Release Date: 23/02/2017
Played On: PC
Available On: PC / PS4 / XBO
Time Played: 12h 42m
Progress: About 90% Complete (of the 2 beta areas available)
Developer: Ubisoft Paris (et al)
Publisher: Ubisoft

Let's not beat around the bush: last year's E3 stage demo for Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands was a terrible way to market the game, and if I hadn't been able to get my hands on it through the recent open beta, I would never have given it a second thought. On paper, Wildlands is as generic as they come and barely offers anything unique, but it got its hooks in me… and I don't know why.

On all accounts Wildlands sounds as boring as its contemporaries, with a focus on authentic weaponry and a realistic setting. It has the treadmill of leveling up, unlocking weapons and gadgets, and exploring the open world for collectibles and skill points. There's even a focus on co-op gameplay as you're accompanied by AI team mates who easily get swapped out for up to three friends at any time.

Additionally, the beta is plagued with a host of technical problems. Optimisation is poor and whenever my game auto-saved the frame rate tanked significantly. There's a pretty extensive options menu, but the one option to change which monitor the game renders on didn't work for me, so I had to unplug my left monitor just to get the game to appear on the default display.

These are all things that usually act as strong turn-offs for me, so I've been scratching my head wondering how I could happily spend twelve hours with the game before it's even come out.

I think the answer lies in the fact that this is a terrible Ghost Recon game, and a quick look at the forums will find a host of players complaining about just that. I'm not an experienced fan of the series so I have little to compare it with, but I gave up on the first game when I tried it due to an out dated control scheme and clunky systems.

So even though Wildlands is pretending to be a contemporary military tactics shooter, it's actually more at home with open world action adventures like Far Cry and Just Cause. In fact, exploring the world of Wildlands gave me the same feeling I had when playing Far Cry 2, which is probably my favourite in the Far Cry series.

See, the thing I love about Far Cry 2 is that feeling of being alone in an extensive hostile environment. Even with a rebellion happening all around you, your purpose in the world is singular and you aren't really friends with anyone. It's that sequence of trudging through the desert to find an oasis full of bad guys, only to snipe them from a faraway dune because you need to get to the other side. It's that dogged ambition of journeying into the heart of darkness to confront the evil lurking within that's pulling on everyone else's strings.

One of my favourite things to do in Far Cry 2 was to explore the environment to uncover hidden shacks and out of the way locations. Stumbling upon an abandoned car wreck in the middle of the jungle, or an old train car lost in the desert is something I'll never get tired of. 

Exploring Wildlands left me feeling the same way and drove me forward in a similar single minded fashion. The landscape is beautiful and diverse, even within the two areas of the beta there was a decent amount of locations and interesting moments to discover. 

At one point, while playing co-op, a friend and I found a soccer pitch that had been taken over by bad guys. They had set up barricades and patrolled the area under floodlights because it was the middle of the night. We snuck around to the back entrance, dispatched a couple of guys walking the perimeter, then busted in guns blazing to finish off the rest. It was a small moment that lasted for only a few minutes of gameplay, but it's these moments I love to find.

In fact, the drop-in/drop-out gameplay was a surprise positive for me, as I usually dislike online multiplayer and avoid it where I can. However, the open world exploration lends itself to ad-hoc co-op quite well. If you were forced to play through the entire game in co-op then it would be a slog, but having the opportunity to hook up with a friend for a single mission, or a quick free roam, makes it all the more attractive. I hope more games make it possible to jump in with a friend because you happen to see them online, then jump out again without hijacking their game and interrupting their progression.

Something I wouldn't miss if they changed it is the dialogue spouted by the player character and their fellow AI soldiers. Wildlands takes a leaf out of Steep's book in this instance and has some of the most obnoxious dialogue I've heard in a long time. 

I know the characters are all meant to be super serious military types, but do I really need them telling bad jokes in my ear, or uttering racist and gratuitously obscene lines at random intervals? Perhaps that's what being in the army is really like, but there's a reason I've never joined the army. Despite any potential authenticity, the writing comes across as needlessly crass and aggressive, and the game would have been served just as well (if not better) with sharper writing and more nuanced delivery.

If I never hear the player character exclaim "shit balls!" again, it will be too soon. Quite a shame that the decent character customisation doesn't extend to voices and dialogue.

Fortunately though, for someone like me the game is still enjoyable and there a lot of the time the characters don't say much at all. I also found that if you jump on a dirt bike and ride away, your obnoxious AI buddies can't ride along with you and talk nonsense the whole time.

The dirt bike is a lot of fun by the way; once you get used to the driving physics, which seem to be weird in every open world game I've ever played.

I'm still not one hundred percent sure why I enjoyed Wildlands as much as I did, but it seems to be a good blend of open world games that came before it. There's the tactical military stuff from Ghost Recon, the huge map and exploration from Just Cause, and the vibe of Far Cry 2 that leaves you feeling small against a world of hostility. As far as I can tell, this is a departure from the core Ghost Recon series and could be a turn off for some, but I'm happy with the change and am looking forward to playing more.

I've yet to be disappointed by playing a demo (or open beta), as I'm always convinced to either buy the game on launch, or give it a miss entirely. I just wish developers and publishers would make more demos available, as they'd probably sell more games overall… but that's a discussion for another time.

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