking with locals to gain intel on certain targets, as well as shutting down Santa Blanca radio stations to limit their ability to spread their message. Of course, it's hard to tell from a brief play session whether these distractions will be enough to hold our interest over time. This is also why we can't quite put our worries aside, even if what we played was great.
Besides side-quests you can also stumble upon weapon upgrades while exploring the environment. They're scattered all over the place and you'll definitely want to find these. In Wildlands you will once again be able to design your own weapon, and in great detail. By doing this you'll be able to make sure that your loadout matches your play-style. Some of us prefer the role of a sniper, while others take a less tactical approach and go in guns blazing.
And that freedom is what Ghost Recon: Wildlands is all about. That's what we have been told from the moment it was announced, and it's evident throughout the game. When Ubisoft was kind enough to unlock almost every weapon, we could choose and design our loadout not only so it would fit our preferred play-style, but also to suit the upcoming mission and the conditions in which we would be handling it. Personalising your character isn't limited to just the setup, you're also able to change things via the skill tree. Along the way different resources can be traded in for skills, so your play-style is not just catered to by your loadout, but also the way in which you choose to progress your character.
We were also told it was up to the players themselves how to attack the main story. You get to choose which mission you want to do next, and naturally how you want to go about it. We were given two different main missions to complete in the two areas we were free to roam in during the session. For this reason, with most of the game locked, that freedom wasn't as apparent. But the freedom did become obvious as we teamed up in groups of four to play the game in co-op.
Wildlands works well as a solo experience, and instead of having three friends by your side, you'll have three AI partners with you, but we couldn't help but feel a bit clumsy and it was hard to make the AI partners bend entirely to your will. A result of this was some pretty confusing fights, but it's most likely something you'll overcome with more experience. As our AI partners were switched out for human counterparts, though, it became clear that this is how the game is meant to be played.
It was then we felt like a true Ghost on our assignment. Communication between your team members has to be sharp and precise, and it's definitely an advantage if you know your comrades. What time of day are we attacking? From where will we advance? Who's going to shoot which enemy? And so on and so forth. These are all questions and details you and your team will need to consider in order to successfully complete a mission. You can also mark the enemies with numbers so the entire team knows which enemy to take down. Coordinating your headshots after a countdown will make sure that the enemies won't know what hit them. It's a very special feeling and it is without a doubt the main strength of the game. There are tactical and strategic layers to consider, taking both weather and time of day into consideration, using the terrain to your advantage and, where possible, coordinating everything for maximum impact. While we enjoyed our time alone in the vastness of Ubisoft's Bolivia, we do prefer to lose ourselves there along with three friends.
But between now and its release in March we do hope that Ubisoft will be able to iron out the many glitches and issues we experienced. It's only natural for there to be issues in an unfinished build of an ambitious game like this, but we had problems joining up with a squad, for example, and that was on top of a few other minor glitches. Hopefully these are things that are now being taken care of and that we won't have to endure once the game is live.
Wildlands shows a great deal of potential. This thanks to a grand open-world full of distractions that will hopefully keep us entertained for an extended period of time, missions that will bring both joy and frustration (the good kind) with a difficulty curve designed to challenge even the most seasoned Ghosts, and brutal cutscenes and background stories that all feed into the story and motivate us to push forwards. There is every reason to be excited, and lets hope it delivers in full on all of its promise come March 7.