I wasn't the biggest fan of Ghost Recon: Wildlands - you might say I thought it was a ghastly neoliberal wargasm joined at the hip to an unimaginative open world action game - but I am, oddly enough, rather fond of guiding people through it, chaperoning squadmates to waypoints and doing my best to keep everybody upright in the face of inevitable idiocy. This probably says more about me than it does the game itself. Perhaps it's just that I'm in my early 30s and secretly want to be a dad, a yearning unproductively manifest as an over-protective attitude towards sweary randos who dress like a Halloween edition of Guns 'n' Ammo. But there's something about Wildlands - its blend of rigour and scale, cold-blooded Clancycore ruthlessness and spec ops fancy dress competition - that creates a kind of squad play I'm not entirely sure the game's developers intended.
To be more specific, there's something about the way its missions sprawl, most of them obliging you to tootle back and forth from raidable camp A to abductable henchman B. A game with that amount of travel time built into it imposes a familial dynamic on co-op, even if you choose to do without a squad leader - one player needs to drive or fly the others around the landscape, which means shrugging on the mantle of surrogate parent, getting people into and out of the fight in one piece. It's a school run, basically, with fewer lost permission slips, a touch more camo and a lot more pointing and yelling.
To illustrate all that, here's a Funny Anecdote (names have been changed to lower the risk of reprisals). I'm part of a squad of four, and our currently active mission is to collar the boss of a cartel silver mine deep in the south: a fearsome expanse of pipes and watchtowers, snipers dotted all across it like candles on the world's least appetising birthday cake. I spawn across the valley from the rest of the group, swipe a chopper from the nearest airfield and find my way to the party as they're in the process of overrunning a checkpoint, a few miles from the mine.
I land the craft with a certain, dare I say, panache, skimming over the asphalt in the pilot's equivalent of a rockstar knee-slide, and wait for the other players to climb aboard. Nobody does - instead, they pile into a SUV. Well, eventually. First, they use it as cover for a couple of minutes while I dip and circle, flashing the bird's lights in mounting frustration. By the time they're done, the car is more bullethole than metal. My comrades don't care - off they go down the road in a billow of smoke, sparks and excited, willy-nilly automatic fire, and I dutifully give chase.
They're breezing along the edge of a dust bowl a few minutes later when I treat the road ahead to a pointed, not at all passive-aggressive burst of Gatling fire. The driver skids to a halt, and I touch down nearby. In a promising development, two of the other players actually deign to get out of their automotive deathtrap and board the chopper. The other, however, goes AFK. I spend a few moments nudging the car and its sole remaining occupant around with the helicopter's skids while my passengers take potshots at passing drivers, risking another showdown with the cartel. It's like trying to get one child to relinquish its grip on a chair in a busy restaurant, while two other children clamped under your arms squirt ketchup at the waiters.
Is it a bug, I wonder? Has the other player's connection somehow dropped out without killing his avatar, leaving his virtual body to loll for all eternity at the dash of a banged-up four-by-four? I lose patience and take off, heading for the high ground, and the screen immediately lights up with outraged pistol fire. The other player wasn't AFK, it transpires - he was just eating a sandwich. All right then! If you're quite finished stuffing your face, Davey118, how about you clamber in and we go knock over that silver mine, eh? If we get it done before sundown, we might stop to pick up a few weapon accessories on the way home - but only if you're very good.
A few minutes later the mine itself looms into view, a hilltop extravaganza of sightlines and chokepoints, dense, rusty and twinkling with rifle scopes. Having played through the scenario before, I try to land my gaggle of jarhead Don Quixotes some distance away - there's a tumbledown cottage on a low rise near some conveniently parked dirtbikes, which affords decent views of the mine's entrance - but they won't alight. I take off and land again, bouncing the vehicle up and down in a futile effort to shake my passengers off. They all cling on stubbornly. There's a lot of bleating about parachutes and "tactical insertions". Fine, totteridge92, let's give chutes a try - even though it's broad daylight and there are hostiles on every elevated piece of geometry and those hostiles will absolutely see you coming, assuming you remember to pull the cord in good time and don't, for instance, smack into a piece of mining equipment at several metres a second.
I reach a dizzy height over the mine and everybody leaps out except for Davey118, who seems to be eating again. Miraculously, they find their way to solid ground unhurt through the ensuing hurricane of lead. I skate around the perimeter unsteadily as battle commences, doing my best to catch the eyes of perimeter guards while my two active squad-mates scuttle deeper into the mine's thicket of concrete and steel. There are garbled pleas for air support. I swivel in pursuit of the speaker, half-inclined to treat him to an admonitory Gatling bombardment, and clip a radio mast with my tail. The bird plummets, jamming itself into the gap between two silos, and as I crawl from its juddering carcass, one of my comrades addresses me petulantly: "You landed us in the wrong place, man!" No, totteridge92, I landed you near the objective - the objective being that cartel honcho who is now hurtling over the horizon in a sportscar. Perhaps if you'd all gotten out and snuck into the place as I suggested earlier he'd be enjoying the ride home with us, eh? Now if you'd be so kind, see if you can coax young David out of that chopper before it explodes.
A thing that occurred to me, looking back on all this, was that I'd spent a good half-hour or so in the game without killing a soul. It was a relief from both the fundamental callousness of Wildlands and its by-the-numbers engagement design, and over time, this became my calling card of sorts in the game's online universe. While playing the squad's wheelman, I'd switch to my (tastefully accoutred) sidearm and make a point of avoiding shoot-outs - a trait that inadvertently endeared me to more scientifically-minded squad leaders, because there's nothing worse than hurrying back from a bunker with hostage in hand to find that your getaway driver has picked a fight with an APC.
I'm reminded a little of one of my favourite stories from the immortal DayZ, the tale of Dr Wasteland and his combat medics - guardian angels hovering over a sea of PvP treachery and bacterial infections, sworn to assist any injured player who posts in their forum. There's also Elite Dangerous, with its self-appointed populations of xenologists, pathfinders and professional vandals. It's all enough to make you wonder whether Wildlands might yet transcend its turgid beginnings if Ubisoft spends less time piling on gimmicky narrative extensions and accessories - today's bling and gangsta-fuelled Narco Road DLC appears to be a case in point - and more time attending to how players express themselves almost in spite of the game, role-playing against the grain. After all, if a shooter as hard-bitten and anodyne as Wildlands can rouse feelings of mushy paternal responsibility in a crusty blowhard like me, what can't it do?