And baby makes 2.5
[Spoilers for the ending of Ghost Recon Wildlands, because it’s so bad that I have to talk about it.]
I take back every nice thing I ever wrote about this game.
Yes, Thomas Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands (an Ubisoft Game) certainly makes a strong first impression. Isn’t that, like, the first rule of running a good con? You get the mark to trust you over the first couple hours, to believe that your open-world will be exciting and diverse. That’s when you pull the rug out, instead forcing your mark to suffer through dozens upon dozens of hours worth of endlessly repetitive missions, a story so bad that it should be illegal, and a series of irritating glitches and bugs.
The fact that I’ve wasted a portion of my life getting to the end credits of this awful, awful game is bad enough — if I had paid full price for Ghost Recon Wildlands, I would be furious.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)
Developer: Ubisoft Paris
Released: March 7, 2017
I don’t even know where to start with this thing. Who is this game even for? It’s certainly not for people who want to play co-op with their friends. I gave that mode a shot under practically ideal circumstances; although my microphone was unusable (my fault, the co-op works perfectly on a technical level), I knew everyone else in the party and they had their headsets on. I could only communicate via PSN messages sent from my laptop or Twitter, but that was good enough. I was content to follow orders on this particular mission.
The operation in question was an instant-fail stealth tailing mission, of which there are many in Ghost Recon Wildlands. It’s curious to see a game released in 2017 implement an objective that is irredeemably terrible and not enjoyed by a single human being on the planet Earth, especially after the collective internet took this exact company to task for stuffing these kinds of missions in the Assassins’ Creed franchise. Except these missions are worse than usual, because you’re often infiltrating a base right before the tailing starts so you have to remain undetected by everyone, made harder since the AI in Wildlands can often spot you from across the other side of the map.
We were supposed to find a cartel assistant and follow his car without being noticed. After getting spotted again and again and again (because you’ve got four operators in co-op instead of one with three AI partners), we decided to send one person in and have the other three hang back at the spawn point. For a good hour, our elected representative made it to the point with no trouble…only to have the assistant get hung up on something and not even bother getting into his car. Eventually, the whole thing fell into place and our man started following the assistant. Somewhere along the line, the assistant stopped his car in the middle of nowhere and didn’t move. The AI broke again. When I tried the mission in single player, the car was just gone.
That’s obviously a worst-case scenario, but it’s not like the game was an absolute blast to play when everything worked just fine. Even when you’re playing with other humans, you’re still going through these boring-ass missions. Blow up the thing. Kill everybody. Find the guy and then kill him. Find the guy and then extract him. Do this thing, but if you get detected then you fail and have to start from the beginning. It may seem like I’m being reductive, but there really isn’t any flavor to anything you’re doing. Every mission is practically the same, both in terms of structure and context. Wildlands feels more like an MMO than a co-op shooter — which is weird because The Division, the other Ubisoft co-op shooter that feels like an MMO, had a far more interesting world and mission structure. I actually wanted to see everything in The Division, but I got sick of Wildlands‘ repetitive side missions.
Ostensibly, Wildlands allows you to handle cartel targets differently, but I never saw that in person. In order to unlock missions where you take out lieutenants, you have to find pieces of intel, which unlock missions located elsewhere. (read: busywork) Then, once you take out enough lieutenants, you can unlock the underbosses. Once you take out the underboss and the rest of the lieutenants, you unlock the head of the respective branch of the Santa Blanca cartel. Since I had to play the opening 10 hours twice due to a PSN cloud save glitch, I handled the preparation missions in a different order, but I got the same results for my targets. Of course, none of that matters, because everything you do in this game is unbelievably mind-numbing.
Actually, that’s not entirely fair. Sometimes Wildlands is just actively terrible. There was a pretty crappy mission where you have to kill everyone in a base and not let anyone escape, but if you get spotted (and you will get spotted, apparently the Santa Blanca cartel staffs up with owl/Terminator hybrids) two bad guys will hop in cars and drive away in opposite directions. You will then fail the mission. Occasionally, when you have to extract a friendly NPC, they’ll run towards gunfire and get killed, and since Wildlands‘ checkpointing is atrocious, you’ll be kicked back to the very beginning of the mission. There was one time where I had to extract a truck without getting seen, and then drive the truck back within about three minutes — except after I swapped the truck, I had to spend 40 seconds talking to an NPC, and then I had to drive the new truck back to the original spot very slowly because it’s filled with explosives. Terrible and boring! Those are just a few examples of the reason why I’ve started greying around the temples at my young age.
Here’s a pro-tip for anyone who already bought the game and is playing the singleplayer: throw up your drone, mark every dude in the camp, and then use your AI partners to insta-kill them using the “sync shot.” The game doesn’t account for this, you can beat whole early-game missions this way! Eventually, you’ll have to actually do some combat yourself, but the gunplay is bog-standard so anyone who’s played a shooter released in the last 15 years will have no trouble at all. I should start putting “tactical shooter” in quotes, because the sync shot is the one tactic that actually works, apart from taking out an assault rifle and showing the cartel why bullets are not so good for your health.
They say travel is good for you, but Wildlands never takes you anywhere interesting — even the resort and mausoleum areas feel as drab and empty as the rest of the world. The cartel outposts are either tiny hovels with a handful of buildings that take no effort to clear or labyrinthine sprawls with one viable entrance. Everything feels like a cheap movie set, rather than a detailed, lived-in world. Yes, the lighting is great and the vistas look beautiful, but none of that matters if the sandbox is little more than a stretch of land in between objective markers.
Wildlands kinda reminds me of Just Cause 2 in a bad way, stapling that game’s cardboard world to a grievously uninteresting “tactical” third-person-shooter. At first, I thought Wildlands would have a lot of potential for mayhem and nonsense. I was terribly wrong, in part because the game is so disappointingly stringent about where you can safely drive a car. The game is selling a vision of an explosion-filled playground, so why am I being punished for improvising? The player is constantly being told by the game’s visual direction that it’s possible to ride around the desert on a motorcycle…but so help me God, if you hit one pebble, you fly 50 horizontal feet and die instantly. What fun. Call a mortar strike if you want, and thrill at the pithy little explosions that lack any kind of impact. Whoopie.
I was 100% correct about the story being terrible, so at least I’m one for two in my original assessment. The game only makes a vague stab at the very end towards addressing jingoistic American exceptionalism, but it’s literally a single line of dialogue that seems to exist only in service of a dumb twist. None of the characters are interesting, or memorable, or dynamic, and they exist in a bland, mean-spirited, generic world full of dullards exactly like them.
I only saw the “bad ending” and not the “true ending,” because the latter requires players to complete literally every story mission in Ghost Recon (I refuse to play one more insta-fail stealth mission, so I’ll take my lumps rather than spend 40 more hours grinding), but the player character has almost no agency in the finale no matter which ending you get. Even worse, practically everything you did over the past 30 hours was for nothing, as the “good ending” lets the big bad El Sueño make a deal with the Feds and gets off scot-free. In a bleaker game, that could be an effective bit of commentary on the drug war. In Ghost Recon Wildlands, it’s a sequel hook that doubles as a slap in the face considering all the busywork you had to suffer through.
It’s obvious the game thinks it’s operating on the same level as The Wire or similar great drug stories, but it’s not even close. At best, the gleeful utterances the Ghosts make during the extermination of every cartel member they see is drastically at odds with the “devils avocado” conversations your squadmates have during the incredibly long drives you’ll have to undertake in between missions.
One moment, your partners will be talking about how the cartel offering a college education isn’t that far off from the American military. The next, they’ll be threatening cartel members with a prison cell where Neo-Nazis will use them “as pincushions for their dicks” or joking about how they want to steal some coke for themselves. Antiheroes are fine, I have nothing against that particular archetype — the problem here is the writing. Your actions just don’t fit half of the in-game chatter, and when everything does fit, the good guys look like sociopaths.
Insta-fail stealth tailing missions, ludonarrative dissonance, a huge open world with nothing interesting to do, it’s like we’re back in 2009 baby!
I don’t know if you noticed, but I do not like this game very much. I derived some enjoyment from the beta, where my friends and I poked at a busted-ass open world shooter for $0. That stands in stark contrast to the full release, where I can say — in all honesty — I have not had any fun since writing my original review in progress. To see a major $60 Ubisoft release be this unconscionably terrible, especially after The Division and Watch Dogs 2‘s respective course-corrections, is downright sad.
Wildlands is a bad fucking game — it completely fails at everything it aspires to be. It’s a bad co-op game, it’s a bad shooter, it’s a bad open-world game, and the writing is terrible. At best, the game is boring. At worst, it’s frustrating. I suppose the visuals are worthy of some praise, but you can just look at screenshots for free. I cannot recommend Ghost Recon Wildlands to anyone, unless you’re directly related to someone on the development team. If that is the case, by all means, support your family! Everyone else: stay away.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]