Open-world games have become Ubisoft’s bread and butter, and you could excuse the gaming community for having open-world fatigue given the rate that games of that ilk have been dropping. However, the success of the recent open beta for the French gaming juggernaut’s newest title, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands (GRW), suggests that fans are far from being jaded with games with expansive game worlds. Sadly, for each thing that GRW does right there are two things it fails to capitalise on, and GRW’s mammoth and scenic game world cannot save it from being a rather bland squad-based third-person shooter.
GRW is set in the South American country of Bolivia in 2019, where the American special operations unit known as the Ghosts have come to put an end to the reign of the Santa Blanca cartel and take down its kingpin, El Sueño. Thanks to El Sueño and Santa Blanca’s growing power the cartel effectively has control of the Bolivian government, with the country being the world’s largest producer of cocaine. The Ghosts are sent in after an attack on the US embassy in Bolivia where a DEA agent is kidnapped and murdered by Santa Blanca.
In order to take down the cartel, the Ghosts must systematically take out the members of Santa Blanca until they are led to the big cheese – El Sueño – a man who is sold to us as a ruthless businessman and leader (think Pablo Escobar), but in fact is about as ruthless as the Queen when her tea and scones are not hot enough. It’s quite disappointing, especially if you’ve seen the recent (and excellent) Narcos TV show on Netflix, and if you were expecting something at least half as good, then you’re going to be severely let down.
The big cheese and his cronies
The premise is primed for an engaging narrative, however the maladroit execution means that the game is laden with boring and generic characters, and it’s hard to ever feel invested in the Ghost’s cause, despite it being a classic tale of good versus evil. The Ghosts themselves are unlikeable characters, purely because of the terrible banter that you’re forced to sit through as you make your way from one mission to the next. There’s no depth to them, no development – which is understandable to a degree given that it’s not a narrative-driven game at heart – but Ubisoft could have at least made them somewhat interesting instead of your standard-issue jarhead. The only redeeming feature is the character creation options – which gives the players a breadth of options to make their Ghost look badass or ridiculous and everything in between.
The campaign missions can be tackled a range of different ways, all variants of either ‘going in hot’ or ‘staying frosty’ by taking the stealth approach. The game allows for up to four players to take control of the Ghosts and play cooperatively with each other too, or if that’s not your jam you can fly solo with AI squad buddies. Your choices when approaching a mission are fairly open; you can parachute in from a helicopter, drive straight in the front door with a tank or simply sneak up, boots on the ground style.
Mission design often requires you to do one of the following: go to a Santa Blanca outpost or stronghold, locate someone, kidnap someone, interrogate someone, kill someone or kill everyone. That is of course after you find the intel that will unlock a mission, which could be anywhere from 1km to forever away from where the actual mission takes place. Some of the mission objectives themselves are questionable and will often require several takes to complete. For example, one mission required me to hijack a truck and take it to a drop-off point, unseen of course (the drop-off that is). However, the truck had two escorts with it and you were lucky if they didn’t blow the truck up before you hijacked it. Secondly, you had to deliver a truck unseen into a cartel outpost crawling with guards, so you can’t just drive up the driveway and be done with it. Basically, you had to eliminate all guards without them seeing you or seeing any of the corpses, which was no easy feat.
Boys, we’re goin’ in hot!
The premise is primed for an engaging narrative, however the maladroit execution means that the game is laden with boring and generic characters, and it’s hard to ever feel invested in the Ghost’s cause
Players are encouraged to make use of the tools at their disposal in order to complete their objectives. One of the game’s biggest boons is the drone, which allows players to scout an area before infiltration. Occasionally you’ll attempt to scout an area where a drone jammer is in place (those cartel goons can be such party poopers), meaning your drone is about as effective as wearing thongs on a hike up Mount Everest (the shoe kind, not the undergarment – although both are highly unsuitable in such conditions). Until you disable the jammer your only way of identifying enemies from distance is to use your binoculars or scope. Other tools include night vision (which you’ll need because the game gets very dark at night) and having a licence for practically any vehicle you come across. Another useful feature is Sync Shot – which allows you to highlight a number of enemies so your squad can take them out all at once. It’s a tactic that’s very useful when playing solo, but not as necessary when playing with mates.
The Bolivian game world is gargantuan, and it is chock-a-block full of things to do. Whether it be side missions – which includes completing Supply Raids (stealing or delivering vehicles full of supplies) and Rebel Ops (hacking Santa Blanca equipment, defending radio broadcasts, intimidating cartel figures and more). There are also a myriad of supplies to tag throughout Bolivia, ranging from medical, communications, fuel and food. Tagging supplies and completing side missions will yield you supplies of your own that you can use to upgrade your skills throughout the game.
Also spread out across Bolivia are skill points (used in conjunction with your supplies to upgrade) and new weapons and parts to find. The vast number of guns available means that it’ll take you a while to become a true NRA member, and it also means that you’ll find a few guns that you’ll probably never use. Lastly, there are a number of documents to find across the narco-state which will delve into some of the game’s back story and El Sueño’s rise to power. Skill points can be used to upgrade your character and include things such as giving your drone greater battery life and ability to go further, the capability of reviving squad mates with your drone, increase your ability to withstand damage and unlock items (such as grenades, C4 etc.).
Plenty of treats to be found
The Santa Blanca aren’t the only adversary you’ll find out in the wild. A special taskforce known as the Unidad are stronger and more powerful operatives, and taking down a regiment of Unidad troops is a lot more difficult than your run-of-the-mill hoodlum. The Unidad were formed by the Bolivian government to combat the rising power of the Santa Blanca, unfortunately they were no match for the cartel and they are now on El Sueño’s payroll. You’ll also be able to enhance your relationship with the rebels throughout the game, and the stronger that bond, the more inclined they are to come to your aid.
Unfortunately, both the campaign and side objectives suffer from the same issue: repetition. Sadly, the second half of the game starts to feel like a slog as you repeat the same missions over and over. Sure, there are things to collect as you go, but the sheer glut of those items means that you end up gathering items out of convenience and not necessity. The saving grace here is that playing the game co-op is genuinely fun, and completing missions with your mates often ranges from precise and methodical to tumultuous and harum-scarum. Playing with your mates will help assuage the game’s weaker points and in the end I was playing more for the social aspect than the game’s story. I played a few hours of the game solo and I have to admit that although my AI teammates were more reliable and less likely to go down, the game lacked the enjoyment that co-op brought to the table. GRW will be getting a PvP multiplayer mode later down the track, and it will be interesting to see how they implement this and if it gives the title extra legs.
As big and beautiful as Bolivia is, the game world is extremely barren in areas and it feels like wasted space in some regards. Take Watch Dogs 2 for example; although San Francisco wasn’t as big as Bolivia, the city of San Fran was a thriving metropolis and never felt excessively large. With GRW and Bolivia, there is minimal flora and fauna and large stretches of dirt and rock that don’t really serve any purpose except to add kilometres to your vehicle’s odometer. The villages and towns are often spread far apart, and although they aptly depict the austere living conditions, they all start to look the same after a while. It feels as if Ubisoft made GRW as big as it did simply because it could, or to encourage players to utilise the slew of vehicles available.
Bolivia – big, beautiful and barren
Mechanics-wise the game doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any stretch; the shooting is stock-standard for a third-person shooter, the driving/flying feels a little sensitive at times – but it’s just like any other Ubisoft open world title with vehicles and player movement feels exactly like The Division. None of this is a bad thing, but it’s indicative of the game overall – a general lack of innovation. In fact, the game feels like The Division mixed with Just Cause and Far Cry. I will give GRW props for having a good camera angle and upgrade interface, something that can easily hinder a game of this ilk.
As I mentioned previously the game is a looker; there are plenty of stunning vistas to be taken in as you traverse the terrain from one area to the next. GRW ran relatively smooth on my PS4 Pro (I was going to test it on my vanilla PS4 but I was too stingy with my downloads as the game comes in at 45GB + updates), I didn’t have many noticeable drops in framerate or bugs or glitches, and when I did they were more humorous than detrimental.
5 stars for on TripAdvisor for the view alone
It’s not that GRW is a bad game because it’s not, it just doesn’t deliver the open-world experience that it had the potential to do so. The disappointment stems from the fact that what it does do isn’t any better than what we’ve got already and that the story and characters are flat-out boring, which is a big shame. Playing with mates does alleviate some of the boredom, however unless you’re an ardent open world fan it’s likely you’re going to find GRW tiresome before game’s end.
Reviewed on PS4 Pro