Good Coop, Bad Coop: Ghost Recon Wildlands
Good Coop, Bad Coop is our series in which Graham and Brendan will be bonding in co-operative games through teamwork, friendship and shared trauma. This time, the Bolivian druglands of the Ghost Recon Wildlands closed beta.
Graham: Wildlands isn't out yet, but we finagled our way into this past weekend's closed beta so that we could contribute in the war on drugs. My impression is that it is Tom Clancy's Far Cry, with co-op, and I am mostly very pleased with this. You?
Brendan: My impression is that you are right, it's Clancy’s open-world love child. But I’m less enthusiastic about it. That might be because I kept playing after you left our game. I’m sorry.
Graham: *gasp* You hussy!
What did you discover while having fun or not-fun behind my back?
Brendan: Well, you know the way we crept through the bushes and synchronised our shots to murder people in perfect tandem? And rescued a man from a cage without alerting anyone? And hijacked a helicopter together to get him out of there? And sped around on motorcycles? That was all fine and dandy. At the time, that felt like some action-movie bad-assery.
But over the weekend I played some more, both alone with AI fellas and with random internet friendos. And let me tell you: there are a lot of people out there who do not know how to be a crack squad of hired killers - and they’re not all human beings. Worse than that, there isn’t really much to it once you dive in. You’re just doing Ubi’s usual icon-clearing and leveling up, only unlike Far Cry it’s not as over-the-top daft. It’s brash and action-infused for sure, but it also wants to be real and gritty. In short, I think the entire reason I enjoyed the first couple of hours was having someone I know there, who was competent and chatty. The rest of the time it felt like an empty and purposeless jaunt.
I hope I haven’t sunk the knife into this conversation in the first few minutes. You liked it. Tell me why.
Graham: Because it's Ubisoft's icon-clearing and leveling up but with a friend! I think I'd similarly find it a more empty experience if I was playing it on my own, since the action doesn't seem to have anything unique about it, but that just means I have no intention of playing it alone.
My favourite part of the recent Far Cry games are the outposts and forts. These exist separate from the story and so are technically just icons you can turn to your colour. They're super satisfying to pick your way through, though. You can always survey them from afar, you can always come up with a plan, and then enacting that plan is either an exercise in slick efficiency or in managing chaotic chain reactions. You either headshot everyone silently with a bow and arrow, or an elephant sneaks up on you from behind and suddenly there are flares going off and reinforcements arriving and there are bears now too.
Wildlands just seems like a game made entirely of outposts and forts. It is indeed less over-the-top than Far Cry - I haven't spotted any elephants or bears yet - but if I can headshot enemies in tandem with a friend, that's still compelling enough to have me keep playing.
I am slightly disappointed to hear that the AI doesn't seem up to much, though. How did your computer buddies let you down?
Brendan: They loved to let the enemy know we were lurking in the bushes, for one thing. Or at least, I think it was them that gave the game away. It could have just been me not crouching properly, because crouching is mapped to C and prone is mapped to Ctrl, rather than simply being the same button pressed twice like in every other manshoot. Did you notice that every time you interact with something while crouching - ammo, a box of supplies - your character stands up again when he’s finished, broadcasting his location like a power-hungry lamp? That’s annoying.
But you asked about the AI. They were just a bit slow on the uptake. They’d lag behind, take up useless positions behind me, wouldn’t get in my car very quickly. This last point is annoying because there are time-limited missions in which you have to travel from one place to another. After failing one of these missions because my men just couldn’t decide who was riding shotgun, I accomplished it on a second attempt by simply leaving the plodding ingrates behind. Don’t worry, they magically respawn back in your car, I discovered. Nevertheless, when you’re giving your AI squad mates the benefit of the doubt and they prove to be a hindrance, it isn’t a good sign to me. They are good at using the minigun on a Humvee though.
The solution many people will point out for rubbish AI sidekicks is that, as the commander, the player needs to be telling them what to do with a little command wheel. But this wheel is itself annoying. It stops you dead in your tracks when you use it, so when a firefight breaks out, or you need to give an order to regroup or take up a position while on the move yourself, it freezes you in place. I just found the whole process irritating. It was better with random human partners found in matchmaking but still lacked any kind of cohesion or sense of teamwork - everyone was just shooting for themselves. You’re a much better Ghost, Graham. Remember when you strangled that man?
As far as the outposts are concerned, I like those too in the Far Cry games. But it feels like there’s much less going on here. No animals, less variety between enemies, and no sense that you’re cleaning a map up. I don’t know if it’s going to be this way in the game, but the drugmen always came back to an outpost after it had been cleared. That was a big complaint about Far Cry 2, I remember. Personally, it doesn’t bother me so much but I wonder if Ubi are finalising it like that or only for the Beta because the map was just a small chunk of the intended map and people would run out of things to shoot if they did the usual mop and bucket approach.
Graham: Being a good ghost is just a natural side effect of having been dead for so many years.
For what it's worth, I hear your men also magically reappear alongside you when you get on a bike, drive off without them, and then disembark at your destination. It's like you're a matryoshka doll and carry them all around inside you.
I have some hope that the structure of its world and missions will prove more interesting in the full game. The thing about Far Cry is that the outposts are ultimately disconnected from one another and everything else, but Wildlands threads them together. You take down one outpost so that you can interrogate the leader inside and get more intel about the other leaders, who are people hanging out at other outposts. Eventually you gather enough intel to unlock (or discover? Or weaken in some way? I'm not sure) a leader who is higher up the chain in the druglord.biz you're trying to take down.
There were other hints at nice structural ideas. I like for example that your upgrades don't come solely from gaining experience, but instead how you can spend your accrued upgrade points is limited according to which resources you've 'tagged' while raiding those outposts. We tagged some fuel barrels while we were playing, for example. I don't know exactly what that did but I'm pleased that it did something.
Brendan: Structurally, from what I’ve seen, the missions are far from having any kind of complexity to them. Yes, you grab a higher-ranking narco and interrogate them, but they just point you to another mission. If any Ubi game had the chance to rip off Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis thingamajig, this was it. But this is certainly not as smart as that. This is a game where I approached a civilian and held 'E' when prompted and my character politely said to him: "Excuse me señor, do you know anything about narcos? Where they are, or anything like that? Gracias." Well done, the game said. You've got some intel. The man, meanwhile, hadn't said a word. He just stood there, looking disinterested.
Gamewise, it just felt like I was shooting, tagging things, driving to the next place, shooting, tagging things... I did unlock a rebel diversion, which would call in some rebels to distract guards and fight them, and a mortar too - so don’t get me wrong, there are stupidly explosive features that will make each subsequent assault a little different from the last. But to what end? To be fair, I usually reach this point of gung-ho ennui in a Far Cry game too, but normally I get 20 hours of murder in before that point. Not three or four hours.
Graham: The lack of over-the-top silliness does concern me. I enjoyed driving over cliffs and stealing helicopters with you -
Brendan: You drive like Brad Pitt in Fight Club.
Graham: - but the potential for japes seems thin, especially when compared to Far Cry 4's co-op. As you say, there's no animals here, less variety in enemies at least in what the beta gave us access to, but also I saw no evidence of spreading fire, climbing ropes, hang-gliders. It's going for a grim and gritty tone, which maybe makes sense given the subject matter. Bolivia really does have terrible problems with drug cartels... but at the same time, it's a game about playful shooting and leveling up. I think I'd prefer it simply was another made-up colourful dictatorship full of fictional atrocities instead of a don't-think-about-it-too-much game featuring actual atrocities.
Brendan: That’s what I mean: this is Far Cry for people who want to pretend they’re in the American military. But really, if you want to pretend you’re in the military, you should play ARMA III, and go on a long patrol where nothing happens.
As for the setting and the tone of the thing, it’s pretty ridic. I don’t think any real-world scenario should be off-limits for games, but this definitely doesn’t handle (at least in the beta) the problem of cartels and drug trafficking with much nuance. The most jarring moment for me was when I discovered a group of men hanged by the side of the road. That's horrible, I thought. Then I saw a green box below their dangling feet. "Oh!" I rejoiced "Supplies to tag!"
I am willing to bet that the closest this comes to exploring any of these issues is that one drugman down the line will shout at you, “It’s you gringos who are buying the drugs! Without YOU there’d be no cocaine at all!” But he will be shooting at you with an uzi while he says this, invalidating his already-clichéd argument. I doubt there’ll be any strong criticism of the United States’ policies in the “war on drugs”, for example. This is a Clancy game after all. Then again, that wouldn’t be necessary if, like you say, they’d just gone for a more silly vibe.
Graham: My hope is that ultimately the game gets more interesting as it gets more difficult. We didn't meet a lot of resistance when we were clearing out camps, but presumably they're going to become larger, patrol routes tighter, and hopefully a little more complex. If that happens then I think the satisfaction of playing stealthily will make it compelling even without silliness when things turn to chaos. If it approximates stealthily taking on Far Cry 4's forts (which were larger outposts) or better yet some of the bases in Metal Gear Solid V, then I'll be happy.
Let's conclude. It seems like you had a sour time when playing alone but enjoyed it more when being carried in my sweet embrace. Where does it fall, therefore - good coop, or bad coop?
Brendan: I’d say, with a real life friend with real life words, it’s OK coop. With random people, it’s Not-OK coop. With a full roster of four mates? I think it'd be Better-than-OK coop.
Graham: That's a rubbish name for a column. GOOD coop or BAD coop?
Brendan: It’s Middling-coop! Half-decent coop. Depends-on-your-personal-tastes-and-circle-of-available-friends coop.
Okay, it’s bad coop.
Graham: It may prove that after a few hours with the final game that it's also short-lived coop, but in the beta, I had fun. I want to play more. I think it's good coop.