Through the early aughts, World War II was considered the go-to set-dressing for shooters and action games that wanted a realistic setting, while dodging the sensation of being “too close to home.”
As the backdrop of WWII became fatigued we saw a brief smattering of games looking to recreate Vietnam. Perhaps developers considered that most Vietnam veterans were aged out of their target demographic, that the war became fair game. The difference is that in Vietnam we didn’t have a clear “Good Guy” and “Bad Guy” and by most scores, the U.S was the “bad guy.” Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was one of the first games to jump over this logical fence that separated subject matter from being “morally objectionable” to “OK to depict.”
In that regard, the Tom Clancy series of games has never really played ball. Similar to it’s source material, each iteration represents a “what-if” scenario. What if Russian Ultra-Nationalists began to aid Georgian terrorists? What if terrorists laced dollar bills with a hyper-virulent superflu on Black Friday? The Clancy brand of paranoid nationalism, in terms of video games, dates all the way back to a Commodore 64 adaptation of the novel “The Hunt for Red October” and spans across 50+ titles. Most of which fall into the sub-series of Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, or Splinter Cell.
What all of those games have in common is their conceptual dependence on hypothetical theaters of war. Generally favoring realism both in terms of narrative plausibility and the feel of their combat. In the days of early Tom Clancy PC games, few others relied on real-world physics, such as bullet-drop or shooting from a prone position. In terms of narrative, what made most pre-2010 Tom Clancy games so engrossing wasn’t just their tight mechanics, but the respect they held for each of their hypothetical conflicts, generally managing to dodge the moral scrutiny that faced the pre-COD: Modern Warfare shooter. Partly because the subject matter wasn’t meant to be surrogate for a real conflict. But primarily because the tone of most Tom Clancy games maintained a strictly po-faced seriousness – which at the very least attempted to honor the severity of war and its participants.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands didn’t get that memo.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands supposes a world in which the fictional Mexican-born Santa Blanca Cartel looks for a safe haven for cocaine production. As such, they take over Bolivia from the inside out, creating what the game refers to as a Narco-State. Somehow this is on the lower end of the “fucking impossible” spectrum that recent Tom Clancy games have resorted to for their respective scenarios.
I don’t know if the 2015 film “Sicario” was instrumental in the design of Ghost Recon: Wildlands, but I do know that if seen back-to-back, the similarity is striking.
We have bodies hanging from overpasses. We have cartel hitmen covered in face tattoos, shakily spraying an Uzi with their shirt off. We have the ballcap-wearing paramilitary fellow, flak jacket over a band t-shirt, knee pads wrapped around his favorite pair of American Eagle jeans, feverishly chewing gum. On it’s face, this last point might sound minor. But when flipping through the outfit options in Wildlands, you’ll notice that almost all of the clothing is casual. We don’t have people decked out in fatigues and flags and ceramic-plated helmets (though that is an option), we have a girl wearing her favorite baseball team’s hat with her ponytail sticking out, M4A1 slung over her back. It says: just like Sicario, this is a casual war we’re fighting. It’s a war our “protagonists” have come to casually live in. Ghost Recon Wildlands’ understanding of war as mundane is at the core of it’s socio-political ineptitude.
Instead of dialogue among squad mates being relegated to surgical comms chatter – all mission critical, we have a callous and buffoonish group of cartoon characters ready to blast “dickwads” and “fucksticks” in the face. When you accidentally run over an impoverished Bolivian grandmother standing on the side of the road (which happens frequently, the driving is squirrely at best) we don’t hear a peep from our squadmates – the people that are supposedly there to save that country and it’s people. Their disrespect for the citizens of Bolivia, the cartel, and the very real issues of developing nations is sometimes staggering. An early example: your character steals a cartel sports car and finds two bloody condoms in the glove box but remarks “well, at least it’s still a sweet fucking car.”
While I find the depiction of Latino gang culture pretty uninspired, it’s not what bothers me so much about Wildlands’ attitude. It’s that the characters themselves talk amongst themselves the way ‘bros’ do at a sports bar on Friday night. They’re the cast of Pineapple Express, but in the face of real world tragedies, like endemic rape, extreme poverty, and militarized gang violence. My parents live in Mexico and I’ve spent a lot of time all around the country. There is nothing funny about the many fucking miles of slums surrounding Mexico City. There is no joke to be made about the guard on the street corner holding an automatic weapon, children playing next to him. That a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the police station adjacent to my parent’s old house isn’t a laughing matter, nor is the fact that the police themselves would spy on my mom while she showered, binoculars in-hand. Even if they were ‘sweet fucking binoculars’.
After episodes like the bloody-condom-car, I was praying for a return to the antiseptic, but at least respectful, tone of previous Clancy games. And if not that, at least one voice to tell the player that “the way these marines view the world is not ok.” What makes Sicario function as a film and not just a study on sociopathy is that we have Emily Blunt function as our moral compass. Every time her colleagues propose some illegal, and frankly pretty evil, shit, we have her there to tell us that no, this isn’t right. Ghost Recon Wildlands, sadly, does not have that moral compass to re-frame our idiot protagonists.
But I suppose we’re here to review a video game.
Structurally, Wildlands is birthed from the same generic white paste that all Ubisoft open world games are.
Once that homogeneous paste is extruded, it’s formed into a perfect sphere, then sanded down to a high gloss. That is, it’s structurally identical to Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Watch_Dogs. Big map, lots of icons on it. It does have a bit of Mercenary’s “Deck of 52” thrown in there to spice things up, though. Rather than just proceeding along a storyline that is (liberally) peppered with side content, you can take down cartel under-bosses at your discretion, eventually unlocking their boss, then their boss’s boss. While unremarkable, this structure at least functions as advertised. We have mercifully few irritating escort, or escort-adjacent, missions, which is a relief.
The game is technically and artistically gorgeous, despite its adherence to realism. The way the sun sets, the draw distance, how populated by foliage and underbrush everything is, is more than impressive. It’s not the artistic powerhouse that is Horizon: Zero Dawn, but close. It seems to be extremely well optimized – I’m getting a rock solid 60fps at Very High, with a few sliders bumped up on my GTX 1070. I really appreciate that the graphics setting interface provides a rough facsimile of what the game will look like as you nudge sliders around. I wish more games would take note. Similarly, I have had next to zero bugginess. No hard crashes, no stuttering, no YouTube-worthy rag-doll freak-outs that so often plague similarly sized open world games. Oh yeah, and the open world is probably the biggest I’ve ever seen.
Despite its egregious tone, I’ve found myself really enjoying the meat of the game. While not as flexible or systems-driven as something like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, it builds engaging stealth sandboxes. Each area you infiltrate has a relatively distinct personality and your ability to move through it respects the player’s ingenuity. Stealth detection is represented by a meter filling, which can be reset by breaking line of sight. It feels both realistic and unforgiving, but not in a frustrating way. If you’re being careful, there isn’t any reason why you couldn’t stealth through an entire scenario. To boot, you’re not penalized for breaking stealth, mechanically or conceptually (save for a very few story missions). I would re-load my save so frequently in Dishonored 2, that the game began to fall apart for me, but in Wildlands, it just transforms the moment-to-moment from tension-filled stealth to a raucous and generally enjoyable shootout. While the AI is just competent, your character’s survivability is extremely narrow, meaning even the shootouts require a good amount of tactical expression.
The shooting feels tight, amplified by the spot-on sound design. In nailing a headshot with a silenced weapon you’re rewarded with a satisfying “Tthhhwwipp”. Bullet drop is a real thing, making long distance sniping more than hit-scan aiming, which is crucial because even a single missed kill-shot could result in klaxons sounding and swarms of soldiers and APC’s heading your way.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands is of a rare breed for me. Very rarely do my personal political and social views intercept my ability to enjoy a game. In the case of Wildlands, it often did. While I’ve never stopped playing the game because it’s insidious worldview was too much to handle, I shouldn’t even have to have that internal debate. Again, if we were allowed to re-frame our protagonists as “not good people” it would be so much easier to stomach, and could have been an opportunity for a refreshing narrative – a Spec Ops: The Line affair. That being said, the game has been really mechanically enjoyable. I’ve found myself lost in six hour play sessions, which is rare these days, especially coming from a developer I don’t trust.
If you have no problem with the Ubisoft template and agree with this game’s sentiments, or simply aren’t offended by it, I can heartily recommend it. If not, tread with caution.