Five years since Ubisoft Paris first began its development, we finally got extended hands-on time with the next entry in the Ghost Recon series. Set in a sprawling open world and supporting up to four-player co-op, Wildlands is a drastic departure for the tactical series. Javy Gwaltney, Ben Reeves, and I all spent some time with the game over the weekend, combining our forces to eradicate the Santa Blanca cartel from one of the less protected regions of Bolivia.
Bertz: I played a small segment of the game at this past E3, but this was my first exposure to the rhythm of the game – seeing how the more involved missions intersect with the open-world environment and its myriad activities. I expected to see a lot of analogs to Far Cry, and they are certainly present. Players cripple the local powers that be by taking down enemy bases and gradually cede control to a rebel group. Side activities can help fortify the rebellion’s efforts, and at the same time grant your squad new abilities like being able to call in a vehicle or mortar strike.
Those elements feel pulled right out of Far Cry 4, but the game Wildlands most reminds me of is Mercenaries 2, the open-world, third-person shooter developed by Pandemic. Both games are set in South America, revolve around a small military team gradually taking control of the country and giving it to an opposition group. They provide the player a variety of vehicles to travel around the map, and focus the action on micro-skirmishes.
What were your first impressions?
Javy: I got to play an earlier version of the beta’s content last month at a preview event, and I think my biggest surprise was just how willing I was to dive back into those same missions and make my character all over again.
During the preview event I spent a lot of time running into camps with my A.I. teammates and that was fine. Gun battles are fun and your squadmates are competent enough to hold their own (even if their idle chatter is terrible). But the difference between playing with A.I. and human players on your team is night and day. Things become much more tense. Constantly updating others as you proceed with your plan is super important especially, as is often the case, when your plan falls apart and all four of you have to scramble to come up with a new one as bullets fly over your head.
Ben: I never played Mercenaries 2, but I’m a big fan of the direction that Ubisoft has taken the Far Cry series, so this game immediately resonated with me even though I’ve never played a Ghost Recon game before. I like the level of freedom at hand. For awhile, I was shooting up an enemy camp while our fellow editor Kyle Hilliard was in a completely different area. However, the game does seem best when you play it as a team. At one point I was sneaking up on an enemy when he turned around. I was a sitting duck, and I thought he was definitely going to see me then alert the whole base. Fortunately, Kyle took him out a few seconds before he spotted me. This really seems like a game that you could have a blast with when playing with friends. Did you guys run into any situations like that where you were able to tactically approach an enemy stronghold? Some of the later areas seem like they require solid team communication.
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Bertz: The game does give you some tactical tools, but it’s more shallow on gadgets than most Ghost Recon games or even other Tom Clancy games like The Division. The drone is effective at scouting out an area and marking enemies, and you can eventually upgrade it to use it as an explosive. You can also use binoculars for surveying the land. If you’re playing solo, you can upgrade the synchronized shot skill to essentially take out four enemies at once, just like you could in Future Soldier. Helping the rebels grants other upgrades that allow you to create diversions, bring a rebel squad to the fight, or call in a mortar strike on a position. But the big question mark for me at this point is are any of these tools even necessary for most firefights? The way the game is currently balanced, it’s pretty easy for four players to clear a camp going guns blazing even on the hardest difficulty once you have your bearings and a firm grasp of the controls.
What could be improved?
Bertz: The minimap has a heatmap of sorts indicating when you stumble on enemy positions, so you are never really caught off-guard or constantly dreading being spotted. That tension was integral to the early Ghost Recon games. You can’t turn this off and keep the minimap, so you either have to live with the convenience or turn off the minimap altogether. Enemies rarely attempt to flank, and carelessly run between cover points for easy kills. I guess this makes narrative sense when you’re fighting a bunch of low-level drug cartel grunts, but I expected more of a fight from the more organized UNIDAD force. The closed beta featured an early region in the game, so it’s possible the strategy could get more important the deeper you get into Bolivia.
Right now the game isn’t tuned to demand tactics, which opens up the action for a more mainstream audience, but I’d love to see a difficulty setting tuned for people who want a pure Ghost Recon experience, too.
Javy: Yeah, I agree. I think there’s a lot of room for superficial tactics, like choosing stealth or going loud with bullets, but I’d really like some tactical gadgets. The drones are cool and remind me of Splinter Cell: Blacklist in how you can tag foes for you and your squad to see, but I really wished they had borrowed a bit more from Blacklist too. I’d love to have some sticky noisemakers or an RC Car lined with explosives. It’d also be nice to have some non-lethal options beyond just running up and smacking a guy with the butt of your gun, like a tranquilizer or stun gun.
As far as difficulty goes, It’d be nice to have a hardcore mode that gets back to the fundamental “glass cannon” difficulty of the original Ghost Recon games, where one shot means you’re pretty much dead, so you have to plan your moves carefully. Luckily, that seems like something Ubisoft could add in at some point post-release. One can hope, anyway.
Ben: I think that’s all valid. I’d also like to see the vehicle handling get tweaked. Most trucks feel a little floaty or arcadey. On the one hand, the cars are very responsive, and I had fun barreling straight down the side of a mountain on a motorcycle, but vehicles also don’t feel realistic at all. I always felt a little pulled out of the action when I was driving because my tires never felt like they were gripping the road.
Another complaint is that I don’t think the game does a great job indicating when you are going to be seen. There were a few times that an enemy spotted me and alerted the whole camp, but I didn’t get a sense for where he came from and the game offers little warning before you are spotted. Maybe I just need to level up a bit, but I never felt like I had enough tools for dealing with difficult stealth situations. Did you guys notice this too, or do you have any other minor gripes that you hope get fixed before the final release?
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Bertz: I didn’t have a problem with knowing when I was being spotted when playing with the HUD fully activated because of the threat indicators, but the degree to which the entire camp knows exactly where you are is a little abrupt. I think you’re right about stealth being the inferior choice, too, and Javy’s suggestions would be welcome.
The closed beta had a lot of minor technical hiccups, too. We had some sessions drop, and the audio kept cutting in and out on me. I’m sure Ubisoft is aware of those shortcomings and working to correct them in time for the March launch. But two other audio problems I encountered will be much harder to fix. One, the gunfire and explosions sound really weak and don’t have the impact of a lot of modern shooters. Two, that terrible DJ always joking about cocaine should be unceremoniously ripped from the game. Far Cry had the wannabe comedian too, and they are more grating than entertaining. I know everyone wants to be Rockstar, but it’s such a weird thematic fit for this game and is a pretty sh—y portrayal of Bolivians.
Are we excited?
Bertz: Gripes aside, I’m eager to play more of Wildlands. It seems like it’s going to be a lot of fun playing cooperatively, and hopefully Ubisoft makes some changes to make the game a little more hardcore for the minority of Ghost Recon super fans who want a challenge.
Javy: Yeah, after about eight hours with Wildlands, I’m really excited to play the final version. There are definitely some kinks that need to be worked out, and I wished there were more tactical devices available to your character besides the drone, but the gameplay loop of infiltration planning and execution is really satisfying to me.
Ben: I think it’s unanimous then, because I’m also really excited for the final thing. Honestly, I’m a little surprised too, because I went into the beta not knowing what to expect. I’m not a Ghost Recon fan, but when I heard that it was a little like Far Cry meets Metal Gear Solid V, I felt like I should check it out. I’m glad I did. The game’s open world is exciting to explore, the basic gunplay feels tight, and I’m excited to pump my experience points into that leveling system. I’m already rounding up friends to play this with when it comes out.
Were you in the closed beta as well? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.