Ghost Recon: Wildlands takes things in a different direction for the long-running series, which is a move that immediately caused controversy among fans. The more focused and linear gameplay of the earlier installments has largely been abandoned for an open-world setting not unlike many other Ubisoft games of late, which is either a good or bad thing depending on the type of gamer you are. Either way, what Ubisoft has come up with is a massive sandbox with lots to see and do, though the ride is better with a co-op group.
The game’s story has an elite fireteam called “the Ghosts” being dispatched into Bolivia by the United States Army, which is now ruled by the powerful drug cartel called Santa Blanca. El Sueno is the kingpin of this cartel, who has enlisted numerous underlings to head up the various operations of the country like security, smuggling, influence and production. El Sueno actually has a really interesting backstory that does a good job of setting the scene for the game, making him one of the more memorable villains in Ubisoft’s history. His numerous underlings are hit and miss, but overall the game does what it needs to in order for you to believe in this game’s world and be inclined to actually fix its problems.
The people fixing the problems are the aforementioned team of Ghosts, lead by your created character and 3 others. These guys are less interesting, and really don’t have much of a personality outside of the typical military tough guy acts. You’ll get banter between them occasionally to give you a little background on them, but nothing that you’ll remember for very long. The same goes for their CIA contact Bowman, who essentially is just there to give you your orders between missions in a similarly hard-nosed manner. They’re not bad by any means, but the overall plot would have been more interesting if you were controlling characters you cared about.
While stale characters could be a big problem in a more narrative-focused game, it’s clear from the onset that that is not the case with Wildlands. This is a game that drops you into its massive world and begs you to go exploring, and in that manner it excels. Ubisoft has come up with a world here that is not only huge, but incredibly diverse and visually-stunning in its locales. There’s everything from mountains, forests and islands to salt deserts, mines and more that you’ll stumble upon throughout your adventures, and most of it is pure eye candy. Many times I found myself stopping and just taking in the game’s sights, and when a game does that you know it has done something very right. This is further enhanced by the dynamic weather system and day-night cycle on display here, which truly makes this world feel alive.
The game’s massive world has plenty of visual variety and is often pure eye candy
It’s what the game’s world is filled with that may turn off some wary Ubisoft players, as it is very much set up like many of their other open world games. The game’s world is broken up into 21 regions, and each one has loads of objectives for you to sniff out. You’ll typically start out a new region by searching for major intel, which will then open up actual story objectives for you to hunt down. Along the way you’ll come across terminals that you can access to reveal the locations of skill points and medals on the map, as well as files that give you a little more backstory on the game and its world. It’s a gameplay loop that is very familiar and may just be dreaded at this point by some players, but it’s more streamlined here and doesn’t require you to do things like climb to the top of massive radio towers just to fill out areas of the map.
Seeing as the world is so big, you have a variety of different vehicles at your disposal at any given time to navigate it. Helicopters, planes, trucks, motorcycles, boats and more are littered all over the place, and if those aren’t enough then there are numerous fast travel points to make moving through previously-visited areas less of a chore. While most of the vehicles control well enough for the most part, some of them (like the helicopter) control really oddly and have a bit of a learning curve. Your teammates can ride along with you and fire from their passenger seats, and if you’re airborne then you can all jump out and parachute straight into an enemy compound if you’re feeling crazy.
Each of the game’s areas have different difficulty settings that you’ll need to be aware of, but other than that the game allows you to explore these areas in whatever order you see fit. While the game does have a character progression system that will make you more powerful as you go on, it’s much more basic than what you’d get from something like The Division. There are no bullet sponge enemies here or loot that you need to grind for to improve equipment stats, as all enemies can be taken down fairly easily if you know what you’re doing. The game typically has you going into an enemy area to obtain certain information or capture/kill a certain person, and the game leaves it up to you in regards to how you want to go about completing your mission. You can send in your drone to scope out the area and create a diversion to draw enemy attention to it, and then slip past your enemies like you were never even there. Of course, you can also just go in guns blazing, and both methods and the grey areas between them are very satisfying here.
You can play solo, but co-op is where the game truly shines
The arsenal of weapons at your disposal is about what you would expect, with you being able to carry two primary weapons (assault rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns, etc.) and a secondary weapon (handguns, SMGs) at once. While you’ll be able to pick up the weapons of enemies you’ve defeated, there will also be weapon cases scattered throughout the land for you to track down to further expands your arsenal. These weapons can also be customized by finding accessory cases, allowing you to attach new parts like scopes and triggers or apply new paint presets. Things get a little more interesting with more strategic equipment like mines, flare guns and the aforementioned drone, which opens up the ways in which you can either avoid or eliminate your foes.
The entire game is playable solo with your other 3 teammates being AI-controlled, or with a group of up to 3 other players online. Playing with others is where the game truly shines, as getting a good team together gives you many more strategic options that you don’t otherwise have. You can have one teammate set up outside a compound as a sniper, have a couple of close-range fighters sneak around and take out enemies, and then have the remaining teammate go for the objectives and other variations of that same concept. It feels fantastic when you get a good team together and make it through a tough scenario without a hitch, though even when the crap hits the fan the ensuing chaos still results in a lot of fun. Enemy AI is consistently solid as snipers are perched in their towers and keep behind cover, with numerous other enemies funneling towards you on foot or by vehicle. There are smaller areas that you can get away with the guns blazing approach without much of a problem, but the game features plenty of more challenging areas that call for nothing less than perfection on you and your team’s part.
The AI of your teammates doesn’t quite cut it when playing solo, unfortunately. When you’re trying to make your way through an area without being spotted and you have them following close behind, they always seem to start trouble and blow your cover. This is hurt by the fact that you only have 4 measly squad commands to give them (fire, hold, go to, and regroup), and you can’t address them individually. It would have been much better if you had more options at your disposal to allow for more precise tactics when playing solo, but due to the AI it had me ordering them to stay behind while I did the dirty work myself in areas that required a more calculated approach. They hold their own once it gets to the point of all-out firefights and will come help you when you need to be revived, but those looking for more depth will be disappointed.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands can provide countless hours of thrilling sandbox shooter gameplay, but co-op is needed to make the most of it. Its massive, numerous and diverse locales are often gorgeous to behold, and navigating them tactfully with a good co-op team is a blast. Just don’t expect to have as much fun in single player, as your team limits your mission methods due to shaky AI and a lack of deep squad commands.