(Ed’s note: we’ve only had access to Ghost Recon Wildlands since 9AM PT on March 4, so we’re still a ways off from being able to pass a full verdict on Ubisoft’s newest open world Tom Clancy title. What follows are the impressions of our reviewer after more than 20 hours with the game.)
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands is an absurd game with an absurd plot that spans a map so large it encompasses an actual country.
The core idea is patently ridiculous: you and three other special operations soldiers, alongside your CIA handler and some friendly rebels, are going to completely wipe out the drug cartel that's taken over the game's fictionalized version of Bolivia. All of Bolivia. You're going to dismantle them piece by pieces across literally every corner of the country and restore its sovereignty. Hoo-ah!
That sounds like an absolutely impossible and exhausting exercise. Realistically, it is: Tom Clancy branded games often lean on an impression of realism, like the tense "If you get shot, you're shot" gameplay of the Rainbow Six franchise, using present-day themes and settings to lend a tonal credibility to the adventure. Wildlands tries its damndest to adhere to the tone of the Clancy lineage, but at its heart it's still mechanically a stock-standard Ubisoft open world title, with all the silly artificiality that comes with it. The game is much more committed to pulp and fun than grit and realism, which is to the game’s benefit considering it borrows a real place for its fictional military adventure.
Wildlands has already made headlines for receiving a condemnation from the actual real-life Bolivia, who took understandable offense to being portrayed as a cocaine-fueled narco state. Every element of the plot is over-the-top and ridiculous: from the basic setup of your mission, four soldiers against a whole nation, to the individual villains who not only include a standard range of tattooed, mustachioed bad guys but also pop stars, Breaking-Bad-style American scientists, and a skintight-leather wearing former beauty queen. You can also customize your own character, from gender to ethnicity down to the sort of footwear you like to the patches on your backpack. You can make a grey-haired woman with a mohawk and a cowboy hat, and she’ll still fit in among the other characters.
In a way, this tonal flippancy makes it easier to get into the spirit of the game than if it had taken itself more seriously.
The real star of Ghost Recon: Wildlands isn't the gruff and eternally upbeat heroes or the unending parade of sociopathic villains, it's the map. The landscape is one of the most visually lush and detailed open worlds I've ever seen, even for Ubisoft. Wildlands' world feels like an actual country, with towns in places that make sense, roads that wind along the mountainsides in complex and meandering patterns and buildings with remarkable architecture. The zones don't do hard transitions from one to the next but vary in climate and elevation gradually.
This is largely due to scale. In years past, just a quarter of the Wildlands map would have felt positively enormous. I didn't appreciate just how enormous it all was until I got my hands on a helicopter. I flew way up, as high as I could, and looked down on a world of mountains, rivers, cities, lakes, all stretching as far as I could see to the horizon. Then I checked what I saw against the larger in-menu map and reckoned I was looking at 1/20th of the world. Just one region. If the game was truly designed for mechanical realism the way past Clancy-inspired titles have been, it would have been a disheartening experience. But by giving vehicles, squadmates, and the player a level of durability that slightly defies the suspension of disbelief (except on the highest difficulty), the way you experience all of this vast world is lightning fast. Ghost Recon: Wildlands is the popcorn chicken of modern military shooters, delicious and cheap and utterly compulsive.
So far, zones seem to take about two to four hours to complete, if you're not being completionist about the side content, and there are twenty or so total. In modern Ubisoft style, the world is littered with collectables and plot-free side missions that you must complete if you want the resource points you need to buy higher-level character skills. Early on, you can get by with just the upgrade points you find. Later on, however, you have to be very deliberate about it. If the main plot had more dialogue — and it might be a blessing that it doesn't — this might've slowed down progression, but as it stands the upgrade system fits pretty well into the "do what you want, in any order you want" structure.
A lot of this design seems oriented around the co-op experience. If you're playing alone, your three squadmates are AI-controlled, but you can fill those slots with friends and strangers at any time just by holding down the "use" key. The vastness of the world and the ability to do it in any order makes it much more likely that, even after having spent hours and hours with the game, you and your friends will have no trouble finding something new and novel to accomplish. When you look at it through the lens of a single-player experience, it does seem a little overwhelming and repetitive, but if the ambition was to provide a co-op sandbox that stays fresh and continually presents new activities even after extensive play, thus far it seems successful.
In many ways, Wildlands feels more directly connected to the lineage of Far Cry 2 than The Division or the other Ghost Recon games. It's got the same moral ambiguity, the same focus on a massive and detailed natural environment, the same respect for the player's autonomy in planning their travels through the virtual world. Although it does feature a lot of collection and checklisting, that content does feel freeform. I frequently find myself exploring optional locations and objectives simply because I became curious about them — a church on a hilltop that was particularly scenic, a village where the road to get there seems compellingly isolated from the other routes. The character levelling and upgrade system is helpful to the gameplay, but nothing's really stopping you from going to the hardest zones of the game right off the bat and prying a fancy rifle out of someone's cold dead hands.
In my first hour with the game, I was deeply skeptical. I was worried it would be the same game I'd played from Ubisoft a million times before, I was worried that it was going to be profoundly insensitive in its politics and themes. In my fifteenth, I was having one of the best times I've had with an open world game in a long while. Each new region surprised me with its landscape and its mission variety. Each plot beat was so over the top and comedic that I stopped worrying about what the game was saying because it clearly wasn't trying to say very much at all.
While I haven’t even come close to working my way through the many underbosses let alone the primary villains of the game, I’ve been consistently charmed by the freedom it affords me. If I’m not interested in one plot beat, I can sideline it for another. If I’m tired of mountains, I can swap for desert. When I’m done being sneaky I can search around for a powerful machine gun. The thrill of this enormous stack of content is that it’s so far only repetitive when played repetitively, when you allow yourself to get comfortable with a tactical pattern. The sheer scale and variety of landscape and objectives allow for a comprehensive sandbox experience. It might be yet another Ubisoft open world, but it’s one that seems to value the player’s time in a way that others do not.