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Tactical warfare is most commonly associated with urban environments and close-quarters combat, as opposed to the vast reaches of nature that is the stage for Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands. It is a brave move for the series to step outside its comfort zone and into the fresh air of open-world environments. Ultimately, it was a step in the right direction—if fans can disregard the collection of technical issues.
Your target: the fictional Santa Blanca drug cartel. Your mission: dismantle this massive drug empire piece-by-piece before it fully engulfs the South American country of Bolivia. Players will need to eliminate the top dog—a ruthless murderer named El Sueño—before the country can be truly rid of his organization, but to do that, one must pick away at his foundation of underbosses in order to goad him out of hiding. Wildlands has virtually no linearity to its narrative, instead operating like an open-world—a departure for the series—where players can pick and choose what section of the map they want to engage. There is little narrative intrigue to be found as one progresses through the story, but this non-sequential alternative is better than it getting in the way of the fun.
In order to rid Bolivia of this cartel, the US decided to send in something even more effective than a full occupying military force: one squad of elite Ghosts. After designing one’s Ghost with a respectably broad customization system, they are dropped straight into Bolivia. The game world is awe-inspiringly massive, divided into 21 different regions from which players can come and go as they please, with each one controlled by an underboss and themed around one of four facets that comprise the cartel’s drug network.
With such a large map comes the understandable concern that its vast expanses will feel repetitive and empty. On the contrary, Wildlands’ environment variety is its strongest asset, with every region feeling distinct to those around them. Everything from the dense jungles to the sprawling mountain ranges always offer a reason to explore, and some landscapes are a spectacle in and of themselves, such as the salt flats that extend as a mesmerizing sea of white in every direction.
Every region supplies a sequence of story missions that lead to the incapacitation of that area’s underboss. Main missions most often involve infiltrating a compound for some purpose, which would admittedly get repetitious if not for the wide spectrum of settings. Each compound’s layout is unique, and the surrounding environment often has its own influences on base construction. Missions are more about how the player does things rather than what they’re doing, and this leads to more diverse gameplay opportunities than what is initially apparent. Regions hold far more than a handful of story missions as well, with a plethora of side quests, activities, and collectibles available to the player that provide a range of tasks including convoy takedowns, high-value target abduction, and more. The rewards reaped by these challenges vary in how they benefit the player, but all are worth the attention to become the most effective operator possible.
At the center of every Ghost Recon game is precise, tactical shooting—a necessary trait for an effective operator—but Wildlands struggles to grasp one key element of that dogma. Aiming feels notably stiff and imprecise, even after aggressive fiddling with the game options. This issue is present both when firing on the go and when sniping from a stationary position, often leading to death or mission failure thanks to the aiming’s slight—but impactful—inability to cooperate. When players manage to compensate for this obstacle, they must still contend with the game’s unsophisticated cover system. Instead of a contextual cover function that locks the character to a surface—which would make for much better concealment and tactical application—the player is only tangentially attached to cover based on proximity. This can lead to unclear indication of visibility, as well as frustrating maneuvering when the game fails to register the surface. For the sake of context, the previous Ghost Recon game, Future Soldier, had arguably the best cover system in the history of third-person shooters. It is hard to imagine why the developers would abandon such a promising asset for a much less accommodating alternative.
Luckily, players need not sprint from one firefight to the next across this massive world thanks to a variety of vehicles at their disposal—but, unfortunately, vehicles face their own myriad of control shortcomings. Opposite to the aiming, vehicle control feels far too loose, commonly sending it careening off the side of a road with the slightest turn adjustment—which happens a lot when driving the winding roads of Bolivia. Anyone thinking of just sticking to air travel will want to think again, as helicopters have the least intuitive controls of all. Landing precisely is an agonizing chore, and players might as well not bother with any of the weaponized helicopters, as they would have more luck eating the game disc than hitting anything with those cumbersome controls. If the vehicles can be wrangled in, there is a modest but effective selection including APCs, weaponized jeeps, bikes, planes, and more that can prove useful on particular missions, or for just getting someone from A to B.
These complications with gunplay and vehicles leave stealth as the most ubiquitously viable option for attack. Stealth is central to the game’s design and essential to the success of most objectives on harder difficulties. The game’s day/night cycle plays a major role in the execution of stealth operations, as do enemy numbers and defensive technology. The careful planning of an assault can be half the battle, turning Wildlands into as much of a thinking man’s game as a high-energy shooter. Successfully clearing an enemy encampment without a single enemy being the wiser is when Wildlands gameplay is at its most rewarding, and the practice of stealth keeps the use of sticky aiming and uncooperative vehicles down to minimum. Rarely is stealth mandatory, but it is often preferable for both enjoyment and progress.
Stealth would be nearly impossible without the army of tools and weapons available in the game, most useful of which is a drone that can be used to spot and tag enemies in a compound, which is crucial for covert infiltrations. A wide selection of explosives, distraction tools, and spotting gadgets are present to be used in stealth or open combat, and employing them at the right time is critical. Numerous rebel support options like mortar strikes and vehicle drop-offs can also be unlocked and upgraded through the game’s side missions, further bolstering the game’s tactical choices. The tools and gadgets are upgraded through a skill tree for which points are earned by ranking up or by finding them in the world. This progression process serves as the game’s primary draw that will keep players coming back for more, whether it be from finally unlocking that one upgrade you’ve been wanting, or finding the perfect weapon to complete your loadout from the game’s staggeringly large selection of customizable armaments in the returning Gunsmith option. The progression of one’s character and gear gives an empirical metric for one’s achievements, increasing their toybox and combat efficiency so that every challenge is an opportunity to see how the player has grown since the last one.
However, the most useful tool is not an object in your arsenal, but it can still be upgraded through the same skill tree. The player is always followed by a squad of three fellow Ghosts who will fight alongside them in any scenario. The AI companions can be controlled with a simplistic support wheel, but its use can often have unintended consequences—such as the AI getting spotted by enemies—so it is almost always better to let them operate of their own accord. The one exception is the game’s Synch Shot ability, which allows the player to tag three enemies for the AI to execute on command. This is another function paramount for stealth—particularly when large groups of enemies stand close together—and for the most part works as advertised. The AI can lose sight of their target if it is mobile, however, and nothing is more infuriating than an AI teammate disengaging after your bullet is already flying through the air, leaving one enemy alive to hit a compound’s sirens.
This headache can be assuaged by the game’s most pronounced selling point of four-player drop-in/drop-out co-op. Up to three friends can join a player in their game world, taking the game’s tactical strategy to the next level. Game difficulty can be individually set by each player, allowing participants to tailor the co-op experience to their liking. When in co-op, the synch shot feature becomes little more than a glorified marking mechanic, but the presence of other thinking humans more than makes up for it. Aside from the clear operational advantages, it is simply more fun to explore the beautiful world with buddies at your side.
Whether enjoying the game’s co-op or riding solo, fans should be aware that Ghost Recon Wildlands currently faces a number of bugs that could throw one’s experience off course. Several recurring ones included weapons and gadgets suddenly not working, as well as enemies spawning in out of nowhere right behind the squad. Both of these bugs have the potential to greatly upset one’s stealth aspirations, and which can quickly bleed the game of its entertainment value. There were far too many different bugs to name them all, and while some were innocent and mainly just cause for a laugh, others like those above proved to be much more sinister. On the plus side, these bugs were more often than not very far between. Players should expect them to be addressed by the developers over time through updates, but they are still something gamers will want to consider before jumping in.
My thoughts on Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands may seem understandably ambivalent between the impressive environments and enjoyable co-op contrasted against the inflexible controls and game-impeding bugs; what’s important to understand is that even with the stiff aiming, loose vehicle handling, and even the game bugs, none of those things are deal-breakers. All of them can be managed once the player comes to grips with how the game operates, allowing for some truly exhiliternating firefights and suspenseful stealth infiltrations. When these issues surface, the experience’s rough edges do become clearer, but those willing to take a step back and overlook them to see the greater adventure on the horizon can find something worth gearing up for.