Ubisoft's open world games are pretty much all cut from the same cloth, with each implementing some common systems and design philosophies, while still managing to give each title enough of an individual identity so that they feel different. Previously the Ghost Recon games have all had a mission-based structure, but with Ghost Recon: Wildlands the elite special forces team are breaking free of their linear shackles and heading to South America to take out a drug cartel – open world style.
Their target this time out are the Santa Blanca Cartel, a collection of quite frankly nasty men and women who've set up shop in Bolivia and managed to take control of the country via a serious amount of bribery and murder. When the US embassy is bombed, and an undercover DEA agent killed, the Ghosts are brought in to tear down this narco state. To do this you need to topple the four pillars of the cartel: security, production, influence, and smuggling – all of which are controlled by several captains and lieutenants.
Sadly, the important members of the cartel hierarchy aren't just wandering around the game world, so you'll need to visit the province each cartel leader calls home to gather intelligence from enemy camps and bases. This in turn unlocks a chain of five or so story missions that will climax with the leader's removal from the picture. The order you progress is entirely up to you, but for each of the four organisational pillars you must eliminate all the targets on the lowest rung before you can move up the ladder.
What's clear from the very start is just how much Ubisoft wants you to play Ghost Recon: Wildlands co-operatively. When the game launches, you're dropped into a lobby screen where you can invite up to three other players into your game, and at regular intervals it pops up a message reminding you that joining others online is merely a button press away. As is the case with most games, playing it co-operatively certainly ramps up the enjoyment, and since progress made in co-op carries over to everyone's game, it's the best way to experience this title. That said, while co-ordination isn't strictly required, playing with people you know – who also have the ability to voice chat – will greatly reduce the chance for frustration, especially during those missions where detection results in instant failure.
However you decide to play, most of your time will be spent rolling up on a location in your vehicle of choice – be it a dirt bike, truck, or helicopter – marking the positions of enemy combatants with your drone or binoculars, and then either stealthily using cover to eliminate the opposition or alerting every sicario in a two mile radius by gunning down all comers.
In the past, Ghost Recon games were all about manoeuvring your squad into the best tactical position possible to get the drop on your targets and trying not to get caught out in the open. While there are certainly still elements of this in the Wildlands gameplay, you do have much more latitude when things go wrong, and getting caught with your combat trousers around your ankles isn't quite as terminal as before – even if you do still go down quite quickly.
Despite its best efforts, though, it just doesn't feel like a Ghost Recon game. Pretty much everything you expect is here: a nice mix of stealth and action, a squad at your command, and enemies that'll mostly drop with a burst of bullets – but somehow it just doesn't gel completely. At first it's hard to put your finger on what's eliciting this feeling of disappointment, but the longer you play the clearer you'll see that open world format lies at the root of the problem. In the drive towards a sprawling open world, the more authored elements of the mission design that was so enjoyable in the past games have become diluted, and since its gameplay loop repeats all too frequently over the 40 or so hours required to work your way through the 26 cartel leaders, is it any wonder it begins to run out of steam?
Make no mistake, the Ghost Recon formula has progressively blurred over the life of the series, but with Wildlands you feel like you need to squint very hard to see the last vestiges of that identity. Yes, the combat's still really satisfying, there's plenty of fun to be had in the co-op, and its open world sports some truly impressive environments – especially with HDR lighting enabled – but even with these much stronger aspects on offer, everything else surrounding them (from the mission design to the enemy AI) feels pedestrian, derivative, and a poor trade-off for the transition to an open world.
Perhaps the best distillation of this comes from the game's upgrades system which has you spending skill points and resources – gained both by completing missions and collecting them around the world – on a variety of equipment and character improvements. With ample scope to think up some really interesting items to give you options in the sandbox, Ubisoft instead delivers the most uninteresting roster imaginable with even the most exciting – a parachute and mortar bombardment – failing to raise your pulse at all. At least the large number of guns and attachments provide some scope for meaningful improvements; if only you didn't need to trek the length and breadth of Bolivia to collect the ones you want.
Throughout your time with Ghost Recon: Wildlands you'll get the impression it wants to give you the opportunity to get creative with your open world hijinks, but because it also desperately needs to be a serious military shooter, it never has the courage to let the reins off completely. Consequently, it'll fall short of satisfying either end of the spectrum, instead feeling like a Just Cause game someone forgot to add the grappling hook and wingsuit to.
This identity crisis is never more apparent than in the story and dialogue which swings between overly serious on one hand and weirdly dark humour on the other. While this can work if handled by deft hands, some seriously bad voice acting and atrocious dialogue derails any attempts at saying anything truly engaging from a narrative perspective.
While Ubisoft has proven adept at successfully applying its open world formula to a lot of games over the years, Ghost Recon: Wildlands feels like the first one lacking any real identity. While it gives a good first impression with its impactful gun battles, visually distinct open world, and wide selection of weapons, it's ultimately the war of intentions at its heart – between the freedom and unpredictability of an open world on the one hand, and the preciseness of a strategic cover-based shooter on the other – that makes for a title that'll leave both sides of the battle disappointed.