(Full disclosure: Rental for PS4)
Ghost Recon Wildlands is an open-world, third-person shooter that turns you into the leading heavy of a four-person team of Ghost operators sent to Bolivia to destroy a narco cartel, Santa Blanca, that has essentially taken over the country. If anyone remembers the novel Clear and Present Danger (which is actually by Tom Clancy) or the 1994 movie of the same name
and the special ops teams going in to take out bad guy drug cartels, Wildlands is kind of like Ubisoft's delayed adaptation of that idea.
There is something about Tom Clancy branded games to me that has always tried to walk that tightrope between being a 'game' and at least being grounded in some believable degree of real-world elements, whether it's the smart limitations and situations that Splinter Cell's Sam Fisher has found himself in over the series' long history (confession, I'm a big fan of Splinter Cell) or the tough-as-nails difficulty and political "what if" of the original Ghost Recon from 2001. Wildlands is something of an unusual hybrid wearing that Tom Clancy technothriller skin fans have come to know so well while bouncing up and down mountains in self-flipping cars
Story time - an undercover agent working for the US has been tortured and killed by El Sueno, the leader of the Santa Blanca cartel that now runs Bolivia. This has sparked a response involving sending in a Ghost team, the elite of the elite of its military, to aid the CIA in bringing El Sueno down and restoring 'freedom' to Bolivia in the process. If you're getting deja vu from Pandemic's Mercenaries games, you're not alone, and could have been the hint of good things to come.
Politically, Bolivia has thrown in the towel. They formed a paramilitary police force, Unidad, to deal with Santa Blanca when things got really bad, but the bloodbath (i.e. collateral damage) that ensued forced the government to broker an uneasy peace between themselves and the cartel. Now, Unidad largely looks the other way while bullying everyone else. At the same time, the cartel is free to buy off whoever else they can, burns opponents to death, build cocaine paste plants in everyone's backyard, and generally do whatever they want...just as long as they don't do it to Unidad's corrupted face.
To take them down, you'll need to dismantle El Sueno's hierarchy of goons by traveling to the different provinces of Bolivia and dealing with the ruling "buchon" in each one. As far as characters go, each come packaged with a sterling briefing package courtesy of your CIA handler fleshing them out to be larger than life, though a few feel as if they've just from the Bad Guy Factory. Santa Blanca also gives me the impression that Ubisoft wanted you to overthrow a nation, but seeing as that might open a can of worms, decided to go the cartel route instead that functions as a nation and just ran with it no matter how overpowered they made them seem especially after I saw the miniature St. Peter's Cathedral built as El Sueno's mausoleum and the "tombs" for the cartel's other leaders.
Some provinces are "tougher" than others (rated on a five-skull gauge), but "tougher" in this case usually means just having to deal with a bigger variety of enemies like enemy choppers accompanying supply convoys instead of just a convoy escorted by jeeps.
I skipped the opening area (a two-skull difficulty area) and jumped into a neighboring one (five-skull area) because I knew there was a neat sniper rifle there from the demo. Had no issues stealthing my way through it and taking down the buchon there with the basic kit I started with making the skull-rating mostly a guideline than a warning. Enemies don't do "more" damage or happen to be suddenly upgrade themselves into bazooka toting troopers and depending on the individual player or the friends you may have with you, it probably won't even matter.
On the plus side, being this free is one of the game's strengths, or that of any open-world title, allowing you to explore the world to your heart's content and take on its challenges in whatever order you want. Wildlands' sandbox is a sprawling, mountainous spread of snowy passes, rocky hills, the cliffside hugging Death Road, and vast coca fields interspersed by cartel and Unidad checkpoints and roving patrols. But the next problem is that there doesn't seem like a whole lot to do in between the hotspots centered around mission critical areas. And there's a lot of that.
It's made even worse by the obnoxiously bad spawn system. Dying on a mission respawns you a few hundred meters from the area itself which gets annoying the first time it happens and just adds an added incentive to not die. Then there's the enemy AI which ranges from pretty dodgy to harrowingly persistent.
Unidad may have given up the fight but the way they behave in-game says something else. If you get on their bad side, their 'threat' level starts rising meaning that they start calling in more and more help until you are overwhelmed or simply run away (far, far away because they're really persistent). Cartel goons, on the other hand, kind of give up after you kill so many of them in some instances. Whenever a base attack went awkwardly wrong (i.e. I failed stealth), I'd sometimes find a building with a staircase and hide at the of the stairs (especially if it was in an enclosed room) and just wait for cartel thugs to try and get to me, often resulting in a pile of bodies at the bottom of said stairs and an eventual cessation of hostilities because I guess we were really bad hombres.
If you're not playing with someone else (your team doesn't always consist of four people if you're playing with a real person resulting in squads of, er, two or so depending), three AI controlled teammates provide occasionally eye-rolling, macho banter as well as acting as additional guns at your command. Wildlands allows players to issue basic orders to their squad (or even call in rebel aid in the form of mortar strikes or car deliveries) via in-game menu.
You can line up instant kill shots for your AI teammates after scouting out an area and have them simultaneously execute their shots either with yours or simply holding down "X" to do it without getting your hands dirty. It's not a miracle solution to everything though -- some crazy angled shots just won't work no matter how smart the AI is. But creative moments were also built up in this way in trying to figure out the best combination of kills to keep things stealthy since no one really notices when half a base has been assassinated, though being sloppy can immediately get alarms going. On the other hand, the game's cleanup routine tends to remove dead bodies from the field after a few moments, unwittingly keeping you stealthy which breaks a lot of otherwise entertaining tension thanks to this divine intervention.
I didn't have any problems in controlling vehicles of the wheeled-variety in the game, but anything that flew felt like riding a drunken chicken. There are no rudder controls for flying a plane which made slight course adjustments in the air a bit awkward. Flying a chopper also felt crude -- tilting forward doesn't necessarily move you forward because you're diving at the same time that you're applying lift. As 'real' as that might be to some, it's awkward compared to other open-world titles that just opted to give the player more 'arcade' like controls in the name of fun, especially when Wildlands also allows you to drive up mountainsides in a Lamborghini-inspired sportscar.
There are moments and missions that the game delivers which are genuinely fun, however, such as raiding a convoy of supplies as you race escorts with guns blazing away, stealthily breaking down a tough base, or engaging in the custom missions centered around El Sueno's buchons. Scattered bits of lore creating a collectable trail for completionists peppers the countryside, gun components scattered everywhere encourages experimentation via the game's excellent gunsmith system, and there's a ton of weapons to get a hold of. Action-wise, once you get to those hotspots with your team or another player, the game can often bring on its peak moments.
An experience system rewards skill points that can be spent upgrading a number of things for the player to make their job easier whether it's adding additional battery capacity for their drone or, at much higher tiers once they level up far enough, removing the damage liability for suppressors. There are even more skill points scattered around Bolivia for players to collect if they want, giving them even more of an edge and can be fun distractions or help focus on particular traits for yourself and your team.
Ghost Recon Wildlands also does something neat with its ending. Players don't need to dispose of each and every one of El Sueno's lieutenants, only enough to make the guy reveal himself for a final showdown which potentially urges forgetting half the country. At the same time, if you don't do all of the story missions, you don't get the 'real' ending to the game, either, which is much better than the default version.
Wildlands' issues gloss over the potential buried there yet despite stumbling, it remains a solid enough shooter at the end of the day. It plays fast and loose with its mix of arcade realism and 'trying to be real' realism (such as yelling at you and eventually failing your mission if you accidentally kill too many civilians) which might not be everyone's cup of joe, but if you're looking to shoot bad guys, create general mayhem, or simply wade in to deal explosive justice for a few minutes with a friend, Wildlands' open spaces aren't bad shooting ranges.Pros:
- Big, beautifully built world with great presentation values
- The CIA clearly has a big budget for making very cool briefing videos
- Tactical stealth options are nice
Final mission assessment: 7 keys out of 10
- Weird mix between arcade and "serious" elements
- Enemy AI leaves a lot to be desired
- Missions can feel a bit repetitive and boring