137 Hours In: Ghost Recon Wildlands

I don’t really know how this happened. I only installed it to say I’d given it a go. I fully expected to ditch it after a couple of hours.

Platform: PC

Copy received for free with my GPU.

This was originally posted at r/PCGaming

What is it?

Open-world, third-person, tactical-stealth-action shooter from Ubisoft. You and your squad of four ‘Ghosts’ (US spec-ops) must kind-of-liberate Bolivia from the powdery hands of the Santa Blanca drug cartel. By killing or kidnapping key members of said cartel. Oh, and shooting a lot of non-key members of the cartel. And also the Bolivian army for some reason. Your squad can be made up of you and three AImen. Or you and up to three other people from the Internet, who may or may not exist. The whole game can be played solo, or with others. That’s nice.

Why did you play it for 137 hours when you only meant to play it for 2?

I’m a big fan of Ghost Recon Future Soldier – the previous game in the series. So, when the beta for Wildlands abseiled in last February. I clicked at the chance to have a go. “Mehhh.” Was my feeling. The single-player felt empty and lacked, for want of a better word, soul. The online co-op was just people messing around and dying.

Soulless
Soulless?

Still. I got the game for free. And I like free. I soldiered on. After a couple of humdrum hours playing alone. I went online for a bit. Wondering if it’d improve. Very quickly I met another player with a mic who liked playing similarly to me. Namely, slowly scouting around and then trying to silently murder every motherbuzzer in sight. That night we ended up playing together from around 10pm to 7am. It was fantastic. Communicating, planning, and solving puzzles with murder, with someone else is great. Since then I’ve been hooked.

Nothing’s been quite as good as that night. But the game is often more fun with other people. Even ten months since release it’s easy to find people who match your playstyle. From softly spoken, tactical gods. To screeching, burping kids. Though it’s far more in favour of the former, thankfully. The matchmaking is a bit nuts, mind. You can end up with players who are a much higher or lower level than you. Although the game adjusts damage, detection and other things per player based on their difficulty setting. The advantage of being with higher level players is that they’ll give you pointers and explain the less obvious mechanics. It’s in their interest to. It encourages teamwork. And in all my hours of playing with mostly random people, I’ve only met one dick’ead. I’ve even come around and played it solo quite a bit.

What do you actually do?

The game is well described by its title. Which pleases me for… an unknown reason. You move around unseen. Y’know, like a ghost. You perform reconnaissance on an area. That area will be located on land that’s somewhat wild. Ta dah! That last one’s a stretch. And I’ve missed out all the killing. But yeah. Shh.

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The Really Wild Land

Still. It’s easy to explain. You mosey around the 21 provinces that make up the game’s version of Bolivia and kill just, so, so many people. Each province is controlled by a ‘buchón’ or, I guess, captain. Each buchón works within one of four …departments that make up the cartel. Security, smuggling, production and influence. Do away with enough of each department’s buchónes and you can take on that department’s underboss. Remove him or her. And you can take on the department head. Vanquish two department heads or more and you can finally, finally. Finally. Kill the cartel’s boss. ‘El Sueño’. The boss of bosses. That’s not me being over dramatic. That’s what the game frequently refers to him as. It’s weird. Organised crime joke goes here. Ergh. Yeah, there’s a story. But it all amounts to: “*The cartel are bad. And you are good. So stop them.*” It’s a goal. And it’s nice to have goals.

You can do all that in two different ways. Stealth. Or, action. Inevitably you’ll end up doing it as a bit of both. Action-stealth? Stealth-action? Eh? Overall. It’s a good stealth shooter game, with a not-very-good action shooter game tacked on. Thankfully that part’s relatively easy to ignore.

Hush, Hush

The first part of the stealth loop is recon. And it’s great. It alters how you see the world. You get binoculars. But pah. Binoculars-shiminoculars. It’s because of the drone you’re equipped with. It lets you buzz around an area, marking enemies on your HUD and map by looking at them. “Ooo. Marking enemies. How exciting.” You’re probably thinking.

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Drone-eye View

That’s not it. Worry not. Reconnaissance is a significant part of the gameplay. The drone forces you to slow down and pay attention to the environment in a way you probably wouldn’t in other open-world games. You’re not just looking for bads. You’re looking for alternate entry points. Patrol routes. Cover. Vantage points. Escape routes.

The addition of this dimension makes Bolivia much more memorable than it would otherwise be. Sure, you’ll soon come to recognise buildings you’ve seen before in other towns. And once you’ve seen one dirt track, you’ve seen them all. But every village, town, forest clearing, airfield and base is laid out differently. As are the position and number of baddies. The gameplay loops are the same. But the scenarios aren’t. And, presuming you’re a fan of the genre, it stops the game becoming repetitive.

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Traditional Bolivian dirt road apparel

So. The rest of the stealth loop: Murder! You can snipe from afar. Or creep around up close. Stealth functions properly. If you’re spotted you have a few moments to kill those that spotted you before the alarm is raised. Same goes if you shoot and miss from stealth. The enemy you missed (’cause he moved his head, the utter bastard) will run for cover. You’ve a couple of seconds to kill him and remain undetected. You can kill a guard who witnesses you kill his compadre and remain undetected and so on and so on. This is how it should be. And 99.9% of the time it works. Good job!

Particularly satisfying is syncing your shots as a team. This is easier in single player. You mark three enemies. Your AI squad mates target them. You attack a fourth enemy and the marked three fall down dead too. It’s immensely satisfying. It’s more difficult to arrange online with randoms. But it can absolutely work if you’ve got a coordinated team of real people.

However, once you’re made. Enemies are a little too magic in knowing your position. You can move to a different position and they’ll lose track of you. But they always, always know the direction that you shot from. Which is annoying. But it’s my only issue with how the game manages stealth and detection. Still, it’ll take them a while to reach you if you’re far away. So you can evade them. And while you’re hunted, it’s still possible to stealthily kill and remain undetected.

The AI path-finds tremendously well over higgledy-piggledy rocks and through dense forests. In all the hours I’ve played. It’s never had trouble finding a way to my team’s position. It’s almost annoying how good they are at getting to us. These are not stupid enemies. Or maybe I am a stupid man. We’ll never know.

Oh. I also like that suppressors are suppressors, not silencers. So if you kill one guy leaning against a building and there’s another inside, number two will probably hear you. It’s a nice detail. But it took me a while to realise that’s why I kept being detected.

Bang, Bang

Anyway. Onto the shooter part. It’s some kind of hybrid third-person/first-person run and gun shooter that’s, well, average at best. Annoying at worst. And there’s nothing stopping you from approaching the majority of the game like this – only a few of the 100+ campaign missions force you into stealth. Suppressors be damned! It’s harder this way, even when you’re on Arcade or Regular difficulty. The reinforcements that appear when the alarms go off are tougher than yer bog standard sicario grunt.

What makes it harder than it ought to be, is this: For the most part of the game, you move around in third-person. Which is fine. But the default mode for aiming is ironsights. So you’re pulled from third person to first. This, again, is fine when you’re taking things slow and stealthily. Enemies stick to walking around chatting or patrolling. You have time to pick your shots. And looking down a scope makes sense when you’re using a sniper rifle.

But when things go to shit and you’re unable to prevent the alarm going off. The pace picks up. Enemies are running around. Reinforcements are spawning all over the place – because it’s an open-world, they can come from any direction. You’re being shot at from everywhere. Oh, and enemy health magically triples (the army are proper bullet sponges, I wish I could get some of their body armour for my Ghost). So you have to keep moving and shooting to stay alive. Your perspective of what’s going on is constantly changing and it takes time to adjust back and forth between first and third person. It’s as jarring as a jam factory. It’s even worse the few times you have to fight indoors.

In fairness, it’s an option you can toggle the default behaviour of. And you can switch between over the shoulder and first person aiming at any time in game. But over the shoulder frequently results in you leaning out of cover and shooting the bloody corners of bloody walls or the bloody ledges of bloody rocks. It’s infuriating.

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If there are enemies on the road, I probably won’t be able to shoot them from here

Anything else?

Apart from the main missions. There are side missions such as defend a thing or steal supplies. Completing some allow you to upgrade the support abilities provided by the rebels fighting the cartel. Vehicle drop off, mortar barrage, rebel reinforcements. That kinda thing. Stealing supplies allow you, along with skill points, to upgrade your Ghost’s skills.

It’s an open-world game from Ubisoft. So of course there are tons of things to collect. Most of them actually serve some purpose. Weapons and weapon parts to equip. Skill points. Documents. XP. These are almost all guarded by the cartel or the army. So there’s actually gameplay around collecting them, rather than running onto random roofs to pick up feathers. So, that’s fun.

There are plenty of vehicles. They’re fine. Though some of the best ones (helicopter with rocket launcher, APC) are hard to get and you can’t save or unlock them for use later. Although you can buy them through microtransactions and then spawn as many as you like. Which is proper shit. Regardless. GPS doesn’t apply to the many, many dirt roads or tracks that make up the world. Only the roads. So driving often leads you to the bottom of and wrong side of a mountain. It’s kind of redundant. You’ll quickly learn to rely on helicopters (you can spawn one of these without paying actual money).

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Get used to this. Well, not the pretty sky. The chopper backside

All the missions are replayable, so you could in theory play it forever. But even when you liberate a province by defeating its buchón, enemy presence doesn’t notably decline – if at all – even when you’re just driving around. So apart from clearing up the icons on a map, it never seems like you’re having any lasting effect on the world.

Endgame and ‘Tier 1’

The level cap is 30. But on reaching that, you get access to an optional level system called Tier 1 Mode. You get XP for it in the same way as you do for the regular levelling. Every level makes the game a touch harder. You start at Tier 50 and work your way up… down to Tier 1. Each level rewards you with supplies to upgrade your weapon damage with, or occasionally a cosmetic item, or weapon.

From Tier 35 you can’t play on anything other than Extreme difficulty. Extreme is a bit of a fuckin’ dick’ead. Often it feels unfair – you get attacked on sight when driving by road. It regularly feels like Tier 1 hasn’t been balanced in certain places. Any mission that requires you to defend something is nigh on impossible. Things quickly go to utter shite if you mess up while sneaking – which, for the most part, is your only option in Tier 1. Because once you’re spotted you can be peeking out from behind a rock and still get killed at several hundred metres by a grunt dual wielding uzis.

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Everyone knows US special forces are in this minibus

Still, it’s not all horrid. You learn to become a lot more patient and careful. And it requires rethinking your previous approaches to missions and tactics. Plus, when you start getting chased on foot through a forest, or through fields by the huge number of reinforcements that’ll come after you. You can see all these orange dots on your minimap swarming towards you. You can hear their shouts. You know they’ll kill you if they spot you. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever played. It’s so tense and completely thrilling.

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RUN AWAY!

Performance, Graphics and Sound

PC Specs: Intel i7 5930k @4.2GHz | G.Skill Ripjaws Series 4 DDR4 16GB 2400MHz | Geforce GTX 1080 Ti FE SLI | SanDisk Ultra II 480GB | 4K

At 4K, I can only maintain a constant locked 50fps with my SLI 1080 Tis and everything turned to Ultra/Very High. There are a good number of video settings to fiddle with. It supports SLI and high refresh rates too. No HDR though, despite it being available on consoles. Grumble.

The game world is attractive. As long as you don’t look too closely. The weather frequently brings it to life. It looks great in a storm. There are all sorts of different areas. Snowy mountains, hilly farmland, charred forest, huge lakes with flamboyances of flamingos, swamps. The usual, really. Of particular note are the jungle, which is where the game’s bonus Predator mission is set and it really looks the part, even though the Predator hunt is rubbish. And the salt desert. Which is somehow both boring, yet amazing to look at it. It’s just an expansive, flat white surface covered in cracks. With barely anything to do on it. But after spending many hours traipsing through the usual open-world locales, it’s refreshingly otherworldly.

Oh, and there are fields full of llamas. Seeing them flee from an incoming helicopter never gets old.

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I love lovely llamas

Sound design is… there. Guns sound like guns. 50 caliber rifles are a highlight. The voice acting (and writing) exists. Although El Sueño does have a dreamy voice. The squad and enemy barks get old very quickly. As does the ingame radio station.

And?

It’s sometimes frustrating. Especially when it tries to be a shooter. The sandbox is perfunctory. And I haven’t even mentioned its occasional, but still too regular, ridiculous spawning locations. Overall though. You can absolutely play it as a stealth game or a shooter game. Or a bit of both. But its best as the former. It rewards patience and teamwork. Both are relatively easy to find in the community. It works perfectly adequately solo too. Either way. It’s a glorious feeling when it all comes together and you manage to clear out an area undetected. If you’re into that, you could do a lot worse than Wildlands.

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