So far, I’ve sunk about 20 hours into Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands and, to be quite honest, I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it. There are times when it feels like the most absorbing, smooth, addictive and thrilling game I’ve played in a while – yet there are others when it feels clumsy, repetitive and broken and, as a result, has raised the ‘controller thrown through TV’ danger level to Defcon: minus a bajillion. There isn’t much of a middle-ground it seems, so any given session can either be exhilarating, infuriating, or a mixture/average of both, and it’s making objective evaluation of the game somewhat problematic. I’ll often come out of it with only really great things to say, put that stuff in this piece, only to come out of the next session wanting to delete everything and just replace it all with a “for the love of God, don’t touch this game with a big fucking stick!‘ type of warning. Which is fun!
That said however, it’s largely possible to qualify that clusterfuck of confusion by looking at the game in terms of Intention and Execution, I think. Most of the great stuff’s down to the Intentions of Ubisoft Paris/Massive Entertainment – the ideas and ambitions of Ghost Recon Wildlands; and most of the problems stem from a lack of Execution – a failure to implement those ideas as well as they could’ve been, or because those same ambitions create yet other problems that haven’t been foreseen or dealt with adequately. See, I think TCGRW tries to have its Stealth cake, but also eat its Shooter cake at the same time and – much like this attempted analogy – the result is often clumsy and doesn’t quite work. Moreover, because that’s a thing, it makes the other issues within the game a shit-ton more obvious, problematic and, oftentimes, properly fucking infuriating.
As the Ghost Recon thing would suggest, this is (at least nominally) intended to be on the Stealth end of the Gaming spectrum, but Ubisoft Paris have also hedged their bets with an element of Shooter-eyness, doubled down with RPG type elements, and then gone all in with a massive open world environment. In essence, they seem to have thrown every popular Gaming element at Ghost Recon Wildlands, but not necessarily thought through how they need to work together, and taken with some individual and specific Gameplay choices, those things can often actually work against each other.
If you begin the game from the premise of it being Stealth-orientated, everything starts out great. You’ll quickly be introduced to some of the game’s main features and mechanics, and initially you’ll likely think they’re amaze-balls. As the leader of a four man Special Ops squad, you’ll be dropped into Bolivia, which is now a de facto Narco state, and you’ll be tasked with destabilising the reigning cartel – and given your distinct numerical disadvantage, you’ll be advised to go about that as quietly and covertly as possible. As such, you’ll spend a lot of your time doing Recon, figuring out patrol patterns, picking off guards stupid enough to wander off to take a leak, etc, etc – basically, all the usual stuff you find in stealth games. What’ll make it all feel slightly fresher though, is the inclusion of a “synch-shot” mechanic, and a wee little drone. Using the latter (or your binoculars/scope) you can spot and mark guards – which is useful anyways – but with synch-shot, you can order the rest of your squad to simultaneously fire on specifically marked guards on your signal. After a couple of upgrades – and if you also line up an unmarked guard yourself – you can simultaneously take out four unsuspecting enemies to the soundtrack of four silenced Sniper Rifles “Thwooping” in unison. It is, I have to admit, deeply, deeply satisfying and, when it works (I’ll come back to that in a bit), it’ll make you feel like a Spec Ops God.
As the game progresses and guards become more numerous (and because you can’t hide bodies and there’s a cool down period for the synch-shot) you’ll be rewarded for patience, meticulous planning and precise coordination, and there’s a definite sense of accomplishment when you finally clear an outpost or base with cold, calculating ruthlessness. Overcoming what, at one point, seemed an insurmountable challenge against overwhelming odds is undoubtedly thrilling, as well as being mahoosively, mesmerisingly moreish. Honestly, it’s one of the most addictive things in the world ever, and my first few hours with the synch-shot were just brilliant and, at that point, I’d have happily given the Ghost Recon Wildlands Experience nothing but praise and adulation.
After a few more hours though, I’d had to contend with the regular Shooting element of Ghost Recon Wildlands, and whereas the Stealth stuff is innovative and intuitive, the Shooting stuff is clunky, awkward and, quite frankly, all different kinds of fucking rubbish. Given the inclusion of the “Tom Clancy” in the title, I couldn’t help but make comparisons with The Division, and in terms of shooting and cover mechanics, this is about as far from The Division as you could possibly get in a game with guns in it. Finding, shooting from, and moving between cover was gloriously smooth in Tom Clancy’s The Division; in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Ghost Wildlands however, it’s just shite. Like unbelievably, laughably horrific. If you manage to successfully find cover, you’ll frequently find your dude is facing the wrong way, and instead of turning to fire around the cover, he’ll just back his ass out of it to be shot at.
Likewise, even with aim assist on, popping up from cover to shoot seems to result in a 50/50 chance that you’ll find yourself inexplicably aiming at the fucking floor, and given that the aiming controls often make it feel like you’re trying to maneuver an aircraft carrier and not a highly trained soldier, you may very well be dead long before you’ve rectified the situation. When enemies are coming at you from every-damn-where (which they will) this, taken with the moving around in/between cover issues, all adds up to an absolutely horrendous and frustrating experience.
“But James” I hear you say, “if you’re rubbish at the Shooting stuff, why don’t you just concentrate on the Stealth, you big fucking numbnuts!?“. You make a fair point, and I’d happily do just that except for two things; the fact that some of the side-missions specifically preclude stealth (indeed, are intended to have you take on enemies coming from every-damn-where), and the fact that the Stealth stuff can – and frequently does – go hideously wrong.
The former is akin to Ubisoft Paris highlighting the very worst aspect of their game’s design and forcing you to deal with it repeatedly, and it is, all things considered, a bizarre decision. The latter is theoretically more forgivable – after all, if it was as easy to go in all-guns-blazing it wouldn’t be a stealth game, so it’s reasonable to “discourage” open combat – and ordinarily, I’d be inclined to agree except for one teensy detail; the game isn’t as robust as it should be, and often stuff will go wrong through no fault of your own.
There are times when synch-shot doesn’t work. Sometimes that’s because one of your team has lost line-of-sight, and the delay between them losing it and telling you they’ve lost it means you’ll be fucked – that’s annoying, for sure, but it’s at least realistic, so I’d be inclined to let it slide. However, there are other times when synch-Shot just plain doesn’t. fucking. work. As in, I’ll issue the command and… Nothing. Fuck all. Zip. Nada. If you’re not directly involved in the synch-shot shenanigans (i.e. not taking a shot yourself) it’s not the end of the world, and it’ll just mean you have to wait for the cool down (which still applies, even if synch-shot didn’t do anything!) and try again. Fine, no biggie. Often though, the Game’s designed in such as a way as to necessitate you ordering your squad to line up three shots that are do-able from your current location, with you rushing into view of the enemies to line up the one that’s not. If the game’s working as it should, providing you don’t balls it up yourself, you’ll still be able to pull everything off before the guards have had time to react. If it’s one of those times when synch-shot doesn’t work however, you’ll be left in the middle of four heavily armed guards, merrily waving your ass around and positively begging to have your shit fucked up.
Obviously, that’s annoying anyway. But now, imagine if those are the last four guards in a base that originally had 20+, and that you’ve spent upwards of an hour patiently, diligently clearing – waiting huge periods of time for patrol routes to align, allowing you to pick off a few guards at a time and remain undetected. Now consider that one of the game’s other mechanics is that once you’re spotted and in “engaged” status, reinforcements often just keep coming, and coming, and coming, and then factor in the horrific open combat stuff we’ve already covered. Now, imagine this is the third time in a row this – or something similar – has happened, and that whole ‘defcon: minus a bajillion’ thing I mentioned earlier starts to seem a lot less like I’ve got rage issues, and a lot more like a fairly understandable reaction, right!? I mean, honestly, fuck that for a laugh!!
Anyways, let’s put a pin in all that unpleasantness for now, and look at the RPG and Open World elements of the game. The Bolivia of Ghost Recon Wildlands is massive – like, properly fucking huge – and it’s positively packed with collectibles, side missions and gear/skill upgrades. Whilst distinct regions have a difficulty rating, you’re ostensibly free to explore as you see fit, and you can even opt to have a crack at the more difficult regions first if, like, you’re a bit of a masochist. However, the upgrading element naturally limits that – as it does in most game design – and it’ll be in your interest to pick the earlier, easier regions clean in order to build up your stats and skills. To buy upgrades, for example, you need a combination of skill points and resources, which will necessitate some degree of exploration.
In search of most of your skill points, collectibles and resources, you’ll be doing more of the exact same kind of base clearing you do in the missions but honestly, whilst I was still enjoying it all (and/or it wasn’t all going Pete Tong), I didn’t find the repetition a huge problem – again, precisely because it’s all a bit addictive and whatnot.
The side-missions do offer a bit of variety (and with one or two types, you’ll definitely have to contend with the iffy shooting mechanics), and these side-missions are pinned on a “helping build up the native resistance forces” type premise (which you can then take advantage of by calling on rebels for back-up, mortar strikes, diversions, etc), so taken with the skill point/upgrading system, I quite like how you can pursue a particular combination of them to meet your specific requirements and/or playstyle.
What can be a bit weird and frustrating though, is that – unlike your Far Cry and Just Cause type games – cleared areas don’t stay cleared, and whilst that’s arguably more “realistic”, it can also be a) quite disheartening in terms of feeling like you’re making progress and, b) quite frustrating given the fact that you’ll frequently have to pass by bases, outpost and checkpoints, and if you get spotted and fall into that “enemies keep on coming” loop, just getting to missions can be really rather annoying. For example, remember that base that had me Rage-Twitching before, yeah; imagine how fucking chuffed I was when immediately after successfully clearing it out on the fourth attempt, I was sent back to it for Intel in a mission, only to find it re-inhabited, and having to go through all that trauma again. Fun times.
Even though I’m mostly ok with the repetition in terms of general Gameplay elements for now, I’m considerably less cool about literally doing it in the same place over and over again – an element that’s quite common given you’ll also need to find “Intel” before certain things show up, and that’ll frequently send you back to a location you’ve previously scoured and cleared, because something’s now magically appeared there.
This is exactly the kind of “not thinking through how everything works together” stuff I was talking about before, and whilst you’ve got a Use Stealth All The Time/(because open combat sucks balls)/Massive Open World/Repopulating Enemies/Being Sent Back to Previously Cleared Locations scenario, you’re exponentially increasing the chance that people will be all like “For Fuck’s Sake, why am I even bothering!?” and that’s definitely risky, I think, particularly given how long it can all take, and especially given the “broken” elements within that. In that respect, it reminds me a lot of my Metal Gear Solid 5 experience, which was pretty absorbing for quite a while, but once it reached the same stuff and same place over and over again plateau (particularly when that was in pursuit of the, quite frankly, ludicrous amounts of “resources” needed for upgrades – which is also a feature on TCGRW) it got put aside in favour of other games.
And that’s a real shame, because when those things aren’t at the forefront of your mind, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands can be hugely compelling and enjoyable. Indeed, I keep getting sucked back into it all (see again: 20+ hours), despite the fact that I’ve got Horizon Zero Dawn to get started (which, by all accounts, is pretty much nailed-on for Game Of The Year already). See, whilst I’m aware of the problems – and indeed, whilst I’ve had some spectacularly infuriating sessions – my “I’ll just do an hour or so…” frequently turns into a full session as I can never quite bring myself to not do one more base before I log out. I strongly suspect there’ll come a point when the novelties permanently wear off though, and all I’m left with is the whole “honestly, what’s the point?” type questions, particularly if I keep coming across some of the game’s more frustrating glitches and problems.
If you’ve got friends to play with, I think that’ll help for sure, because the synch-shot element certainly lends itself to great co-op shenanigans, and that’s likely to be the thing that keeps many players returning to Wildlands long after Billy No-mates like me have moved on. Whilst it’s perhaps unfair to slag off a game because I suspect I’ll get bored with it – even (and especially) while I’m currently quite addicted to it – it’s an element that’s always at the back of my mind anyway. When 100 percenting a game boils down to 80+ hours of doing the same thing repeatedly, that’s a big fucking ask. It’s an even bigger ask when you frequently lose hours of that total because synch-shot inexplicably fails to work, or because the headshot you’ve patiently lined up bounces off an object that had failed to “draw in” properly (also in-fucking-furiating, btw), or because you’ve been sent back to the same place to deal with all of the above all over again.
Perhaps paradoxically, if Ubisoft Paris hadn’t put quite so much in the Game it would’ve helped a lot, because sometimes less really is more, and because it really is asking a lot of players to have to deal with the psychological impact of spending hours and hours doing something, only to ask them to do it again in the exact same place later. Games like Far Cry, Just Cause etc feature a daunting amount of regions and bases etc, but the key difference is that clearing a region clears a region, and that facilitates a feeling of making progress, and it also provides an incentive to focus on a base, or outpost for tactical reasons. When you don’t have that element, and particularly when you have a full-on fuckload of collectibles strewn across a massive, repopulating map, it very much starts to feel like Ubisoft Paris have taken short cuts (even cheats) to add an artificial length and substance to the game, and by just throwing every Gaming element they could think of at it – and without really thinking about how they need to be balanced and mutually beneficial – Ghost Recon Wildlands comes very close to looking like a big, muddled mess.
It’s a beautiful mess, for sure, and its fundamental Gameplay ideas are both sound and initially addictive (I mentioned that, right!?), but honestly, I feel like it – much like this post – would benefit greatly from being smaller, tighter and considerably more focused. A couple of key decisions made differently, or a few elements pared-back (or even omitted entirely) would’ve likely kept Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands compelling and addictive for the duration of the experience.
As it stands though, it often feels like a Sisyphean task, and whilst you have some pretty cool toys to help you in that task, I’m not entirely convinced they’re quite enough to permanently distract you from the fact that you’re pushing a boulder up a really big fucking hill, only to watch it come a-rolling back down again.