Connoisseurs of military third-person shooters are likely to be well acquainted with Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon franchise: originally released under the banner of the late writer Tom Clancy, they offered highly tactical and realistic action as part of a squad of 'Ghosts' – super-elite US soldiers. While that broad description still applies to Ghost Recon: Wildlands, it feels like a very different game to its predecessors once you lay your hands on it.
Which is no bad thing: good though previous Ghost Recon games generally were, they always felt pretty esoteric — of interest mainly to the military nuts. Wildlands, on the other hand, is much more mainstream — its gameplay has been compared to that of Ubisoft’s other third-person shooter, Far Cry, and there are certain superficial similarities.
Unlike Far Cry, Wildlands retains a certain amount of military authenticity, while two of its key elements mark it down as a game which is out to push boundaries and demonstrate a high level of ambition. The first is its map, which is mind-bogglingly huge — it’s the biggest that Ubisoft has ever made, and quite possibly the biggest one ever seen in a mainstream game. The other factor — pioneering in a game which takes place in such a huge setting — is that it is playable in its entirety by up to four people co-operatively, with players jumping in and out as they please.
Story-wise, it has an intriguing premise: set in an alternate-universe version of Bolivia in 2019, the unfortunate South American country has been taken over by Santa Blanca, a cocaine-smuggling cartel formed by interlopers from other South American countries invited into the country by a corrupt government. There’s a military force, called Unidad, which half-heartedly tangles with Santa Blanca but is mainly concerned with oppressing the locals. You play as a member of a four-man Ghost squad whose responsibility is no less grandiose than taking down the cartel and restoring Bolivia to its former equilibrium.
That’s a process which is achieved by taking down an ever more senior roster of Santa Blanca bosses, until you finally get to the big man, El Sueno. You’re directed by undercover CIA Agent Karen Bowman, but from the start, Wildlands leaves you in no doubt that it is a truly open-world game. Possible intel is marked on the map and, as you gather it, story missions become available: you can take them on in whatever order you choose, or head to an unexplored part of the map to find missions leading to a completely different boss. And the number of side-missions is almost bewilderingly huge. Various different types of mission open up various kinds of support from the rebels you help. There are countless skill points (which let you upgrade attributes and equipment) and weapons upgrades to collect, and pop-up missions which boost your favour with the rebels. If you fancy yourself as a gaming completist, you’d better set a couple of months aside for Wildlands.
After setting the game’s premise, the storyline is introduced in pretty minimal bursts, and some pretty easy early missions are designed to introduce various gameplay mechanisms. You get some decent kit: three guns (a sniper rifle, a machine-gun and a pistol, all silenced if you want them to be), plus binoculars and, crucially, a drone. That can be used to mark enemies and, if you’re playing with AI-controlled squad-mates, set up Sync Shots. Both have a cool-down period and, at first you’re only given one Sync Shot, but you can upgrade to three; before long, you realise that it’s a great way of thinning out the enemies you will have to face.
The missions themselves are gratifyingly varied: some force a stealth approach (and will have to be restarted if you’re rumbled), while others encourage you to go in loud and front-on. There are driving-and-shooting missions, and there’s nearly always a helicopter at hand for you to commandeer (although you can fast-travel around the map). The enemy AI is pretty rigorous: they will hunt for you if you’re spotted, call in mortar-strikes on you and sound alarms calling for reinforcements if you haven’t disabled them.
In keeping with all the other aspects of Wildlands, the skills tree is huge. But it’s pretty understandable, and cleverly forces you to undertake side-missions and help the rebels by tagging supplies you encounter, as they buy you goodwill points which must be spent as well as skill points, in order to acquire those skills you fancy the most. Some of the skills bring items like mines, and others let you buff your AI squad-mates, but the most fascinating area of the skills tree is the one which lets you customise the drone, ultimately turning it into an offensive weapon.
There’s a ton of fun to be had in Ghost Recon: Wildlands and while it is pretty rigorous – you can only be revived once by AI team-mates if you’re on a mission, for example – you can also jump in for some pretty laid-back, banter-filled co-op; it’s nowhere near as intense as, say, Rainbow Six: Siege. Wildlands is pretty cutting-edge in most respects: it looks fabulous, the environmental design is stunning, the storyline, though minimal, is still engaging and the AI, plus systems like weather and time of day, interact impressively to produce the sort of emergent behaviour that games developers seek like a Holy Grail.
You could argue that it’s almost too big: until you work out how you want to play it, and acquire the skills which will enable you to do so (happily, it doesn’t force you into any monotonous periods of grinding), its sheer bulk and free-form structure can seem a bit intimidating. But once you get into it, it proves to be a near-endless source of enjoyment, more like a serious, less jokey take on the likes of Grand Theft Auto or Just Cause than any of the previous Ghost Recon games. It’s undoubtedly one of those games that not everyone will connect with, yet it still manages to break new ground.