Going Wild in Ghost Recon Wildlands’ Massive Sandbox of Co-op Chaos
Ben Sheene / Jan 25th, 2017 No Comments
Ubisoft has made a point to emphasize that Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands boasts the biggest open world in any game the company has released. Let that sink in for a second. This is a claim made by the same people responsible for taking players to Renaissance Italy and Colonial America in Assassin’s Creed; the same teams that let us hack Chicago and San Francisco in Watch Dogs, and roam foreign lands in Far Cry. Big open worlds are how Ubisoft butters its bread.
In the opening moments of Wildlands, developer Ubisoft Paris’ ambitions are clear. Your player-created character is receiving his or her mission brief in a helicopter as it soars across a vast stretch of Bolivian landscape. Below lies a ruthless drug underworld begging to be taken down. There are vehicles to steal and drive up impossibly steep cliffsides and enemy camps to sneak into without raising alarms. Everywhere you go, unpredictable gameplay moments wait to be seen by your eyes only or in the company of friends.
The mission is simple: destroy the Santa Blanca drug cartel which has turned Bolivia into the largest producer of cocaine in the world. Led by El Sueño, Santa Blanca holds a tight grip on nearly every person in the country. Cops and judges who can’t be bought off are killed. Rebellions are easily quashed by the cartel’s overwhelming military force. Bolivia is both a military state and a narco state, and it must be stopped.
The United States has sent you in to dismantle Santa Blanca by killing its leaders and releasing the country from this deadly chokehold. You can either take on this threat alone or join up to three other players. As Ghosts, you aren’t meant to be seen, weaving through enemy troops with silent lethality. But this is a game and things don’t always go as planned.
Players disembark from the helicopter into a safe zone free from the shackles of gated progression. When I first dug into Wildlands at a recent preview event, I was placed in the Itacua region by myself to get a feel for the game. This was one of the 21 regions in Bolivia, containing 11 different biomes. Itacua was full of green fields and mountains, with a taste of the altiplano and highlands at its borders. While I was contained to this region for my solo session, on launch players will be able to go anywhere in Bolivia at anytime.
The implications of this seem daunting, especially since the first thing I did when I gained control was look through my gun’s sights to try to get a feel for the scope of the open world. Even in my small section of Itacua, I could see tall mountains miles off in the distance and small villages tucked away in valleys. This is a massive game, and I was only scratching the surface of what looked to be a multi-faceted world with plenty of things to do.
Rather than follow a yellow line to my mission where I would gain information on a hostage’s whereabouts, I hopped on a dirt bike and sped off to a nearby area that was labelled with a question mark on the map. Cocaine puns aside, Wildlands is going to be open world crack for anyone who loves getting lost in side missions and collectibles. Within a grenade’s throw, there is likely going to be intel on a Santa Blanca boss or documents leading to weapon part boxes and skill points.
Running on a PS4 Pro there were only a few instances of texture pop-in and it never ripped me out of the feeling that this was a seamless world. Weather effects and lighting bring the dense, varied foliage and environments of Bolivia to life. There were many times I took a few moments to just stare at the game and soak up the inescapable feeling that I was in some strange South American postcard.
Perks of Being a Ghost
Mission structure in Wildlands has players chasing after cartel bosses and higher-ups to slowly unravel a massive web with El Sueño at its center. From infiltrating an enemy camp to stealing a cargo plane, players are given a handful of missions that will ultimately lead to a confrontation with a boss. Again, there is an emphasis on player freedom as these missions can be tackled at any time and in any order the player sees fit.
Instruments of death and infiltration focus primarily on guns, thrown equipment, and a drone. Dozens of weapons are available in the game, and each can be modified using the GunSmith feature from previous Ghost Recon entries. Players can switch out unbarrels, scopes and stocks to their heart’s content and assign colors to everything in between. Those who obsess over details will fall in love with the customization GunSmith allows, while others can simply equip whatever looks to do the most damage and stick with it.
I was glad to see that same customization extended to character creation. CharacterSmith offers a range of faces, outfits and visual tweaks to your Ghost to make a soldier you want to play as, not a person the game assigns you. Completing missions and other objectives in the game also unlocks further items and weapons to use in both GunSmith and CharacterSmith.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a moderately robust upgrade system incorporated into progression. Increased stamina, more grenades, less weapon sway and improved drone features are just a few of the things players will unlock for their Ghost during the game. Leveling up will earn players skill points to spend on upgrades, but they must also find resources like food and fuel scattered throughout the world before being able to acquire upgrades, offering further incentive to explore Bolivia.
Ghost Recon veterans may find a great deal of familiarity with Wildlands. Tactical shooting allows for your soldier to go through battle mostly unscathed; sync shots allow for simultaneous instant kills on patrols and tower watchmen. Unlike the contained levels of previous entries, Wildlands places missions in locations throughout the map which exist as smaller sandboxes to develop strategies in. In many ways, it is like Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain on a larger scale.
A stealthy approach often entails driving or flying near the start of a mission, whether it be near the shore of a massive lake or behind the walls of an enemy outpost. Pulling out your binoculars or sending out a drone helps tag the environment for enemies and other points of interest.
There are dozens of ways the next few minutes can go, and this is where the unpredictable excitement comes from. It’s possible to tear through enemy ranks and complete a mission with no one knowing the Ghosts were there. Of course, one misplaced headshot and a guard can dart to the nearest alarm and set the whole place on high alert, causing more patrols and the local, cartel-owned military police to come rushing in.
Luckily, gunplay remains exciting between the stealthy tension and the action-fueled chaos of a direct approach. Normal grunts go down fast while armored soldiers take a bit more punishment to fell. Despite the fun I had bouncing from story missions to side quests, it’s hard to tell how the gameplay loop will develop over time. Being in the starting region, I didn’t expect or encounter too much enemy variety. It helped me acclimate to the basics, but only served to tantalize me as to what’s to come.
Other demos of Wildlands have shown signal jammers to impair the use of drones, main targets fleeing their camps by car and heavier resistance. Mission variation and depth will not only make Wildlands more fun and deep, it will help the game from growing too monotonous, as can be the case with many open world games after the charm has worn off.
Four of a Kind
As a solo player, there’s likely enough content to serve as a fun distraction. Three AI partners will join you that can be given simple instructions. These men and women will make quips to each other between missions to add personality in lieu of a dialog-heavy script. One comrade kept trying to make awkward jokes to the sound of crickets. One begged not to have the results of a sports event spoiled because he hadn’t gotten the chance to watch it on the slow Bolivian internet. I had a big chuckle when they asked who in their group had tried cocaine.
Wildlands doesn’t take itself too seriously, and this is a wonderful gift. It may not go the zany extremes of Far Cry, but it isn’t as serious as The Division or the original Watch Dogs.
Yet, the single-player experience feels limited compared to what you can do with a team of friends. Going solo, you are forced to drive your AI teammates around or just wait for them to teleport to your location. In co-op, let a buddy take the wheel while you take aim out the passenger side window. An AI might have pinpoint accuracy during sync shot, but it’s better to chat with friends on an infiltration strategy. Knowing there is another person to have your back when bullets start flying is a must, especially on harder difficulties where one bullet could kill you.
During the preview, my team of four was all over the place. Uncoordinated and green, we had a blast driving up hills and taking the long way around a mission. Once, I took the back entrance to a camp on foot while someone else in my team hopped into a tank and shot their way through the front, negating any need for stealth. Your mileage might vary when playing with random people online but this could be one of the most thrilling co-op games in recent memory if played with a solid group of gaming pals.
Before release, I hope Ubisoft Paris clarifies how matchmaking works. During online play, it seemed that credit and collectibles were only given to the team leader or whoever initiated a mission. I was never clear which waypoint we were supposed to be headed toward if there were multiple missions and quests in close proximity to each other.
While I was not able to see all of what Ghost Recon Wildlands has in store, everything I’ve experienced so far shows great promise. Most importantly, the game is fun to the core and it only gets better with friends.
I’m curious to see what kind of PvP or endgame plans the development team has tucked away because these features could tip the game from a one-and-done experience to a game that will always be in the rotation. I’d like to see raid-like encounters or contracts, much like the Hitman reboot handled timed elusive contracts. With such a big world, a lot could go wrong, but there’s plenty of room for things to work out brilliantly.
As my time with the game ended, all I knew was that I didn’t want to leave Bolivia and I couldn’t wait to dive back in.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands releases March 7 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
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