Ghost Recon: Wildlands review
It took me only a few seconds to recognize Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands as the latest version of developer Ubisoft's open world blueprint seen in games like Far Cry, The Division, Assassin's Creed, and so much more. It took just a few minutes more to see the wheels come off of even that worn-out vehicle, its progress checklists and repetitive activities.
The setup is mighty similar to another Tom Clancy-branded production, Clear and Present Danger. A group of United States super-soldiers, here called the Ghosts, are sent into Bolivia to dismantle the world's first true "narco-state" — basically an entire country devoted to the open production, sale, and distribution of cocaine. You can probably guess how the actual Bolivian government feels about that characterization and the complementary use of the country as a digital playground for gunplay and semi-stealthy murder.
Through some extremely wooden introductory narration, however, we learn that the cartel is actually Mexican in origin. Its leader, El Sueño, is the Ghosts' central target, while the expansive network of bodyguards, arms dealers, assassins, and middle managers he's surrounded himself with form the crux of the open world game's objectives. After being dropped into Bolivia by helicopter, it's up to your custom avatar, your A.I.-controlled crewmates, and some assemblage of cooperative strangers or friends to kill these lieutenants. Doing so unlocks the next highest rung on the cartel's corporate ladder, and then the next, until you've ruined the narco-state enough to reach El Sueño.
"Wildlands, like its homogenous precedessors, banks on... that obsessive compulsion to cleanse checklists."
It's a clean, mathematical approach to secretly destabilizing a foreign country. That's not a surprise, given pretty much every open world game Ubisoft publishes comes down to its numbers. Commandeer X amount of resources; raze Y enemy outposts; collect Z number of collectibles. Wildlands, like its homogenous predecessors, banks on the admittedly mesmeric attraction of watching numbers get higher — of that obsessive compulsion to cleanse checklists and feel like you've accomplished more than you actually have.
This is a distressing way to abstract a real-world issue like the impact of the drug trade on South America. The Ghosts, and by extension the player, are literally in Bolivia to "clean up" the human clutter indicated by color-coded icons on the map. You could argue that such a setup only adds to a pile of media that devalues and "others" the lives of these faraway people. Yet Ubisoft — and indeed most game publishers — aren't ones to let gross psychological implications get in the way of using in-vogue topics to spice up their marketing.
It reminds me of Ubisoft’s previous open-world entry, The Division, which mostly used New York City's poor and incarcerated as cannon fodder. It's just as unpleasant with Wildlands' South and Central American super-criminals — who are so inhuman that they post executions on social media and have sex in the blood of torture victims in exaggerated introduction videos. It doesn't help that the Ghosts' sparse dialogue endlessly refers to them as "thugs" and "animals."
More than that, though, Wildlands doesn't bring anything unique to its identity beyond its hot topic power fantasy.
"Wildlands doesn't bring anything to its identity beyond its hot topic power fantasy."
Every individual part of Ghost Recon: Wildlands feels fenced off from the rest of itself. One of the very first things the game teaches you, for instance, is how to steal vehicles from civilians. An onscreen prompt explained to me that pointing your gun at drivers causes them to abandon their cars and trucks. At the same instant the game was telling me this, a fellow Ghost warned me to keep my gun down in front of noncombatants. "These people have seen enough guns," is what I believe he said.
Of course, he didn't have a follow-up comment when I immediately pivoted my assault rifle at the first person I saw and the whole squad piled into our newly stolen vehicle. Nor did he say anything when I immediately drove us off a cliff. In fact, nobody ever remarks on my tendency to send us all careening off-road, tumbling through intangible trees, and into a perfect landing 49 times out of 50 thanks to digital Bolivia's apparently very friendly car physics. They just sit there, stoically, as if we're not moving at all.
The same goes for those aforementioned civilians during gunfights — they'll often continue on with their daily lives as if bullets aren't whizzing past their heads and explosions aren't rocking their villages. If they do panic and bolt at the sight of heavily armed U.S. soldiers, your enemies don't seem to mind. They won't become alerted to your presence or react in the slightest.
This lack of reactive A.I. makes the hijinks you can get up to in other, better open-world games next to impossible. With its third-person perspective and ostensive focus on stealth, Ghost Recon superficially reminds me of nothing so much as Metal Gear Solid V. But in that game I can knock down suspicious guards by suddenly raising inflatable decoys of myself, and ride ballooned cargo containers back to headquarters. Wildlands' tools are serviceable — but they don't react to my imagination.
"Wildlands' tools are serviceable -- but they don't react to my imagination."
That's not totally unappealing. Not to spoil the end of my review, but I really don't like Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Yet even when I'm actively thinking about that fact, I can still feel the urge to clear the game’s checklists — to follow the bread crumbs of map makers and feel the painless satisfaction of flipping those ones into zeros. Sometimes, that's all you want or need from a game.
However, Ghost Recon: Wildlands is only one of countless games able to scratch that particular itch, many of which do their job better. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has plenty to do — plus a bottomless chest of imaginative tools to bat around. Horizon: Zero Dawn uses a similar checklist of activities but backs it up with the skill challenge of bringing down robotic monstrosities. NieR: Automata has plenty of open air for you to sprint through in service of absolutely over-the-top characters, story, and themes you won't find anywhere else.
On that list of games, Ghost Recon: Wildlands should be just about your last priority.