I’ll be honest: Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a flawed game, but I had an absurd amount of fun with it. It is simplistic, limited, and badly executed like most recent Ubisoft titles, but it can be amazingly entertaining when things align just right and you’re allowed to do what you want. It’s a very satisfying stealth shooter, and it definitely skirts the line between doing things very well and being equally lacking in everything else.
Taking place in an alternative near future where Bolivia is taken over by a cartel and turned into a narco-state, Ghost Recon: Wildlands has a surprisingly good Tom Clancy’s plot -- no huge reason is given for the Ghosts insertion into Bolivia other than their duty as soldiers; their only operational directive is to take down the cartel and restore the government in the area. It’s the kind of forceful political meddling the US has done for years across the world, and it fits perfectly with Tom Clancy’s military and realistic overtones.
The way you go about accomplishing those objectives is largely up to you, although your tools are severely limited to the “shoot things” and “explode other things” spectrum of options. You get access to a handy little drone capable of scouting positions and marking enemies from the air, and you can later unlock diversion lures and flashbangs to add a couple of tactical options, but the game’s focus is undoubtedly in the shooting aspect -- that’s the only direct way you have to interact with your environment, and what you will do for hours on end. Don’t get me wrong, Wildlands is crazy fun -- but it does feel lacking after the wonderfully constructed systems gameplay of Metal Gear Solid V.
But the game does feature some surprisingly nice systems, including a fully thought out day and night cycle complete with sleep schedules. I was extremely surprised when upon parachuting into a heavily guarded enemy base at the break of dawn, I was met with nothing but snipers and sentries -- all the guards were in barracks and tents, sleeping the night away, allowing me to grimly but effectively kill each one of them as they slept.
There are also weather and factions systems in place, lending a bit of variety and emergent gameplay to proceedings. You can use the cover of a thunderstorm to run through a base mostly undetected, taking advantage of the limited visibility and noise of the rain to remain unseen. Enemies take cover inside buildings when it starts to pour, allowing you to either evade them or take off a bunch with one single well placed grenade. The factions system, on the other hand, pitches the cartel, the military, and the rebels against each other every time they cross paths in the open world, and you can gain rebel support to request reinforcements, spotting aids, and even mortar assistance. Many a time I was suppressed by a sniper or gunner in a distant tower or faced with a massive wall of reinforcements between me and my escape route, and watched joyfully as a well-called bombardment cleared the whole area with mortar fire.
Missions are a near miss, being a mile wide and an inch deep. Basically revolving around extracting someone, killing someone, or defending an area, they are small, simple, and dreadfully uninspired, offering a self-contained adventure that while entertaining, is ultimately repetitive and unfulfilling. The whole game ends up feeling like a 40 hour long repetition of the exact same missions, in different locales and for different reasons.
Yet, the freedom offered by Wildlands is it’s greatest strength. Enemy bases and layouts are never repeated -- although some buildings certainly are -- meaning every single approach is usually fresh and fraught with danger. That tingle of anticipation I felt every time I scouted an enemy position, plotting my movements and marking targets for my squad before entering the fray myself, felt exhilarating. That alone is the one thing that managed to keep the game fresh for the first 30 hours, but as with all one trick ponies, it eventually grew stale and lost part of it’s charm.
As a tactical shooter, the focus is on stealth and teamwork -- not working with your squad will get you killed. I find it amazing that Ubisoft managed to create such a sense of reliability and cooperation in a game -- especially a mainstream AAA one. When playing alone, you can give simple orders to your squad and synchronise shots to take out up to four targets at the same time, but the squad is nigh useless for the remainder of the time. They can not be seen by the enemy even if standing close to it, do not open fire preemptively to cover your back during stealth, and when parachuting out of an aircraft just glide straight down like a rock -- to say the AI is lacking would be a compliment. Playing with friends, though, is usually rather good, leading to very fun moments of frustration and tactical prowess that neither of you probably thought you had. The sync shot mechanic works amazingly in multiplayer, as the mark that flashes above an enemy goes solid when someone has a line of fire, letting you know in a glance which enemies are covered and can be taken down. It also works as a handy way to mark enemies in the heat of a firefight when things inevitably go loud, allowing your squadmates -- humans or AI -- to focus on a priority target.
However, Wildlands is a deeply flawed game, and like most Ubisoft titles with a great concept, it often botches the gameplay execution quite badly. Ubisoft’s School of Crappy Mission Design is still going on strong, featuring instafail missions when you are detected -- even if you shoot the guy in the face before he utters a word -- and restricting actual gameplay severely. The game provides zero wiggling room to recover from your mistakes; in one instance, I had a perfectly executed 20-minute long stealth mission instafail when the car I was driving rolled over. My objective was to infiltrate a compound - which I did - and steal the car - which I had - and drive it to a rebel location -- which I was. I painstakingly infiltrated said compound, perfectly taking out guard after guard with my team and stealing the car without raising an enemy’s eyebrow, let alone an alarm. Then during the last 400 meters of the mission, the car hit a ditch and flipped over, and the mission instantly failed with the message “the car was destroyed”. The car was not only not destroyed, but I had already flipped it over again and was driving it down the road when the screen faded to black in failure.
That sort of restrictive petty thinking unfortunately permeates the whole game -- alert a lieutenant, and he runs away with a car never to be stopped. Attack guards covering a supply chopper, and one of them jumps into the vehicle and shoots off into the air, before the rotor blades even start spinning. Try to shoot the driver of a chopper or a convoy, and your bullets will hit an invisible wall. Some missions are to be approached the way the designers want you to approach them, and mistakes and creativity are not tolerated. You can’t even do simple things like jumping, shooting through a chain-link fence, or rolling (while prone or standing up), which severely limits your tactical manoeuvrability. It’s about time Ubisoft learned: saying “no” to the player is a very bad thing.
To make matters worse, it seems no QA was really done during development of Wildlands. Upon first launch, loading took ten minutes then crashed. Once in the game, I had more than one instance where sync shots would not actually fire, yet register as they did and start a cooldown. The text chat bugged and was stuck in the screen until I restarted, and the camera sometimes bugs out when I’m standing up and stays in a lower position as if I was crouching. On one occasion, a plane delivery mission bugged out because I left the vehicle outside the landing zone and would not register my delivery even after I took it back. Another time, I was on the hunt for a specific weapon part and parachuted out of a chopper near an enemy base. While in the air, the action froze, but I could still move the camera and hear the sounds of the world around me. When the action returned to normal a few seconds later, I headed towards the outpost and landed smack in the middle of it; no enemies were around me, so I made my way to the weapon box… which also was not there. I had parachuted into the base faster than the game could spawn the area.
And don’t even get me started on the vehicle controls. The vehicle controls are barbarous, with some of the worst physics I’ve ever seen. Shooting angles and aiming focusing is virtually useless, the actual maneuvering is ludicrous, and cars bounce around like jeeps on a road made of rubber with all the fidelity of a PlayStation 2 game. The helicopter is especially atrocious -- making the craft perform the exact maneuvers you want is categorically impossible, and the helicopter itself behaves like crap on everything but forward flying. The plane mostly controls well, except for flying up and down -- which you might notice are not only sensible options, but are essential maneuvers for an airplane. Flying up is infrequent, not properly stalling but mostly just forbidding you from aiming higher, and holding the brake button does not slow the plane into a glide -- it makes it drop from the sky instantly, like a rock tied to a refrigerator full of boulders. It boggles the mind that Ubisoft feels the need to reinvent something that franchises like GTA, Just Cause, and Saints Row already handle so well, and in the end, Wildlands’ vehicle controls manage to fail both at being realistic or arcade-y, and succeed only in being thoroughly terrible.
Graphical performance is lacking, with my rig constantly experiencing stutters independent of setting. The performance has been equally bad on Low or Ultra settings throughout the closed beta, open beta, and launch, but the patch distributed a week after release managed to fix most of my issues. I can now play the game comfortably on Ultra, and even though it infrequently hangs for no apparent reason sometimes, I must at least point out that Ubisoft didn’t drop the ball so far on Wildlands technical support.
The audio design is a mixed bag, being quite good and dreadfully bad at times. On one hand, you have great weapon effects and a voice acting that’s mostly quite good, especially main bad guy El Sueño. The Ghosts’ themselves have a more “average” quality to it -- I get the feeling they are meant to sound more like “normal guys with normal voices” instead of distinctive signature tones such as Nolan North in everything or Troy Baker in Shadow of Mordor, and I quite like that approach. Musically, the original soundtrack is amazing: composer Alain Johannes deserves all the praise for managing to create such an unique blend of South American overtones and military rock music; an orchestra of sounds clearly influenced by local composition and featuring heavy use of latin guitars and rock tempos. It creates an enticing atmosphere that highlights the plights and sadness of the country’s struggles intertwined with the nobility, grimness, and effort of the Ghosts’ mission.
On the other hand, Wildlands takes some cues from the latest modern Far Cry and really screws up some aspects of it’s sound design, especially in the form of the extraordinarily bad radio station complete with a terrible, cringe-worthy DJ. His annoying voice, cadence, and accent amid a cacophony of sounds creates radio chatter that constantly fills the air with an endless haemorrhage of bad music and terrible unfunny attempts at jokes by a badly directed voice actor, really making you wonder just what the hell the designers were thinking. The game even teases you with the possibility of killing him at some point, but that unfortunately never comes to pass. Similarly, rebellion leader Pak Katara sometimes works, but often changes accents on the fly and never seems sure of what dialect he’s precisely trying to mimic -- most of the time, he just ends up sounding like the equally bad voice-acted rebellion leaders of Far Cry 4.
On the multiplayer field, Wildlands is almost flawless. Ubisoft nailed the netcode to the point where the game has almost none of the jittering and rubber-banding so often present in other open-world titles, but it does have some quirks of its own. Grenades are notoriously unreliable in multiplayer, often taking more than 10 seconds to explode or not exploding all together, and the underbarrel grenade launcher becomes particularly useless -- the grenade simply bounces off the intended target with a “ping” and utterly fails to explode. Curiously, you only experience these problems when joining someone’s game as the client -- playing alone or hosting a co-op session has explosives working as they should.
The actual co-op implementation is seamless, with your friends able to join you via a single mouse click. The host experiences zero disruption (aside from all his AI squadmates vanishing) and joining players get voice comms activated in the loading screen, allowing the whole squad to talk to each other while players load into the map. The only thing lacking is the ability to actively set the game for public privacy -- there is a public matchmaking option present, but that only allows you to randomly join others -- it unfortunately doesn’t give you the option to host and beacon other players in.
In the end, Ghost Recon: Wildlands bugs the hell out of me, but it really is a good game. It manages to do what it sets out to do, and does that well. As a tactical squad shooter, it does not reach the same heights -- let alone the overall league -- of titles like The Phantom Pain or even Sniper Elite 4, but it is a very fun co-op shooter that can be an absolute blast, both alone and (preferably) with friends. Something tells me we won’t be seeing a sequel or spin-off anytime soon, but as a good game in a genre that is sorely lacking nowadays, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is definitely worth keeping on your wishlist.
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon® Wildlands (Reviewed on Windows)
Game is enjoyable, outweighing the issues there may be.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a bugged and flawed game, but it is capable of bringing huge amounts of fun.