Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands Review: Boundless Bolivia
Ben Sheene / Mar 6th, 2017 No Comments
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands is a massive game. In my 30 hours of playtime, I took out more than a dozen leaders of the Santa Blanca drug cartel in my path to topple its figurehead, El Sueño. I freed Bolivian villages from the grip of murder and extortion by a corrupt police force. I tagged hundreds of supplies and raided outposts for rebels to upgrade my drone with an infinite battery and the ability to blow up and kill groups of enemies.
In that exhaustive amount of time, I managed to only discover — not explore — 75 percent of the game’s map. The smuggling and production sides of Santa Blanca’s cocaine empire remained almost untouched. There is still so much to do. Even for a Ubisoft game, Wildlands is a juggernaut of an open-world game. And after all that time, I can’t wait to dive back in and silently wipe Santa Blanca off the face of the Earth with friends.
The War on Drugs
To create a compelling threat, modern military shooters pull from the easiest source: terrorism. These terrorists are men and women from foreign countries who use overwhelming force to dismantle established governments and ways of life. These figureheads are the faces of hundreds of soldiers players shred through with bullets and shrapnel. Terrorists can hop around the globe and set the stage for multiple levels of bombed-out buildings and last-stand setpieces.
In Wildlands, the bad guy has already won. Over the course of a few years, El Sueño transformed the country of Bolivia into a narco state. More cocaine flows out of Bolivia than anywhere else in the world, which puts El Sueño in an untouchable seat of power. Anyone who defies the Santa Blanca cartel is bought off or disposed of.
The death of an undercover DEA agent calls for the United States to finally intervene and unseat El Sueño. Players take on the role of Nomad, an elite Ghost tasked with infiltrating Bolivia and dismantling Santa Blanca piece by piece. Karen Bowman is your point of contact who delivers mission briefings and provides backstory.
Wildlands’ focus on Bolivia as a country ruled by cocaine is a moderately fresh take on a military shooter setting. Like The Division’s take on New York or any of Grand Theft Auto’s cities, the country itself is a central character. Players are exposed to diverse regions united by a singular culture and ravaged by guns. The history of people living here for centuries is evident in the religious symbols found in homes and the architecture dotting the landscape. Developer Ubisoft Paris doesn’t use the country as a setting to merely blow things up in, it pays respect to a way of life, albeit with a sinister plot threaded through it all.
On the surface, Wildlands is a game that often feels flooded with unnecessary machismo and pandering “bro” humor. Absurd poop jokes that deserve a chuckle at best are sprinkled throughout the dialogue, and I heard the word “sperm” more times than I ever had before in a game. Obscenities pepper most of the dialogue to the point where it may turn some people off. Coupled with sub-par lip syncing and some voice acting that ranges from lackluster to emotionless, it can be easy to dismiss the narrative as mindless filler.
Though I rolled my eyes at many of the jokes and one-liners, there is something about the bravado of Wildlands that is almost intoxicating. I can’t imagine a scenario in which a group of four soldiers with the purpose of assassinating members of a drug cartel are going to wax philosophical about social and moral issues. That isn’t the game’s purpose and I don’t think it should be. Instead, players are given a bunch of foul-mouthed military types who use guns to exert dominance over the “bad guys.” I laughed at a good deal of the dialogue because it frequently threw me off guard and pulled me right into the moment. Of course, it would be easy to take issues with the concept that a bunch of Americans are going into a foreign country and blasting it to hell. Again, though, this is not that type of game.
Slowly taking out El Sueño’s captains and underbosses feels satisfying outside of gameplay because of the overarching narrative. The “Boss of Bosses” voice plays over the radio, telling stories of his childhood, quoting the Bible, and using his silver tongue to convince the people of Bolivia that his cocaine and blood money are contributing to the greater good. El Sueño’s ego and his way of bending the truth strike a hauntingly familiar chord in today’s political climate. Stylish cutscenes and mission briefings show cracks in his armor, and a few of his minions have backstories worth digging into.
Ghost Recon is a series that focuses on being stealthy and tactical when approaching missions. Past games used strict level designs that required players to complete objectives without being spotted by enemies. Wildlands turns this formula on its head by placing your team of Ghosts into a boundless world where nearly every mission can be approached in multiple ways.
Upon landing in one of Bolivia’s 20 provinces, Karen Bowman gives a breakdown of the situation and where to gather intelligence on the potential boss of that region. Players are tasked with gathering intelligence files to unlock missions. Completing each mission inches you closer to finding the boss. After two introductory missions, players are given free reign over Bolivia. Go anywhere you want and do anything you want.
This design philosophy is insanely addictive for players like me who are obsessed with open world games. I scour the map for collectibles and icons, and believe me, Wildlands is flooded with them. By not chaining players to any particular objective outside of taking out El Sueño, Ubisoft Paris makes Wildlands enticing to anyone wanting to lose themselves in chunks of game.
While you can go anywhere at any time, provinces are given a difficulty rating out of five to indicate what kind of opposition can be expected. Harder sections of the map are packed with obstacles like armored enemies, radar jammers and turrets that suggest you need to level up or suffer frequent death, but you aren’t going to be smacked on the hand for trying either.
Experienced players should raise the difficulty to advanced or extreme while playing. Not only will bullets hit you harder, enemies can spot you quicker. This ensures that Wildlands isn’t too much of a cakewalk by easing you into being more tactical. Taking the time to scope out the surroundings leads to tense encounters that leave you holding your breath.
Few things beat driving up to or parachuting into a zone that is hot with enemies, pulling out your drone to tag every bad guy, and silently shooting down every person until there are no more red dots on the map. At times, using the drone can feel a bit overpowering, especially when it is leveled up. Soaring high above an area and spotting anything and everything is a bit god-like, but you’re never infallible. In harder sections of Bolivia, a Ghost with the right amount of skills feels like a true angel of death, so it pays to do side missions for skill points and materials to upgrade your stats.
The open-world structure hinders the game’s ability to have a breadth of mission variety. Most missions and combat scenarios have players going up to a piece of the map and deciding whether to go in loud or quiet, or a combination of both when you miss a crucial sniper shot. A few times players need to tail someone or extract a hostage without raising the alarms, but there are few, if any, traditional action setpieces. Most of the exciting moments and stories worthy of retelling are due to the unlikely or ridiculous scenarios players find themselves in as a result of emergent gameplay.
Four’s a Crowd
To truly experience the thrill of Wildlands, it’s best to bring three other friends along for the ride. Co-op is as easy as holding down “X” to join a multiplayer session or going into the menu and finding a friend to join. With such a big world, why not share it?
I spent a majority of my time playing solo and am glad to say I didn’t hate it. When I first got my hands on Wildlands at a preview event, I was worried that the AI was a little too dumb to rely on. Most open assaults had me killing off enemies and praying my three AI companions would kill a few. After unlocking the ability to tag up to three enemies with sync shot, playing solo may be the easiest way to complete the game stealthily. The AI can pull off nearly any kill from any angle, taking some of the pressure off of you to be on point all the time.
Some missions felt almost brutal in their reliance on the help of at least one other person. One mission has players trying to steal a boss’ car, which is being supported by armored cars equipped with miniguns. Because the AI aims at any bad guy, they would go for everyone in sight, including the car I was supposed to steal. After a dozen failed attempts, I eventually fumbled my way to victory, but I yearned for another human’s help.
Bolivia’s daunting size can also make the game feel a bit lonely when you are playing solo. With no one to share in the spectacle and strategy with, victories may feel a bit hollow and you might get bored playing mission after mission with little way to change up your strategy. The addition of another player inspires the use of multiple drones, flare guns and diversion grenades.
The open-world approach often gave me flashbacks to Metal Gear Solid 5, in how each enemy outpost has several ways to approach it. Enemy AI might not be as complex in Wildlands, but going in with friends is often better than the times I infiltrated a facility as Snake. Even the aforementioned bad jokes are more tolerable (or easier to mock and tune out) with friends. The chatter and strategy that four friends can have is satisfying on the level of solving small raids or completing dungeons.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands has that sense of limitless freedom few games provide. Bolivia is a gorgeous world that anyone can lose themselves in. In my time playing on a PS4 Pro, I rarely encountered heavy pop-in and never ran into any game-breaking bugs. There were a few glitches here and there, but nothing that detracted from a game of sheer spectacle. I would often stop and stare at the vast stretches of countryside and wonder how many new markers would soon be added on my map.
Ubisoft has spent a decade honing their craft with open worlds. In many ways, Wildlands is a greatest hits of the genre with the size of the map and the amount of time you can spend completing missions. For some, it may get repetitive and lose its luster over the course of 20 or 30 hours. But diving in with friends is a way to ignite fresh stories about how that one shot made all the difference. I’m interested to see how PvP and community events extend the life of Wildlands in the months to come because Bolivia is a big place and there’s still plenty left to do.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands was reviewed on a PS4 Pro using a code provided by the publishers for the purpose of this review.
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