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Ghost Recon: Wildlands promises a bombastic co-op adventure through an open world, South American landscape. It promises tactical prowess through nuanced stealth and team coordination mechanics. An experience where every situation can be approached in dozens of ways with consideration towards light, sound, weather and many other factors. I’m happy to say that in these regards Wildlands does indeed deliver.
At it’s best, Wildlands is an impressively realistic, stealth co-op romp about tracking down deadly sicarios (drug lords) in Bolivia. Noise, visibility, equipment, cover fire, bullet drop and many other factors play a role throughout every encounter. You get a cool map connecting all the sicarios, pretty good voice acting and a fun premise that ties everything together from the very start. Coordinating military tactics with ninja-like precision is a total blast with some friends. Issuing orders to AI teammates when playing alone works very well too.
When taken seriously, the game is very much the tactical bliss experience many of us were looking forward to since it was announced a few years ago. The problem is that Wildlands is nearly impossible to take seriously. It seems to have an identity crisis. Sometimes it wants to be a care-free escapade around South America in the vein of the Just Cause series. Other times it wants to be a gritty, realistic tactical operation full of planning and execution.
If you’re the type of player who enjoys picking the right weapon for the right job, planning, scouting, being smart and stealthy, you can do all that. You can fake out guards by stealing their vehicles. Use drones or explosive diversions to gain an advantage. Strategically shoot out lights to mask your movement. Grab unaware enemies and use them as shields. You can do all these things, but you probably won’t bother to.
The issue with Ghost Recon: Wildlands is that the difference between playing really well and playing like a complete buffoon is incredibly marginal. To accommodate for the care-free, drop-in/drop-out, do whatever-you-want attitude the game pushes, it makes a vital sacrifice in challenge. It never cares how well you do or even whether you live or die. Literally nothing of consequence happens. There are no stakes.
Too much damage puts you in a “down but not out” state. Your AI teammates revive you once per firefight at the start of the game. This works pretty well, until you realize that even if you’re not revived, nothing really changes. You simply respawn about 100m away and keep grinding through the non-respawning enemies.
In co-op, this problem is even more obvious. Players can be revived indefinitely by teammates as long as they can get to them in sixty seconds. So what happens if you don’t get revived in the allotted time? Nothing. You just respawn on one of your teammates. This design choice makes reviving teammates not only pointless, but needlessly risky. Losing a mission in four player co op requires all four players to die within the same sixty seconds. Typically everyone just keeps respawing until all the enemies are dead. This makes losing in co op incredibly rare, regardless of difficulty setting.
Speaking of difficulty settings, Wildlands allows on the fly difficulty adjustment from the menu. I wrote an article about why this is bad design, but Wildlands takes it to a new level. The difficulty is specific to each co-op player and never acknowledged by the game or to other players. So while I’m over here planning my approach on realistic difficulty, everyone else is running around like John Wick, stuffing sicarios inside car trunks.
Before long, you’ll probably give up on spending time planning and scouting areas too. You’ll realize that running and gunning work just as well, and require a fraction of the time investment. Because of this, the game feels like a complete grind. The enemy AI is proficient and interesting, but it never matters in the face of the player’s inability to lose.
You’re never asked to rethink your approach because literally any approach will do. All the interesting stealth, noise, light, weapon and teamwork mechanics are sadly squandered in favor of accessibility. It feels like a corporate push to make the Ghost Recon brand appeal to mainstream audiences. But you can’t have it both ways. Ghost Recon has typically been a series that demands your attention and care, but there is none of that here.
Ubisoft, if you want your gritty, ultra realistic, tactical stealth game to be taken seriously, it has to take itself seriously. That means consequences for actions. Right now the whole thing has tons of promise, but ends up feeling repetitive quickly. Without risk, every encounter becomes exactly the same without any nuance. Without risk, the rewards feel unearned and undeserved.
The good news is that these are all fixable things. Ubisoft plans to continue supporting this game by adding competitive modes and specific challenges. It’s possible that it can rise out of this swamp of mediocrity and become something truly enjoyable in the future. Right now, though, it’s just souring in a complete lack of any compelling challenge.