Now there’s some awkward irony that the first game I choose to write about happens to have the word Ghost in the title. I swear it’s totally unrelated.
Ghost Recon Wildlands is the latest in the long running Tom Clancy series from Ubisoft. It was a game I should love, one I should have had pre-ordered long ago because despite the series slipping from it’s serious tactical shooter roots into something more akin to Gears of War in a futuristic military setting, I had fun with every game to date. I played them co-op with various friends, I lapped up their modes and spent many, many hours with them. So what changed with Wildlands? What made me hesitate to add it to my basket and grant Ubisoft another £39.99?
The more I think about it, the more I suspect it’s to do with removing anything aesthetically tied to the Ghosts representation in previous games. There’s a distinct lack of near-future technology in the promotional material for this game. No glowing headpieces, odd futuristic looking rifles and most importantly no military fatigues in sight. The Ghosts are now the casually dressed and bearded tier 1 special forces we see in films and tv. Technically that’s a better look for someone who has to blend in and you know, be a ghost; but it also lost some fundamental identity of the series for me. I’m not alone either, I have even read articles and impressions from others that questioned why exactly this game is a Ghost Recon game and not an entirely new IP. Ubisoft showed it could do it with the Division which was wildly popular last year and continues to have an active player base a year later, so why tie this game to the Ghost Recon name in the first place.
Out of curiosity and to prove my doubts wrong I decided to take up the offer of the Closed Beta and came away both surprised and excited. It’s a small detail, but I was immediately impressed with the briefing which was on the right side of serious but accessible and although the setting and ‘bad guys’ are a little bit cliché, I was sold on the general tone from the word go. So far, so Ghosts. I dived into the character customisation and sure enough, the proper military gear is there, branded too! So it’s just for the marketing then, the ‘AAA casual crowd’ as I’ve seen them discribed on Reddit; those who want to wear tight jeans and a checked shirt with shaved sides and a pony tail like it’s a Saturday afternoon on Old Street in the late noughties. I can live with that. Afterall I’ll be playing this with some friends who I know will take this as seriously as me. So my major issue with the way they have presented the game can be circumvented after all. It’s now starting to feel more like it’s a Ghost Recon game.
I spent a good four or five hours with the Closed Beta over the weekend. Partly in singleplayer, then the rest in co-op. It’s an interesting experience too. Playing single player was OK, that’s it though, just about average, nothing remarkable, just OK. It’s got a huge open map, collectibles galore, camps to raid, things to tag or pick up, and missions and side missions scattered all over the place. The shooting feels good, as does movement and the terrain is beautiful and most importantly, interesting. When I say interesting I mean it’s detailed on a very impressive level, interesting in not only how realistic in places it looks, but the tactical opportunities it provides; and this is really when my mind starts to unravel and I realise the real tactical potential of this game.
Hidden gullies, dense foliage, rockfaces, cliffs, buildings; they all provide so much room for maneuvering into position that the game world feels completely designed for communication and teamwork which sadly is completely un-viable with the level of control Ubisoft has granted us with the AI team mates. But grab three friends and that decision making, planning and execution suddenly opens up on a much larger scale. This is where it shines. It starts to feel like what I’d describe as an accessible ARMA lite with as much tactical freedom as you want. “Compare it to ARMA? How dare you!” I hear you say incredulously? Yes I’ll readily admit we’re never going to get to a stage where we’re playing a fully moddable sim with detailed bullet physics, a medical system and unlimited possibilities in mission creation. But it does provide you with a game right out of the box that will allow you to play a more accessible and slicker tactical, streamlined military experience that if you’re willing to take seriously, could have a lot to give.
All that accessibility comes at a cost though. Take the HUD for example, we found it incredibly empowering which subsequently leads to problems with balance. The game design is focused around convenience and keeping the pace moving forward, Ubisoft clearly don’t want you sat around getting bored too long. In an interesting move, the drone even at it’s lowest upgraded ability, stock out of the box, really wont last long in the air with a blinking battery symbol which when depleted will automatically return you to your character. On paper this is great, tag as many as you can in 30 seconds and that’s it; however, once returned to you, it may then be deploy again immediately with absolutely no cooldown or punishment. This removes any consequence or preparation, instead allowing you to tag every enemy in a camp in mere seconds, consequence free. You might think this is something purely for normal or easy difficulty but changing the settings to Ghost difficulty (the highest available in the Closed Beta) merely changes the amount of health you are granted.
Once everyone is spotted it’s a case of moving through and clearing, or if you wish, using stealth to avoid conflict objective depending. The trouble is that the game is (thankfully) based on a traditional shooter damage model where headshots will drop an enemy straight away rather than the RPG style model we saw in last years The Division or Destiny for instance. By empowering us with so much information on our HUD and quick and efficient ways to take down the enemies, the experience is now far too easy. Compound this with pretty simplistic AI and you can effectively sit outside the area and drop everyone one by one with sniper rifles or even well placed rifle shots. Granted this may be a consequence of being a low level area but I’m not holding out hope right now of any more tactical play from the ai, flanking, surpressive fire etc. even at higher difficulties. In a game which empowers you with so much information before the engagement has even begun, even some basic co-ordination can completely destroy an enemy camp in seconds.
As mentioned apparently the area in the Closed Beta is just a low level one so perhaps the final release will turn the following paragraphs on its head, and perhaps there’s other changes to come. I wouldn’t even be surprised, with Ubisofts recent track record of post release support, if we saw some patches after the release which grant us much requested features like HUD customisation.
Is this bad game design though? It depends on the core audience. Although the original Ghost Recon games were incredibly tactical and unrivaled at the time for many, the series has undoubtedly shifted to a more casual experience with Future Soldier being the prime example of this. We have seen in games like the Batman Arkham series that giving the player an almost predatory advantage over the enemy can work wonders in enforcing the ability and character of the main protagonist and with Ghost Recon we are supposed to feel like a skilled, elite operator. The game delivers in spades in this regard, but at the expense of losing its depth. Could this change by the full release? Absolutely! And will it still be fun? Undoubtedly. But will I be playing in six months time post release? That I’m not so sure about.
There’s some nice details as well, paint a weapon and it’s colour will chip and wear over time in the field. Raise your weapon at a civilian and your team mates will point out how they’ve already seen enough guns and to not bother them with anymore. The day night cycle is not only beautiful but practical, changing the guard patrols and sending some to their beds. It’s these little things that help bring the world a little more alive, although the settlements still don’t feel entirely lived in.
Ultimately the Closed Beta showed me a desire I didn’t have for this game previously. It hasn’t lost it’s roots entirely and it provides the landscape to play as tactically as you wish. It’s huge, beautiful and should provide a playthroughs worth of entertainment, especially if you can round up three friends. It now falls on whether the challenge the series used to offer will rear its head in the full release as to whether it’s a truly great entry in the series or a dud.
The Open Beta is just around the corner despite less than a month to release, and it will be interesting to see if there have been changes between the two builds. I’ll be checking it out and may write some follow up thoughts if Ubi gives me something to talk about.