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Ghost Recon: The Ghosts of Bolivia

We explore the setting for Ghost Recon Wildlands, Ubisoft’s largest ever open-world game.

Ubisoft

Polygon recently visited Ubisoft's headquarters in Paris, France for a deep dive into the making of the next Ghost Recon game. This story is the first in a series.

Part of the allure of the Ghost Recon universe is its exotic settings. To be part of Tom Clancy’s fictional U.S. Army special operations team is to remain anonymous. Your name will never be known and your work will likely go unnoticed by your countrymen back home. But on the upside, you get to travel the world, visit far-flung locales and kill the most interesting people.

For the next title in the iconic series, Ubisoft is pulling out all the stops. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands takes the franchise to Bolivia, a landlocked South American nation known for its rugged landscape and breathtaking ecological diversity. The game will also mark a milestone for the company as a whole.

When Wildlands releases in early March of next year, Ubisoft says, it will be the largest open-world action adventure game the company has ever made.

To recreate such a huge chunk of this unique part of the world, the team at Ubisoft had to become intimately familiar with the place, and perhaps no one on the development team knows Bolivia better than Benoit Martinez. Wildlands’ lead artist and technical art director, Martinez was part of a team of more than 30 designers who travelled there in 2012. He spent more than two weeks in the country, traveling thousands of miles to capture reference material for the game.

"The very first step was to go there," Martinez said, "to send a team for a couple of weeks to really investigate the country. Four groups split to go in every direction — from north to south, east to west — taking thousands and thousands of pictures. We came back with hours and hours of video, interviews and footage from just filming in the wild.

Images captured by the Ubisoft art team in La Paz, Bolivia
Polygon

"We were taking pictures of all the little details in the stores, of people’s doorsteps, of any building that caught our eye. We wanted to just understand how it all fit together, and we returned with such a large amount of data that we spent more time here in France just parsing it than it actually took to take the pictures. But it was very important, because then for the years after that it was our reference database to work from."

The end result was a series of produced videos the team used to set the tone for each location, but also a kind of scrapbook. Several of these 11-by-17 inch, spiral-bound tomes sit on desks at the studio outside Paris, heavily dog-eared and marked with Post-It notes.

For Martinez, these books are as much a treasure as they are a tool.

"This game is something we’ve dreamt about for a very, very long time."

A misty forest valley in Ghost Recon Wildlands.
Ubisoft

Tilting at windmills

One of the unique features of Bolivia, Martinez said, is the diversity of its regions. During their trip, his team was able to catalog 11 different ecosystems, some of which exist only in close proximity to the Andes Mountains. But knitting them together into a sensible game world was a challenge.

"The reason why we needed so much space on our map is because we wanted so many different environments," Martinez said. "If we had put in everything it could look like a mini-golf course or something. So we needed room to spread, to be large."

To accomplish their goal, Martinez and his team began to create a fictional amalgamation of Bolivia from the ground up.

The first step was to sculpt the terrain by hand, adding mountains and fields where they thought they might be necessary. But how do you keep such a large team (Ubisoft declined to give a headcount) of artists consistent when they’re working on such a sprawling map? One of the secrets, Martinez said, was to create tools based on geologist’s understanding of the process of erosion.

This map shows the routes traveled by the Ubisoft research teams during their trip to Bolivia.
Polygon

"You have to think about how a river works." he said. "How does a river sculpt the terrain and the vegetation? ... If you can define those rules, you can probably start to feed them to your layers automatically with specific tools. Or, at least, you can share the same methodology with your whole team and everyone can speak the same language.

"For example, if we take a terrain and we take two different mountains, one big and one small, they’re very different," Martinez said. "The waterflow carries some sediment, and the sediment goes into the valley and all the rock particles are transported so the cliff top is going to be eroded. The cliffs are going to be less crisp, and the valleys will start to be created. You will know then where to place lakes and other rivers."

Using an understanding of how terrain forms naturally, Martinez said he and his team were able to create guidelines and actual tools to shape the land in realistic ways, always checking back with their on-the-ground images to make sure they were getting the overall feel just right.

"Once you understand this logic, you can start integrating this kind of stuff into the game. You can hand-apply it, or you can start to define the algorithm to help the artist."

That sort of attention to detail, he said, enabled his team to craft their version of Bolivia down to a very granular level, defining even the differences in the soil itself from place to place.

The full world map for Ghost Recon Wildlands. One version shows the regions and cities, while the other shows how the different biomes are divided.

That, in turn, influenced the placement of some five million trees and two million bushes and rocks.

"The soil, the altitude, the steepness, the proximity of water or not ... all of that was being defined by the biome where the vegetation was going to actually grow," Martinez said. "For each tree we decided where it would be based on an understanding of every biome. ... If there was some water, we wanted to use more of a specific species there, and perhaps we wanted to make them bigger or more dense. We started to define rules for the grasses as well ... and how the presence of water would effect their color, and how densely they grow. How does the sunshine effect each tree? We computed that as well, and then we mapped the shadows of the mountains we had made and decided trees there are probably going to be weaker, or not as large. Perhaps they needed to be a different kind of tree entirely."

The end result, Martinez said, is a lush and varied landscape that players will enjoy exploring on foot as an infantrymen, or driving with their squad through the countryside.

"If someone has already been to Bolivia," Martinez said, "I wanted them to be able to recognize a specific place. And for someone who has never been there, I wanted them to be able to see something that they might actually be able to see if they went there in person."

Strawman

But while Ubisoft’s Wildlands is very much a geotypical recreation of Bolivia, evoking rather than representing the country in minute detail, there are several areas of the map that have been designed more as specific landmarks. Without them, Martinez said, the team simply wouldn’t have been able to do the country justice.

There’s the Laguna Colorada, or the Red Lagoon, a shallow salt lake located in the high plains — known as the altiplano region — of southwest Bolivia. Martinez said it took his small team an entire day to travel there, but for its effort it has been able to craft a remarkable in-game facsimile.

Laguna Colorada, the "Red Lagoon," near Potosí, Bolivia is populated largely by flamingos. On the left Benoit Martinez’s photo, and on the right his team’s recreation in Ghost Recon Wildlands.
Benoit Martinez/Ubisoft

A separate team took the long, dangerous drive from Bolivia’s third-largest city, La Paz, to Coroico along the North Yungas Road. Known as the "Road of Death," the Yungas Road is a single, 40-mile long lane carved into the side of a cliff. One of the only roads between the two cities, it runs through some of Bolivia’s most beautiful broadleaf forests. It’s also responsible for the deaths of hundreds of motorists each year.

On the left a still image collected by the Ubisoft team of Bolivia’s "Road of Death." On the right a recreation in Ghost Recon Wildlands.
Ubisoft

Another landmark is the train cemetery. The well-trafficked tourist destination is just outside the Bolivian city of Uyuni and is home to a small fleet of rusted out, late 19th century steam locomotives. Originally brought to the country by a team of British engineers working for local railway companies, they were largely abandoned in the 1940s when Bolivia’s mining industry collapsed.

On the left is a picture of the train graveyard captured by the team outside Uyuni, and on the right a re-creation in Ghost Recon Wildlands.
Ubisoft

Martinez and his team also attempted to recreate Bolivia’s famous silver mines, like the ones found near the city of Potosí. Continuously mined since the 1500s, the city is now home to some of Bolivia’s most impoverished indigenous people. Martinez and his team met them, and traveled below the mountains where they work.

"People have been digging in there for centuries," Martinez said. "It’s the same mines, and underground it is like a piece of Swiss cheese. They just buy some dynamite in the morning at the market and then they just go in there and blow up some rocks, hoping that it’s not going to fall down around them.

"It’s something you have to see for yourself. It was of course a bit shocking to us, the reality and the truth in front of our faces but it was an important part of how to be truthful to this country and to all the people we met there and to be truthful to their stories."

"It’s something you have to see for yourself."

By spending time with the Bolivian people, by asking about their lives and experiences, Martinez and his team believe they were able to truly make the game world feel authentic. Their anecdotes trickled down into every facet of the game environment, and even influenced the design of non-player characters and civilians in the game world.

Within each region of the map the population behaves differently, Martinez said. Each place has its own industries, and its own unique way of life.

"We have a full agenda for the NPCs, so they really live in the world," Martinez said. "They go to bed at night. They get up. They go to work. Whether or not you interact with them or not, they live their own life."

There was one encounter that stood out for Martinez during his time in Bolivia, and eventually came to influence the iconography of the game’s in-fiction enemies, the Santa Blanca drug cartel.

A still photo of a scarecrow from Benoit Martinez’s trip through Bolivia.
Benoit Martinez/Ubisoft

"Just on the border of a road in the middle of nowhere we found this perfect scarecrow," Martinez said. "We asked the Bolivians, 'What the fuck is that?’ They told us that there was a settlement out there, or a village. What the scarecrow is saying is, ‘You are not welcome. If you are not coming with good intentions, or if you’re coming to rob, us you’re not welcome.’

"It’s a scarecrow for people. But when you are just driving in the car and you’re driving by and you’re just barely gasping that. We had to get out and ask these wonderful people about it."

Eventually, the story team borrowed that image to become the foundation of some of the religious iconography used by the Santa Blanca drug cartel. We’ll have more on Wildlands’ narrative in the new year.

The arid mountain biome of Bolivia, as represented in Ghost Recon Wildlands. On the left you can see a radio tower converted into a religious icon of the Santa Blanca drug cartel.
Ubisoft

Direct action

Mechanically, Wildlands will be an incredibly ambitious game for Ubisoft. As Polygon learned prior to E3 in June, the entire game is meant to be played cooperatively with up to four players.

"The whole experience has been built from the ground up to be able to be played by yourself, supported by AI teammates," lead game designer Dominic Butler said at the time. "Then, as friends come by they’re made available. Whatever happens with your friends, you’re able to join together and continue your progress unimpeded."

But it’s also a change in tone for the Ghost Recon universe as a whole. Gone are the clearly recognizable U.S. Army uniforms, ballistic helmets and the like. The order of the day is for Ghosts to blend in, wear their hair long and live among the locals in plain clothes.

"There’s a difference between special operations and special missions," said senior producer Nouredine Abboud in June. "Missions [in Bolivia] are long term. You will spend lots of time deep behind enemy lines, and there are many things that are happening in the background. This is kind of the fun idea even in terms of gameplay, exciting that you’re not just there to just do a special operations attack or just to execute these three guys."

In the salar regions of Bolivia there are huge salt flats, just like this one recreated by the team at Ubisoft.
Ubisoft

In short, Wildlands will be more of an open world experience than the series has known in the past. The way that Bolivia has been created will encourage players to explore the wilderness and the urban spaces to create their own strategies, and improvise with the resources, weapons and skills they have at their disposal.

To enable that, certain locations in the game required special attention.

"In the case of a mission area, or if you’re really close to an enemy camp or to something specific we had to be really precise," Martinez said. "We have tools that help us to define rules and for how to place objects or sculpt the terrain at the larger scale or for more complex items. But we always feel that a lot of artistic control must be defined inside the curve once you apply these kinds of rules.

"Perhaps we want this kind of distance between each tree so we are sure that it is going to make good cover for the player when he approaches the camp from a certain direction; these sorts of things. So the key was to give artists the maximum amount of control — the finest control — but to create at a large, regional scale as well. So when it comes to control, ‘to the grass blade to the mountain’ was the key concept when we started. How can we control both, and at the same time design for both?"

For instance, the network of roads in Ubisoft’s Bolivia is huge, over 800 kilometers in total. Martinez and his team built them in much the same way that they built the landmass itself, using various algorithms. The same equations that drive pathfinding AI for the game’s enemies were put to work drawing roads, snaking around mountains and through valleys to connect large towns. Then, where needed, artists massaged them into place in order to meet specific requirements within mission areas.

To provide variety and the opportunity for improvisation, density was required as well. So the same process was repeated four times, once for large arterial highways and then again and again, down to the narrow footpaths cut into the jungle that aren’t marked on any map. The more than 150 kilometers of railway were designed much the same way.

Just as with real life, boots-on-the-ground infantry operations, weather will play a key role in how gameplay unfolds Martinez said. Each of the 11 different biomes has its own climate and its own periodical weather events, including monsoon-like downpours that will cause trees to bend and sway and obscure player and enemy vision alike.

The goal is to allow players to become more immersed in the world. And of course every game developer says that, but Martinez showed off a particularly breathtaking example of Wildlands' visual fidelity at the conclusion of his presentation.

Towards the end of an in-engine demonstration of the game’s weather effects, Martinez moved the game’s camera up high into the mountains. A light mist clung to the rim of a narrow valley several hundred feet above a tiny village. Sliding a dial along the right edge of the screen, Martinez caused Ubisoft’s proprietary Anvil engine — a highly customized version that his team has spent the past four years caring for — and lowered both the sun and the moon from the sky.

A single street lamp in the center of the frame showed a few cars moving through sleepy streets. But the distance, deep in the jungle crawling up the mountainsides were a handful of flickering lights.

They were campfires burning below the canopy, their lights filtering up through the leaves kilometers away.

"Do you want to attack at night," Martinez asked, "or do you want to attack during the day? Because enemies could be asleep at night. Of course it depends on which area you’re attacking.

"But these are places you will only be able to discover at night. They are small enemy hiding places in the forest, and this is the only way to spot them." Babykayak