Having felt like one of Ubisoft’s long forgotten Tom Clancy children (it’s been a whopping five years since the series' previous entry, Future Soldier), the Ghosts have finally come home to roost and they’ve brought with them one huge sandbox, a ton of forgettable missions and a co-op experience that somehow makes it all worthwhile.
Of course, this being a Ubisoft game in 2017, Wildlands is all about teaming up friends/total strangers and shooting some AI-controlled goons for mucho XP.
If you’ve played last year’s underrated (if previously technically fraught) The Division or 2014’s The Crew you’ll already know the deal, so while Wildlands does tick plenty of generic boxes, there’s still a dumb, fun-filled charm to be had (especially if you’re playing in co-op, but we’ll get to that).
Ubisoft's biggest world yet
For a start, Wildlands map is huge. There’s not an ounce of hyperbole in that sentence - with 21 provinces to explore (the beta had two and that felt massive all by itself) the fictional Bolivia of Wildlands is grand and vast in scope.
There are salt flats, arid badlands, lush stretches of green and snow-capped mountains. It’s not going to win awards for its looks - with Horizon: Zero Dawn looking as good as it on a regular PS4 the bar has been set irrevocably high - but there’s still enough geographical variety out there to keep you cooing with interest.
There are some caveats. The missions become repetitive fast, especially after the first five or so provinces. With each of these areas controlled by a boss that needs to be drawn out by destroying drug caches and killing lieutenants, things can start to get wearisome 20 hours in. This Mafia III-style template has been tried and tested, but it’s a little too familiar for our tastes. Vehicles control… well, it's a Ubisoft game… so expect every car and truck to drive like a pissed elephant skating on oil. Ubisoft just cannot get driving right.
Still, played solo, Wildlands does kit you out with three other near immortal squad mates. They’re not very smart, and will rarely press forward without you, but considering how easy it is to get dropped in Wildlands you can almost always expect a quick revive and plenty of suppressive fire.
But Wildlands wasn’t built with single-player in mind. Not really. Sure it’s there to say, “Hey loner, you can do it all by yourself if you want!” but jump into a spot of matchmaking and you suddenly discover what Ubisoft Paris is really getting at with this latest Tom Clancy romp.
When you play with a group of friends or are matched up with a squad of randoms, all these noticeable problems suddenly become part of the fun, tapping into Wildlands’ affable penchant for bullet-ridden chaos. Sure, the vehicles feel awful, but there’s nothing quite like trying to show you’ve mastered it only to send you jeep crammed with friends off the side off a cliff into a fiery demise.
The malaise those cookie cutter missions conjured in single-player are soon forgotten as a rag tag group of players kitted out in contrasting/complementing weapons try and tackle each chase, rescue mission or camp takeover in myriad crazy ways.
Take one of our many exploits: we and two other players strayed into an area that was way beyond our skill level. Our fourth squad member was off somewhere else, his blue marker locked to the side of the screen in a perpetual reminder of his absence. We went in all gung ho, guns ‘a’ blazing and grenades ‘a’ ‘sploding, but it didn’t take long before the last few enemies downed us all, one by one. We slowly watched our revive timers tick down before that erstwhile fourth player lands a chopper right next to us, mows them all down and revives us for the win.
Joyous multiplayer mayhem
That’s the real beauty of Wildlands - the player stories that emerge systemically as you play thanks to its sheer freedom of options. Trying to rescue an NPC in a chopper, for instance, differs wildly from trying to extract them in a car, with the game’s cartel goons and UNIDAD soldiers usually throwing everything they have at you. It almost always goes wrong, but that’s because causing mayhem is infinitely more attractive than bland mission objectives.
Even bombing down hillsides on motorbikes is brilliant fun (even though you’ll probably die every time). Thankfully, matchmaking has proved robust and reliable thus far with co-op offering a seamless drop in/drop out experience. Clearly Ubi didn’t want a repeat of its launch woes with The Division, hence the lack of bases or home checkpoints to queue up in.
Wildlands’ Bolivia is a proper playground to explore too, one that invokes the good ol’ days of Mercenaries 2 or the madness of modern day GTA Online. Sure, it looks like Wildlands really does want to be a taut, squad-based shooter, but it’s actually just a jungle gym where you can shoot people and crash helicopters.
There is a story at play - one where the Ghosts have been dispatched to South America to take down a cartel that’s taken control of the entire country. It’s your usual trite nonsense (one that’s managed to offend the actual Bolivian government), but thankfully it’s a plot that’s easily lost amid the bright, colourful landscape of its open-world.
Much like 2015’s Just Cause 3 (a game Wildlands invokes often with its tropical setting and ‘shoot/destroy everything’ ethos), Wildlands just wants you to have a laugh. Although we’re not convinced the ‘quality’ of the voice-acting on offer was meant to make us laugh and cringe so much - it’s probably best you replace it with actual people over mics as soon as you can.
It’s just a shame how the classic feel of the old Ghost Recon games often feels surplus to the systemic nature of co-op gameplay with other players. Unless you’re really working with a team that’s on the same page, its stealth mechanics (which uses a handy little drone to identify targets from afar, suppressors a plenty and your Far Cry-esque line of sight) are often lost amid all the chaos.
The game’s choice of weapons are vast, but they’re a far cry (sorry) from the unique implements of Destiny, Borderlands and the like. These weapons can be upgraded over time making them steadier and more deadly, but for a game all about long-term play there’s very little memorable incentive to seek them out. Still, the cool Gunsmith customisation introduced in Future Solider returns, should you want to pimp out your sniper rifle in style.
Of course, this being a pseudo-RPG in places, Wildlands comes complete with an XP system and a skill tree. New techniques and attributes (such as a more versatile drone or a must-have parachute) can be purchased with Skill Points earned through levelling up, but these are also tied to resources (Gasoline, Medication, Comms and Food) which serves as a clever way to urge you to explore every base you conquer for gasoline barrels and food packages to tag.
However, we do find the lack of any real XP bars or metres on screen a little jarring. There’s a good argument out there that RPG-lites such as this often utilise HUDs with too much information, but since Wildlands is basing its long-term model on player progression the sheer lack of on-screen representation creates a bizarre disconnect.
Verdict: Play it
While its open-world is impressively vast in scale, it lacks the aesthetic beauty of Horizon: Zero Dawn and the raft of secrets that makes The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild so charming. Solid third-person gunplay and seemingly endless stream of PvE enemies to fight go some way to redeeming Ghost Recon Wildlands, but that doesn't disguise the fact that this is a workhorse of a game.
With few game-breaking bugs and a currently watertight (touch wood) net code, jumping online and playing with friends (how Wildlands should really be played), you’ll struggle to find a better way to co-op before Destiny 2 eventually arrives.