Earlier this month, Ubisoft showed off their latest open-world multiplayer tactical shooter, Ghost Recon Wildlands, with a closed technical test. Taking place in South America, you and a group of three friends play as US military operatives and must work together to dismantle a network of notorious drug cartels. The content on offer during the closed beta spanned a couple of hours and was more than enough time to get to grips with the game’s vehicular and shooting mechanics.
Using its last main entry, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (2012), as a platform, I quickly got the sense that Wildlands is the culmination of every Ubisoft open-world game that has preceded it. It has the gadgetry from Future Soldier, the locations of Far Cry, the teamwork of The Division and the extra layer of strategy that comes from Splinter Cell.
The playable area within the Wildlands beta was both large and dotted with activities. It may have only been a single region selected from 20 other regions in the full map, but it contained close to 20 districts. Make no mistake: Ghost Recon Wildlands is going to be incomparably huge. Because of this, there will be roadblocks from several fronts, like mission variety and a lost sense of achievement or significance when taking down head-honchos and liberating regions. It’s going to be a tough balancing act, that’s for sure, considering Wildlands is based on a real-world scenario and seeing how your actions affect the landscape.
Speaking of the landscape, it is damned beautiful. Elevated views atop rugged hilltops showcasing mountains, misty rivers and winding dirt roads could be sold as postcards. Wildlands’ day/night cycle goes by quickly but I didn’t begrudge Ubisoft the short time between sunrises and sunsets because the activities on offer kept me busy – whether it was in the menus or the wilderness.
In typical Ubisoft style, their character customisation system has been delivered in spades. There are swathes of options that alter your character’s physical features and field uniform, from different hats to khaki pants to ghillie suits, as well as the usual military trimmings of sunglasses, tattoos, combat boots, ammo belts and compact backpacks. In all honesty, the level of depth and detail isn’t surprising but it’s still extremely impressive.
However, there were no noteworthy missions from the beta where I thought: “Wow, I must get this game!” A lot of tasks involved emptying out enemy outposts and compounds that would be secured by your group’s closest ally, an under-funded rebel militia. Ghost Recon Wildlands was quite subtle in prompting certain quests, evident when a “Side Mission Failed” notification appeared on-screen several times during my time with the beta. I’d like to see more emphasis and detail put into these ‘Side Mission’ notifications when the full game is released – merely to understand how what’s actually at stake.
Levelling up your character hinges on acquiring skill points, either awarded for completing main missions or actually finding them entrenched in enemy territories. There’s a lot of active and passive skills to unlock, too, that can either benefit just yourself or your entire squad. Six separate skill trees contain a handful of abilities each, receiving their own beefed-up versions when graduating from Tiers 1 to Tier 3 – with an Epic Skill awaiting you at the end of each category. Each tier has its own level cap and I was particularly excited when I managed to unlock both the underslung grenade launcher and the parachute from my rations of points.
What’s not clear, though, is what the supplementary requirements are when purchasing your skills. Throughout the Wildlands beta I had to collect four different types of components that would allow me to purchase skills – on top of having the required amount of skill points. It’s definitely an interesting design choice. These components were identified by green dots on the mini-map – usually placed close to inevitable hostile activity – but, by the end of the beta, I hadn’t encountered a particular component yet and that frustrated me quite a bit. The individual components have their own icons in the Skills menu, but not on the mini-map; I hope this can be rectified come full release to clearly differentiate them from each other.
While on the road, I also collected Gun Parts scattered throughout the world. This is yet another surprising design choice, as I encountered no vendors or military contacts selling weapons, ammunition or weapon attachments. However, I liked this method of hunting and collecting as it adds to the supreme satisfaction from finally owning a weapon with just the right amount of kickback mixed with a punchy rate of fire. I could add camouflage skins to different weapon attachments and it’s always a nice touch when I see the ‘collapsible gun viewer’ in a military-centric shooter.
I enjoyed playing Ghost Recon Wildlands a lot and it’s especially fun with a friend or two – or three. The addition of vehicles in the game invites so much tactical variety. Piloting a chopper, you can drop off a buddy in a secluded sniping position while also co-ordinating a second drop-off for an infiltration team. The ballistics have been used with a welcomed bit of realism, too, as enemies often go down with one shot to the dome and are a far cry from The Division’s ever-present bullet-sponges.
In fact, Ghost Recon Wildlands carries a lot of traits I thought The Division would have when it first dropped almost a year ago. Whilst the jury’s still out on a Raid-based mode, the mission structure and inevitable goal of Wildlands isn’t complicated – and it actually has vehicles, to boot.
Still, the most polarising thing I found about the beta was the lack of rewards based on your chosen method of executing missions. Wildlands’ reveal trailer showed various ways of taking out enemies and their base of operations. Even though it wasn’t inclusive to the beta, I’d love to see specific rewards given for executing a Long Range, Stealth, or Ambush approach for a lot of campaign missions in the full release; it could be a game-changer for me.
After all, the importance on stealth wasn’t exactly heralded as the ‘gold standard’ in combat, despite this being a Ghost Recon title. Despite our best intentions, my friends and I soon resorted to all-out assaults once stealth presented little-to-no benefits. It’s unfortunate, because the integral part of Future Soldier – engaging in undetected military operations – hasn’t carried over here. Also, once an area was cleared of enemy infantry, a squad of trucks and sedans encircled the base in waves – resulting in prolonged, frustrating and unnecessary firefights.
I liked most of the gameplay on offer, but a few tweaks to the full game’s formula wouldn’t be a bad thing. While I did enjoy finding my own gun parts, my squad and I were in agreement that a more frequent stream of weapons and attachments being given as mission rewards is a better alternative to getting a handful of ‘component points’ upon completion.
This iteration of Ghost Recon also has an ‘automatic cover’ feature, eliminating the need to use the A/X (Xbox/PlayStation, respectively) buttons to enter various cover positions. I reckon it’s too late to implement this feature across the entire game, but I missed this mechanic that made manoeuvring the landscape in The Division so slick and fun. I’d often crouch behind a concrete barrier or breach position trying to enter the ‘cover stance’ but it would never trigger: it’s puzzling to wonder why Ubisoft would leave it out.
Still, this beta phase of Ghost Recon Wildlands has been both a productive and positive one. It’s shaping up quite well and, on such scale, is sure to define Ubisoft’s presence in the open world landscape – in terms of both content, plot and replayability.
Did you participate in the Ghost Recon Wildlands beta? Tell us what you thought of it in the comments below!