If Disney World had a shooter, it would be Ghost Recon: Wildlands
Ghost Recon Wildlands is what it would be like if Disney World had a section called Shootland. A swathe of geography dedicated to the theme of shooting guns, expensive looking, consisting of simple and contrived thrills interspersed with waiting in line, built to impress in a compressed burst rather than entertain over the long run. Great place to visit, sure.
But not much of a game.
Ubisoft’s latest Ghost Recon relies too much on production value and too little on game design. It gets the actual shooting right. Solid gunfire audio, floppy character ragdolling, detailed gun models, gratifying reload animations. It’s all there. It’s all as expected. It’s all as good as it should be.
But the problem with modern and moderately realistic shooting is that centuries of invention have made guns boringly effective. Modern shooting is such a simple gameplay verb. Point, click, kill. The basic interaction in Ghost Recon: Wildlands isn’t terribly different from the basic interaction in Duck Hunter. There’s only so much mileage you can get out of the distinction between a sniper rifle, shotgun, and an assault rifle (pistols and submachine guns are never useful). There’s only so much I can care about the handful of extra pixels my foregrip puts onto the end of the accuracy bar for my Steyr Aug. If you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, Tom, foregrips improve handling, not accuracy,” then Ghost Recon: Wildlands has the inside pockets of its trench coat lined with reams and reams of salacious gunporn for you. Now remind me again what handling is, because the tatted, roided cholo I gunned down died just fine with or without that foregrip I unlocked.
So how does a modern and moderately realistic shooter flesh out the gameplay? Without plasma rifles or fury mode or spells, what’s a 50GB download to do to sustain the requisite 50+ hours of gameplay? Stealth is one option. Rebellion’s recent — and very good — Sniper Elite 4 includes a hearty stealth mechanic that gives the moment-to-moment its ebb and flow. As did Metal Gear Solid V and Splinter Cell: Blacklist, all modern and moderately realistic shooters. Sneak, fight, sneak, fight, sneak, fight. Tension, action, tension, action, tension, action. Breathe, release, breathe, release, breathe, release. It’s the pacing of any good drama.
But the stealth in Ghost Recon: Wildlands — the series’ title leads with the promise of stealth — is imprecise and peripheral. At first you can pick off the four guards with your and your team’s sniper rifles and then sneak up to the fifth while he hunkers down in his “hmm, I’m suspicious” stance. Ghostly enough, I suppose. As you move into the more difficult regions, stealth is just the aperitif before the battle. It will break for reasons you don’t quite comprehend, but no matter because this is ultimately a shooter. So it goes sneak, fight, fight, fight, fight. At least Ghost Recon: Wildlands holds up to the second word in the series’ title, because you can tag all the bad guys before you start a fight. Now you can see them wherever they go. It’s a legal wall hack.
Which brings up another option for modern and moderately realistic shooters. Gadgetry. Again, Sniper Elite 4, Metal Gear Solid V, and Splinter Cell: Blacklist all introduced a variety of doo-dads to add gameplay. Ghost Recon: Wildlands also does this, but not very well. Am I really supposed to throw a lure grenade to distract a guard when I can just shoot him in the head with a silenced assault rifle? When would I fling a flashbang instead of a regular killing grenade? Why distract a group of guys with a flare when I can just call down a mortar strike? Am I really going to spend skill points and resources making my binoculars zoom in closer when my drone can already fly closer and even look down from above?
The skill tree that supposedly supports gadgets is a poorly considered heap that does very little to flesh out the gameplay. In fact, I’d say the skill tree does very little, period. It doesn’t encourage specialization, hard choices, or even caring much about leveling up. It’s never a good sign when you look at your character screen and realize you’ve got 18 skill points you forgot to spend because it wouldn’t have made much difference. All this time you could have been carrying three flashbang grenades instead of two.
Carrying capacity isn’t an issue because there’s always a bottomless ammo box nearby. Why would I ever spend skill points to raise my ammo capacity? Ghost Recon: Wildlands opts out of another way modern and moderately realistic shooters add gameplay: by attaching a resource model to the verb “shoot”. In the Metro games, bullets are actual currency. More commonly, bullets are a limited resource that pushes you to use different guns. You’re using the shotgun because you don’t have any more assault rifle ammo. You decide not to snipe that lone guard because you’ve only got five rounds and it will be easier to walk up and knife him. Might as well use that useless submachine gun because the 300 rounds you’ve gathered to capacity aren’t going to fire themselves.
And here again, Ghost Recon: Wildlands opts out of another meaningful design choice. If I can only carry two guns, suddenly there’s a touch of game design based on whether I take the shotgun, the assault rifle, or the sniper rifle. That’s a decision you seem to make here, even though the answer is never the shotgun given the engagement ranges (an engine this wide-open only occasionally drops into close quarters and never for very long). But the astonishingly awkward design decision in Ghost Recon: Wildlands is that you never have to choose because you are always carrying literally every single gun you’ve unlocked. Let me repeat that in italics because I am agog at what a dumb design decision it is: you are always carrying literally every single gun you’ve unlocked.
You can only actually equip two guns and your useless pistol at a time. But if you care to go into the inventory screen, which you can do at any time by pressing I, you have access to your full arsenal, no matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing. The reverberations of this design decision are everywhere: the tech tree, the weapon balance, the geography, the story progression, the loot, even the interface. So, yeah, go ahead and press I to swap out the sniper rifle for the shotgun now that you’re having a shootout in a town. Your limitless interdimensional pockets mean you never have to decide which gun to carry. It’s as if Ubisoft was worried that meaningful stealth, interesting gadgets, limited ammo, and weapon choice would be too complicated or frustrating. Guillemot World’s Shootland should be open to everyone.
Which gets at another gameplay issue. Ghost Recon: Wildlands is an open world game. It’s a vast sprawl of absolutely gorgeous terrain and none of it matters because I can instantly teleport to any one of multiple spawn points scattered throughout the world for maximum convenience. Furthermore, getting from a spawn point to wherever else I want to go is trivially easy because the landscape is littered with helicopters for the taking. I can fly pretty much anywhere I need to go, even when the later areas introduce SAM sites. So I got shot down. Big deal. There’s a replacement helicopter just over the next hill. Cars? Pfft. And don’t get me started on absurdly stable motorcycles. If you thought the motorcycle racing in Watch Dogs 2 was ridiculous, Ubisoft was just getting warmed up.
However, this open world is where Ubisoft theoretically sidesteps all these issues. Gameplay, you ask? Take a look at this vista as night falls and the lights come on in that town down valley. Shooters with glib gameplay usually distract you with spectacle. Who cares whether there are meaningful choices when terrorists detonate a nuke under the Statue of Liberty and a villain played by Liam Neeson is going to fight you in a boss battle wearing a fusion powered exosuit, but only after a cruise ship crashes into the International Space Station? Duck Hunter never did that! This is the role the incredible scenery plays. A gorgeous distraction, and perhaps even enough to make your time worthwhile. In the same way Steep is a captivating zenlike gravity ride down a picturesque mountain range, traversing this South American wonderland (in a helicopter, of course) can be downright dreamy.
It also helps to be in a helicopter since the world doesn’t bear up very well under close scrutiny. The roads are kept busy with scattered vehicles, pedestrians in the middle of nowhere walking nowhere, and civilians in cities waiting to cower or run. You might find a few vignettes if you take time to look for them. The police and the non-police sometimes fight. Someone launches a mortar somewhere for some reason. A llama will actually spit at you. Cute. The usual Ubistuff is present, but without a gameplay support structure, it feels pointless. Want to hunt for skill points? Gun parts? Upgrades for your useless gadgets? No? Oh well. In Far Cry 2, the convoys mattered. The Ghost Recon: Wildlands convoys only relate to the skill tree you don’t care about. Because this world is more scenery than game, it’s curiously inert, standing by until you get to the shooting and exploding cars.
Ubisoft also opted out of deciding whether this a single-player game with AI teammates or a multiplayer co-op game. There is no answer. It’s both and neither. The AI plays too much of the game for you and it does so clumsily. Your teammates cling to you magically, insistently, like clingy girlfriends. I can imagine the meetings during the development. “So, uh, what if the player drives away before the AI dudes get in the car? Or what if he flies away in a helicopter? Right now, they just teleport to the player, even straight into his speeding car, without so much as a bampf sound effect. It’s rather silly.”
Everyone in the room looks at each other. There is an awkward silence. No one has an answer.
“Kevin made a spitting animation for the llamas,” someone finally says.
“Oh, cool, let’s check that out. We’ll worry about this other thing later.”
So your teammates crawl around in plain sight of bad guys, who politely don’t notice them. How frustrating would it be if the already imprecise stealth were premised on the realtime interaction of lines of sight and AI pathfinding? And just so you can’t ignore your teammates, they weigh in with a dumb joke, or a supposedly funny anecdote, or a hardened cynical observation about the world being fucked up. Ugh, Ubisoft writing. You can skip the cutscenes but you can’t tell your AI teammates to shut up. They all hang half out the window of the little sedan you’re driving — you’re on the way to a helicopter — to let rip with their assault rifles at some bad guy who was standing by the side of the road. It’s like your car has sprouted mercenaries. “So lemme tell you about this one time in Lebanon when I shit my pants,” one of them begins. It’s like you’re playing Saints Row up in here.
Okay, so maybe Ghost Recon Wildlands is trying to tell you something with its ubiquitous join game button, with its reminder that you’re online, with your friends list helpfully hogging the side of the screen when you start a game. Maybe this is mainly a multiplayer game, like Overwatch, League of Legends, or chess. If so, it’s lacking any sort of framework or incentive for multiplayer. As soon as someone joins your game, the AI teammates instantly vanish. Now your permanently invisible, always 100% accurate, mostly invulnerable squad that would always resurrect you is replaced by whomever joined.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The character and weapon progression is so generic that it doesn’t matter if you and your friends are just spinning your wheels, spitting ammo, and getting to the chopper. So what if the game is harder? As I’ve always said, I would rather play a bad multiplayer game with friends than a good single player game alone. But I would also rather play a good multiplayer game with friends than a bad multiplayer game with friends. I would rather play a multiplayer game with meaningful character builds, ability progression, weapon unlocks, and open-world traversal. This has none of those things, so why are we playing this instead of Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, or even Watch Dogs?
Ghost Recon: Wildlands doesn’t have an answer.