Ubisoft recently invited GameCritics for an extended session of their upcoming Ghost Recon Wildlands, and I’m happy to say that even after playing it for four hours straight, I still want to hop right back in. Wildlands dramatically freshens up this long-standing franchise by setting the action in an open-world, fictionalized version of Bolivia.
In Wildlands, the powerful and ruthless Santa Blanca cartel assumes de facto control of Bolivia, and the Ghosts are sent in to dismantle them, piece by piece.
As always with Tom Clancy games, Ghost Recon takes a far more grounded approach to gameplay and story over things like Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed by using real-life events to craft the narrative. Tragically, the horrific actions of the Santa Blanca cartel are inspired by and drawn from the likes of Pablo Escobar and Griselda Blanco. “Plata O Plomo,” Silver or Lead, are more than mere words for people living in the shadows of the coca fields, and I’m eager to see if Ghost Recon’s narrative will expand beyond the stereotypical “Villain of the Week” into something more meaningful.
When it comes to gameplay, I’m reminded of the excellent PS2-era title Mercenaries in all the best ways. The Ghosts, working with the local resistance, have to uncover and eliminate lower members of the cartel, gaining information as they work their way up the chain of command. It’s not enough to simply assassinate El Sueño, the leader of Santa Blanca, as someone else could just take over. They have to dismantle the entire operation from the ground up.
What this means in a practical sense is that I couldn’t just go right to his lieutenants and win the War on Drugs with a few bullets. I had to traverse the open world, working through smaller missions to gain intel that would eventually lead to the person (or couple, in this particular case) who controlled the territory. Knock off enough of the underlings, and El Sueño will eventually show himself.
To help with this, I had a bevy of technology at my disposal. Small drones can be dispatched to survey the area, tagging potential targets before my assault. Night vision and infra-red made evening assault a viable choice for me, and a few well-timed detonations of C-4 to the power generators left my targets in the dark. Those wanting to go quiet can always choose to use silenced weapons to sneak in, hit a target, and slink away with minimal damage. I have a flair for the dramatic, so I chose to have the local resistance fire off a few mortar rounds as I jumped out of a helicopter with guns blazing. Regardless of your personal style, Wildlands can be played how you want to.
Where Ghost Recon really has the opportunity to shine, however, is with its four player co-op. The entire campaign can be completed, start to finish, with three other friends. There is no set path, and no restrictions on movement when playing with others. You can work together to take down a particularly troublesome enemy, or branch off to do whatever you want to do.
This freedom opened up some extremely satisfying impromptu situations. One in particular involved extracting a target from an armed convoy. Four of us rode in together in an armored transport, taking out the convoy but losing our protected vehicle in the process. Thinking we were going to be fine, we loaded the target into a nearby civilian truck just in time to have the corrupt Bolivian military descend upon us. Since the death of the target means failing the mission, I hopped into the driver’s seat and took off while the other three “volunteered” to stay behind and hold off the troops. The army sent a few vehicles after me, but one of the other players noticed and pursued as well, eventually leading them away.
By the end of the mission, the four of us were scattered across the map, having eluded or killed whatever resistance we encountered. It’s important to note that none of this was scripted — we were just given a task and it was up to us to complete it any way we wanted to. This freedom is what makes me want to get back into Wildlands.
I know that this particular publisher has a certain reputation when it comes to open-world games, to the point where simply saying Ubisoft instantly conjures up certain ideas. Fortunately, my time with Ghost Recon didn’t fall prey to those traps — there were no radio towers to scale, what collectibles there were served a purpose, and the mini-map was nowhere near as cluttered as one might assume. In an industry that seems increasingly more focused on breadth over depth, it was nice to see the grind cut down.
While open-world design may be getting a bit stale in general, the changes in formula and freedom on display have definitely got me looking forward to more Ghost Recon Wildlands when it comes out on March 7th.