Whilst playing Ubisoft Paris’ Ghost Recon Wildlands, I found it impossible not to consider its context. I’m not referring to the recent controversy between the Bolivian and French governments regarding its setting, but rather the spate of open-world games we’ve seen released over the last few years — and even the last couple of weeks.
The 45 gigabyte download for Wildlands granted me the time to watch Sicario, Denis Villeneuve’s film with subject matter very similar to the game; a taskforce of special American operatives tasked with dismantling South American drug cartels. Whereas Sicario deftly deals with the human trauma associated with the horrors conducted by the cartel, the same horrors in Wildlands serve as unconvincing motivations, tucked away in dialogue or used as the occasional set dressing. The bad guys in Wildlands are ultimately boiled down to a checklist.
We’ve come to expect the checkbox-style open-world action game from Ubisoft in recent years, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I can’t really fault the game’s systems; Wildlands is a very polished, well presented experience that controls tremendously well.
It certainly isn’t short of missions, customisation, collectables and character progression either. The world is huge and easily explored, vehicles always within reach and plenty of weapon mods, skill points, documents, resources and bonus medals to find. The gun-play is tight, vehicles handle well (which each land, sea or air vehicle having a distinct feel) and the game runs fine on my original PS4, although I experienced frame-rate drops in denser urban areas. The cover mechanics aren’t as slick as The Division or Metal Gear V, but it seems to be in a deliberate effort to grant you greater mobility and control over your character.
Mechanically, Wildlands feels like a third-person, tactical Far Cry game, which translates to very satisfying and polished experience. This feels like a natural evolution from the gameplay found in The Division; the addition or vehicles, a larger, more open world and better multiplayer integration make this superior to The Division in many ways.
But context is important. The moment-to-moment gameplay feels terribly familiar; ‘kill this person, then that person, then extract this person, steal this and kill all these people’. Rinse and repeat. Players familiar with Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, The Division and Watch Dogsmay well experience déjà vu. That’s not necessarily problematic if you’re not experiencing ‘open-world fatigue,’ an prevalent issue countless players are grappling with.
In an effort to be less monotonous, Ubisoft Paris injects occasional mission variety. You don’t immediately start killing people; sometimes you must collect some intel first, or perhaps hack a server or film a politician in a compromising position using your drone, before you murder a bunch of coca farmers of course. I’d encourage players to regularly complete side-missions, which ask you to defend a location, take out a convoy, steal a helicopter or plane, blow up a radio tower or intimidate a sicario.
Not only does completing the side-missions reward you with extra supplies to help upgrade your character and strengthen the rebel forces (whom aid you in combat or deliver you supplies and vehicles) but they help break up game-play that otherwise threatens to become repetitive. Mind you, my primary concern isn’t that Wildlands is repetitive in and of itself, it’s just a formula we’ve seen in games before — especially Ubisoft games.
Wildlands shines when it does something different. Stealth – a hallmark of the Ghost Recon franchise – is highly favoured. You can quickly find yourself out of your depth if you go in all-guns-blazing, even on the regular difficulty. That’s not to say you can’t make your presence known, but you better have a quick exit strategy.
Inversely, using your binoculars and drone to scout out the enemies, plan your attack and issue commands to your squad, allows you to slip in and out unnoticed and tends to feel more rewarding. As expected, you can approach a mission however you like. Sometimes I enjoyed sitting back using my drone to mark targets leaving my squad to do the shooting.
Your squad will do damage and they’re worth utilising. They’re a little slow to revive you at times, but otherwise their far more useful than the typical brain-dead macho types, even if they don’t contribute much to the conversation on long car drives. That being said, the enemy AI are also rather intelligent and will make life difficult for you if you don’t use all the tools at your disposal.
That is to say Wildlands can be enjoyed solo just as much as it can in co-op, although I suspect that is where the game will really shine for most. As a sandbox, the bulk of the narrative is left up to you and your friends to create. Social integration appears seamless; friends can drop in or out without distracting you from your mission.
Where the game suffers most is in its tone, which – for the most part – is conflicting. As you’d expect from a game surrounding the activities of narco-terrorists, drug cartels and professional hitmen, Wildlands deals with some heavy subject matter ranging from child slavery and trafficking to mass-murder, terrorism and subjugation. And yet, such themes are treated with levity, almost trivialising them, and not going so far to make the game outlandish or zany either. Your squad tears through the country-side rather cold and oblivious to the horrors around them, cracking a joke about actually trying a bit of the cocaine themselves. The cartel bosses are caricature bad guys whilst the plight of the Bolivian people is mentioned merely in passing.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the tried and tested Ubisoft formula. However, it begins to feel more tired when the narrative potential falls short, the engagement and immersion I would have otherwise felt hindered by not taking the subject matter seriously enough. However, the slick gameplay, blending of stealth mechanics with a Far Cry like world, seamless co-operative play and well-fleshed-out solo experience prove Ubisoft’s teams aren’t resting on their laurels and are actively trying to build upon the formula.
The PS4 version of this game was played for the purpose of this review. You can read our review policy HERE.