From the air, Bolivia is beautiful. A picturesque postcard containing plush forestry, calm lakes and majestic mountain ranges that stretch as far as the eye can see. But look a little closer and you’ll realise that this is a nation trembling in fear. Card-carrying cartel members loiter on every bridge, street corner and fork in the road while a corrupt government turns a blind eye. A toxic cocaine industry poisons the country from within, turning this scenic utopia into a gangster's paradise. It’s an abhorrent situation that, in true Tom Clancy fashion, can only be resolved by shooting now and asking questions later.
It’s easy to understand why the real life Bolivian government has expressed its disgust at the game’s depiction of their country. Ghost Recon: Wildlands continues the patriotic tradition of the Tom Clancy franchise by reimagining the South American country as the world leader of the drug trade. Under the watchful eye the pious kingpin El Sueño, the Santa Blanca cartel has finely tuned its operation to run like clockwork, with not even a local rebel insurgency being able to throw a cog in its well-oiled cocaine producing machine. Only after one of their undercover operatives is killed in an embassy bombing, does the CIA dispatch Ghost Squad to exact its revenge, by restoring stability to the country and dismantling this drug empire one capo at a time.
Each of Bolivia’s provinces is ruled with an iron fist by one of El Sueño’s underlings. As the leader of the four-man Ghost unit, your goal is to systematically assassinate or capture each one of these deputies and climb your way up the corporate ladder, so to speak, in order to gain access to the big boss man himself and put an end to his drug-peddling shenanigans for good. Throw in a generous helping of experience gathering, weapons collecting and skill-building side missions and you’ve got yourself all the makings of a traditional Ubisoft scavenger hunt in the making. Developed by Ubisoft Paris, this is a game that has more in common with other Ubi-franchises than it does with its own lineage.
Flushing out Santa Blanca leadership requires you to chase down intel and interrupt regional operations to the point where lieutenants have no choice but to rear their ugly heads. It’s an approach seen before in the likes of Watch Dogs or Assassin’s Creed, albeit in a very different sandbox environment. As and how you approach each mission is of course up to you, but with a range of stealth and reconnaissance toys at your disposal, planning ahead is a must whether you plan on sneaking up on your targets or kicking in the front door. Taking equal inspiration from both stealth masterclass Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and the explosively bonkers Just Cause, this is a game that can be rewarding no matter what mood you’re in. Stealth maybe the favoured option, but winning an all-out firefight can prove to be just as satisfying.
Completing side missions for the rebels such as tagging supply caches or intercepting convoys will give you skill points that can be traded in for additional tools and upgrades, but don’t expect the futuristic vision of warfare that we’ve seen before in the likes of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter. As the game progresses and you work your way up the skill tree, you’ll have access to perks that will enhance your drone, make your team more robust and improve the effectiveness of your weapons. However, many of these items outlive their usefulness quickly and aside from the occasional difficult story mission, you can get by with nothing more than the basics and a little patience. It makes chasing up all of side missions feel like nothing more than busy work to extend the life of the game.
Wildlands is very much rooted in the present day, trading in its weaponised inventiveness for a bigger map. Arguably one of Ubisoft’s most ambitious sandbox playgrounds to date, it rivals Kyrat and the Rook Islands entries in terms of its size and stature. If not for the third-person viewpoint and the squad-based gameplay, this game could easily be mistaken for another Far Cry entry in terms of setting and themes. However, by simplifying the mission structure into a series of kill, capture or collect adventures, Wildlands nullifies the Wild in its name, wastes its potential to move the Ubisoft mould beyond its formulaic blueprints and instead gives us more of the same, albeit on a bigger scale.
It makes the case for bigger not necessarily meaning better, with Wildlands squandering ways in which it could have put its impressive map to work. Gathering intel on one side of the province will usually flag up a story mission on the other, which means you’ve got to walk, drive, swim or fly all over the place just to push the plot forward. There are plenty of ways to get about in Bolivia, but the game constantly distracts with enemy checkpoints and outposts that stand between you and your next destination. You can of course bypass these by putting the foot down, but when they hold treasures relevant to your ever-increasing side mission load, you can’t help but make a quick pitstop. It becomes a choice of giving in to the routine nature of it all, or hop in a helicopter and make a beeline straight for the objective. Fast travel is of course an option, but where’s the fun in that?
Alongside their flag-waving patriotism, Tom Clancy games have always took pride in bringing tactical realism to the already crowded shooter genre. By their very name, Ghost Recon games have always been about careful planning and assessing the situation before making contact with the enemy. Wildlands is no different, with a range of tools and commands that work hand-in-hand to cushion your approach. Tagging enemies with your binoculars or your drone will open up the option to perform a sync shot with your teammates. One of the most rewarding features in the game, there’s no greater sense of satisfaction than when you’re quietly executing a few enemies at a time all with a single tap of a button.
Sync shot aside, your AI buddies also struggle to make themselves useful. They can heal you when you get knocked down and can spot any enemies you may have missed, but otherwise their presence in this particular Ghost Recon game feels a little redundant. Given the open world nature of the map, keeping tabs on three other squaddies at one time could be seen as a difficult chore, but even this simplified approach has its problems. At times they will run into enemy camps blindly, being spotted and getting gunned down before you’ve even had the chance to whip open the command wheel to call them back. Even their banter comes across as being a little robotic.
On the plus side, this encourages you to venture online and play the game with up to three other friends. Wildlands becomes a whole different experience when you team up with your online buddies and injects some much needed personality into a game that is too po-faced for its own good. The already gratifying sync shot mechanic works all the better when your team individually gets into position one by one and pulls off a silky smooth series of executions. Even the Ubisoft template benefits from the co-op mode, as you and your team can spend hours just fine-tuning your tactical methodology, playing around with whatever you find lying around all in the name of having fun. When played online, the story takes a backseat and Wildlands becomes more about the journey than it does the destination.
In a move that works well with the online functionality, but is otherwise baffling, is the ability to customise your character with various facial features and items of clothing. No longer does Ghost Recon seem content with blending in with its surroundings, instead giving you plenty of strange attire to choose from to make your soldier stand out online. While sporting neon clothing or over-the-top head gear doesn’t seem like the most suitable wardrobe choice when trying to quietly conquer a vicious cartel, it doesn’t seem to impact gameplay whatsoever. It’s another feature that gives you a cheap laugh online, but in single player just seems a tad on the silly side. Wildlands attempt to broaden the series' horizons ultimately culminates in the game being a tonal mess and nothing highlights that more than watching your teammate try to sneak up on an enemy dressed like a hipster.
Cosmetics aren’t the only aesthetic problem with the game as Wildlands visually buckles under its immense size. Bolivia is breathtaking when looking at it from above, but soon you’ll notice how the game wrestles to load far off images in the horizon. Up close and personal, shrubs, rock faces and even buildings lack the texture and individuality to make any location in the game memorable. These graphical nuisances seep into the gameplay as well. At times, enemies will somehow spot you through a wall. Some background items such as trees and bushes will stop you upon impact, while others will let you glide on through. Even character models look rather stiff and uninspired as they move across the terrain, lacking the fluidity that Ubisoft have demonstrated before from other titles in their library. Watching a Ghost try to swim is like watching your toddler splash frantically as they take their first dip in the pool.
For the most part however, this seemingly ever-expansive playground is a joy to tour around. It may not benefit from the best graphical capabilities on the market, but there is a sense of realism to this world, unlabored by the necessity to impress you visually around every corner. Some of the most impressive views in this version of Bolivia come from partaking in a mission during a thunderstorm or pursuing an enemy chopper while the sun is setting. It is these quietly announced vistas that can transform a run-of-the-mill mission into something more memorable entirely.
By its very name, Ghost Recon: Wildlands should have been the game to break the Ubisoft mould. While it succeeds in bringing an accessible tactical shooter into the sandbox era and gives you plenty to do, it also struggles to use an impressive environment to its advantage, instead relying on the same old formula to put you through the motions of a morally-challenging but ultimately unsatisfying story. Surprisingly, when you take the fight online, these shackles are removed and only then does this new Ghost Recon game earn its Wildlands title.