I slowly crest the hill, being careful not to silhouette myself against the horizon’s dying light. Going prone, I pull out my sniper rifle as my ghillie suit flutters in the wind. I call out that I can see five tangos in the base below. Mike Pearce, a fellow real-world former military member, answers with a crisp “roger that” and spots two more baddies from his perch on an adjoining ridge. We’ve got them dead to rights and prepare to take our coordinated shots.
And that’s when things got loud.
The ‘whomp whomp whomp’ of the overhead rotor blades signal the more direct approach that Joe DeClara and Zach Faber have chosen. Zach leans into the side-mounted minigun on the chopper, throwing hundreds of rounds into the panicked and dispersing enemies below. As the sirens blare, Joe begins a low circle as Zach continues his suppressing fire barrage. Descending on the compound, we take out the scattered remnants of the enemy force, securing the Intel documents we were sent to retrieve. Mission accomplished.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is built on the premise that the game is here for you to play however you’d like. The same mission can be approached any number of equally satisfying, and entertaining, ways. One of us could have tackled it solo while the rest of the team finished up a mission in a completely different province, all four of us could have crawled in with silenced weapons and completed it stealthily, or we could’ve commandeered four tanks and shown the enemy what a combined 250+ tons of hardened steel can do to their base — whatever your approach is, Wildlands’ vast, fictional, open-world version of narco-state Bolivia is ready to support it.
The Narco State
Wildlands takes place in the year 2019. In a fictionalized version of Bolivia, a drug lord named El Sueño has a toxic dream of growing his own coca plants and using cocaine to create a narco state. To ensure his ability to deliver on that dream he’s used his drug proceeds to purchase politicians, bribe police, seize existing coca fields, and collapse local governments. The United States, true to form, has decided to “officially” stay out of the conflict. Unofficially, they’ve provided four of their most elite soldiers to help turn the tide of this conflict–the Ghosts. These highly trained warriors will fight a guerrilla-style war against the Santa Blanca cartel, crushing their lieutenants, raiding their bases, and wresting control back into the hands of the people.
To accomplish this nearly insurmountable task, the team has been given a handler. An American agent posing as Karen Bowman, international aid worker, serves as the handler for the team. She’ll be the voice in your ear feeding the team intel and status reports on the effects of the team’s actions. You can’t fight a war this large with just five people, however, so earning the trust of the locals and recruiting additional help is key. As you liberate the 21 massive provinces, you’ll encounter and recruit capable resistance fighters and their leaders to help you turn the otherwise overwhelming tide.
Wildly entertaining wide world
Unlike previous Ghost Recon games, Wildlands is an open world game — the largest Ubisoft has ever built. Spread across 21 regions and 11 ecosystems, the map is a staggering 24km by 24km — roughly three times larger than the behemoth map of Grand Theft Auto V. Ubisoft’s rendition of a cartel controlled Bolivia is an absolutely massive and breathtakingly beautiful world. Just within the first few provinces, we fought in deep canyons, base-jumped off tall cliffs, cruised down rivers, and landed atop fancy island villas. Hell, we even went off-roading in a tractor.
In terms of storyline, Wildlands has a main thread featuring a “bad hombre” named El Sueño. Sueño’s expansive army is commanded by 26 equally sadistic key lieutenants. Uncovering intel reveals the location of the six key missions in each province. These missions then lead to a showdown with the lieutenant of that region. You can choose to eliminate the bosses in whatever order you fancy. You’ll have to take them all down to reach El Sueño, but to even begin to approach them you’ll need new gear and skills (although, if you’re feeling foolish, you can attempt it anyway).
Beyond the story missions there is a wealth of side content. When you grab a lieutenant or track down a juicy piece of intel, you’ll be given the option of uncovering skill points, equipment, medals (which gate certain skill advancements), and weapons. Resources shows where you might hijack large quantities of supplies from the enemy so you can turn them over to the rebel forces. It adds some flavor of choice and purpose to gathering Intel.
There is one feature that seems incredibly minor but became insanely useful — sync shot. While playing with the AI, you can target foes which will cause your team to shift position to get a lethal shot. While we’ve seen that mechanic before, it has a subtle use in multiplayer. Rather than asking if another player is on target, you can see the sync shot indicator go from flashing to solid when your friends are sighted in and ready for action.
Although Wildlands can be played alone, it’s simply begging to be tackled as a team. The AI is serviceable, and is certainly better than lone-wolfing it, but this game hits its full, open-world stride when it’s played with some friends. Jumping in and out of a buddy’s game is straightforward and simple, and when you want to go solo again, your AI squad mates will pop right back in. Other than the weirdness that ensues when you try to spawn on real life friends—sometimes you’re 100m away, sometimes you’re 1.5km away—the whole affair is smooth and seamless.
Once in the world proper, the game doesn’t have any restrictions. You are welcome to tackle nearly any mission in any order, and using any approach you wish. If you want to channel your inner Leroy Jenkins and charge the main gate with an underbarrel grenade launcher and a LMG, then that’s your prerogative. If you want to go in silently using a drone to spot foes and take them out at range with a suppressed sniper rifle, that’s an option. Roaring in with a Sikorsky MH-53-esque helicopter with dual miniguns is equally as plausible an approach. Mixing and matching these styles are not only permitted but encouraged.
Unfortunately, due to the loose structure, many of the game’s missions seem to lack a sense of purpose, failing to make meaningful connections between the players and the villains. Most of the time that we spent playing the game was essentially us hitting random missions, without any knowledge of what they were, and then clearing the base or outpost where they took place. Typically that would accomplish the task at hand, with an occasional interrogation or some driving here and there. You never get the feeling that what you’re doing has an effect on the game’s overall story until you tackle an area boss, which can leave some of the gameplay feeling empty and repetitive.
If there’s one area where Wildlands doesn’t quite reach expectations, it’s the cleanliness of execution. Amidst hours of fantastic gameplay were a few moments where enemies seemed omnipresent, characters spun around like a plastic bag in the wind due to goofy physics, and the occasional clipping hiccup. These technical flaws are thankfully minor, but when they do happen it does break the otherwise fantastic immersion. Unfortunately, there’s one hitch that plagued all of us — frame freezes. Without warning or any consistent source, the game would intermittently lock in place for a brief moment and then unfreeze and go about its business. It didn’t dull the experience, but hopefully this strange issue gets resolved later.
When we first started our time with Wildlands, we all agreed that the weapons lacked a certain powerful sound you’d expect from a system of that caliber. Unlocking other weapons and removing the suppressors changed all of that. After a few hours, we had unlocked a handful of rifles that impacted enemies with a solid wet thump, and light machine guns that sounded aggressive as all get out. In fact, other than some voice repetition from the enemy, the sound and acting in Wildlands is pretty solid.
Three out of the four of our group suffered several disconnect issues during play. Coupling this with the occasional issue where you spawn several kilometers away, it made for more waiting and less assaulting. Frustrating and inconsistent, hopefully these problems are simply a part of pre-launch woes to be addressed with a day-1 patch.
All of this said, after over twenty hours of gameplay, it’s clear we haven’t even scratched the surface of what Wildlands can throw at us. The adrenaline-fueled, justice boner we kept getting from landing on some sadistic asshole’s mansion, kicking the door in, and icing him and his cronies, just wouldn’t go away. What Wildlands presents is a gorgeous, sandbox environment offering a ridiculous amount of exploration, adventure, and cartel killing carnage.
Inappropriate story time with veterans
There is an air of authenticity with Wildlands courtesy of the banter between team members. If there’s one thing consistent with those who have served — every one of us have a glut of stories, most of them wildly inappropriate. The team at Ubisoft gathered up the best of these, filling in the most opportune moments with anecdotes, stories, and military witticisms that lead to some real laugh out loud moments.
Rebel Radio, the station that plays in the background while you drive, has hilarious skits that amazingly rival that of de facto benchmark title Grand Theft Auto. Most of the time, it fades into the background, but more than once one of us would crack up laughing with something they’d heard on the station. It’s a subtle but fantastic highlight.
Good Gunsmithing and Bad Driving
If you loved the Gunsmith system in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, you’ll be excited to see it return in a big way in Wildlands. As you pick up weapon addons you’ll be able to snap them into whatever loadout you’d like any time you encounter a frequently-placed ammo crate. Rails, undermounts, barrels, scopes, muzzle mods, suppressors, shoulder stocks, and much more are available for tinkering, adjusting roughly a dozen stats from bullet penetration to weapon handling. The mods made every weapon feel different — something few games manage to pull off.
As you prosecute targets and finish missions you’ll earn experience. Rack up enough and you’ll go up a level. The level system serves as a gating mechanic for some skills, but there’s also a medal system to contend with. Picking up intel can reveal where you might find these, granting access to a new tier of goodies. You’ll also need supplies. Again, using Intel as your source, you’ll identify where the enemy might have some supplies in need of liberation. Escalating amounts of fuel, medical supplies, and a smattering of other resources are needed for further unlocks, with the final item in each of the half-dozen skill trees granting an additional boon like larger explosion radius or better zoom accuracies while using a rifle.
While it’s a thrill to drive some pretty awesome rigs,the game’s driving system is not going to be taking home awards anytime soon. Unfortunately, it feels more like the crazed driving of a Grand Theft Auto game than you’d expect from a tactical shooter. While the streets in the game might be realistic for the setting, it does no favors for the poor driving system, as sharp turns and high speeds will almost never turn out the way you intended. Helicopters and planes seemed clunky and require a bit of practice, but you’ll be buzzing the treetops in no time. With a map this large, you’ll want to take to the skies most of the time anyway.
Reviewers: Ron Burke, Mike Pearce, Joe Declara, and Zach Faber.