Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands has a strange set of priorities.
On the one hand, it's one of the most artistically detailed open-world games I've ever played, translating the scale and beauty of the entirety of Bolivia into a digital facsimile. On the other, the ways you interact with that world feel incredibly trite and tired.
It's not immediately apparent at first how stock-standard the game's interactivity is on account of the grandness and complexity of its map. Wildlands borrows the landscape and architecture of Bolivia, one of the most naturally varied and lush places on Earth. Each province of the game feels huge and aesthetically distinct. Even when viewed from above, you see a cohesive whole where climate and elevation dictate the landscape more than a deliberate theme.
You play one member of a team of four special forces soldiers tasked with bringing down the Santa Blanca drug cartel, a Mexican drug-running operation that has taken over the whole country to create a religiously motivated narco-state. At the top is El Sueno — the mastermind. He has four heads of operation, who each have an underboss. Under them are the regional bosses, the Buchons. The Buchons set the thematic tone for a province and must have their entire criminal infrastructure dismantled piece by piece.
The contrast between the visual details of the game and the thematic construction is impressive and vexing. Visually, it's a masterwork. During a rainstorm, light will pierce the clouds and dapple the distant hills with sunlight while a grey, oppressive sky colors the world around you up close. After the rain, water pools along the dirt road inside the tire tracks and footprints, little puddles with so many variations it's hard to tell if it's from template or if each kilometer is totally handcrafted. Wind from a helicopter's rotors will part grasses and shake trees. Little churches on the hillsides look like they've been there for decades, a perfect mix of care and neglect.
Thematically, however, it's all murder and condescension. You are four against a nation. Never for a moment does your squad consider that to be an unreasonable task. Not once in the many (many) hours of the campaign is there a single moment of humility. Because Santa Blanca are also foreigners, for the most part, there is no attempt to engage with actual Bolivian culture, no point of interaction that isn't driven by mechanical violence.
In a game with an entirely fictional backdrop, that wouldn't be so much of a problem. But Wildlands takes the time to render its version of Bolivia with so much environmental fidelity, including geographical features and architectural motifs. Since Wildlands clearly put thought and care into making its map feel like Bolivia, the absolute carelessness of tone frustrated and confused me.
All of this content can be played in any order whatsoever. You can drive straight from your starting region to the most difficult and remote province of the game without even finishing the tutorials. There is a dizzying variety of weapons and vehicles, all based on real-life counterparts and easily identifiable. With so many toys and tools and such a huge world to utilize them in, the possibilities for completing any given mission are open-ended to the point of absurdity.
One particular mission highlighted Wildland’s moral flippancy. I was tasked with killing one of Santa Blanca's priest figures, who was preaching in a church populated by two dozen heavily armed soldiers. I flew an explosive drone right up the main aisle and blew it up; no one knew what hit them.At first I thought, "I'm pretty smart for using a drone here." Then I realized: "Holy shit, I just used a drone to massacre people at church."
There’s a fine tonal line to walk in a video game about revolution and liberation, but erring on the side of goofball nonsense can toe that line. Wildlands, however, has a lot invested in feeling contemporary and grounded in the real world. The real places, the real equipment and the desire to feel edgy and contemporary come back around to really bite it in the ass when you inevitably do things that are kinda-sorta war crimes if you're suspending disbelief.
Early on, there's a scripted conversation where one squadmate opines that if the regional villains were actually any good at torture, they wouldn't have to inflict so much pain. Your squad doesn't care about the morality or impact of anything they do so long as they're better at it than the locals. It's a smugness that grates more and more as the provinces get checked off. I was hoping for something redemptive to come later on, but since content is designed to be played in any order, the arc of characterization is completely flat. They're not just bad people — they're jerks.
That’s not to say that Wildlands is all straight-faced all the time; it certainly has its goofy side as well. The game begins with a robust character creator, letting you choose from hundreds of tiny options, from the patch on your backpack to the color of your boots. You can choose to be a woman, a man, black, hispanic, old, young, you can wear an eyepatch and a cowboy hat and give your character a fat cigar.
But no matter how silly your created character, you’ll still be outperformed in ridiculousness by the game’s cast of villains. They include: the beardy and gruff former Army ranger turncoat; the Mexican beauty queen who runs the smuggling operation; the priestess of Santa Muerte who blesses the sicarios and accepts offerings on their behalf; and "La Plaga", the Plague, who posts his murders on social media so his adoring fans can see them. Your CIA handler, Bowman, sends you introductory videos on each one which are scripted in a way that alternates between flippant and dark. Wildlands leans so heavily on a colorful excess of characterization that it makes the decision to set the game in a real country especially suspect.
The most complicated missions are for the big bosses, who forgo the multi-stage province clearing in favor of a much longer and more difficult than average mission solely revolving around them. Located in provinces separate from the ones you spend time zeroing out story missions in, they feel dangerous and distinctive. For either single player or co-op, the upper bosses provide the most clever tactical challenges. You can't complete them in under five minutes, which is a possibility for quite a few of the main story missions. They use two or three of the styles of objective you'd pursue singly in regular missions. By the time you've actually finished over a dozen provinces, there's little in the game that feels new anymore — save for these missions.
When you kill La Plaga, you get to keep his hat. It's a fun hat. For all Wildlands’ deliberate and ham-fisted edge, all of the game’s plot and character is fundamentally a frivolous accessory. In practice, Wildlands is actually about completing missions that will lead to even more diverse options for completing the next mission. It's about providing more guns than you'll ever use so you can pick the coolest one to you. It's about player customization, about explosions and gunfire and tactical creativity. Wildlands is at its best as a mechanically pure sandbox experience.
When I played with other people, the complexities of the tactical and mechanical options given to me became way more pronounced than the dialogue or the plot. Missions became less about the "why" and almost exclusively about the "how." Our plans often started with a good idea and then fell apart in ways that were both thrilling and hilarious. Recovering from those mistakes led to even more challenging moments of emergent gameplay.
Wildlands wants to be both an ultraviolent cartoon and a grounded, ripped-from-the-headlines thriller. It can't do both, and it's much better at being silly and absurd. The mechanical experience of it is as freewheeling a sandbox as I've ever seen, but the frame, the tone and the script weigh it down like an anchor. While the winding roads and pastoral villages of Bolivia make for a great backdrop, it’s a backdrop seen exclusively from down the barrel of a gun and between the blinders of a trashy action movie aesthetic.
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands was reviewed using final PC code provided by Ubisoft. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.