I’m sorry to say, but this game is a mistake, and my mind is a mess thinking of where to start with it. Ghost Recon should not have aped Assasin’s Creed, but Rainbow Six: Siege, instead. Ghost Recon Wildlands (GRW) is a painful game to play as someone who has seen this series grow over the last three generations of consoles. Not because any one aspect of its storytelling or gameplay is overly awful (and they really are), but because only at face value does it resemble a Ghost Recon game. Make no mistake, this is, by far, the most ambitious and grandiose game in this long and venerated series. It’s just that, and I feel like I’m showing my age here, it’s not the game the series needed, nor is it all that fun to play. It excels only in tedium, banality and incredulity. GRW’s individual parts are all serviceable, but it falls underwhelmingly short of the innumerable glut of Ubisoft’s other open world titles from recent years.
The entire country of Bolivia has come under the control of an organised crime syndicate known as the ‘Santa Blanca’ cartel. This cartel is headed by a man known only as ‘El Sueno’, and in the opening cinematic he relays his motives to himself in a baffling solo sermon, because apparently he’s got a messiah complex. Said reasons are pretty thin. He’s Latino, bald, covered in garish tattoos, and wants to grow coca plants – that’s his story. It sounds vaguely racist and close enough to propaganda to seem Clancy-esque, but I don’t think that means anything anymore. It’s made worse by the fact that the actual real-world history of the CIA’s involvement in Bolivia involves the training and installation of brutal military dictatorships. With this colourful piece of history in mind, my character, a destabilisation specialist, is sent in to upset the order of this ‘narco-state’ of Bolivia as a concerned citizen of the good ol’ US of A.
While the flimsy premise isn’t cogent or compelling, its introduction is mercifully brief. The plot that follows is simple – kill, kidnap or interrogate as many members of the cartel as it takes to get to the big guy, El Sueno. The world you’ll go through to get to them is schizophrenic. It’s beautiful and massive, but characterised by cheesy video game cliches, that, at this point, as someone who’s played years of Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, GTA and other open world titles, are signs of a lack of inspiration and conceptual laziness.
Like in Far Cry, a single radio station manned by a fatuous, cheesily voiced nincompoop is the central tool for exposition. He will speak mostly English, along with every character you’ll meet, flavoured with occasional Spanish. It feels utterly incongruous to think that an entire country of Latin gangsters listens to a national radio station that primarily speaks a foreign language. This kind of disconnection voids any feeling of authenticity the gritty and realistic aesthetic manages to muster. Your companions, too, are stifling and dim. On long treks they will banter with one another. They speak in military jargon, trade morbid jokes, and try to make themselves sound like career-hardened killers. Well, they would, were it not for the complete inability of the voice cast to capture an ounce of gusto. While I’m sure your typical tier-one operators are ice-cold, flat-toned no-nonsense talkers, it doesn’t make for stimulating company in a video game you can feasibly play for sixty hours.
GRW’s gameplay loop has blueprint similar to its Ubi-tower brethren, but driven by an admittedly unique structure and agenda. To get to the big Jefe, El Sueno, the Ghosts need to take out his underlings. This goal makes the entire game essentially a hunt for boss fights, as well as chasing down various bits of loot, skill point upgrades, vehicles and stat-altering bonuses in depressingly typical Ubisoft fashion. The game map is the usual Far Cry/Assassin’s visual cacophony of crap to do – but even in my (almost shamefully) brief time in the game of 15 hours, it devolved quicker into repetition than expected. The vast majority of GRW’s missions revolve around a handful or so of actions in this sequence:
1. Investigate an intel marker.
2. Pick up the information, then head to the guarded location where you’ll find your target.
3. Reach destination, observe and mark hostiles like you do in every Ubisoft open world game.
4. Try to pick off targets silently, but fail miserably.
5. Kill/interrogate/kidnap target and steal something to drive or fly.
6. Struggle with terrible vehicle physics, all while cursing loudly.
7. Reach the objective and sigh not with relief, but resignment.
8. Wash/repeat as directed. Possibly drag an accomplice into this simulacrum of enjoyment through co-op.
9. Alleviate boredom by engaging in kleptomania.
10. Quit game and contemplate the inherent perversion the pursuit of profit brings to entertainment and art.
My sentiments may seem needlessly dramatic, and I’m sure I’m not as funny as I think. However, the game is just straight up disappointing. There are nice things I could say, but they didn’t help the boredom I trudged through fifteen hours to relay to you. If nothing else, I will list some backhanded praise out of consideration for the countless working hours the developers put into this testament to their parent’s culture of stagnation.
The sheer scale of GRW’s map is a real spectacle and can force you to make adjustments to your approach based on your surroundings, largely regarding visibility. But not often, nor will said modifications be significant or surprising. Silent assaults in the jungle are easy to pull off, but not so much in the clear visibility of the salt flats, even in the dead of night. You won’t have any more interesting or strategic ways of blending in with or manipulating your environment, due to the limited mission types. No need for camouflage or traps fashioned from world objects or anything requiring actual militaristic cunning. Your squad is supposed to be a group of nigh on invisible, instigating saboteurs. They call themselves GHOSTS for God’s sake – but instead roam around with heavy machine guns and assault rifles in broad daylight. They are as inconspicuous as an imposter showing up to a Klan rally in a Boy George outfit.
At least the weapon ballistics and customisation options are excellent and abundant, but to get access to the toys you want you’ll have to engage in a fetch quest that lasts for the duration of the entire God damn game.
Co-operative play can be said to genuinely improve your experience, but only because your companion AI is more limited in its usefulness than it ever has been in a Ghost Recon title. You can order to move them to specific locations, or order them to regroup and fire, even specially marked targets, but you cannot select any of your soldiers individually like in past games. The most satisfying feeling I’ve ever gathered from any game in this series has been the subtle, stealthy preparation of my troops for a surgical and silent assassination of which I have been the architect of every ruthless detail. Here, your troops will automatically spawn into any vehicle you are driving that has more than one seat, and start firing automatically at anything that looks vaguely like a meztico because you forgot to turn the ‘assault’ toggle off as soon as you started driving. There is a cornucopia of vehicles to command, but all handle in a manner only worthy of YouTube glitch highlights.
GRW is not a return to form. It is an unimaginative cash-grab for a generation of ‘here we go again’ gamers who crave mediocrity and repetition in ever more grand and visually beautiful but hollow spaces. It’s storytelling and themes skate the rim of historical whitewashing of military sponsored chaos and genocide. Its game world’s breadth is an empty accomplishment. The gameplay is an act of existential self-harm akin to the doldrums of menial labour. I actively distracted myself from this game every day I played it with housework. I am a cleaner for a living. I despise cleaning – it makes me genuinely imagine tossing myself off a bridge some days. Yet still a less painful experience than this game. GRW is a testament Ubisoft’s failure to understand the value of its properties and its insistence on destroying its legacy through homogenisation. The exception is the most recent Rainbow Six game, a game that GRW would have done better to resemble. A greater emphasis on the strategic gameplay that initially defined the Tom Clancy brand would not only be a fresh air for the Ghosts; it could potentially make this brand more relevant to both old and new gamers than it has ever been. What we have here instead is Far Cry 4 on hard mode by default with fewer weapons, more vehicles, a larger map, no survival elements, and even less character.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands isn’t a Ghost Recon game. It is neither strategic or overly tactical in any way that pushes its genre forward. It’s a pointless mish-mash of ideas plucked from a limited pool trying to push what was once a deep and strategic shooter series into a genre that is more concerned with killing hookers and stealing fighter jets. It’s uninspired and disappointing, to the point where household chores seem like a more entertaining alternative.