Whatever your girlfriend might think, bigger isn’t always better. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is big. The biggest the series has ever been, easily. But it’s far from better. Wildlands couldn’t hope to compete with the two Advanced Warfighter games from 2006 and 2007; and it’s even inferior to the stripped-down Ghost Recon: Future Soldier from 2012. It’s just big. Bloated. Unhealthy. If size matters to you, then so might Wildlands. I guess the heart of the series is still in there. But it’s covered in fatty deposits and it only beats once every few hours. Wildlands moves, but it never feels alive.
Again, and again, I’m reminded that not everything needs to be bigger; that not every video game franchise needs to expand outwards. Ubisoft’s death-by-a-thousand-icons design is wearing so thin these days that I can see straight through it. And to think that an open world used to mean something. Used to matter. It stood for things – possibility, freedom, fun. It was the kid’s toybox writ large; “play” personified. Now it’s a rote checklist of mundane distractions. Wildlands has all the usual suspects. You can sweep weapons, upgrades and skill points into your trousers like a cartoon bank robber, pester convoys and patrols, lead the toothless rebel populace around like sheep. Interrogate this guy, kill that one, capture the other. Blow this up. Defend that. Stop for a minute. Paint shark teeth on your gun, try on a new hat. Do these sunglasses go with this outfit? Remember, a tattoo is for life. Pick something artistic. There are outposts to capture. You want to look good while you’re warmongering, don’t you?
Fucking outposts. Ubisoft have been stuffing fortified hideouts into their games since Far Cry 3, and every publisher these days has their own variation. Plenty of those in Wildlands, too. You’d think there’d be a difference between a roadside checkpoint and, say, a clifftop communications array, but you’d be wrong. I hope you enjoy tagging things. Tag them with your binoculars or your rifle scope. Send your faithful quadrotor drone into the air and tag things with that. It’s nothing like Watch_Dogs 2, honestly. Keep tagging until you’re all tagged out. Then off you go. Watch high for snipers; low for mounted guns. There’s an alarm panel over there. You don’t want reinforcements here, do you? Trash it. Trash everything. Lob C4 into the vehicles and shoot the red barrels. Shoot the men. Don’t worry – there’re always more. Tag, tag, tag. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Here, have your rewards. XP, of course. New gun. New hat. I hope it fits.
I know what you’re thinking: I just don’t like open-world shooters. Nice try. I reviewed Sniper Elite 4 recently, and I liked it plenty. The difference, though, is that the Sniper Elite series always felt constrained by its budget and technical limitations. It was a big game in a small game’s body. Ghost Recon has never felt like that. It has always been defined by taut, tactical teamplay, and it was better served by linearity. Each encounter was tightly-focused and rigorously-designed. The player had tools aplenty – including the ever-satisfying synchronised sniping that has become a series’ staple, and is still cool even in Wildlands – but the games always moved the goalposts. Each mission added a new wrinkle to the gameplay. It was fun and satisfying because it was challenging, and it was challenging because it was controlled. The games could add things here and subtract them there; throttle the player’s progression so they could never get ahead of the gradually-steepening curve. Wildlands is too unwieldy to rein in. It’s a small game in a huge game’s body.
And I mean huge. Ubisoft claim Wildlands has the largest open-world environment that the company has ever created, and I believe them. Short of fast-travelling, the only realistic way to traverse it is via helicopter or plane. You can drive dirt bikes and 4x4s and sports cars if you want, but in a map this size regular civilian transport feels like walking, and walking hardly feels like moving at all. Wildlands offers a wired Bolivia that is vast enough to incorporate majestic salt flats, snow-blanketed tundra, lush forests and ramshackle villages, all of it connected by roads, mountain paths, dirt trails and waterways. I haven’t played a game this topographically diverse since Ubisoft’s own The Crew, which encompassed the entire continental United States. But that game’s world was only ever supposed to be experienced at speed. It didn’t have a need for the kind of details that Wildlands occasionally stuns you with, like the civilians browsing among market stalls, or the children playing in schoolyards.
This all sounds fine, and its undeniably a breathtaking technical achievement, but everything about Wildlands’ scale runs contrary to what made Ghost Recon compelling in the first place. For all the game’s visual variation, it still only offers players the same familiar clutch of weapons, equipment and tactics. Whatever the precise shape of a base or outpost might be, it’s always navigated in the same way: with the passionless foreplay of tagging, the obligatory discreet approach, and then inevitably a cold, unfulfilling climactic firefight. Wildlands wants to feel sexy and adventurous, but it doesn’t have any of the exciting gear or mechanics that would allow it to be. There’s nothing to rival the knockabout experimentalism of the grappling hook from Just Cause 3, or the diverse skill-and-equipment development of the Far Cry series. You’ll have seen everything Wildlands has to offer in the first hour, and if you’ve played any similar games over the last few years, you’ll have seen everything Wildlands has to offer before you even turn it on.
I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some basic pleasure to be found here. Despite a pedestrian contemporary arsenal, the shooting is solid if uninspired, and while the contextual cover system lacks the thudding tactility of, say, Gears of War, it works well enough. There are occasional flashes of satisfaction – not in the mission design, which is generic at best, and occasionally kneecaps itself with forced-stealth sections and a curious lack of mid-mission checkpoints, but in the emergent appeal of a perfectly-executed assassination, or a particularly inspired getaway. These moments can and do happen, but they’re the result of a fortuitous confluence of factors, not necessarily strong design. All Wildlands’ best bits are accidental. It has no escalating complexity because it’s open-world prohibits it. The more freedom the player is given in which order to approach their objectives, the more uniform those objectives must become. The last gunfight is the same as the first.
There’s a way to make this style of gameplay compelling it itself, or at least to make the game surrounding it worth the slog. Mafia 3 is another by-the-numbers open-world takeover simulation, but it elevates itself through a strong focus on character and narrative, and a ballsy take on race-relations in late-60s Louisiana. Wildlands is peddling the morally-bankrupt fantasy of rugged, ooh-rah all-American gunslingers being the solution to all the world’s political ills. It’s version of Bolivia is controlled by the nefarious Santa Blanca Cartel, a fictional cocaine monopoly run by caricatured regional kingpins, and if it weren’t for their flamboyant insanity you’d be hard-pressed to differentiate them from the good guys – especially the mission-giving CIA muckety-muck, Karen Bowman, who’s so nakedly sociopathic that it’s amazing when one of the Ghosts, late in the game, says he’ll burn the country down if anything happens to her.
The whole game talks like that. Occasionally, it looks to mine its obnoxious premise for some introspection – the Ghosts discussing their kids, or suggesting they might be the bad guys after all. But it’s trying to tap that vein of moral ambiguity with the bluntest of tools. The odd self-conscious platitude is lost amid the relentless, snarling patriotism; the prioritizing of the mission above all, even though the mission is often nebulous and seems to create more carnage for the people of Bolivia than the coked-up status quo. Eventually, the game’s story goes somewhere faintly interesting, but it’s so close to the end that the only exploration of the avenues it opens up is a narrated epilogue. There are two slightly different ones based on whether or not you completely dismantled Santa Blanca before the final mission. Neither one seems worth the effort.
I can’t bring myself to despise Wildlands. It’s not a very good game, but it isn’t a terrible one either. It’s perfectly serviceable, and in co-op I’d even charitably describe it as enjoyable. But it’s such a thoughtless and unambitious slice of on-trend game design that it annoys me more in its current state than it would have done if it were terrible. Even putting aside the tonal confusion – sometimes it plays for grim quasi-realism, other times for outright satire – and the often-hilarious technical issues – more than once I blew up a table full of cocaine and watched the wrapped-up product lazily float over the splinters – there’s something distasteful about Wildlands. It’s war tourism and extrajudicial murder disguised as world-saving heroism, sure, but it’s also a glossy piece of mass-market entertainment that has the nerve to vilify cartels. For all their moralising about peddling the sweet stuff, Ubisoft sure do a fine job of pushing their product.