Like so many Ubisoft games, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands is a mixture of lots of ideas - some brilliant, some not so much.
Take the dialogue and story, for example: you’re a crack unit of people who don’t exist (ghosts) sent in to take down the kingpin of the drug ring in Bolivia. Sounds promising.
At a time where the tattooed villain El Sueno is threatening to take over the entire country, you have to fight for freedom and give it back to the rebels - in an open-world environment.
But does it deliver? We hopped on the metaphorical plane to Bolivia to find out.
LOTS TO DO, BUT QUITE SIMPLIFIED
After creating your avatar - we went with the undercut hair, because why not - you’ll be met with a po-faced cut-scene setting up the story and giving colour to the reason you’re even playing.
The problem? It takes itself too seriously, to the point of being cringeworthy - especially given the odd attempts at incidental dialogue between Ghosts, which fall horribly flat, as teammates try to be funny amidst all the horrendous violence. These conversations are often repeated and, worse still, your avatar will mutter expletives as he takes damage mid-combat, but they’re delivered with such ambivalence that you’d think he was being poked with a feather, not shot with a bullet.
Thankfully, where normally you’d be climbing towers to unlock things to do, Wildlands allows you to explore at your own pace. Instead of bombarding you with icons, the idea is that you'll naturally encounter things and people, which will give you an idea of what to do next.
The campaign is absolutely massive (though it doesn’t require you to completely take down all the bad guys to access the end-game), with several missions leading up to a major linchpin of the organisation, eventually taking you to El Sueno himself.
There are gun parts to collect (weaponry is fully customisable), skill points to find, and multiple resources to tag for the rebels to pick up. These resources also tie into the unlock system, and there’s a diverse skill tree that caters to all play styles. We ended up using our drone and a sniper rifle mostly, only switching to our under-barrel grenade launcher when things got heated.
SHHH, WE’RE HUNTING DRUG LORDS
Elsewhere, question marks on the map will lead to potential interrogations, while yellow markers will reveal story missions. The idea is that you are both reconnaissance and strike force and, boy, is that combination satisfying.
In single player, Wildlands borrows the “mark and execute” idea from Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Using upgraded binoculars or your drone, you can scope out an area and mark enemies, before sending your three AI teammates off to silently execute your foes. This, like the other skills - the drone itself has a battery life and remote distance that can be upgraded - are on a cooldown timer (which, yes, can also be upgraded) so it’s about planning your moment to strike.
Taking out an entire base without ever entering it, before looting it and then moving onto the next one is incredibly satisfying and can make for some tense moments.
As for open combat, despite being a Ghost Recon, game there’s very little cover-shooting going on here. The actual trigger-pulling is rewarding but slightly lacking in weight and, thanks to the customisation, there’s a huge variation in how each weapon will feel in the heat of battle. There’s even an option to switch to over-the-shoulder view if, for some reason, you don’t like first-person, aim-down-the-sights combat.
MO' GRAPHICS, MO' PROBLEMS
Despite the size of the world - did we mention that it’s massive? - this is a pretty game.
Playing on a PS4 Pro, the draw distance is impressive, while sudden explosions and flares being fired off will distract you, and entice you to see what’s happening.
One thing of note, however, is that we had a major problem with HDR: the game was simply too dark. By the time night drew in for the first time we couldn’t see. Not a problem, you might think, as it’s supposed to be dark - but we're not talking the inky blacks of a well-rendered night scene. We mean that we had a black screen with a radar on it.
No matter how much we played with the settings, there was no solution other than to turn HDR off and just play in 4K. Still, that's the only visual negative on an otherwise technically impressive game.
The load times are far quicker than you’d expect from an open world game, and we didn’t spot any texture pop-in, or even any jagged edges of note (though we did see a few wild animals that managed to become ghosts and go through our car).
STEALING A PLANE HAS NEVER BEEN SO MUCH FUN
Despite - or, perhaps, because of - Wildlands' world being so massive and open, after the first area you’re pretty much set free to go where you want. This means you can steal a helicopter or plane and fly to an area with a greyed out map, and start taking down the boss in that region.
It was the side quests, though, that kept us playing hours after we should have been in bed. Every area linked to a side (or main) quest will have resources that you need to unlock skills.
While some are locked behind level requirements, there’s plenty to unearth right away.
The larger resource quests will require you to steal a plane or tackle a convoy, and these are excellent fun. One of our favourite moments with the game was silently killing an entire base of enemies, stealing their plane and delivering it to the rebels, all for a cool 2000 resource points.
EVERYTHING’S BETTER WITH FRIENDS!
As you’d expect, this is a game designed for four player co-op, but we’d actually suggest playing a few hours solo at first. Wildlands is a systems-heavy game, and friendly chatter might obscure some understanding of how everything works.
The mark and execute system doesn’t quite work with friends, either. The idea and mechanics stay the same, but there’s no AI to execute - it’s merely a way to line up the shot with your buddies so you all fire together.
One of the best things about the online co-op, though, is how crazy things will just happen. What if you’re in a car with your friend and they're driving, and they decide that a quicker way to get to your waypoint is to just launch off a cliff instead of following the road?
Wildlands absolutely excels with friends and, while it’s a far cry from Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfare, there are tactical elements and skills that are aimed at team play, too. Just don’t be surprised if it goes horribly wrong because you’ve teamed up with a lunatic who decides to forgo stealth and fly a helicopter into a convoy.
TOM CLANCY’S GHOST RECON WILDLANDS VERDICT
Wildlands is a genuine surprise. It’s tonally all over the place, but, when it comes to the core loop you’ll experience when playing it, this is a seriously satisfying, addictive game.
Sure, the AI can be ropey at times - they’re great at reviving, not so great at killing: we caught our guys shooting a wall - so online play is the way to go.
Either way, though, this is one game that you’re going to have a great time playing.