Ubisoft’s most ambitious tactical shooter to date hit shelves on March 7, 2017. Set in Bolivia, Ghost Recon: Wildlands thrusts players into a world of subterfuge and ruthless aggression, pitting an elite US special forces squad against a fictional drug cartel. From the first moment players take control of their squad of Ghosts, they set out to undermine enemy forces using a combination of stealth, firepower, and teamwork. Even the smallest details, despite a few minor flaws, contribute to an immersive combat experience.
That immersive experience begins as soon as players load the game. A military briefing in the form of a voiceover accompanied by electronic surveillance files and dossiers immediately provides context for squad’s infiltration of Bolivia.. This opening to the game does a fantastic job at convincing players that they are actually part of a highly-classified mission to destabilize a Bolivian drug cartel. Everything from professional, matter-of-fact diction and military vernacular to riding into the squad’s deployment zone via helicopter contribute to an engrossing world.
In terms of mechanics, Wildlands runs a mostly-smooth operation. The shooting is intense and accurate, with only one drawback: certain aiming angles causes awkward positioning of the character. Based on the angle the player is aiming, the character may be holding their gun in an awkward way, with their eyes far from the sights, yet can somehow still aim perfectly through the scope. However, sprinting, vaulting over obstacles, crouching, crawling, and most other feats are realistic (including a character needing to catch their breath after a lengthy run) and positive. The biggest flaws with the mechanics are the vehicle handling and the repetitive missions. At best, driving and flying in Wildlands feels like trying to move a giant boulder up a steep, endless mountain pass. That is not to say driving and piloting is tedious, but both could have been polished and made less clunky before the game was release. When combined with repetitive missions that become mundane after a couple repetitions, the driving becomes even more burdensome. Had Ubisoft spent more time on these two rather pivotal aspects of Wildlands, perhaps they could have made them perform as well as majority of the game’s other mechanics.
Visually, Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a masterpiece. Different landscapes work together to dwarf players in a country rattled by death and drugs. Just standing back from a high viewpoint and looking out over a ridge at the distant terrain makes players feel like they are on vacation, at least until they remember they have a war to fight. Even from afar, the amount of perceptible detail is impressive, and bears a striking resemblance to viewing a roadway that snakes its way through the mountains. The farther away the viewpoint, the foggier the distant images, but this does not take away from the experience. Rather, the overall experience is enhanced by this depth-of-field effect, supported by the vast draw distances, for it closely resembles what a person would see in a similar situation in real life. Whether battling in dense forests, mountains, hills, valleys, or on the small islands surrounded by a large lake, the multitude of visuals, both explosive and tranquil, goes a long way in creating a stunning playthrough. The attempt to make Wildlands as photorealistic as possible is evident, for every moment is reminiscent of looking out a window and seeing Bolivia’s natural beauty for the first time.
However, visuals are not all about beautiful landscapes, and while Wildlands does feature an exceptionally beautiful world, the quality of everything within that world speaks for itself. Vehicles are detailed, noteworthy in every encounter. From broken windshields, completely ravaged frames, and inflamed engines to helicopter rotors, airplane propellers, and boat rudders, the vehicles help convince players of Bolivia’s war-torn environment. Not to mention the miniguns mounted on some of the helicopters’ sides. Moreover, the towns, outposts, strongholds, factories, farms, and everything in-between blend effortlessly into this combat-ravaged backdrop of Wildlands. Every time a player enters one of these aforementioned places, they can see how it belongs in a country infested with drugs and war. Everything from houses with tattered clothes hanging on clotheslines and buildings looking like their very foundation has been rattled by constant destruction, to open farmlands with a plethora of crops and factories complete with heavy machinery come together to bring the Bolivia in Wildlands to life.
The amount of time and effort that must have gone into ensuring validity and accuracy of the available weaponry (assault rifles, sniper rifles, pistols, submachine guns, pistols, etc.) is self-evident. Different scopes, triggers, stocks, rails, grips, barrels, and even paints are available to use with a plethora of weapons. Choosing the right ones to fit a particular playstyle can be the difference between success and failure. However, some inaccuracies exist, such as being unable to use a compressor (also known as a silencer) with a compensator. In a game of such incredible scope, not everything is going to be right, but the team at Ubisoft Paris comes fairly close, and does a nice job with what they do get right.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Wildlands is the combat. Being adaptable opens a path to success, but not everything can be tackled with a full-frontal assault. Sometimes, a quieter approach is necessary, for going in blind is also a bad idea in most cases, making reconnaissance a necessity (hence Ghost “Recon”). At the very least, recon will help formulate a plan of attack. Players utilize three primary methods of reconnaissance in Wildlands: spotting enemies through a weapon’s sights, using binoculars, or deploying a recon drone. Real recon takes time, and that slow process of deliberation is captured in Wildlands. Thorough recon of an area can take anywhere between five minutes and an hour. This potential time sink certainly makes patience a virtue, and is one of the main reasons the game may take a while to complete. The silent approach is one of the most fascinating, as it gives players ample reason to believe they are actually a part of an elite squad that does not officially exist. Sniping from woodlands or from viewpoints (cliffs, mountains, tops of buildings, towers, etc.) and eliminating many, or all, enemies before they even realize they are under attack augments the feeling of being part of a black ops team, especially when the rest of the squad can be ordered to take out multiple targets simultaneously.
Of course, if the quiet approach does not suit one’s playstyle, guns blazing is also an acceptable method. With bullets zipping around, throwing up dirt or splashing water, punching holes in buildings and cars; explosions igniting fires, puffing up smoke, and slinging debris; and alarms blaring, fierce battles can be either scarily overwhelming or heroically victorious. Every firefight gets the adrenaline pumping, especially when the enemy could be coming from multiple angles, including air (attack helicopters), ground vehicles (cars, trucks with large machine guns mounted on the back, or SUVs), or on foot. The combat in Wildlands is nothing short of immersive, and with a heavy emphasis on teamwork and utilizing cover, players will find themselves in dire straits if they do not approach situations tactically. Just because someone is making use of an open assault does not mean they should throw caution to the wind.
Something that truly stands out with the combat, and this goes back to approaching an objective stealthily, is Ubisoft’s inclusion of bullet drop. Put simply, bullet drop is just as it sounds: gravity’s impact over a player’s shot reaching its intended target. The further away one’s target, the higher someone has to aim in order to hit it, assuming the target is on ground equally elevated to that of the player’s. Angles must be taken into consideration in conjunction with the distance. Acknowledging that gravity exists is usually a smart thing to do in any situation.
However, outstanding visuals and exhilarating gameplay are not all that grabs players and pulls them into Wildlands. The audio quality stands well on its own. Bullets zipping past, helicopter blades whirring, engines rumbling, cacophonous explosions booming, and weather effects like thunder, rain, and wind all help to make Wildlands a dynamic experience. When sitting down to make some progress towards liberating Bolivia, nothing makes one tense up like a potent mixture of explosions, yelling, and bullets drowning one’s ears in chaos. Combined with thunderous weather effects, these harbingers of death often awaken a gamer’s urge to hide under the covers until they realize that hiding under a blanket never really solves anything.
When superior graphics and high quality audio join forces, the results tend to contribute to a riveting tale. However, this not the case with the story in Wildlands. From the beginning, Wildlands is a tale of woe that conveys the destructive tyranny associated with a drug cartel’s stranglehold on power. The desperation felt by the rebellious forces opposing the cartel is spotlighted from the first time the player meets the rebel leader. With a bleak outlook, the game’s story immediately saddles players with an enormous burden: aiding the rebels in taking down the cartel and the corrupt Bolivian government’s military. The story is seamless in that it does not rely heavily on cutscenes. Rather, the story unfolds while players still have control of their character. Much of the dialogue is spoken while players are still on the move, and said dialogue can even be interrupted by combat. Once combat ends, the dialogue will resume, with the player’s character even acknowledging that the conversation was interrupted by saying something like, “Sorry about that, I’m back” into their earpiece. However, some cutscenes are spattered throughout the game, and the few that exist are worth watching. Facial expressions are believable and the effort put forth by the voice actors is convincing. Unfortunately, the overall narrative is subpar, often feeling repetitive (like the missions themselves). For the most part, the game’s narrative is predictable, and the missions even more so (find this person, kill or capture/interrogate someone, destroy these things at these places, defend this person or these people). The dry narrative is not a reflection of the voice actors, however, but rather the writers. Ubisoft normally has fascinating stories embedded in their games, and the one in Wildlands, while not bad, is merely passable.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the game’s dialogue is the banter that happens amongst the Ghost squad, appropriately named because of the team’s ability to get in and out of hostile environments before the enemy even knows they were there. Throughout the squad’s journey, AI team members frequently engage in witty conversation, telling jokes or stories that lighten the mood. These moments do well to emphasize an important necessity that occurs among people in real life stuck in dispiriting situations: telling jokes to help them cope with horrific or depressing journeys. Some may portray it as being insensitive, but it could also be interpreted as another means to survival, a way to prevent one’s self from becoming overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. Morale is important when the stakes are high and the odds are unfavorable.
Not everything in Wildlands is peachy, unfortunately. A few bugs exist, and while none are major, they do have a nasty habit of breaking a player’s immersion, if only briefly. The first is a sign of laziness on Ubisoft’s part. In Wildlands, players have the ability to command their squad (open fire, “go to” position, hold position, and regroup) and call in rebel support (vehicle drop-off, rebel reinforcements, mortar fire, and distraction). Most of these are straightforward and do not break immersion due to their very nature. However, when calling in a vehicle drop-off from the rebels (truck, SUV, or helicopter), the desired vehicle just appears, spawning out of nowhere in a small puff of smoke. No-one drives up in a truck or SUV and hands it over to the player’s squad, nor does a helicopter drop one off, and no-one lands a helicopter near the player’s location so the player can take control of it. As if plucked from thin air by a wizard’s wand, the requested vehicle simply appears. This atrocity could have been remedied with a little more programming and time, but the game was shipped as is, and for those gamers who like to be fully immersed in their games, this can temporarily mar that experience. Shameful how such small things can be so disturbing, and they somehow slip through the cracks or are intentionally ignored. Luckily, the rest of the game’s mechanics, smooth as they are, more than make up for such an oversight.
Other bugs in Wildlands are less serious than the aforementioned issue. Most of them have to do with clipping (when one object unrealistically passes through another object), such as a gun barrel poking through a wall that has no hole, and bullets blowing up vehicles with ease (thanks to Hollywood and video games for perpetuating that myth that, while not impossible, is not as easy as it is made out to be).
Finally, a “pay-to-win” option does exist, and as many gamers agree, paying to win is crude and far too easy. Though, in the case of Wildlands, the pay-to-win option is small and negligible considering the game can be played completely solo. The option exists to purchase equipment packs with in-game currency. This currency can only be bought with real money, and then used to unlock better weapons and weapon attachments, increasing the usefulness of a player’s firearms. Purchasing these equipment packs is not necessary, however, as most of the weapons and attachments can be found lying about the game itself, and are unlocked once the player finds them manually. The pay-to-win option exists for those with less patience or with more limited time. Like it or not, some people may find the pay-to-win option useful. Whether or not pay-to-win is acceptable is a matter constantly up for debate among gamers.
A game that received quite a bit of hype before its release, Ghost Recon: Wildlands may be the jewel Ubisoft needs to reignite the passion fans of the company feel towards its products. After some grumbling caused by the deteriorating quality of the Assassin’s Creed games, Ubisoft needs a little more buzz surrounding it, and if the company keeps producing games as decent and immersive as Wildlands, a chance exists for them to regain their home run status. With high quality graphics and audio, a passable story, and smooth gameplay, it may be safe to assume Ubisoft is going back to producing quality over quantity.