Into the Wildlands: Ghost Recon Revisited

In advance of the open beta and release of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands, and as a longtime fan of squad-based shooters since PlayStation 2 era games like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Jungle Storm, I wanted to share my impressions of the closed beta. The latter game, incidentally, had a somewhat similar setup, though the open world of Wildlands is a first and a large reason for my enthusiasm.

Since my last experience with the series was Advanced Warfighter 2 10 years ago, I’ll refrain from making any direct comparisons and instead focus on my impressions after about four to six hours of play time. The real challenge for Ubisoft is whether or not they can create a meaningfully different squad-based tactical shooter to compete with the glut of run-and-gun arcade style shooters that saturate the genre.

If you know anything about me, you know that I love character creation tools (above, top). The extent to which they allow players to construct a reasonably unique avatar alongside developer creations is a big draw for wannabe game designers. To that end, the available tools do offer a measure of customization that is satisfying to a point, but falls short of more detailed — and deep — offerings found elsewhere.

Still, I did enjoy finding a relatively unique combination of physical characteristics, including clothing options that are fairly robust for any game. Mixing and matching clothing and accessories was a worthwhile experience considering the faithful adaptation rendered in third-person action and cut scene depictions (above, bottom). One option that was missed: A camera that pans out to a full-body view during selection.

The overall presentation was generally good, though the game could use some polish prior to release. The lighting is a standout, whether shadows, filters, flares, reflections, etc., as is water animation. Draw distance is well implemented to create impressive vistas. Particle effects including fires and explosions are good, character animation is decent and the world is generally well designed.

But textures could be more detailed and sound more dynamic.Character models in particular can seem a little rough at times, including random people such as a male rebel whose facial features and expression appeared more crazed then anything else. Also, edges at times can seem too linear. Clipping is a common issue as well. Of course, there might be time to address these prior to release.

When scouting an objective or any area, your drone is an easy and efficient tool for reconnaissance. The default range is relatively short, as is its duration, so launching it from nearby is more effective. But the drone, like other tools or weapons, can be upgraded for better utility. Besides allowing players to tag enemies, it will call out officers and other noteworthy personnel or objects in the immediate area.

Commands are fundamental to any successful squad-based shooter, including Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, Brothers in Arms and Full Spectrum Warrior, to name a few. In Wildlands, squad commands are fairly simple, limited to Fire, Hold, Go To and Regroup. Importantly, squadmates respond well to commands. They also tend to follow nearby and are proficient with their weapons.

However, it can be a challenge to get everyone inside a vehicle/helicopter, squadmates can lag behind you if you’re sprinting, and they don’t appear to always respond in kind to enemy fire. This means I sometimes have to reposition vehicles/choppers, wait for my squad to catch up, or command them to fire on attacking foes. These rarely were problems, but might be something Ubisoft can tighten up.

One half of the command radial that I wasn’t able to execute was Rebel Support. These options unlock as players progress and include Vehicle Drop-Off, Guns for Hire, Mortar, Diversion and Spotting. No doubt these will provide helpful options once unlocked, but in the meantime, rebels did intervene at times, providing extra support depending on the situation.

Firefights provide the foundation for Wildlands gameplay and proved fun and entertaining. The basic structure for such encounters includes scouting an enemy fortification, tagging foes and objectives, sniping enemy outliers, and assaulting remaining foes. I would try to exploit the element of surprise whenever I could, though inevitably I’d have to abandon a more cautious approach in favor of all-out assault.

The open world of Wildlands affords several opportunities for approaching each scenario. Players can arrive by vehicle/chopper or on foot. Either way, most enemy positions will have multiple access points. Varied elevations also help, whether hillside, guard tower or multistory building. Such defensible positions with clear vantage points are effective for picking off multiple foes.

One design element that is appreciated is how your enemy is spread out, typically in groups of two or three patrolling assigned areas. The main reason this helps is that enemy AI did not appear to be especially savvy. Some foes do take cover sometimes, but often they’ll stand in the open or advance in a similar fashion.

When spread out, foes will advance on your location from several directions, at least giving the impression of flanking your position. Situational awareness then becomes important as you have to cover every direction. Players’ HUD and minimap help in this regard, indicating the position and orientation of tagged foes, as well as the direction of incoming fire.

Gunplay is well designed, providing for precision targeting and solid hit detection, whether standing, crouching or prone. Headshots are lethal. And squadmates provide solid backup, particularly when commanded to Fire. But when overwhelmed by enemy forces, it’s less a result of clever AI then a consequence of superior numbers. Thankfully, you and your squad have the option to revive each other.

Reviving teammates is context-sensitive, so when approaching an injured comrade, a revive icon will appear and allow gamers to do so. But if you’re not able to reach your teammate, or if you yourself are incapacitated, your squad provides a reliable backup for keeping each other in the fight. It’s possible at times to have multiple teammates felled, but a cautious approach can typically avoid such scenarios.

It should be noted that, to the best of my recollection, there is no traditional cover system, as in some modern shooters, whereby gamers can press a button to stick to certain cover. However, players can crouch behind cover and pop out from behind it to aim and fire. This means having to reposition from time to time to find the best cover. It doesn’t help that some objects such as chain link fences prevent players from shooting through despite allowing enemy bullets to penetrate.

Gunfights provide a good example of clipping issues, such as felled enemies that will disappear into the environment or even your own character phasing in and out of objects. I don’t recall that this impacted gameplay in any significant way, and might be patched prior to the game’s release. One humorous issue, though, was when I was incapacitated driving a vehicle solo and, instead of reviving me, my teammates could only enter and sit still while I slowly died.

The environment affords opportunities for restocking supplies and for looting items such as weapons or tools, including unlocking specific weapons by discovering certain weapons caches, if I recall correctly, But more importantly there are menus for upgrading one’s arsenal by switching equipped weapons or weapon parts. I only unlocked a sniper rifle and upgraded its scope, so I can’t attest to how robust the feature is, though there appears to be a variety of guns and parts to choose from.

There are story missions and side missions available throughout the map. I didn’t make much if any progress in the story missions, though to be honest the setup of combating the Santa Blanca cartel in Bolivia seemed threadbare and lacking any emotional connection to the characters to begin with. Granted, Battlefield: Bad Company stories and characterizations are rare, but a more robust narrative has been suggested so I’ll hope for the best.

The side missions, at least, were fun even if the few I played were relatively standard in their objective. Missions can involve capturing and interrogating cartel lieutenants for information, though interrogations are limited to scripted moments. Other objectives include freeing/escorting captives and stealing vehicles, the former proving not as frustrating as can be the case in other shooters.

Regardless of the mission at hand, the standard gameplay of scouting and assaulting enemy strongholds is consistently employed, and in those cases it’s always an enjoyable exercise utilizing all one’s tools and arsenal. The fact that the beta only scrapes the surface where such options are concerned means the final build should provide considerable depth each scenario.

It wasn’t until later in my beta playtime that I actually commandeered helicopter gunships, which proved fun for attacking enemy positions in advance of a ground assault. With the option to command squadmates to fire on the enemy, which also applies when driving ground transportation, aerial assaults were effective alternatives for taking on enemy fortifications.

The only problem is that vehicle and helicopter controls are not completely responsive. Vehicles are floaty and do not hug the road, so corrections while steering are sometimes necessary. Likewise, the turning radius for helicopters seems off, so compensating for that is required. Adding insult to injury, the in-flight camera doesn’t stay behind in a turn, so players have to correct for that as well.

Bottom line, betas by their nature of course are not perfect. There can be plenty of presentation and gameplay elements still in need of perfecting during the interim between the beta and the final build, and no doubt Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands will undergo such improvements. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the closed beta and am looking forward to the open beta.

The open world of Wildlands is impressive in its design, vehicles/aircraft provide transportation options, squad control is effective, character loadouts provide depth, and gunplay is well implemented. Gameplay options are much more varied than the beta demonstrated, which provides promise for even deeper play. All in all, the game is entertaining, despite its current imperfections.

I look forward to more playtime in the open beta and final build, and encourage anyone with even a passing interest to give Wildlands a try.

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