Another week goes by and another open world game releases with a promise of a grand adventure, gigantic open world to explore, and elaborate missions with multiple options to complete with your buddies. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands is finally here, and it’s time to judge it not only based on what the developer Ubisoft Paris promised, but also on what new features it brings to this long and cherished franchise.
Developed by: Ubisoft Paris
Published by: Ubisoft
Release date: March 7th, 2017
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC (Reviewed on PS4)
Price at time of review: 60 USD
Ghost Recon Wildlands Features
- A few years from now, Bolivia has become the largest cocaine producer in the world. The Santa Blanca cartel has turned the country into a narco-state. As a Ghost, you must stop the cartel by any means necessary.
- Create and fully customize your Ghost, weapons, and gear. Enjoy a total freedom of playstyle. Lead your team and take down the cartel, either solo or with up to three friends.
- Journey through Ubisoft’s largest action-adventure open world. Discover the stunning diverse landscapes of the Wildlands both on and off road, in the air, on land and at sea with over 60 different vehicles.
Gone are the days where the campaign in the game was mission structured, with each mission lasting anywhere between 15-20 minutes of intense stealth and squad based (co-op included) tactical shooting gameplay. The series has now evolved into an open world game that tries to marry all these features into one package. Does the game successfully embrace the open world genre like many other Ubisoft franchises, or does the execution of the mix of gameplay features feel less than desirable?
After spending a total of 50 hours in Bolivia, I must say that I am deeply conflicted with mixed emotions for this game. The game feels disjointed, and feels like it has two different games in it that were not successfully blended together. This leads to huge gameplay and narrative dissonance. On one hand you have a game with amazing co-op, customization, stealth, and shooting gameplay mechanics, with tremendous flexibility in terms of tackling any mission. But, it has to said, that on the other hand you have a gigantic and beautiful open world that is devoid of fun activities to engage the player with, and just ends up feeling like a barren world that’s just there to pad the length of the game.
Story & Setting
Ghost Recon Wildlands is set in the wide expanses of Bolivia, where the entire country is run down by the Santa Blanca Drug Cartel and its ruthless leader El Sueῆo. For years the US government has not interfered in Bolivia’s issues, but the torturing and murder of a US DEA Agent by the Santa Blanca Cartel prompts the US government to step in. The CIA sends in the Ghosts team, an elite unit from the US Military. They have been tasked to find out the truth behind the murder, and to dismantle the cartel in Bolivia as part of Operation Kingslayer.
You play as Nomad, a Support Specialist and the leader of the Ghost Squad. Your character can be customized quite a bit to suit your tastes. The Ghost squad is also comprised of Holt (Engineer and Drone Specialist), Midas (Combat Specialist and Vehicle Engineer), and Weaver (Sniper and Weapons Specialist). The game has the foundations and the setting to present an interesting and compelling story, with characters you are led to believe that are extremely capable of insurmountable odds. The problem is that the initial bout of story you get in the beginning is the only time you get a sense of a proper narrative. Right after, you are dropped into the open world of Bolivia the story drags itself at snail’s pace.
The Open world of Bolivia is a character of its own, comprising of 21 huge regions to explore. The entire map is almost three times as large as the map in Horizon Zero Dawn. This becomes a problem later in the game, because for long stretches of gameplay you’ll end up travelling from point A to point B. This could take anywhere from 2-5 minutes depending of if you are using a helicopter or a car. This becomes really apparent when each main mission in a province is set far apart from the each other. It would have been acceptable if the main missions themselves were anything substantial. They are not! Each main mission only has one or two menial objectives, which you end up finishing in 2-3 minutes. This leads to narrative dissonance and the feeling that the story is disjointed.
The main characters themselves don’t have much depth to their character, and are just not engaging enough for you to care about their venture. Instead of caring about the story, you just end up running around and doing the missions for the sake of doing them. The only character that seemed compelling and interesting is the antagonist, El Sueῆo. The opening cutscene sets his character as a force to be reckoned with, but he hardly ever shows up in the game. You have 3 interactions with this character; a couple phone calls, and in the final mission. The entire time the story tries painfully to set up a possibility of an epic final story mission which a proper resolution, but the game just ends, unceremoniously.
You will most likely feel disappointed with the story, and it seems like the game was not meant to feature a proper narrative. The minor amount of story is in there to set up the game for a grand co-op adventure with your buddies, so don’t get too attached or too invested. This is unlike Ghost Recon as previous entries in the franchise focused on giving you a proper story, surrounded with gameplay that elevated its atmosphere.
You can play the whole game in Co-op from start to finish, and is highly recommended as playing the game solo will just add frustration due to the overwhelming size of the game. Doing all the main story missions will take anywhere between 20-30 hours depending on the difficulty, and doing all the side content in the game can take another 30 hours. The side content is also not anything substantial, and is just there to reward you with upgrades to your skills or to give you resources to buy skills. An average person would most likely just beat the main story missions, and get bored with the side content. So altogether, the game can feature 50-60 hours of content of which are 30 hours that are repetitive and boring, and almost half your game time will feature you traveling in your vehicle.
Visual & Audio
Ubisoft Paris has to be commended for the fact that the entire map of Bolivia (consisting of 21 regions) can be explored without any loading if you choose to. There are moments of absolutely dazzling scenery, environments, landscapes, and vistas that make you appreciate the beautiful visual design of this game. The draw distance in the game is massive which only adds to the quality of visual brevity that this game can display. At times I felt like actually watching a documentary on TV while flying through the different regions. The frame rate is also mostly solid throughout the game, as you will have occasional drop here and there during hectic gunfight moments. This is excusable due to the amount of things happening at once in the game’s massive open world.
Although the game looks gorgeous from a distance, there are problems you tend to notice when things are close to you. Up close the textures of snow on hills can look jarring, and many colors used in the world feel washed out compared to the original gameplay reveal Ubisoft wowed us with. Again as with most Ubisoft games there is a bit of a downgrade in the visuals but it is understandable due to the size of the world. When it is raining in the game many times it’ll look splendid, and sometimes it can look pixelated and can lead to some flickering on screen. The skybox in the game looks nice, but the clouds did not receive the same love that the rest of the game got. The clouds can look really pixelated and move really fast on screen leading to a jarring effect. The one thing that is absolutely stunning is the water in the game, and the ripples and splashes create a nice effect that is pleasing to the eye.
The gun models all look different, and can be customized to look really unique. Explosions and particle effects are quite stunning, but at times can look pixelated when too many effects are going off at once. The character models in cutscenes are acceptable, but in game they are really poor and fell stiff and janky, both in terms of the look and movement. Another major problem with the open world is that when you’re travelling at high speeds in a car or a helicopter, you’ll tend to notice a lot of pop in. This can be detrimental especially when driving as it can leads to frustrating crashes and restarts in many missions.
The audio quality is really well done in terms of sounds effects and audio feedback from using your equipment. The different gun types have unique sounds when firing them, but guns in the same category sound very similar. Explosions, crashes, and other ambient noises are executed well and not too many problems were encountered. The soundtrack for the game fits the mood of the game and the songs used in the radio when driving seem authentic enough.
The problem that I encountered was poor audio feedback when enemies are firing at you, as audio cues for bullets whizzing by do not match the side the shots originated from. Also the voice acting and delivery in this game is unbearable at times. Many of the characters native to Bolivia have heavy accents and sound unnatural. This breaks the immersion when you are in a cutscene which has great visuals, but ends up having really poor voice acting.
So the game barely features a coherent narrative, and overall good visuals and audio design, which leaves the gameplay. Is the gameplay good enough to salvage this so far mediocre game? After thinking on this for a long time I would have to say yes. Most of the hallmarks of Ghost Recon gameplay are present and when you execute a mission in full stealth, that’s when the game truly shines whether you’re in solo or co-op.
As part of the Ghost Squad you have access to an array of weapons (over 80), equipment, and accessories to use against your eradication of the Blanca Cartel. The weapons are categorized into assault rifles, submachine guns (SMG), light machine guns (LMG), sniper rifles, and sidearms. Each category of weapons feels distinct enough with assault rifles being versatile and useful is most situations, SMGs are great for close quarters, snipers for long range, and LMGs are just too over powered as they can clear out waves of enemies. The only real negative to say here is that all the guns handle too well, and guns almost have no recoil at times.
You get new weapons by searching and looting the weapon cases in the open world, and by beating cartel bosses. To make them stronger and more useful, you can customize the guns with modifications that can be also found the open world. This adds a nice depth to the customization of the guns, and you can have fun by making different loadouts for higher difficulties. On normal and lower, you really don’t need to customize much as standard guns are strong enough to take out most enemies.
You also have extra equipment such as grenades, C4, mines, flashbangs, lures, etc. All this extra equipment gives you tactical flexibility to tackle missions in multiple ways. The downside is that you can also completely ignore these extra aspects of the game and still beat it with relative ease. I feel as though the game should have emphasized more the tactful gameplay, rather than just giving us all these abilities and making them optional.
Being a shooter, combat revolves around using your vast arsenal of weapons to puncture enemy bodies with bullet holes. This game features the ability to either be in first person or third person when shooting. After testing both of them for extended periods of time, first person shooting feels much more precise and nicer to use. Of course it’s preference so it’s commendable that the feature is there for people to experiment with. The shooting itself feels fluid, smooth and a joy to perform during gameplay. During gun play, you have the ability to ask you squad to take positions and aim at 3 other enemies. On your command the team will perform synch shot that kills the enemies at the same time. It’s a very useful feature that adds to the gameplay experience. When playing in co-op, communicating effectively with your teammates can lead to spectacular kills and results.
As mentioned before Stealth is a major aspect of the game with some missions having instant fail states for being spotted. With all the equipment you have access to, trying to stealth a missions while experimenting with different strategies is a joy and a great example of mission flexibility. The problems stem from the fact that only about 25% of the missions are stealth focused. The rest can be done in any way you prefer, which leads to you not caring about stealth in those moments. You’ll likely defer to running around shooting without any strategy, because there’s really no penalty for it. Most of the time you’ll tend to do this because main missions in this game only last from 2-3 minutes at most, and there are plenty of these main mission with menial tasks. Many of the main missions are not interesting or unique, so you end up just wanting to run through the mission as quickly as possible in the hopes of getting to another mission that might have a more interesting mission structure.
You have access to a multitude of skills with 5 different skill trees (Weapon, Drone, Items, Physical, and Squad). While most of the skills increase certain gameplay parameters, there are skills that unlock different equipment and abilities for your drone. There is quite a lot to experiment with, giving you ample to reason to want to level up and try them all out. You also have access to a 6th Skill tree called the Rebel Support Skills which are unlocked by doing side missions. These skills have useful abilities such as asking for a vehicle to be brought to you, or spotting enemies around you automatically, mortar strikes on specified locations, and creating diversions. Every ability seems to have its uses and when used correctly, you can effectively run through missions with ease.
The side missions in the game are called Rebel Ops, and they are mix of 8 different types of missions that gets recycled throughout the game. The only point to doing them is to get upgrades for your rebel support skills and resources to upgrade your normal skills.
As with weapon cases holding new weapons, you need skill points to upgrade your normal skills. Each province has 2-4 weapon cases, 5-8 accessory cases, and 6-8 skills points to collect. This leads to the majority of your time trying to go from one place to another trying to get these collectibles if you want new weapons and skills to try out. This feels like a missed opportunity because instead of being rewarded naturally like in many other games, you’re forced to wander around this massive and barren open world trying to get these essential things you want to use in the game. This feels like padding to me and is only there to further extend the length of the game artificially.
The game features some vehicles including cars, trucks, bikes, helicopters, and planes. The driving mechanics on the car and bikes are fine, although the handbrake is set to the x button which is unconventional. The flying mechanics on the helicopter and plane are a bit wonky and annoying, but flying is the only means to move around the world quickly.
Enemies aren’t particularly tough even on the hardest difficulty, and the only problems you’ll encounter are choppers and mounted miniguns. These will kill you quickly, but other than that you’re not going to find this game that challenging. You don’t have access to rocket launchers in this game, so you will either have to shoot at the choppers using an LMG or a grenade launcher attachment for the assault rifles. There isn’t a weapon that is designed to take out aerial threats which is extremely disappointing. If you cause too much ruckus in a region, stronger enemy type called the Unidad Forces will comes to quell the situation. These enemies are fully armored, and are a bit more resilient that the Blanca Cartel enemies. Dealing with them is a bit more challenging and fun than the normal types of enemies.
Exploring the provinces starts out as a fun thing to do, but soon turns into a chore because the car is just too slow to move around quickly. So you will quickly ditch the car and opt to fly around in the helicopter. The problem is there are SAM missile installation sites all around many of these provinces. This becomes frustrating as you just want to get to the next missions, and you get immediately shot down by these missiles. With poor flying controls, you will end up getting shot from mid-air multiple times. This further increases the amount of time spent just trying to get to different areas. This contributes to the feeling that everything is built to pad the length of your playtime in this game, and many times it’s just plain boring.