Last weekend Ubisoft ran a closed beta for their upcoming open-world tangos ’n tactics game Ghost Recon Wildlands. I spent a few hours playing and am here to tell you what I thought.
Wildlands is the first proper game in the Ghost Recon series since 2012’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, which I actually reviewed, not that I entirely remember writing that review. (Life comes at you fast, man.) It’s another in Ubisoft’s “Tom Clancy’s” line of real-world military tactics/fetish games that include Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six and most recently, The Division.
It’s an open-world game set in Bolivia, and it can be played solo or in co-op with up to three of your friends. You play as elite U.S. operatives dispatched on an off-the-books clandestine campaign against a notorious collection of South American drug cartels.
Let’s get into it.
The map is big as hell. The beta comprised one region of the full map, and it was large. Based on that, the full map for this game is going to be absurdly huge. I’m not sure if they’re going to be able to come up with meaningful things to do across an area that big, but it will certainly be big.
It’s an ur-Ubisoft game. Wildlands is the closest thing yet to a culmination of Ubisoft’s open-world design rules, for good and for ill. It’s basically an amalgam of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, Far Cry 4 and The Division. You and a squad explore a massive and immaculately rendered map based on a real-world location like in The Division. You engage in careful tactical assaults on enemy compounds using drones, night vision and squad tactics like in Ghost Recon. And you drive cars, avoid wildlife, and attract patrolling enemy soldiers like in Far Cry.
It’s got all the Ubisoft trappings—the map is covered in collectables for you to tag and pick up, and your character has a billion skills and abilities to slowly upgrade and unlock. You unlock cages full of colorfully-dressed resistance soldiers and can level up their abilities if you want to call them in as reinforcements. There are optional challenges galore, though I’m already questioning how much depth any of it will add. The sheer amount of #content in the beta had me feeling exhausted, and I boggle at the thought of how much will be stuffed into the full map.
It plays like I wish The Division had played. I enjoyed playing Ghost Recon Wildlands. I actually think it’ll provide the sort of gameplay that a lot of people were hoping for from The Division. It’s standard tactical stuff, where a single well-placed bullet will take down a bad guy and you can coordinate meaningful tactics with your teammates.
One player can go up on a ridge with a sniper rifle and cover another while she sneaks into an enemy base and tags a transport truck. Four players can set up their shots and wipe out an enemy patrol before they have time to react. You can set a mine on the road and ambush a moving convoy, or two of you can hop into a helicopter and provide fire support for the other two. It’s a far cry (sorry) from The Division’s odd bullet-sponge enemies, Destiny-like damage numbers and randomized loot, and I found it refreshingly straightforward.
It’s much more fun with a friend. You can play the entire game solo or with up to three friends, and from my experience with the beta, co-op is definitely going to be the way to go. If you play solo, you’re given a team of three AI-controlled dudes who you can give orders to via a radial menu like in past Ghost Recon games. They will never be as easy or enjoyable to work with as an actual human friend. It’s just more fun to come up with elaborate strategies with other humans. I played for an hour or two with a friend of mine over the weekend and we had a great time cruising around and doing random side objectives. It might actually get too chaotic with a full squad of four, but it was great with just us two.
It suffers from Tom Clancy-itis. Wildlands draws inspiration from Clear and Present Danger, the 1994 Harrison Ford film based on a Clancy novel of the same name. In that film, a team of American spec-ops elites are sent on a barely sanctioned cartel-busting mission to Colombia, where they engage in all manner of covert badassery before being sold out by feckless politicians and mostly killed.
Wildlands hits many of the same beats in terms of atmosphere and tone, though at least in the beta, I did not feel it likely that my team would wind up being sold out and gunned down by a cartel ambush. Like The Division, however, Wildlands suffers from a familiar po-faced Clancyverse affectation where everyone is a serious, sexless professional who bleeds red white and blue and ain’t afraid to strong-arm civilians to get what they need. It’s tonally ugly despite its beautiful backdrop.
Wildlands has been in development for years, but the game lands gracelessly in the current international milieu. You’re playing as an elite American soldier who heads south of the border on a black bag operation to murder hundreds of bad hombres in pursuit of justice. Regardless of where the story ultimately ends up, it is on a basic level an awkward thing to glorify, given that our president reportedly said he was ready to make this scenario a reality while on a recent phone call with the President of Mexico.
Even in the beta, Wildlands’ self-serious tone often clashed with the goofy, larger than life open-world shenanigans that the game allows for. It would all go down more smoothly if this weren’t a “Ghost Recon” game, if it weren’t saddled with the Clancy brand, and if it took place in a more heightened, fictional location (a la Far Cry) rather than a real place in the real world. Like with The Division, your ability to have fun with Wildlands will likely hinge in part on how much you care (or can stop caring) about how it echoes and distorts the real world.
It looks great and runs decently on PC. The game ran okay for me on PC despite being in beta, and certainly looked very nice. I’m hopeful that the team is working on optimizations to get it running more smoothly when driving or engaging in a high-speed firefight, but so far it seems like the PC port won’t be as troubled as some other games’ have been. Fingers crossed.
I’m not sure it really requires stealthy play. Ideally, Wildlands would be a co-op stealth game where every mission encourages you to engage in immaculate, undetected tactical engagements. But as the saying goes, the best-laid plans often turn to dog shit. Most of the missions I undertook ended in a huge firefight, and it made me question whether stealth is actually going to be an integral part of this game.
Our characters had unlocked a tiny fraction of our potential upgrades and on normal difficulty, we cut through dozens of enemies with no problem at all. Enemy AI didn’t seem all that bright, and most alerted soldiers were happy to storm out of their fortresses and into the open where we could easily gun them down. I had fun playing, but I never really felt all that challenged, particularly not with a friend at my side. With a full squad, we would’ve been nearly unstoppable.
With that said, I didn’t have time to see half of what was in the beta, nor did I try the game on the highest difficulty. All of that will have to wait for the full release next month.
I liked what I played of Wildlands, even if I can already tell I’ll be hard-pressed to find time for the finished game amid the deluge of promising stuff on the horizon. If you played the beta over the weekend, what did you think?