Wildlands opens to a Bolivia completely in the thrall of the Santa Blanca drug cartel. Run by the visionary (and heavily tattooed) El Sueno, Santa Blanca has bribed and muscled its way into controlling government, military, and local police in order to have free reign over the country. Bolivia is a complete narco state with plans to expand its exportation beyond its current American and Canadian markets.
But it takes the bombing of a US embassy as well as the torture and murder of a DEA agent to get America involved, prompting you and your fellow Ghost agents to be dispatched as the key component of Project Kingslayer. Your mission: dismantle the Santa Blanca cartel from the ground up, starting with the lowest Buchon lieutenants and working your way up to El Sueno himself. Those that can't be convinced to inform on their bosses are quickly sent six feet under, as you slowly shut the cartel's production, security, influence, and smuggling divisions. In other words, things are about to get messy.
If single-handedly taking on an entire cartel sounds like a rather insurmountable task, I'd be inclined to agree. Spread out over more than 20 regions, it's a long slog to take down the cartel with just your three AI companions. The scale of in-game Bolivia is truly impressive, but when you add in the travel time and enormous list of collectible skill points and collectibles required for unlocking new abilities, Wildlands quickly stops being fun and turns into a laundry list of chores.
This isn't helped by the repetitive grind when running missions. With four to six missions required to eliminate each Buchon and complete a region, you'd hope for some gameplay a little more varied than what's available here. Instead, you show up, clear enemies, plant a bug, snatch or kill a person-of-interest, or just straight up blow something up, then repeat. Your AI teammates are serviceable, but you can't flank around the other side of a compound with them, or have one of them pilot while you drop in via the air.
There's the occasional mission that adheres to a stricter degree of stealth, but for the most part each encounter is a weapons-free shoot 'em up that stops being fun after the first couple of hours. When you consider that the campaign takes approximately 20–30 hours to complete, you're in for a long, lonely grind.
In stark contrast to this, multiplayer is an absolute blast. Story missions that were bland and forgettable become a backdrop on which you and your friends approach an encounter, establish a game-plan, and then either execute it flawlessly, or bungle the whole thing and adapt as all hell breaks loose.
It's Wildlands' ability to adapt your encounter on the fly that makes multiplayer such a treat. For one mission that required us to infiltrate a compound guarded by 30+ enemies undetected and snatch one of El Sueno's underbosses, our team continuously botched a shot and failed the mission. We had tried approaching from a number of angles, and had even snatched the target, only to have the guards kill him rather than let us get our hands on him alive.
Upon loading in after another failed attempt, one of our players had a "eureka!" moment and fast travelled back to a base, returning shortly thereafter flying a helicopter. Parachuting in under the cover of darkness, our team quickly cleared a landing area for our now-genius/hero to land. A few stealth shots later, we stuffed our underboss in the helicopter and flew quickly to our extraction point.
A lot of the greatness found in these moments can be attributed to the open-ended tactics available for reaching your objective, but the deeply satisfying gunplay available in this Ghost Recon should not be overlooked. Whether you're rushing in guns ablaze, or picking marks off one by one with your sniper rifle, you can feel every bullet leave the chamber, and your accuracy is rewarded with a deep ‘thunk' of impact that makes each assault feel devastating to your enemies.
The physics at play are easy to learn, but hard to master; distance and moving targets should play a decisive factor into your aim, and give you a greater sense of achievement when your shots meet their target. I found myself wanting to snipe from farther and farther away; mastering a shot from 400m, and then pushing myself to 425, 450, and beyond.
Unlocking weapons is somewhat trivial. I'm still playing with the assault and sniper rifles I started with, but collecting new weapon parts, scopes, and accessories furthers each weapon's capabilities. Switching to a mounted grenade launcher is always a sure-fire way to take care of a pesky helicopter that's raining on your parade.
Vehicles steering is certainly something to get used to, but makes for a lot of fun when you hit the winding dirt roads etched into the side of a mountain. Minimal control on a tight hairpin corners on the side of a cliff… what could possibly go wrong? That being said, the dirt bikes, SUVs, and APC units all make for some brilliant moments when speeding your way across Bolivia, taking roads more as suggestions than a path to follow. And something has to be said for a high-speed chase that is undertaken in a minivan that can barely scratch 80kph, let alone go uphill.
Wildlands' vast map and varying environments are no longer a daunting sprawl of areas to visit in multiplayer, but rather an epic sandbox similar to GTA Online. As is typical with a Ubisoft game, this Bolivia is littered with icons for various points of interest or collectibles, but all of these defined destinations removes a sense of discovery or hidden secrets.
Movement around the map is about the destination, not the journey, and so many of the game's beautiful vistas are lost in a blur as you race to your next marker. There's no reason to explore a random mine, or climb to the top of a mountain to see if there's anything in there if the map's already telling you otherwise.
Developer Ubisoft Paris certainly wasn't afraid to borrow from other Ubisoft properties: a sprinkle of The Division's online co-op shooter here, a dash of Rainbow Six gunplay there, and the previously mentioned map bedazzled in icons could be lifted from Assassin's Creed, Watch Dogs, or Far Cry – it really is a Ubisoft staple.
What I was surprised to find lacking, though, was any sense of zone control in Wildlands. There's no real sense of progression as you take down members of Santa Blanca. A Buchon might fall, but revisiting their region later will still find areas flooded with cartel, and only a slightly higher presence of the rebels you're assisting hints that anything has changed. I'm certainly glad there's not a watchtower to overrun in order to open up areas, but of all the games where a territory indicator would have helped with a sense of progression, this would have been it.
At the point of writing there were still a number of technical bugs, with some vehicle frame-rates dropping to single digits as you pass them. Similar issues can also be felt if you're ever a passenger in a helicopter, resulting in some rather nasty motion sickness. And while amazing graphics aren't a requirement for strong game, it's apparent that Wildlands' massive map has sacrificed some of its fidelity in order to present a world without loading screens.
Upon completing the campaign there's still plenty of clean up and collectibles to keep you busy, but that's most likely only going to satisfy the completionists out there. And while there's also two "major" expansions in the works, there's not much indicating an overall end-game for players that are planning to make this their next Destiny or The Division.
Ghost Recon Wildlands is a blockbuster action movie with great encounters and a mindless story that's a great way to hang out with your friends. It fumbles the ball when it comes to delivering its end-game message, but it's one we've heard before, so players aren't really missing out here.
Still, I can't fathom why Ubisoft set the game in a real country. Given the lack of any real political message, or even a narrative that was integral to the country of Bolivia, it could have quite easily have been set in the made-up land of San Escoba.
Despite this, Wildlands is still a deeply enjoyable game, with a massive world to keep you occupied with your friends for days, and gunplay that never gets old. It would have been great to have a more personal interest in my war with the cartel and its antagonistic members, but when viewing the game as a hangout point for you and your friends to take on a mission or two, this becomes inconsequential.