Ghost Recon Wildlands feels like a servant of two masters. The Tom Clancy name brings a sense of self-seriousness and geopolitical intrigue that's checkered throughout the premise, presentation, and attention to military detail. The other, an emphasis on co-op play and open-world adventure spurred on by the likes of Destiny and The Division encourages the player to kick back and enjoy toppling a drug empire with your best buds. It's an odd mix, and never really coheres into anything more than a decent co-op open world game.
Perhaps no where is the utter Tom-Clancy-ness of the whole thing felt more keenly than the character creator, which gives lavish attention to military gear and outfits. A dizzying array of options exists for almost every kind of equipment you could think of, each with its own camo patterns, sometimes ranging in the dozens. It's a clear way of emphasizing the cooperative aspect, since plenty of clothing variety will be needed for players to easily differentiate each other.
All of this makes the actual facial and hair modeling on the characters almost incidental. Like Ubisoft's other recent open-world Clancy game, The Division, only a handful of stock faces exist for each gender, and the body types are pretty universal. I found it easy to make a well-crafted character, but this is a character, not an avatar. I ultimately chose to play as a woman, but if I'd chosen a male character, he wouldn't have looked anything like me. That's not terribly important when you'll spend most of the game with your face covered, but it may say something about the Tom Clancy aesthetic that humans take a backseat to hardware.
Curiously, those player-created characters are almost universally more human-looking than the story characters. The lead villain, El Sueno, is meant to look muscular and imposing, but appears more like an oversized chubby baby with facial tattoos and a suit. Your operator, Karen Bowman, looks as bland as she does blonde, without any real character. Many of the underbosses are more defined by their gimmick–unique headwear or incredible gauntness–that looks more cartoonish than human. These don't break the reality, but when the climax reaches an emotional apex, the limitations of some of these character models shows loud and clear.
America: World Police
With my character created–a particularly tough-looking Latino woman–I was off to topple a drug empire. Wildlands explains in an early exposition-dump that Bolivia has been so overrun by a drug cartel that its government has essentially given up and allowed it to run rampant. As a part of a small squad of specialists dispatched to address the problem, your operatives are meant to attack with surgical precision. Slowly and methodically you pick off parts of the operation, taking out gangbosses and disrupting operations, to draw out larger bosses and undermine the cartel.
At moments this premise–Americans inserting themselves and intimidating impoverished Bolivians–comes off as uncomfortably interventionist. Tom Clancy games tend to probe tense geopolitical issues, sometimes more deftly than others. Wildlands has just enough unserious bombast that I ultimately thought of it as clumsy satire, which is slightly preferable to the game honestly attempting to argue in favor of these as policy.
This framework informs the mission structure. Territories are essentially operated by a particular boss, so all of the intel gathering and side missions revolve around learning more about them. By the time you reach a boss, you've learned the ins and outs of their part in the operation, their personalities, their quirks. It helps instill a personal feeling on the encounters.
It's a fascinating idea in theory, and it gives plenty of storytelling opportunities since each boss is the center of their own small world. The operations are even split into distinct duties, like production or enforcement, so you can choose your targets to undermine a particular piece of the drug-running puzzle. Sadly, this didn't have any impact on gameplay as far as I could notice. I would have liked to see hits to the security forces make their mercenaries less effective, or to dry up funding for higher-tech equipment by hitting production or smuggling. Perhaps undermining the bosses in charge of influence could make it easier to recruit rebels. None of this depth was present, and that was a shame. The distinct duties were for story purposes only.
As the game wears on, too, the structure becomes more tedious. Each area has a handful of missions to complete, followed by finding an underboss and extracting him to a safe point. Missions all bled together, with similar structures between a few basic types. Find a server or computer, find and talk to a person, extract a person, etc. This old paradigm of open-world design, in which 6-8 mission types are basically repeated and spread out among the landscape, just doesn't work as well as it used to.
Check Your Targets
Bolivia as crafted in Wildlands is a beautifully realized playground. The topography is really something to behold, even though it can be a pain to navigate such mountainous areas if you're unlucky enough to be somewhere without a helicopter. Wildlands' Bolivia has installations to topple, bases to take down, and lots of collectibles. I'm especially enjoying how the collectibles actually feel meaningful, since each one grants you some extra attachment for a weapon or a skill point, or even unlocks a new part of the skill tree.
The upgrade system attempts to try something different, by requiring not only skill points, but also sets of resources. These are the rewards for sidequests to earn rebel faction loyalty, and it makes for a nice interplay between faction rep and player enrichment. In my experience the resources were more rare thanks to my focus on the main story path. Upgrades in exchange for these resources is a good idea, but it raises the question of why we need skill points at all. When they're so plentiful they become a non-issue, the system really could have been stripped down to one currency type.
This is still a Ghost Recon game, however. Despite the setting reminding me of recent Just Cause games, this isn't a game that thrives on rampant destruction. Instead, it attempts to reward strategy and precision: marking targets, making a plan, and execute. I've been leaning toward a de facto sniper role, aiming to take down as much of a base as possible before stepping foot inside. The guards, fortunately, are not bright enough to catch on unless I miss a shot.
Such an emphasis on planning and execution could make for a unique multiplayer experience. Wildlands is clearly intended for co-op play, and even in single-player your team is filled out with three (frankly overpowered) NPCs. With four characters, each with roughly equivalent tools at their disposal, you really can make a masterful plan. Scanning all of the enemies in a compound, taking them out one by one, and then heading for the objective marker feels more rewarding with friends, and a perfectly-executed plan can be truly thrilling. After a few minutes of planning you can drop the bullet fodder in a matter of seconds.
Even then, though, the careful planning is almost unnecessary. While pulling off a clockwork operation with friends is more fun, the more efficient path through a mission is almost always to drop a helicopter in the middle of the mission zone, grab the intel, and then get out, shooting dead any foot soldiers who get in your way. It's a brainless approach, but it's done in a matter of seconds, and it's simply more effective. In a game like Wildlands that's flush with very similar missions, carefully planning loses its luster quickly.
The War on Drugs
In any other year, Ghost Recon: Wildlands would be a fine if somewhat unremarkable open-world game. By a twist of fate, it happened to release in a very crowded season for open-world games, which may make it seem pale in comparison. Where it stands out from Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn, though, is its multiplayer focus. Though I found the repetition too much, those cathartic moments of perfect planning in multiplayer are enough to warrant giving it a try, as long as you have a squad of friends to back you up.
This review is based on an Xbox One code provided by the publisher. Ghost Recon Wildlands will be available in retail and digital stores on March 7, for $59.99. The game is rated M.