For the last decade, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon has been all about the future: from Advanced Warfighter through Future Soldier and various spinoffs along the way, the tactical favourite couldn't resist the allure of far-flung tech. (Call of Duty knows the feeling well.)
It's precisely why last year's E3 announcement of Ghost Recon Wildlands was so surprising: for the first couple of minutes of the trailer, we couldn't even figure out which Ubisoft series it was from. Was it a new franchise, we wondered? Not quite, it transpired, but at the same time this isn't the Ghost Recon we've grown increasingly familiar with over the last couple of console generations.
For starters, Wildlands has a new look and tone, embracing more of a modern-day setting and a new enemy in the form of a South American drug cartel. Even more crucial is the new open-world approach, which unlocks a vast array of options for taking on missions and manipulating the environment and its inhabitants – in blisteringly intense co-op, of course.
Ghosts with the most
Like earlier entries, you're still a member of a small, elite squad of U.S. soldiers well equipped to take on a dangerous foe – but the tone seems vastly different from 2012's action-centric Future Soldier.
Your squad is no longer decked out in augmented reality gear that spins up flashy UI elements, or able to tap into adaptive camouflage that makes them near-invisible to enemies. Wildlands might take place a few years into the future, but the tech is all pretty near what's possible today.
Here, the soldiers are dropped into the vast terrain of Bolivia to systematically dismantle the Santa Blanca drug cartel, which is pouring large amounts of cocaine into the world. They're also pouring huge stacks of money into the government to maintain a military force to keep their illicit activities humming along. The United States isn't thrilled with either part of that, it seems.
Your operative might be bending the definition of work casual attire in a t-shirt, jeans, and a baseball cap, but it's a look better befitting the diverse and harsh terrain of this virtual Bolivia and its inhabitants. And despite the look, the Ghosts are certainly ready to react to the wide array of situations that follow in this huge tactical playground.
Into the wild
Bolivia is a new kind of locale for the series, and it's a hugely diverse place: from the trailers so far, we see snow-covered mountains, seemingly endless salt flats, lush jungle terrain, and dusty desert areas. We also catch a glimpse of large cartel compounds, densely populated villages, and also the occasional modern building.
You'll notice a lot of that when skydiving in from the clouds, which is a sight to behold – and it gives a sense of the immense scale of the world. Unlike previous games, Ghost Recon Wildlands takes place in a true open world, which Ubisoft says is the largest one they've ever built for an action-adventure game to date.
And it's a living world, too, much like we've seen in the recent Far Cry games. You'll find rebel groups and bystanders who can be pitted against each other (or enemies) and recruited at times, as well as an array of vehicles to aid in your missions: Humvees, helicopters, boats, dirt bikes, and buggies among them.
What the open world allows is a true sense of freedom: these missions can be tackled in so many different ways, and even with each of your four co-op operatives (or three A.I. allies, alternatively) taking on different tasks in very different parts of the map.
There are optional interactions and tasks in the world that can play into your main mission, or you can ignore them: it's your choice, plus your world to manipulate and try to tame to your advantage.
During my E3 demo, I'm encouraged to bring up the map and zoom out... and out... and out, to see just how big Wildlands' open world is. Hint: it's pretty bloody massive.
It's gorgeous too. Parachuting into our mission, the vast expanse of the Bolivian scrublands, peppered with rolling hills and giant rocks, is an impressive sight to behold.
The open world nature of Wildlands also offers plenty of flexibility. Having landed a few hundred metres away from our objective, we have the freedom to pick our own route to the enemy camp, with each member in my squad spreading out and picking out their own vantage point from which to scope out the camp.
Once in position, our squad leader asks us to all pick a target, and counts us down. Three, two, one - boom - multiple enemy targets drop simultaneously, and we all congratulate ourselves for our stealthy assassinations. But our mission is far from over...
One, two, three...
We see the advantages in the very first trailer, shown above: it's a mission at White Hat's Drug Lab to take out the titular leader and his supply. How you choose to do so depends on a lot of things, including the time of day, weather, natural terrain, influence from local rebels and military, and more. There's a whole ecosystem of elements to navigate and try to corral.
In the initial example, the team skydives in during daylight and parachutes onto high ground, quickly descending the path until they're in range of the compound with sniper scopes. A well-placed shot takes out White Hat in an instant. Done, right? Not so fast: a speeding truck takes off with the drugs, and so begins a frantic chase to complete the job right.
We see the mission again from another approach: nighttime stealth, with the Ghosts silently invading the compound and eliminating enemies one at a time before kidnapping White Hat and detonating the base behind them.
Yet another option shows the Ghosts using an aerial drone to cause a heap of confusion and madness, with an all-out ambush approach prompting the local rebels and protective military to start taking each other out as you swiftly advance your goals with an arsenal of guns. That's messy, but it can get the job done – plus you get to unleash some hell from the barrel of your assault rifle, which is always a perk.
And we get the sense that those three vastly different approaches are just the tip of the iceberg: there will be further ways to tackle each challenge plus loads of tiny variables to tweak, or challenges to overcome.
Think of it sort of like Hitman, where there's a job to be done and an impressive number of ways to carry it out. Only in Wildlands, it's a co-op experience with three mates all making important decisions, and loads of options amidst the open setting.
The next part of our mission involves assaulting a larger enemy compound. This time, we whip out our drones, and send them flying high above the camp. Zooming in and sweeping over the compound allows the drone to handily mark enemies, civilians, and buildings of interest, including the location of intel and enemy mortars.
By the time our little spies have swept over, we know how many enemies we're up against, and the best route through the camp to get the intel we need. Neat.
This time, two people are on sniper duty, while I bravely volunteer to be one of the men on the ground, sneaking into the camp on foot. Things go well at first - the snipers pick off guards without drawing any attention and I climb over a well and start making my way towards the target.
Stupidly though, I walk round a corner and practically knock heads with an enemy soldier, who raises the alarm. Whoops. All notions of stealth fly out of the window, and the mission becomes a scramble for survival as we get pinned down.
In the midst of the hectic firefight, a helicopter circles overhead, making matters worse. I whip out my sniper rifle, and fire off a well-placed round, taking the pilot out, before getting downed myself. A quick friendly revive later, and our entire unit sweeps through the camp, grabbing the intel along the way, before rushing out in vehicles to safety.
Get your Ghost on
There will be a competitive multiplayer component too, no doubt, although none of it has been shown at E3. Even so, the campaign action looks fantastic: shifting Ghost Recon to an open world should add serious depth, flexibility, and replay value, so every mission attempt brings a fresh experience.
Also, given the strength of The Division and its striking recreation of New York City, Ubisoft's living worlds are certainly on an upward swing. Wildlands' Bolivia might be Ubi's largest attempt to date, but it could also wind up being the most thrilling to boot.
Wildlands will be out on 7 March, taking advantage of the slightly quieter release season, much like The Division did this year, so stay tuned for our full, in-depth review.
From my brief E3 demo, it's clear to see that the strength of Wildlands lies in the freedom it offers teams to carry out missions in any which way they seem fit, offering a solid, different experience to more structured shooters like Infinite Warfare.
Visually, the game looks fantastic, and the gigantic open world will hopefully be populated with plenty of side missions, Far Cry-style.
I did notice a fair amount of screen-tearing when flying above the scrublands in the helicopter, so hopefully that'll be ironed out come release day.
From what I've seen so far though, Wildlands looks set to be an impressively flexible shooter which will get your noggin working harder than the average spray and play bullet-fest.