Open world games are often accused of risk aversion and putting quantity over quality. With all its bells and whistles, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands exemplifies just that.
The legitimate Bolivian government in South America is suffering at the hands of the fictional Mexican Santa Blanca cartel. Their big boss, El Sueño, has reinvested his cocaine profits into forming a new religion, into social media, local seniors and corrupt officials. As a result, the cartel runs the country as they wish. Several under-bosses handle security, smuggling, cocaine production and propaganda. As a member of the US special forces (who else?), your job is to dismantle the cartel piece by piece. As the strike force leader, you're given a lot of freedom on where to strike and how to go about it. Once two of the four pillars are taken down, El Sueño himself will come out of his hiding hole for a final showdown. That's basically the entire plot, aside from a few notable standouts, you'll forget the minor side characters as soon as the cut scenes are over.
Wildlands relies heavily on tradition with its modern open-world gameplay. It offers a huge map and is beautiful to behold with its varied vistas, from jungle to salt flat. Once you've built your special ops person from a few facial options and several outfits, you're thrown into the world with three vanilla-flavoured AI friends. You can, of course, bring your friends instead. Especially if they're after the same sort of experience as you; whether it be gun smoke-filled action or stealthy covert strikes. This is very much a cooperative experience.
Your standard mission type is to clear out a military base, village or a camp of enemies and items. How you proceed is largely up to you. Our troop of ghosts usually began with recon, followed by taking out solitary guardsmen with silenced weaponry. Once that was over, we sneaked deeper into the camp, where the action often ramped up as someone was seen and the general alert was sounded. It's not all guns and grunts against cartel and the local paramilitary Unidad forces, though. Many gadgets, from drones to explosives, can turn the odds in your favour. Careful reconnaissance is the key here. A spotted target is an easy one. Wildlands is not a terribly difficult game to beat even on at the higher levels. Your opponents do hit hard once they open fire, but are rather oblivious to sneaking covert operatives and mates that suddenly go silent.
The varied scenery can be observed from several different vehicles. Keyboard and mouse works fine most of the time, but playing on a controller might suit the driving better. Cruising along the tarmac or dirt feels fine, but any kind of bump in the scenery, other cars, or rocks, seem to overload the physics system and the result is a coin toss. The light and weightless motorbikes suffer the most from this. Surprisingly the heavier the vehicle, the better it handles. A lorry might offer the smoothest of rides, but a getaway vehicle from a botched petrol convoy ambush it ain't. Helicopters spawn aplenty, so they quickly rose as the main means of transportation. Chopper controls are not quite there yet, either, but somewhat improved from the beta experience.
The combat is generally enjoyable and intense particularly when a plan comes together, but the weaponry lacks real punch and recoil. Only a couple of guns have the kick required for them to feel truly powerful. Controls are also tiny bit sluggish, possibly due to uneven frame rates. Wildlands (on PC) doesn't provide the cleanest of launches with several minor bugs, half a dozen crashes, and the odd freeze. Our troublesome test rig has no issues with other games, although the crashes and freezes did stop when playing the game with another PC. We also managed to create a desync situation, where we could see the enemies and our friends, but they couldn't see us. We naturally took advantage of the situation and relieved a Unidad armory of their SPAS-12 shotgun with no one stopping us. Like a true ghost.
Wildlands' visuals are top notch, especially when it comes to the scenery. Half an hour's worth of flybys over the provinces provided some breath-taking views. The views aren't too bad from the ground either, with lush forests and impressive draw distances. Therefore, it's a pity performance is all over the place. Equally unfortunate is the fact that, while the game has enough square miles for three games, it only just has enough interesting content for one. One can appreciate the freedom to tackle your objectives in any which way, but less might have been more here. Handcrafted and interesting mission design could have brought so much more to the experience than a few extra mountains or valleys. While GTA Online-style Heists might be too constrictive, the ghost team could have used more intricate objectives. The cooperative aspect is also somewhat underused here. The party isn't split at any time, unless the players choose to do so themselves. This might be due to limited AI capabilities of handling tasks independent of the player, since most of the time they just hang around and offer fire support.
The game's biggest pitfalls are the repetition and a lack of innovation. More often than not it's up to the players to come up with artificial restrictions and tactics to freshen up the gameplay. A power gamer could just plough through the content with meticulous assault rifle use the majority of the time. The review version had several bugs and weird things that need to be ironed out, too. And like with other Ubisoft titles, Wildlands is also rife with day one micropayments from cosmetics to gun and attachment unlocks. Your group might therefore contain a person with all the best guns already unlocked (while not necessarily the skills to use them properly). There is no PvP content yet, but still it's hugely annoying to buy a full-priced game and a season pass only to realise your substantial contribution doesn't give you all the content that the game has to offer.
Wildlands is decent by most standards; a review that might be more damning than that had they taken a risk and potentially failed. It will provide hours upon hours of gameplay through mountainous jungle regions, swamps and rocky deserts. And there are only a handful of big-budget open-world games with campaign co-op as good as this, so there are surely many players out there who aren't too upset by this game's unwillingness to take risks. With For Honor, Ubisoft showed the ability to innovate with a big budget. Wildlands, on the other hand, is content that walks along the beaten path.
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