Release Date: 07/03/2017
Played On: PC
Available On: PC / PS4 / XBO
Time Played: 101h 19m
Progress: 100% Complete
Developer: Ubisoft Paris
This year has been insane so far when it comes to quality big game releases. So much so, that my backlog of recently released games is pretty stellar with Nier: Automata and Horizon: Zero Dawn waiting patiently for their turn. However, after being convinced by the beta, I did manage to spend over a hundred hours messing about in the huge open world of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands.
At some point I might write something about different gaming platforms, but for now let me just say that I'm not a Nintendo fan these days at all. I had a NES and a SNES when they were around, but since then it's been mostly PCs and Playstations for me. This was relevant for me while playing Wildlands, as my social media feeds were all obsessed with the release of that Breath Of The Wild game for the Switch and Wii U. Whenever Wildlands was mentioned, I only saw it referred to as the wrong choice between it and the Zelda hotness. I'm not here to try and say one is better than the other, but I feel the need to clarify that I have no interest in a new Nintendo game for a system I don't own. I'd much rather get stuck in with a massive open world on my PC, than try and defend it against something I will never play.
That said, I also picked up on a lot of the negative reaction to Wildlands that circled around the place. It seemed that a lot of podcasts and commenters thought the game was yet another boring drudgery through the iterative Ubisoft open world catalogue. Again, I'm not here to defend these open worlds because I don't think they need it. If you're not into the open world thing then there's nothing in Wildlands to change your mind, just as I've yet to see anything about a Zelda game that makes me want to pick up a Nintendo. It's the same shoe on another foot, so let's not get trapped in the pointless discussion over apples versus oranges.
It's funny because there are a few journalists and commenters that I follow, who are into open world games in general, and they generally liked Wildlands as much as I did. I think that's the real key to finding out what someone else thinks about a game, as it's hardly useful for someone who hates Ubisoft open world games to tell me that they hate the new Ubisoft open world game. It's just as useless to hear someone who loves the genre without question, telling me that they love the latest entry.
Objectivity is impossible to accomplish without sticking to a mathematical spreadsheet of features. Even though there are a bunch of negative things I can point to in Wildlands, I did enjoy my time with it overall, so try not to be too surprised if I like certain elements here and there.
Right, now that all of that's over with, let's talk about why I spent over a hundred hours in Wildlands without ever wanting to put it down. I played it as often as I could to progress through the world and explore all of its locations, but let's trim the fat first and get a bit critical.
One of the common complaints that I read about Wildlands and agreed with, is that the game fails to live up to the spirit of the Ghost Recon series. I've only played a few hours of the first Ghost Recon, so I'm not one hundred percent familiar, but I understand that the game focuses tightly on tactics and strategy. Things like ordering squad mates to certain locations and to perform tasks appear to be super important for Ghost Recon games, as the AI can be extremely tough to defeat without a solid tactical plan.
Not so with Wildlands, which maintains the notion of a tactical squad infiltrating locations, but fails to execute it to the level of Ghost Recon's reputation. Instead I would characterise the gameplay in Wildlands to be a mix between a light tactical version of Ghost Recon and something like Far Cry 2. In fact a lot of the gameplay shares more with the Far Cry series than I suspect many fans of Ghost Recon would want. Wildlands is less first-person-shooter than Far Cry, but definitely leans on the systems that were developed in Far Cry 3 and 4.
The main reason for this is because the open map is populated by enemy bases that are all their own little contained environment, ready for infiltrating. Most bases have an alarm to take out, snipers watching from towers, power generators for lights, and different soldiers who react in various ways if you are discovered. The loop of infiltrating a bas is often very similar to the loop in Far Cry 3 and 4, which basically has nothing at all to do with Ghost Recon.
At the same time, there are different ways that the game tries to change it up and make it interesting, but these are largely limited to the main story missions that contain a key target to either eliminate or extract. I still found myself playing Wildlands in the same way that I would play a Far Cry game: enter new region of the map, locate each base and clear it out, find any collectibles, then complete story missions to finish off the region before heading to the next. What made me feel like I was in Far Cry 2 more than later versions, was the travelling and exploration through each zone, which I thoroughly enjoyed. However, when you break down the loop like I just did here, it sound like almost any other open world game in recent years, and I can completely understand how that would annoy the hell out of anyone who wasn't into that loop.
The map is huge, with each region containing a number of enemy bases and locations to discover. The landscape changes dramatically across the entire map, from salt flats to snowy peaks; from mountainous jungles to watery marsh. Despite this, most of the map feels like it's the same sort of biome, which is a bit of a pro and a con at the same time. It's nice not to have a jarring change of environment whenever you cross an imaginary border on the map, which means the regions meld into each other naturally and are believable. However, it would have been nice to have some of the more interesting areas take up some more space, rather than the same light jungle zone that populates most of the map. With the environment split up the way that it is, I found that I reveled in the small areas that had a unique landscape, and was a little disappointed when I moved on to another standard area.
It only felt like I was being short changed because each environment felt like a different style of gameplay was needed to be as efficient as possible. Crouching through the thick jungle meant using plants and trees as cover, while being able to get right up close before being detected by enemies. Approaching a base in the middle of a salt flat meant using binoculars from great distances to pick out targets, then sniping them so they couldn't detect us getting closer. Cruising through the marshes and lakes meant finding boats and circling islands to scout their inhabitants, or precariously landing a plane on a tiny piece of land surrounded by water.
Each different environment presented its own challenges and interesting ways to conquer their objectives. I found myself using helicopters to get around almost exclusively through the mountainous regions, while I spent most of my time on motorbikes in the more open areas. The map is massive enough to accommodate a nice variety of biomes, but it would have been nice to see a couple of them used more liberally.
When I played the beta version of Wildlands, I had some performance issues that seemed a bit unreasonable. Despite only using half of my GPU's power, I had to wind a few settings down to get the game running smooth and without any hiccups. This was improved a little upon release, but I found that when the associated nVidia drivers were released, the game ran like butter. I still didn't have all the settings on ultra, because I don't have ultra-level hardware to support it, but what I ended up with was a very good looking game indeed.
The real joy for me was creeping up to a base as rain poured down, soaking everything in sight. Small touches, like how your clothes get covered in mud when you go prone in the rain and dirt, really help bring the world to life. Occasionally there would be a bit of a disconnect as I would appear to be drenched, after running through a puddle in the blazing sun, but for the most part it worked. These reactions to the environment motivated me to get into a little more role-play than usual as I started doing things like putting a bandanna on my character when we were in dusty zones.
Seeing your soldier get covered in muck is a good way to connect you to the world, and I think Wildlands achieved this immensely. The character customisation was decent enough, but I really felt like I was a part of the game world when I started moving through the landscape and having it affect me visually. It's a neat trick that heightens immersion and one that can often look goofy and dissonant if not done well.
The experience of travelling throughout the land and tackling different bases in different environments would have probably been enough for me to be satisfied, but then there's the story. On the plus side, each boss that you are chasing, has an interesting back story and some provide stand out missions that are exciting and challenging to tackle. A few boss missions even left me aghast at the epic events that unfolded as I chased them down and removed them from the equation via creative and unique means.
I'm sorry to say though, that the vast majority of the story elements in Wildlands are weakest and most frustrating parts of the entire game.
It should be simple: you play some sort of elite soldier sent into an unlawful place to clandestinely take out the bad people running the show. Do we really need any more story in a game that's real strength is experiencing its world through exploration and combat? All the posturing of characters justifying their involvement and obnoxious briefings and dialogue do nothing but leave a bad taste in my mouth. Perhaps it's a cultural thing as these games are often very heavy on the 'murica patriotism, which does nothing for my motivation. There are too many games that try to get you invested by telling you that you're the good guy fighting terrorism, even though you're indiscriminately killing people and invading a foreign country. It always seems like the writers of these games lay on the moral justification in thick dollops to try and obfuscate the fact that there really is no moral imperative at all.
Without spoiling anything, even when you reach the final boss, the big bad honcho of the evil organisation you’ve been slowly dismantling, the game falls flat. It tried to throw in a twist for the sake of having one, buy taking over with story at the last minute instead of allowing you to do what you had been doing all along: kill the bad guys. Maybe I feel this way because I love action games with a seemingly insurmountable boss fight at the very end. I want escalation and ridiculous odds stacked against me if I'm going to fight someone I've been hearing about as the ultimate badass throughout the entire game. I want the final push up the hill, the culmination of everything I've learned along the way and I want my skills to be tested to the limit. Instead, we get a cut-scene after a relatively lukewarm timed section that only requires you to get from point A to point B.
The story is perhaps the biggest let down of the whole game, but the most annoying award has to go to the dialogue. Special credit goes to both the writers and the voice actors for making some truly cringe worthy and repetitive quips and quotes that are peppered throughout regular gameplay. Again, it might be a cultural thing as the writing is exceptionally aggressive-army-talk that did nothing but disconnect me from my character. Whenever the world had me in synch with the game and I'd forgotten that fourth wall, someone would say a random line that I'd heard a million times before and I'd be ripped right back out of it again. Maybe it's an accurate portrayal of the armed forces and their attitude towards these situations. I can't find any other reason to justify it being so obnoxious and bad. In fact I'd say that obnoxious is the perfect way to sum up all of the dialogue in Wildlands, without exception. In fact, the only dialogue that didn't wind me up the wrong way, was in the vignettes of the so-called bad guys talking about their motivations and goals, which was still terrible, but not quite as frustrating.
I don't want to rag on the voice actors, as I can see how they might have just been following bad directions, but whoever is responsible for the awful line deliveries needs a wakeup call. It's a real testament to the rest of the game that I was able to spend so much time playing it, despite hating every moment my character or my squad mates opened their mouths.
Thankfully though, there's enough in Wildlands to make it an excellent game, despite its faults. I often find it interesting to think about why I can accept certain faults in some games, but not in others. There doesn't seem to be a concrete reason why, but I think it has a lot to do with how the overall experience balances out. Without a doubt there are a number of ways that Wildlands drops the ball hard, but for me they only made up about ten percent of the whole experience. The rest of the time I was having a blast combing the world for locations, and things to see and do, so it was easy to move past the bad moments.
There are typical elements in Wildlands as well that are simply generic at this moment in time. Each zone has new weapons and weapon parts to collect, but as soon as you find the best type of weapon you want to play with, there's no reason to bother with anything else. About twenty hours in, I had the best sniper rifle I could find and used it for the rest of the game. I found many other sniper rifles along the way, but none of them topped the one I already had, so I rarely changed my loadout. I'm cool with this though, as I couldn't be bothered staring at screens of weapon stats to try and figure out which one is better to use. Thankfully it was clear that everything I picked up wasn't as good as my early loadout, so I rarely made any adjustments at all.
Similarly you unlock skill upgrades and outfits as you play the game and discover collectibles. The skill tree is pretty basic and largely uninspired. I found myself pouring points into upgrades that would give me more grenades, or make my sniper scope more stable, instead of bothering with incremental health upgrades. I rarely changed my character's outfit as well once I'd found a look that I was happy with. Occasionally I adjusted a few things to suit the environment like I mentioned earlier, but I stuck with my black jeans and checked shirt for most of the game.
Some people found controlling vehicles to be annoying and difficult, but I didn't really have much of an issue. I find that every open world game has some hair brained idea about how vehicles should control, and none of them feel that good anyway. What's common is that each driving system takes a bit of getting used to before you can really be effective behind the wheel. I mean, try driving in any GTA game and tell me it's really good and accurate. Perhaps Wildlands made it more difficult than other open world games, but after a couple of hours you do get used to it and forget how unrealistic and weird it was in the first place.
With all the issues and complaints that I have had with Wildlands, I wondered how I would score it if I were inclined to do so. I'd have to say that I disliked about ten percent of the game a lot, like… I hated the dialogue and the story so much that I would have removed it completely from the game. However, the other ninety percent was fantastic and I have so many brilliant memories and experiences to draw on from the world. There were so many unique locations to discover and so many different ways to approach a given situation. I enjoyed the less hardcore version of tactical Ghost Recon traditions, and I got a real buzz out of all the little details that were put in to really bring you into the world.
You can infer from that what kind of score I'd give Wildlands, but it would have a hard line between the bad and the good, as the bad is so very bad and the good is terrific. Knowing that this is an odd entry in the series, I'm both intrigued and apprehensive about checking out previous Ghost Recon games. I have them on Uplay, but I'm not sure I'd enjoy something without as much forgiveness in its gameplay. However, I'm now a convert to this incarnation of the series, so it might be fun to see what came before it, regardless of their differences.
This year has been bonkers so far for big game releases, and when I measure Wildlands up against other big games at the end of the year, it will have a lot to say for itself. I'm not sure if it will make it to the final cut (I mean, I haven't played Nier: Automata yet), but I'll definitely bring it up in the discussion without any hesitation.