I must admit that in a three month stretch that is full of expansive titles like Horizon Zero Dawn, Mass Effect Andromeda, Nier: Automata, Persona 5, Zelda and more, Ghost Recon Wildlands ranked pretty low on my priority list. I will also admit to being a little jaded by The Ubisoft Game template, and an approach to development that seems to more about size than substance. And unfortunately, whilst proving to be a beautiful affair, Wildlands pretty much lived up to all of my fears as a single player experience, before papering over the cracks as a co-op mixed bag.
I tell you all of this just so you know where things stand before we dive in fully. Most of the games that I’ve mentioned are predominantly singleplayer experiences, designed to be played as exploratory adventures, rich in detail and characterisation and lore. Wildlands is none of these things, and we’ll get into why a little further in.
Making Bolivia great again
After creating your ‘Ghost’ operative from a dizzying array of customisation options you’re sent into Bolivia with three chums to destabilise the nation and liberate it from a massive cartel headed up by a tattooed nutjob. Despite the occasionally deft writing of Tom Clancy himself, and the way he often acknowledged the ethical murkiness of many of his plot lines, you would be a fool to go into this game expecting anything other than rampant interventionist jingoism. Wildlands might bear the Clancy brand name, but its plot is a headache-inducing return to the most idiotic Bush-isms of 2003. Then again, at the risk of sounding cynical, maybe it’s a perfect game for a Trump presidency.
But Wildlands is all about making Bolivia great again, a contentious subject that’s already caused a minor diplomatic incident. The Santa Blanca Cartel has taken control of the country and bombed an embassy. Enter four US specialists with a clear mission – take down the cartel and assassinate its kingpin, El Sueno. In order to do that, however, you have to engage in a little pyramid killing first. Underneath El Sueno are four major operational parts to the Cartel: influence, production, security, and smuggling. These operations are run by heads and underbosses, each with up to five Buchons under them, who control little portions of the map. Basically, you have to go into each region and undertake a handful of pretty identical missions that generally end with you killing or capturing the Buchons. Cause enough havoc, and eventually missions will open up for you to do the same to underbosses and, finally, the operational heads themselves.
These missions play out much like third-person versions of the outposts in Far Cry 4 – go into a village or base and either kill everyone, retrieve an item, or capture a person of interest. There aren’t a huge array of tools at your disposal, and so if you’re playing this by yourself, things get pretty dull pretty quickly. The bases and outposts change things up in terms of structure, but what you’re actually doing rarely alters. In Far Cry 4, these outposts were pleasant distractions and interesting extras. In Wildlands, they’re basically the whole game.
A blank canvas
But as a dedicated co-op experience, that’s actually kind of great. No lengthy cutscenes, no filler, just you and some mates, a basic objective and a whole bunch of freedom. When playing with friends, there are some moments when the game clicks into place and realises its potential, if only for a few brief minutes. Infiltrating an enemy base with a friend or two as another gives sniper support from a nearby peak can be great fun. Parachuting into a camp in the dead of night as a fearsome foursome and dispatching enemy soldiers with silent, ruthless efficiency can feel deeply rewarding. Necessity plays a part too. Having friends on hand to revive you swiftly is so much better than hopelessly waiting over a minute for AI assistance in singleplayer, and then respawning miles away when you finally kick the bucket.
It all handles well enough. The gunplay is smooth, the weapons satisfying, and each kill feels like an accomplishment. At its best, Wildlands presents a series of tactical puzzles to be solved with machine guns and mayhem. Truthfully, although this is a game where your squadmates shout ‘Check your targets, people!’ many of the best-laid strategic plans will almost inevitably fall apart halfway through execution and all hell will break loose. But that’s okay, there are moments of explosive, bullet-ridden when everything clicks. You’ve just got to have a few friends on hand to prolong that ballistic improvisation for as long as possible.
This is really the main sticking point – Wildlands should be considered a co-op game that just so happens to let you play it alone if you really want. As with the mission structure, the things that make for a decent blank canvas for emergent co-op hilarity, are the same things that make for a terribly boring singleplayer experience. At least you can sync headshots with your AI companions, which is both pretty cool and fundamental to your survival. But even that’s kind of better in multiplayer, with various little visual indicators telling you when everyone in the party has their respective targets in their sights. Nailing that together is awesome.
‘Better with friends’ is not exactly a ringing endorsement, though. Wildlands is fun enough in co-op, but the same can be said of a whole bunch of other, better games. Why would you play this when you could be playing Far Cry 4 itself? Or Gears 4? Or GTA V? Hell, if I’m being brutally honest, I had more fun with Army of Two (yes, even the terrible, terrible third game). At least those games knew just how boneheaded they were. They also knew to stay away from instafail stealth. Wildlands can be a blast with friends, hell, even with strangers, until you get to an utterly pointless instafail stealth section. Nothing in the past twelve months has made me want to devour my controller or make a dent in the wall with it than this.
Part of me wonders would could have been had Wildlands been shaped under a different brand. Though fun in part, I never found myself cackling with explosive glee in the same way I have with friends in Just Cause or Mercenaries. Those games never really took themselves particularly seriously, but Wildlands, with its risible bugs (oh so many bugs), and limited cookie-cutter gameplay piles po-faced grimness on top of scripts stolen from the office bin of a Narcos knockoff.
As with all Ubisoft open world grind-em-ups, Wildlands is beautiful. Here is a game as pretty as it is tone-deaf, though its optimisation on PC sometimes leaves a lot to be desired, and there’s sometimes a bit of slowdown and pop-in. Having just started playing Mass Effect Andromeda, though, I now have a new benchmark for awful triple-A pop-in. Well done, Wildlands, you’re off the hook. Credit where credit is due. the physical, geographical world-building is nicely done. The developers have done a great job of creating a visual representation of Bolivia, with varied terrain creating ample opportunities for clandestine slaughter. It’s just a shame that the game doesn’t really engage with the region much on a cultural level. The Bolivia of Wildlands is really just nicely rendered terrain rather than feeling like an actual, lived-in place with a bit of humanity. Ah yes, humanity, even a light dusting of that might have given Wildlands a bit of flavour.
A bit of alright
The truth is that even as a multiplayer experience, this seems solid but unspectacular. There are better multiplayer sandboxes out there, and in all honesty this really just made me want to fire up some Just Cause 3 or GTA V or Metal Gear Solid V. Hell, if you really want an expansive third-person shooter to play with some friends, you’re probably better off with Ubisoft’s own The Division. It’s a different sort of game in many ways, but the gunplay is tight, the gameplay loop more addictive and (somehow) the world is vastly more interesting. I can’t even put my antipathy down to open world fatigue. I’ve been playing expansive games since the start of the year (I’m sorry indie games, I promise I will play some of you soon!) and I’ve loved each and every one in some fashion. But there’s nothing to hold onto here. Nothing remarkable or outstanding. This really is ‘Open World Shooter: The Game’. It’s almost like Ubisoft are parodying themselves. It might even be funny, if this game showed even a shred of self-awareness.
I’m probably ragging on Wildlands a little too much, to be honest – a case of disappointment at an opportunity squandered more than anything else. Indeed, if you are just looking for a sandbox filled with bases to take down with your mates, then this is exactly that. Don’t get me wrong, if you want a pretty (and it is very, very pretty) military shooter to romp around in while you chat about last night’s footy or the latest episode of The Walking Dead or Black Sails or Iron Fist, this will do the job just fine. But ‘just fine’ doesn’t quite cut it for me in this case.
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC (all tested)
Click here for all of my video game reviews. Review copy provided by publisher. Click here to check out the scoring guide.
Better With Friends
Ultimately, if all you want from a game is a massive sandbox with bases to take down in the company of friends, then Wildlands is actually pretty decent. But if you're looking for anything remarkable or memorable in and of itself, you won't find it here.