Ubisoft loves a sandbox. The famed French developer seems to pump out a lot of games featuring large arenas to dick around in these days, ranging from Assassin’s Creed, The Division and a pair of Watch Dogs games. By now you’re more than familiar with the formula that Ubisoft uses for such games, making the environment as massive as possible and filling it to the brim with ungodly amount of fluff content that has the habit of being more of a distraction than an essential gameplay component.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands is that kind of game. It’s derivative of previous sandboxes, liberally pinching ideas from them and mixing them into an odd combination of stealth and aggressive American “HOO-HA” patriotism to justify its presence in Bolivia. But at the same time, it offers an unparalleled amount of freedom within its structure, seldom seen in any other games of its ilk.
Grand Theft Narcos
Ghost Recon: Wildlands is an enormous map even by today’s standards, a take on Bolivia that has had the actual government up in arms over the idea that their nation happens to be a Narco-state that pumps out absurd quantities of cocaine from south of the US border. That may or may not be true but that’s a headache for Ubisoft to deal with. But the Bolivia present in Wildlands?
It’s a character of undeniable beauty and cruelty, a vast wilderness of sparsely populated towns and cities, nestled between vast salt flats and the destruction of an eternal war between government UNIDAD forces and the numbers of Sicario troops who’ll happily die atop a mountain of cocaine that they’ve been snorting from all morning. Bolivia is a glorious locale to explore, a scenic wonderland of drug smuggling and corruption that oozes character.
And that’s good, because the four leads of Ghost Recon: Wildlands certainly don’t have any personality worth delving into as they dispense bullets and poorly-delivered one liners. The so-called heroes of Wildlands come off as stock-standard grunts, archetypes of characters who can best be summarised as Serious Guy, Weird Guy, Flippant Guy and Token Person of Colour Guy.
Wetworks operators who are there to do a job dammit, a job that requires destabilising an entire criminal organisation from the bottom so that they can get to the head of this particularly lethal cartel known as Santa Blanca, run by a mysterious, charismatic but soft-spoken mountain of a man who goes by the name of El Sueno. Whereas the playable operators of Wildlands have the personality of a dead horse dipped in vanilla, El Sueno and his crew of Santa Blanca operatives are infinitely more interesting.
Walk the line
They’re the worst of the worst, drug barons and czars who’d sell their own mother down the Amazon to earn a few extra George Washingtons. That’s where the real beauty of Wildlands shines, as it’s the kind of game that wants you to explore its map. Missions are set up to force players to take scenic routes, uncovering new hideouts and bases that reward them with lore that fleshes out the history of the Santa Blanca cartel further, with El Sueno himself serving a role as an intimidating presence who happens to be the strong-willed glue that binds the cartel together.
And it’s that bond that you’re tasked with dissolving. Wildlands plays very much like Ubisoft’s take on Crackdown, as you find yourself dismantling the Santa Blanca beast to progress. You’re free to approach any region from the start, engage your targets in any way that suits you as long as you get results. That’s an idea that speaks highly of the freedom present here, although the core idea of this being a Tom Clancy game (who I’m still convinced is an Ubisoft employee who puts his name on everything and somehow gets away with it) still favours discretion over devastation.
But of you want to tackle the Wildlands as a gung-ho specialist who tosses C4 everywhere and thinks that silencers are for cowards, then go ahead. The choice is undoubtedly yours, although my newfound appreciation for stealth mechanics found me playing a far more tactical round with every encounter. There’s a certain thrill to being able to plot your attack, using your fellow soldiers as an extra set of eyes and marking targets for them to eliminate.
Coming up with a plan, using the equipment on hand and knowing when to fire a grenade up the exhaust pipe of a fleeing sicario is satisfying stuff. You’re given plenty of these tools as you trek through Bolivia, from rebel support through to an aerial support drone that I’m pretty certain shares a bloodline with Broken Matt Hardy’s magnificent Vanguard-1.
All of this design feels somewhat tame in single-player. You find yourself stuck going through the motions, carrying out the same plans and in my case regularly cocking them up and stuck in a firefight with a squadron of UNIDAD attack choppers. And that’s fair, because while Wildlands may be an alright single-player game in a beautiful region of the world, it shines as a multiplayer experience running full throttle on a line of the digital coke that you just blew up.
Taking that level of freedom and multiplying it by four is an unreal experience. As with Ubisoft’s underrated Rainbow Six: Siege, Wildlands is best enjoyed with other people, much like a fondue or an orgy. Roping in friends to help you carry out missions is most of the time absurd, explosive and ends in fire. It’s never boring however, thanks to a solid net-code as you explore train graveyards and churches devoted to a death goddess, one bullet at a time.
You could argue that the single-player suffers in favour of the co-operative play, but I don’t think so. The single-player aspect is fully serviceable yet repetitive at times, but Ubisoft has been adamant from the beginning that Wildlands is best enjoyed with extra hands at your side. Having someone you know and trust to cock up an assigned kill is somehow leagues better than trusting an AI to get the job done right every time.
It’s fun, it’s chaotic and I never get tired of ramming an enemy base Dukes of Hazard style in a truck loaded with C4 and burning everything to the ground. It elevates Bolivia head and shoulders above other Ubisoft sandboxes, distancing itself away from the repetitive single-player and into a world that feels far removed from the usual checklist of side activities as you tackle a gigantic list of the most wanted in a landscape so beautiful that it belongs in the Louvre.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands works beautifully when you break yourself out of the standard patterns that you’d adopt with a sandbox. Changing tactics, scavenging for parts and hunting down drug-runners on its own is a decent enough experience, but they’re all parts of a greater whole that needs to be experienced in its entirety to really benefit from the full package. That’s the mindset needed to see Wildlands as more than just a checklist sandbox, as breaking out of your comfort zone is what drives the game forward.
Especially when you’ve got some bad company along for the ride.