This is an early impressions piece based on review code - look out for our final verdict on Ghost Recon Wildlands later this week.
I was all ready to drop a bucket of C4 on Ghost Recon: Wildlands when I began playing last week, and there are still things I intensely dislike about it, but Ubisoft's latest Tom Clancy 'em up is growing on me, very slowly. Its greatest failing may be the narrative, which is, so far, a bluntly uncritical celebration of the so-called "war on drugs" - Richard Nixon's Quixotic, multiple-billion dollar international crackdown on the illegal narcotics trade, which has seen the US military and CIA intervening across South and Central America in a bid to quash supply.
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In Ubisoft's extension of this tale Bolivia has been all but conquered by a Mexican cartel, and it's your job to bring down the latter's capos one by one, working your way up the chain of command to the big boss, El Sueño, a tattooed bruiser with Messianic aspirations. Perhaps the writing will surprise me further in, but right now this feels like the usual, callous AAA tactic of skimming the surface of a complex geopolitical scenario as a pretext for blowing the shit out of some glossy, tour-guide vistas.
Wildlands is also a rather muddled Ghost Recon game, one that has been broken open and smeared across the face of an icon-laden Ubiworld, trading suspenseful infiltration for something like the chaotic improvisation of a Far Cry. I say "something like", because in practice Wildlands feels like it's caught between camps - too beholden to the slowburn intricacy of Ghost Recons gone by to really dazzle as a crazy sandbox endeavour, but too sprawling and superficial to impress as a methodical tactical shooter.
If you've played any Ubisoft open worlder before, you'll know what to expect here: sweeps of gorgeously rendered countryside, where you're constantly at risk of either bumping into a patrol or being lured off-road by a loot drop or side activity, dotted with fortified encampments that serve as a more concentrated, structured challenge. There's that familiar layer of colonialism-lite strategising to keep you trundling back and forth between side activities - the country is divided into regions that are contested by allied and hostile factions, a balance of power you can tip in your favour (unlocking certain skills and item rewards in the process) by intercepting the regime's convoys and tagging supplies for Bolivia's rebels, amongst other optional pastimes.
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The game's arsenal and array of character skills tick all the usual boxes for a Tom Clancy sim - a choice of shotguns, rifles, pistols and heavy ordnance, a drone plus binoculars for base reconnaissance and enemy-tagging, and upgrades such as underslung grenade launcher attachments, tighter bullet spread when firing from the hip, and faster team revives.
Everything functions well enough in the hand but, the ability to parachute from an exploding helicopter aside, I'm still waiting for one of the game's toys to jump out at me - right now, there's nothing here to rival the possibilities of Just Cause's infamous grapple line or Metal Gear Solid 5's various oddball gizmos. The problem is partly that the game's missions and enemy AI have yet to force me to test the applications of the tools available - most situations can be resolved by sniping, corner-camping or running away till everybody calms down. The context-sensitive cover system is also far from best-in-class, lacking the pleasing, unambiguous heft of Gears or even last year's Mafia 3 - it's often hard to work out how much you need to lean against a surface to lock to it.
Wildlands has all the hallmarks of an uninspiring piece of commercial arithmetic - established brand plus proven open world template equals cash in the bank. But there are times when something clicks - or rather, synchs. Setting up simultaneous shots in order to decimate a position in a heartbeat is perhaps the greatest source of satisfaction the game has to offer, and the closest Wildlands comes to the steely, calculated malice of Ghost Recon at its best. You can mark targets for allies using your drone, binoculars or by aiming down the sights, then order everybody to open fire using the game's slightly fiddly command wheel, or have everybody pull the trigger when you do. Some enemies help out by staying put - perhaps because they're guarding a getaway vehicle, or manning a turret - but others follow lengthy patrol paths, and having one foe amble inconsiderately out of an ally's line-of-sight just as you're about to let fly is genuinely thrilling.
The thrill is spoiled, however, by the game's so-so squadmate path-finding. Allies do a good job of reviving you when you're KO'd, and can be left to fend for themselves in most firefights, but I've had the occasional mishap where a comrade has been tardy about grouping up, or struggled to descend from an elevated position (the game teleports them to your side where necessary). That's a problem you might rectify, of course, by playing the game in co-op, with match-making accessible anywhere in the world simply by holding a button - and all too predictably, it's here that Wildlands comes to life.
In single player, you're something of a glorified dog-walker, leading a trio of grunts around the landscape who can be relied upon to call out enemy locations, but who are incapable of taking the initiative. In multiplayer, you might find yourself galloping between doorways with shotgun in hand while a friendly strafes the perimeter in a helicopter, or shooting out base lights from a distant hillside while the rest of the squad crawls toward a waypoint. The game's networking seems sturdy enough, but the presence of failstates in certain missions (e.g. take out a convoy without killing the driver) is annoying - it kicks you back to a rally point, which involves a loading break. It should also be noted that Wildlands doesn't run on dedicated servers - like the recent For Honor, it uses peer-to-peer connections.
Will co-op's magic touch lift this cynical-feeling hodgepodge of pseudo-realworld storytelling and secondhand game design out of its rut? I have my doubts, but I'm having more fun with Wildlands than I suspected I would, after sighing at the thought of yet another trinket-packed map to digest, yet another set of clumsy political parallels to grit my teeth over. Still, this may be one new horizon too many. Perhaps the Ghosts should have stuck to what they know.