Ubisoft is bringing its long-running Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon series back this March 7th with Ghost Recon: Wildlands. It’s a different take on not only the franchise, but the genre as a whole. It’s the first military shooter set in a massive open world that is playable beginning to end in either solo or drop-in/out co-op play, with a progression system that keeps on ticking regardless of when and how you play.
Wildlands is set in a fictitious Bolivia just a few years into the future, so the equipment players will use is more realistic than not. As you might expect, Ghost Recon strikes a balance between ‘sim’ and ‘game’ — in other words, it’s not as off the rails arcade like as Just Cause, but it’s also not as strict as ARMA or other more sim-focused military titles. A continuous theme within the design and gameplay of Wildlands is freedom of choice. This plays out right away — the over 100 story missions are available to you from the very start, and can technically be played in any order, although certainly some missions are connected to others. If you see a vehicle — tractor, helicopter, motorcycle, dune buggy, boat, and many more — you can steal it and drive it and there are no limitations on fuel. Objectives are often kilometers away or extracting from a mission area in a hurry is often a good idea, so this flexibility in how you can traverse the truly massive environment is very beneficial. Of note, this is the largest open world game that Ubisoft has ever made, that includes the Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed franchises.
This open world is peppered with many story and side missions. There are missions that bring you closer to the Rebels, and unlock new ties with them that can help your Ghost team survive. Unlock abilities like calling in Rebels for armed support, scouting and marking enemies, or dropping in a vehicle or mortars eventually become available. Lots of other abilities unlock as you advance, too, bearing in mind that your earn XP continuously whether you play in solo or co-op mode. Unlocks may be as simple as a new shirt you can put on your character from the detailed character creation screen to new weapon unlocks, drone upgrades (taking it from a handy surveying tool to a deadly weapon), more stamina, and so forth.
Wildlands includes eleven different ecosystems, varying from jungles, salt flats, archipelagos, and all points in between. Areas with water that you can swim in or boat over, huge mountainous heights, and the desert-like salt flats give the world a lot of variance and flavor across each of its twenty-one regions. Add in day and night cycles and a weather system and you have world that has a lot of ‘life’ to it. These regions have different levels of control between the four factions. The primary enemy faction is the dangerous Santa Blanca cartel, whose leader, El Sueno, believes its his destiny to create a rule not only a cartel, but a full-on country. His pursuits of narcotics dealings have escalated into many more far reaching and nefarious operations, hence why the Ghosts were dropped into the area to crush the forces of El Sueno from the inside out. He has lieutenants that over see his operations of Production, Trafficking, Security, and Influence. All told, there are some twenty-six bosses to deal with. Other factions include the corrupt Unidad government military force, who can be made to fight with the Santa Blanca if you strategize well enough in battle, and the Rebels who are seeking to repel Santa Blanca from their homeland.
Getting down to brass tacks, in the time I had with the game, I played two hours and change in solo play and about as much in four player co-op as well. I spent several minutes customizing my character, who then appeared in the cutscenes interacting with the NPCs. I had hoped to be able to have more investment in my three AI squadmates, but alas there is not a lot of customization or depth in that regard. You control the AI with basic commands from a wheel menu in-game, and they’ll follow your lead as far as if you’re running, walking, crouching, or crawling. If you go silenced weapons, so do they. Awkwardly, if you hop on a vehicle and there is no room for them, they will eventually just teleport next to you when you get to your destination. It’s weird and immersion-breaking, but, balances have to be achieved between realism and playability, so it’s not hard to overlook that. Pre-recorded dialog between the AI and your character occurs, with jokes being told or old war stories being related, typically while you’re in vehicle heading to the next location of your choosing. It’s pretty neat and adds some character to the AI, but if you really want to invest in those characters, you should probably seek to play multiplayer co-op instead, understandably.
Gameplay in Wildlands felt familiar, but not in a bad way. The driving controls felt a little bit swimmy and loose, although different vehicles have a different feel to them. I found the helicopter the hardest to control and getting it to go forward quickly was troublesome, but I loved being able to extract via a helicopter after a tough basecamp-clearing night operation, so the trade-off was well worth it. Speaking of night missions, going stealth is very much an option in Wildlands, although it’s not required. It can give you the upper hand to be sure, and you would be wise to make use of your drone, binoculars, the Rebels, and put the recon in Ghost Recon by analyzing enemy movements and patterns, like sleep cycles and patrols. It’s satisfying to make a plan up more or less on the fly and see it develop. It’s easier to do this with friends in co-op of course, but the AI did pretty well for themselves and the basic commands of telling them to Hold, Attack, Move, and so forth work well. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, you cannot give orders to just one AI member. In co-op, by the way, each player can go tackle an entirely separate mission, simultaneously, if they want, and then grab a vehicle and high-tail it over to their nearest buddy for example — super cool.
Speaking of multiplayer, the time I spent in this mode was also enjoyable, providing some “wow, that was cool!” moments and several great laughs as well, typically involving vehicle mishaps or one of us accidentally. The province we were placed in for the press event was much tougher; Unidad soldiers would come in waves and large firefights between the Ghosts, them, and the Santa Blanca would erupt. It was chaotic, but enjoyable. Downed players can be revived within sixty seconds if another player can get to them in time, which is certainly not always a given, and downed players can only be revived a certain number of times, too.
Ultimately, no matter how I played it, Ghost Recond: Wildlands was a lot of fun. The open world and freedom of choice in how you play seems like a stark contrast to what the series is known for, but I was pleasantly surprised with how well the game looked, played, and felt. Look for Ghost Recon: Wildlands this March 7th on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.