Ghost Recon Wildlands [official site] is Ubisoft’s latest open-world co-op narco war. I played some of it during the beta, along with Graham, and I came out of it feeling like a tub of old bath water. Lukewarm and slightly dirty. I only knew for certain that I actively disliked it when I was stricken down by one of its insta-fail stealth missions. Cast away from my carefully selected sniping spot on a sandy ridge because of a single stray bullet and dumped on the other side of the mission area, where I would have to repeat the cautious approach, the enemy spotting and the multiple silent kills all over again. It is 2017 and insta-fail stealth missions still exist. Why?
The answer of course is: Ubisoft. A publisher who have baked the same cake dozens of times but insists that they are following a new recipe because they've changed the colour of the icing. In Wildlands, you are one of an elite squad of US soldiers who has come to Bolivia to save it from a pseudo-religious drug kingpin called El Sueño and his vast cartel. They’ve taken over the entire country and turned it into a narco state (I summarised this plot to a Bolivian friend, whose response was an emphatic "what the fuck?"). Anyway, you need to drive around the mountain roads and bumpy farmlands of the South American country, collecting intel that will lead to the killing or capture of buchons and underbosses. Get enough of these lower-level perps and the final mission to take on the big bossman becomes open to you.
The gimmick here is that you can take on the underbosses in whatever order you want. Zoom out from the map far enough and you’re presented with a web of pictures and names, more of which get revealed with each piece of intel and each successful operation. And though it is true you can go about destablising this spider’s web by whatever silky strands you want, the next jefe may be in an area of much higher difficulty – tougher guards, more enemies, alarms, tanks, and so on. In reality, this web doesn’t add much to the game at all and is more for show – a method of keeping track. It isn’t reactive in any way and although power struggles between bosses occur as part of individual plotlines the characters don’t move around to fill power vacuums or fight amongst themselves in a dynamic way. Shadow of Mordor this certainly ain’t.
What it is is something you’ll have seen before. A Far Cry in third-person set in a real country and using a realistic crisis as the springboard. Four-player co-op has been heavily marketed as the main attraction. Sneak into a cocaine factory with your friends under cover of darkness, silently take down a few guards, grab the cook, retreat to the road and put the perp in the trunk, escape without anyone even knowing you were there. And if things do go wrong, it’s suppressors off – explosion time! One friend might be setting some C4 on a ground-to-air missile battery, to make the airspace clear for another friend piloting a helicopter, while the other two hold off a wave of gunmen as they await extraction. It’s an exciting prospect and one that does occasionally come to pass. In those moments, I could see a glimmer of the game it could be. Mostly though, you’ll just be shooting heads and holding ‘E’ over supply crates.
This is because it goes to supreme lengths to have you collect things, following Ubi’s icon plastered formula. You need to collect skill points to unlock new equipment or upgrade your current gadgets. You need to collect oil, technical parts, food and so on – which you also need to spend on unlocking skills. You’ll collect gun parts, new weapons and intel that unlock story missions. You’ll even collect intel that shows you were the other collectible things are. Ubi may have gotten rid of “climb the tower, reveal the map” but the spirit of the tower remains, physically invisible and yet always there. A checklist of housekeeping chores that you’ll need to perform between story missions to keep your character up to speed with the enemy. Only this time, there’s four of you sweeping the floor and the pocket money you get in return is not very motivating. An extra grenade you say? Okay, thanks! A better battery for my drone? All right, I guess so.
Because of this, many of the surrounding firefights and car chases feel hollow and pointless. But the story here is also to blame. A part of me wants simply to say that it is a stupid tire fire of a storyline and talk no more about it. But the profundity of its naffness is so compelling that I am forced to stare and type into the abyss.
A big problem (putting aside the hackneyed bro-banter dialogue and soulless, dull characters) is the setting and the conceit. As I’ve said before, I have no issue with games tackling the problems of the real world, or occupying the countries of the real world, so long as they tackle any such problem with deftness and candour, so long as they portray any such country with depth, if not honesty. Wildlands doesn’t get half way to achieving this. When the government of Bolivia recently complained about the country’s depiction in this latest Clancyromp, Ubisoft responded by insisting that they had recreated much of the country’s geographical and cultural splendour. And to be fair, that does sometimes feel true – you can see it in the flamingoes circling the lakes, the llamas that spit at you from the side of the road, the children in traditional dress eating ice cream and dancing in the dusty calles. This world is huge and a thought should be spared for all those who painstakingly mapped it. All those details along with the sheer scale of the world map created a land which often made me stop doing my checklist chores and shout to my team mates: “look at that!”
But then the creators also filled those same calles with hordes of narcoterrorists and their helpless victims, strung up on makeshift gallows, corpses torn into parts, burned to cinders, or left in lazy disarray after an ad hoc massacre. Ubisoft can’t fairly say that just because the landscape is true to form, with snowy peaks and stony hills, that they have created a tasteful Bolivia, full of respect and admiration for the country of reality. There are spines at the side of the road.
What Ubi really want here is to have their quinceañera cake and to eat it. To fill their game with wise-looking women in traditional dress shovelling hay come rain or shine, but also to have their over-the-top ridiculous action game as well. They are welcome to try this, of course. Contrast is a great atmospheric technique and such a project definitely could be achieved with a little thoughtfulness and characterisation. But there’s none of that here. The end result is a half-game, determined to provide you with a “realistic” enemy from a contemporary crisis yet too afraid to say anything of political significance about that crisis, apart from the static US government platitude: “these narcos are some bad hombres, eh?” The lead soldierman of Wildlands, for example, is a customisable drawler called Nomad who has achieved with gusto what has long been the goal of the jingoistic shooter - to give the audience an avatar with enough tough guy blandness through whom they can freely channel all the heroism and notoriety of Chris Kyle with absolutely none of the trauma or disgrace. He is one-dimensional, if he has any dimensions at all. Thank god you can change his appearance.
But this is an action game, you say, Ubi are constrained by both the genre and the large TOM CLANCY’S plastered over the top of it. And yet no such fetters stopped The Division from combining a real location with a ludicrous international emergency. It still had bland characters and rubbish voice acting and grinding collectionism but there were at least some things about the world to admire beyond the physical depiction of a rotten and frozen New York. The point is that even by the standards of 'dumb action' this lacks the most essential element of that genre: self-awareness.
I’m not really asking for manshoots to always be set in wacky fake countries, or set in real locales distorted with bizarro alternate realities. Again, a real place and a real crisis is fine. But crucially, the portrayal here is not interesting. It is trite, peppered with eye-rolling amounts of “we got company”, saddled with antagonists who sometimes try to be more than a single over-arching criminal Latino stereotype but in the end are always depicted as such: violent, unhinged, ultimately cowardly when faced down by a gringo with a gun.
All this and I still have not mentioned how broken it is. There are bugs lurking in every corner, waiting to bite you on the ankles, like vicious bullet ants. I’m not just talking about performance issues some of which, for me, were simply the result of a graphics card too long in the tooth (I’m slumming it with a GeForce GTX 750 Ti – that’s why all my textures look like muddy water, sorry) but many of which were simply native to the game. Here’s some fun ones.
- My co-op partner once insisted that he was inside the car (and indeed he was clearly driving us to the next waypoint) yet his character was outside the vehicle, standing on the roof and warping about like an unstable time traveller.
- My vehicle once hit a small sheet of metal on the side of the road and went flying into a rolling, twisting panic as if it had been startled by a bat.
- The protagonists got caught in a voice loop and delivered the same lines of dialogue, about two drug lords feuding, once every start-up and also every time I fast-travelled to a new area. I now know these lines more than I know the face of my own mother.
- Textures did not pop in for ages on start-up. This often included my character’s own firearm, which made Nomad look like he was a child playing cops and robbers with an imaginary rifle - a characterisation that would actually endear me to him if it had turned out to be true “all along”.
- Sometimes, whole squads of enemies refused to pop in until I was right in the middle of wherever the game ordained the bad guys to be, creating a kind of unintentional ambush.
- But that's okay, because sometimes the enemies didn't have guns either.
- You can mark targets for your AI squaddies and then order them to all shoot at once, called a “sync shot”. In one instance, I designated three narco targets standing on roofs and guard towers of a mine entrance. All three shots were bang on the money, killing the narcos instantly. This was especially impressive because all of my squad members were 100 metres underground at the time.
This last bug could be interpreted as a rare example of the AI’s skill, since they were more often floundering in useless positions, telling me about food trucks I had already captured, or shouting loud warnings about helicopters that had blown up thirty seconds previously and which were no longer a threat. Sometimes my AI mates liked to become frozen on the spot where they would ignore all commands to regroup or change place. Sometimes they liked to commit to lines of dialogue that were bizarrely irrelevant. “The radio antenna is taking damage!” they shouted, as we snuck around an insta-fail stealth area, miles from the nearest radio antenna.
All this and more reveals Wildlands to be a shooter that has been released messy and unfinished, a practice that Ubi is doing with increased proficiency with each passing game, seemingly using their beta tests as demos and marketing opportunities instead of using them to actually test and repair their game to an acceptable level.
Despite all my complaints, the rallying cry for its defenders will always be: it’s improved with three friends. And although this is true, what lacklustre manshoot wouldn’t be improved with your mate Tom in the place of a broken AI? If a sandbox shooter demands a basic level of human closeness to make it in any way enjoyable, this raises the question: is the game itself good, or do you just like humans? I like humans and I did notice a huge improvement when playing with friends.
Likewise, shooting drugmen alongside random folks via the in-game matchmaking made for some unexpected silliness. I was at my happiest when playing chauffeur in a helicopter to three strangers and ignoring everything else. My squadmates would mark a spot on the map where they wanted to pick up a new weapon/perform a massacre and I would fly them there, drop them off, then take off again and circle around until they needed to be picked up again. I felt like I was inhabiting a role here, the steadfast pilot that the team just can’t operate without, and it felt good that the other players silently accepted this as my role and always allowed me to fly before anyone else.
In other words, I’m sure if you have the three pals and a determination to make small roles for yourselves (“Let me drive!” - “Okay, I’ll snipe from the hill” - “And I’ll be the spotter”) you’ll find that nugget of enjoyability that the game is selling itself on. The lark of pretending you’re all competent and likeable human beings. But I guarantee that before long it will become clear to you what’s really going on below the surface level of shooting Latinos in the head – you are all simply doing a checklist together in an open world with none of the madness of the Far Cry series, and certainly none of the inventiveness of MGSV, a game which already perfected the genre of open-world political interference a whole year and a half ago. Imagine if that game had co-op. Herein lies the fatal flaw - previous Far Crys introduced your own friends for extraneous chaos. Wildlands uses your own friends as a crutch.
After years of seeing the same thing, it has become clear that Ubi games cannot function on the strength of their formula alone. And they certainly can't rely on the strength of your mate Greg. They need some hook and less bait. At the very least they need decent story-telling or likeable characters. However, the principal problem that will forever plague this developer is that the transparency and rigidity of their formula will always hinder them. You can always see it skulking over the surface of the game, like a man in stars and stripes facepaint trying to sneak into a cocaine warehouse. It has been detected: insta-fail.
You can get Ghost Recon Wildlands on Steam for £39.99/$59.99 or on Uplay for the same price