Ghost Recon: Wildlands isn’t just an open world game — it’s a daunting expanse of unrealized potential.
At first blush, Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a mesmerizing experience. The rocky hills in Itacua, the first province in the game, create a beautiful, treacherous landscape that is glorious to behold. But Wildlands quickly reveals itself as a husk, devoid of any life or meaningful story, with more veneer than actual substance.
A good start to the story breaks bad quickly
Wildlands’ narrative starts off compellingly enough. You play as a Ghost Recon operator, call-sign Nomad, in the wild lands of Bolivia, under the CIA’s Operation Kingslayer. Your mission is to clear out the Santa Blanca cartel and rid Bolivia of its narco-state ties. But it isn’t long before you discover the myriad flaws and plotholes that run rampant throughout the game’s latter half.
Yuri and Polito, the first province’s buchones (minibosses), were a fascinating pair to track down. Their cringe-inducing talk of necrophilia was enough to motivate me along the missions that would lead to their inevitable execution. Unfortunately, Yuri and Polito’s end was one of the only satisfying story conclusions in the game.
Everything in Wildlands takes place in an open world, which means that the buchones can be taken down in any particular order. Which sounds great until you’re stuck in choice paralysis. I got so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of provinces to explore and buchones to execute that I began to resent the cartel map and its execution targets.
Ten hours after starting the game, its repetitive nature and tone deaf narrative caught up with me.
The deeper Wildlands’ thready narrative gets, the more stale the ideas feel. Its flaws start with inconsistencies in the story but completely unravels when yet another cinematic rewrites a major plot point. But it was the ending — both of them — that was the worst offense. Not only is Wildlands’ narrative conclusion a massive letdown in terms of tension and story resolution, its treatment of drug trafficking and cartels is appallingly ignorant and still somehow heavy-handed.
There’s a way to handle those themes that doesn’t rely on stereotypes or tired tropes. The Mafia games, especially the most recent installment in the series, provides a far more nuanced perspective of what it means to run a large drug operation. Lincoln Clay, Mafia 3’s protagonist, and his gang leaders feel tangible, believable. Wildlands’ couldn’t decide whether to be serious or satirical, evident by its bombastic characters that felt too ridiculous to be taken seriously, even if that was the purpose. Wildlands is a poignant reminder that painting broad strokes on top of existing real world issues is not the way to tell a compelling story.
Sniping is everything and your drone is your only friend
Story isn’t always necessary to enjoying a game but, sadly in this case, Wildlands misses the mark almost all the way across the board. Thankfully, between decent gunplay, enjoyable long-range combat, and a drone that has more personality than anyone else on your squad, it manages to claw its way back to mediocrity.
The gunplay is mediocre in comparison to any number of third person shooters, including Ubisoft’s own The Division, mostly because the contextual cover system is twelve ways to ridiculous. The cover system is unreliable, accounting for at least a third of my deaths — it was hard to stay fully protected because there was little indication as to what was considered true cover and what was only a cosmetic hiding spot. The latter obscured my line of sight but didn’t give me any protection from enemy fire. But in spite of the unintuitive cover system and the shrug-worthy gunplay, there were a handful of moments that made the game worth playing.
The long-range snipe is where Wildlands really shines. There isn’t much to shooting from the hip, even after you’ve put points into that particular skill. But the shots I made with my eye down the barrel or through a high-powered rifle scope were often the most exhilarating — they challenged me to think tactically, rather than just react to the environment. The quick audible feedback, followed by the target dropping out of his sniper tower when the shot struck true from 300 meters away (regardless of whether or not it alerted the enemy to my position) was often the best part of beginning an encounter.
The majority of the game is played at long range, so moments like this are fairly frequent, which means there’s a lot of fist-pumping along the way.
Sadly, the only things that your AI squad is good for are fist-bumping one another in background chatter and soaking up sicario bullets. The background information on Holt, Midas, and Weaver indicates that they have special roles within the team. Unfortunately, those roles aren’t realized within gameplay. You’re still the one laying C4 charges and blowing up trucks full of coke, even though you have a demolitions expert in the squad. So, while it’s easier to play stealth-heavy missions with the AI (as their presence doesn’t alert enemies), they’re little more than meat shields in the heat of battle.
Your drone, however, is your constant companion. In most altercations with either UNIDAD, the military police, or the cartel, the drone was the only way I stayed alive. Flying it (while safely in cover, of course) allowed me to mark targets, blow up a group of enemies, distract another group, and even revive a teammate remotely. My drone was my in-game bestie — the only thing that kept us apart was a drone jammer… and I always, always dealt with those first.
Vast spaces too empty for their own good
From breathtaking vistas to lush jungle rivers all the way to desolate salt flats, Wildlands has constructed a collection of incredible landscapes to explore. While Bolivia’s existence as a narco-state is a work of fiction, the environment is as close to real life as you can get without hopping on a plane (or three). It’s a joy to ride a dirt bike around the early provinces, capturing shots of sunrises and twinkling stars, but the world is otherwise empty.
Strangely, the more you explore, the more overwhelming the world feels, in spite of the desolation in the environment. It takes a long time to travel from mission to mission — the roads and mountains are unforgiving and expansive. As you uncover more intelligence within each province, the TACMAP becomes the most unsavory place in the game. Without a way to filter, it devolves into a lumbering beast with a plethora of icons obscuring the map and making navigation a chore.
Open world games shouldn’t be daunting. Rockstar and 2K Games both managed to create open worlds that don’t feel like you’re drowning in them. So why didn’t Ubisoft’s land?
Outside of the cartel “hit list,” Wildlands does very little to acknowledge progression. There’s the odd soundbite from DJ Perico, Santa Blanca’s propaganda-spouting mouthpiece, but there is nothing in the cinematics or the gameplay that recognizes the cartel’s destabilization. The videos from El Sueno’s perspective feel disjointed enough that it’s hard to believe that any part of the cartel’s operations are aware of one another. Story progression felt like a checklist of requirements rather than the interwoven narrative that it could have been.
Crackdown tackled a similar structure to Wildlands, but integrated the gang leaders’ executions into both the story and the gameplay. Each gang leader that you took out led to the decreased effectiveness of the gang itself. Taking out a particular leader could mean that enemies began to carry pistols instead of assault rifles; or typically well-defended hideouts would see their numbers drastically decreased. Sometimes, you had to fight certain leaders first before you could even think about tackling some of the game’s bigger fights.
Wildlands gives the player full reign of what to do and where to go next — a true open world experience. But as I progressed through the game, it didn’t feel like my actions impacted the game. It was a matter of finishing out a set of missions in order to get to the next set of missions, in order to maybe get the hint of a story. Crackdown, on the other hand, demonstrated through both gameplay and narrative how important it was to be tactical and strategic about the “order of execution.”
Huge, open world games need diverse soundscapes
Wildlands requires a lot of point A to point B travel but doesn’t offer much in the way of companionship. Your options are either to listen to your squad mates drone on, or to endure the same two songs that play on the radio over and over again until you’re fairly certain that you are, in fact, in hell. The combination of the two work to create an aggravating experience in between the major story beats.
There’s some satisfaction in looping through the terrain in order to pick up the plethora of meaningful collectibles, but even that wears thin.
There’s a hollowness to how your Ghost, call-sign Nomad, interacts with their squad mates. While Nomad perks up with comments about the mission every once in awhile, Midas, Weaver, and Holt are usually silent. The intermittent broisms — including various musings about sex with twenty-two-year-olds and snorting coke to cope with altitude sickness — cement how vacuous the game presents its operators. Granted, it’s a Tom Clancy game and exaggeration is usually the order of the day, but the dialogue writing feels downright lazy after more than a couple of hours with the squad.
There are only so many times a person can hear “this medal has a coca leaf on it, that’s kinda cool” before they are driven to summoning an Elder God in order to end all existence.
Despite its best efforts, Wildlands can still be fun (with friends)
Somehow, out of the cocktail of mediocrity that the game serves up, Wildlands still manages to be kind of fun in partnered co-op. Hopping into a party, bantering with friends and taking down sicarios is pretty much the only way to enjoy playing the game.
With the exception of the day/night cycle, the entire multiplayer experience was disjointed. Weather conditions, radio audio, and incidental chatter was delivered locally, rather than synced across all players in a session. It could be a torrential downpour in my instance of the game while the sun was shining brightly in yours. But in spite of that, the multiplayer experience is what initially sold me on the game.
Cooperative play set a tactical atmosphere that solo play missed. While AI squad mates wandered around of their own accord, getting in the way of my tactical plans, real-life companions and I were able to coordinate our efforts more explicitly.
Everything except stealth missions were easier with human players because we had specialized our Ghosts’ skill trees. My co-op partner’s skillset was best suited for vehicle combat, so he often drove. My Ghost was far better at reconnaissance, so I would scout ahead with my drone, marking targets and blowing up small groups of sicarios along the way.
We’re not booking a return trip to Bolivia anytime soon
Ghost Recon: Wildlands is an enormous departure from what makes Ghost Recon a reputable tactical squad-based shooter franchise. Beyond narrative fluff, the three AI Ghosts are indistinguishable from one another. Gone are the series staple of individual commands for squad members and the team’s specialized skills in favor of a trite story with an empty, repetitive world. The mish-mash of ambitious, poorly executed ideas detract from what could have made the game truly great.
Sniping is a lot of fun. And roaming the gorgeous Bolivian landscape is absolutely breathtaking, no matter which province you find yourself in. But Wildlands’ myriad missteps are experiential landmines that blow up in your face in almost every province, with immersion and enjoyment suffering as collateral damage.
Amanda Farough has been writing about video and tabletop games for a number of years. Her tastes are eclectic and varied, with a love for strategy and action. You can find her on Twitter at @amandafarough, where she is likely shipping her Overwatch main, D. Va, and Lucio. You can also find her previous work at her personal site.