Ghost Recon: Wildlands [official site] captured the scale of its outdoor environments well enough to distract me completely from the noise and lights of E3’s gargantuan South Hall. Lying prone on a hill, scanning an enemy encampment in the valley below, I was reminded of a game I haven’t thought about for a long time. Delta Force, released by NovaLogic back in the late nineties, used a voxel-based engine to implement enormous draw distances. I’d never seen anything quite like it back in 1998 and while Wildlands doesn’t seem quite as fresh to older eyes, it’s a game that won me over within minutes of setting my hands on a controller.
If the Delta Force reference doesn’t mean anything to you, picture a more serious version of Just Cause or even Far Cry 3, with which at least some areas of Wildlands’ Bolivian setting share a palette. I played part of a single mission, accompanied in four player co-op by an Ubisoft guide and two other visitors to E3. Our task was to capture a specific target on the battlefield, interrogate him for intel and then to attack an enemy base. We sniped, we stole a helicopter, we parachuted and we formed a convoy of getaway vehicles as the mission came to an end.
Although it’s possible to go anywhere and do anything (anything that involves guns and vehicles, at least), Wildlands is the kind of game that made me want to play efficiently. Having the squad take up positions above and around a group of enemies, and then selecting targets while communicating via headset, satisfies the desire to create plans and play soldiers in the same way that the best Clancy games have always done. There are elements of Rainbow Six past as well as Ghost Recon, but it’s the vast spaces and some intriguing use of them that make Wildlands stand out.
First up, there are all the obvious elements you most likely expect from an open world squad-based tactical shooter. Sniping is simple but satisfying, enhanced considerably by both the beauty of the world and the excellent sound design, which tracks every bullet sent in your direction with hums, cracks and ricochets. Vehicles work well too, providing an obvious way to cover distance quickly, but also offering plenty of opportunities for silliness. I found myself tumbling head over heels down a road when I tried to slide my motorcycle around a bend. Our team leader did not look impressed, watching from the sidelines.
But compared to some of the insubordination I saw on other screens, as I watched people play while waiting for a free spot on a team, my motorcycle mishap was an act of strict professionalism. Some people decided to ignore their objectives altogether so that they could race cars down the road or chase llamas across the hills. I saw a helicopter (intentionally?) diving perilously toward the sea and one Ghost refusing to open his parachute as he fell straight into the afterlife.
In some ways, I wish my gang of Ghosts had contained at least one troublemaker but there’ll be time enough for shenanigans when the game launches; as it is, I’m glad I had a chance to participate in the kind of coordinated effort that the game has been designed to support. In the first mission, in which it was necessary to identify the chap we needed to interrogate to ensure he didn’t take a bullet during the assault, I piloted a spotter drone, scanning the area from above and tagging enemies around the buildings next to a worn road. Once spotted, they’re tagged for the remainder of the session: red for guards, yellow for the guy we needed to capture alive.
Split into two pairs with separate vantage points, we all picked a target and then fired simultaneously. In the ensuing panic, our target fled, diving into a car and speeding down the road. We rushed downhill and switched to assault rifles to take out the remaining guards, then clambered into vehicles and pursued, one driver and one passenger to each car. As a passenger, you can lean out of the window, weapon in hand, but we held our fire even when we caught up with the target. We needed him alive.
He stopped at a gas station and hid inside. We cleared the guards swiftly and when told that reinforcements were incoming, rather than setting up a defensive perimeter, we captured the target and fled. One member of the squad shot all the petrol pumps as we were leaving. I’d like to think he was trying to create chaos and cover, as smoke billowed into the sky, but I think he just liked the idea of driving away from an explosion.
From there, we attacked a larger base, having approached from the air. There were alarms to take out, mortars to neutralise and snipers to avoid or eliminate. This time around we didn’t have to worry about keeping any targets alive so, Wildlands being far from a serious special forces simulator despite its lack of overt silliness, we shot every explosive red barrel in sight and left the place pocked with smoking craters.
When I saw the recent trailer for Wildlands, I joked that the first minute or so resembled a game about being a member of David Attenborough’s film crew. Replace the guns with cameras and that’d almost hold up, given that the peaceful moments were such an enjoyable part of the experience. Planning requires observation and positioning, and my favourite part of the entire playthrough didn’t involve any weapons at all.
Diving out of a helicopter, I pulled the cord to activate my parachute far too early and drifted away from the designated landing zone. Again, that sound design came into play, the wind rushing past and rattling the fabric of the ‘chute, and the level of control, pushing against air currents, provided a sense of blissful helplessness. Like resting on calm seas, not caring for a moment where the tide might take you.
Wildlands looks fantastic from on high and hitting the ground, rolling and recovering, I enjoyed getting my bearings and heading back toward the squad. I suspect the moments in between the missions, when you travel and sightsee with friends, will be as important as the actual combat. Wildlands might realise the roadtrip ambitions of The Crew more effectively than The Crew ever did.
Everything feels good. Firefights aren’t populated by the bullet sponges of The Division, being settled by a few careful shots instead, and vehicles are easy to handle. It’s the kind of game where crashes and bumps are part of the experience rather than the end of the experience, which encourages cross country drives and risk-taking. Even though the Ghosts feel like they’ve been plucked out of the streets of Manhattan, even seeming to share animations with their Division counterparts, they’re a natural fit for the great outdoors. There are none of the MMORPG health bars or action cooldowns of that game, but it’s the multiplayer aspects of Wildlands that concern me slighty.
Exquisitely executed plans are satisfying and having to improvise when things go wrong is great, given a group of four willing to see the funny side. And it says a great deal as to how much I enjoyed this brief hands-on that I'm already organising a four-player crew in time for release. Ubisoft say it’ll be possible to play the game solo, with AI backup, but I can’t imagine any kind of tactical squad oversight that would allow the level of timing that makes voice communication such a perfect fit. Will AI Ghosts be able to use vehicles intelligently? Will they be able to slot into my plans using simple commands? It’s all a mystery, for now.
It’s entirely possible to abandon your squad and spend some time alone in the Wildlands but if all of the missions scattered around the world encourage cooperation as much as the two I saw, it’ll be much more enjoyable to work as a team. In a Just Cause or a Far Cry, you’re often creating and reacting to chaos - in Wildlands, chaos waits in the wings, but coordination and efficiency are the order of the day.