Located in the heart of South America, a fictionalized Bolivia has become a narco-state almost overnight due to the ambitions of the head of the Santa Blanca drug cartel. An elite unit of the US Military, known as the Ghosts, have been sent in to restore order to the country, ensuring the safety of the locals civilians, and the drug cartel has been shut down; permanently. Directing the operation is CIA agent Karen Bowman, who has vengeance on her mind and possibly ulterior motives when an undercover DEA agent and friend of hers is tortured and executed, and a bomb goes off in the US Embassy. With the drug cartel running the country due to corrupt government officials, and the heavily armed Unidad military are turning a blind eye to the entire situation unless provoked, the Ghosts only ally is a ragtag group of resistance members.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands marks the first time the series has moved from a mission-driven experience to an entirely open world sandbox, allowing players to tackle story missions and optional objectives at their leisure. The country is broken up into various provinces, each one representing different elements of the Santa Blanca’s drug empire; security, production, influence, and smuggling. All of the provinces are rated based on their difficulty, meaning the higher the rating, the more trouble you’ll run into. Without unlocking additional skills, or upgrading your weapons, immediately trying to take on a more challenging province will prove fatal. The game still retains the tactical feel that made the series famous, so don't expect to find bullet-sponge enemies like in The Division.
In keeping with the series tradition, your team is comprised of four highly specialized military agents. You’ll overhear banter between characters whether you are playing solo or online with friends. If you are playing solo, you will always have three AI controlled companions that you are unable to customized. Each comes with their own set of equipment, none of which can be changed. While you won’t have the sheer amount of freedom available to you when playing with other players, there are still some skills that can come in handy. When approaching an enemy base, you can synchronize targets for each one of your companions. They will move into position with relative ease, and even keep line of sight on their respectful targets. They do a rather decent enough job to heal you when you go down and can take what seems like more punishment than human players.
If you don't want to utilize a stealthy approach, you can order them to target any nearby enemies. They will even hang out of a helicopter and even a moving vehicles. Besides having them regroup on your location or sending all three of them to a single spot, you don't have much control over their actions. They will never get behind the wheel of a car and often find themselves stuck in the ground of other bits of geometry. Surprisingly, you can’t have a mix of human and AI players. Once another player joins, the AI soldiers will disappear, yet they continue to chatter as if they were still there.
Although the game takes place in a third-person perspective, you do have the option to toggle between an over the shoulder camera or a first-person when aiming down the sight of your gun. Of course, there are exceptions such as using a sniper rifle, but I found myself exclusively aiming in third-person in almost every encounter.
Approaching an enemy stronghold on multiple fronts and by using different means of transportation provides a refreshing and rewarding sense of accomplishment. This is something that you'll only find by playing Ghost Recon: Wildlands online. In one encounter, I was forced to parachute out of a helicopter that was spinning out of control (and on fire), landing on top of a convey truck, while two others bailed out of a speeding pickup strapped with C4, while the fourth provided cover fire from a high-powered rifle. Obviously, it didn’t go exactly according to plan, but it was a worthwhile and fun experience. Main missions do have a fail state, where if triggered, you will have to try again nearby the mission objective. This comes in multiple varieties, such as the intended target escaping, a vehicle you were supposed to steal explodes or killing too many civilians.
Failing side missions isn't the end of the world, as it just means you have to wait until it reappears on your tactical map. Considering there are so many things you can do at any given moment, you can easily accomplish another task while waiting. Some collectibles can provide bonus skill points to spend, and others grant you a new ability outright, but unlocking or upgrading skills also requires you to have supplies. Supplies are broken into four different categories, with each tied to specific skill points/upgrades. Scattered around towns and outposts, you may find an oil drum or a cache of medical supplies, each only providing a small boost to your supply total. You can complete supply raids missions that offer thousands of supply points if you are successful. These require you to intercept a convoy truck, steal a helicopter/plane or race between radio towers.
A huge element to the game is customizing the appearance of your character. While you won’t be able to alter the gender of your character after the initial character creation, you are free to change everything else. Most importantly, you’ll unlock new articles of clothing as you complete missions. There are a ton of various types of appeal to mix and match, as well as a large selection of colors. While I opted for a heavily tattooed, female with slim fitting black jeans, a black tank top, and no tactical vest, I’ve come across others online with full ghillie suits, bright blue hoodies, and even a skull bandana.
The customization also extends to your weapons, as additional parts can be earned, and found during missions. There are countless scopes, grips, stocks, muzzles, triggers, etc., that can be swapped at any given moment. There are also dozens of paint options for your weapons, letting you change all parts at once, or each one individually for a unique and custom look.
I should also point out that there is an in-game store that uses credits that can be purchased with real-life currency. While the game doesn’t feature a player vs. player (PvP) game mode as of yet, the store does sell cosmetic items, as well as new weapons, attachments, and experience boosters.
Skills are broken up into five different branching paths, providing you with additional stamina, better hip fire accuracy, new explosive gadgets, improvements to your drone and more. One is focused entirely on having AI teammates, so you don’t need to spend any skill points if you don't plan to play alone. If you do, maxing out sync shots is a must. Besides your skill trees, you can unlock rebel support by completing certain side missions. All of these are tied to a lengthy cooldown, ensuring you aren't able to spam them. Although there are five different ones, I only used the vehicle drop-off, which spawns a car near your location, and the mortar strikes when trying to take out an enemy base.
Although Ghost Recon: Wildlands has one of the biggest open-world landscapes, complete with no loading as you move between provinces, some technical issues come along with it. Each of the provinces has a unique feel, and you’ll be flying over dirt and snow covered mountains one moment, to driving across salt flats the next. For the most part, the game engine keeps up with the action, even when you are facing enemies in the low double digits. However, when you add large-scale explosions, helicopters and enemy reinforcements at the same time, the framerate can become quite choppy. It’s only a momentary setback but does put a damper on what is otherwise a smooth performing game. Outside of that, I did experience the occasional online sync issues between players. You may initially chuckle at it, but there have been times where someone appears to be traveling outside a vehicle instead of sitting inside it.
Ubisoft's gamble on transitioning the tactical shooter Ghost Recon: Wildlands to an open world sandbox has been a nonstop enjoyable thrill ride. You’ll likely find yourself sidetracked by something you see on your map on the way to a mission, such as a collecting a medal, or a new weapon/accessory. I’ve spent ample amount of time traversing the mountainous landscape, driving offroad, even straight off cliffs, as well as buzzing treetops in a helicopter. The journey to the missions themselves is almost as enjoyable as completing the missions. The narrative does pay off in the end but takes a backseat to the game's cooperative gameplay.Note: Ghost Recon: Wildlands was reviewed on PlayStation 4. A digital copy of the game provided by the publisher.