For every positive aspect of Ghost Recon: Wildands, there was always a tiny misstep that continuously gnawed away at me during my time with the game. Wildlands has scope, detail, and guarantees hours of fun, even though it didn’t feel like the complete package. Still, Ubisoft’s latest open world attempt is a blast to play and simply must be played with friends at some point or another.
Set in 2019, the Santa Blanca drug cartel has eyes in every corner of Bolivia. From politics to the UNIDAD military force, it’s all related to your squad’s primary objective of dismantling their drug operations and capturing their leader, El Sueño. Operation Kingslayer is executed without hesitation and your team are given full autonomy to execute missions as they see fit. It’s a reckless and high-risk message to send to players and doesn’t echo the play style of previous Ghost Recon titles.
Ubisoft have chosen to sacrifice character development and deep narrative for Wildlands’ sandbox-style adventures that will follow. And, on this occasion, I really didn’t mind.
Besides, the Cartel Bosses of each region are the real characters of Ghost Recon: Wildlands. After completing all main missions of a province, you’ll be able to tackle these perceived people of narco prestige in an attempt at destabilising a region’s cocaine production and distribution. After showcasing a powerful ego, some cower in the presence of defeat, whereas others are just straight-up weird with strange quirks and fetishes. I wasn’t expecting this part of the game to be quite so interesting, but it’s nonetheless a noteworthy part of Wildlands’ narrative.
The in-game map is huge. It doesn’t quite reach MMO scale, but it’s not far off. In the beta, players were given access to a singular province; Ubisoft have delivered over 20 regions of varying difficulty, size and landscape. Traversing Bolivian jungles, swamps, deserts, and caves comes with their own play style and it’s always refreshing to tweak your approach to suit the situation. The jungle has a plentiful amount of cover, so completing a mission without getting spotted at all is always plausible. But the desert and pockets of the salt flats have little to no cover, meaning combat from range and a reliable getaway vehicle are almost essential. The variety at play within Wildlands, from terrain to vehicles, allows for flexible strategical gameplay that is challenging, not redundant.
But despite help from the Bolivian Rebel faction group, I saw little change in how my squad’s ‘good work’ – from tagging food parcels, medical kits and fuel barrels – was changing this war on drugs in specific provinces. Areas that were previously dismantled of the Santa Blanca Cartel’s influence were soon re-populated with guerrilla fighters and it only took a few stretches of audio before a car’s radio would loop over over the same interview; over time, some visual facelifts would’ve been a good addition. Despite the gravity of your squad’s task, I never visually saw the how the momentum was shifting in my favour.
However, Wildlands’ major strength lies in being a co-operative, tactical shooter. Sacrificing rock-solid AI teammates in solo play for the more unpredictable actions of your online buddies is an instantly dangerous but satisfying trade-off. Infiltrating enemy strongholds in the light of day or under cover of darkness for precious intel carries ramifications for you and your squad. Portable reconnaissance drones may be more effective at spotting enemies and items of interest – like generators – during the day, but night-time opens up more potential sabotage opportunities that come with an increased amount of stealth gameplay.
Manoeuvring around the huge Bolivian map with stealth in mind is the best way to go about playing Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Ubisoft have retained the quick and satisfying power of the technical test’s gun ballistics to create fun and tense situations. However, being such a reputable IP for its importance on stealth, not rewarding players a little extra for completing missions in such a way is a missed opportunity. Something as straightforward as bonus experience points would have done the trick considering the amount of opportunities on offer.
Levelling up, finding skill points and purchasing new skills help expand your arsenal of gadgets to more effectively survey the battlefield and co-ordinate the next plan of attack. From offensive drones, to underslung grenade launchers, to diversion lures, it’s all here, but it’s a real shame no upgrades further along the line really change the way you play. Putting points into your frag grenade skill simply gives you more frags and the same can be said for C4 bombs, mines, and flashbang grenades. This is all rather one-dimensional and at first I was surprised to find I’d not unlocked an incendiary or splinter grenade or something from left-field like a spike-strip; most of the gadget upgrades lack ingenuity. Aside from a drone that can self-detonate or blast an EMP grenade near high-value enemy electronics, there are few skills in Wildlands that are genuine game-changers in terms of gameplay.
It’s fair to say that some would only be beneficial if playing solo. Abilities like Ammo Retention, which replenishes all your ammunition stocks upon respawning, don’t belong here considering the high amount of ammo boxes already in the game. There’s also a skill called Squad Resilience which, for a game centred around playing with friends, buffs the bullet resistance of only A.I. teammates. In fact, three abilities under the Squad skill tree benefit non-player squadmates and at no point along the line assist your online buddies – it’s a perplexing design choice, that’s for sure.
Even more so is the terrible cover system. Unfortunately, Ubisoft kept the ‘auto-cover’ mechanic from the beta ultimately leading to cumbersome, awkward character positioning. Once spotted, you stumble around trying to lean up against a wall or rock and, what’s more, you’re unable to initiate a ‘blind fire’ mechanic for a bit of covering fire. The ability to manually enter cover is a bewildering exclusion to the game.
Yet, despite all of this, Ghost Recon: Wildlands is still a lot of fun to play. One of its saving graces is the Synch Shot mechanic, which tags enemies to co-ordinate kills between both A.I. and online teammates. There’s also the Order Wheel, which is most effective when communicating with Bolivia’s rebel faction for reinforcements, mortar strikes, replacement vehicles, and more. But using it also resets the Order Wheel cooldown for any other people in your lobby, which is a nice way to solve the problem of spamming rebel assets from each player. Completing green side missions throughout the map also develops the potency of these orders, such as upgrading to an armoured vehicle with the Vehicle Drop-Off command, or turning a single mortar strike into an entire volley of mortars.
In the presence of its faults, Ghost Recon: Wildlands is co-operative gaming personified. There’s a healthy list of tasks and those fearing repetition need only experiment with a new set of tactics. A two-car chase can change into two teams in a car and chopper; a four-man recon team can quickly become a sniper team and infiltration team.
Sure, there’s a real sense of satisfaction when a plan is executed perfectly, but it’s when things go wrong and your team is forced to make decisions on-the-fly that the game is at its best. All this and Wildlands’ vehicular flexibility, on top of the ease of seamless online interaction with friends, is one of the reasons I’ve kept coming back for more.
A Great Time in the Wild Lands
This iteration of Ghost Recon isn't perfect but it's not a disappointment, where playing with friends is almost a necessity. It's meant to be fun and it delivers.