In 2016, there were approximately 743 games released. That is a staggering number of titles vying for the attentions of consumers. The most recognizable of these names are distinguished from the genres that they excel at; for example, Grand Theft Auto is the grand daddy of open world gameplay, Stardew Valley has set a new standard in farming management sims, and so on. These become the superlative in our industry; Saints Row becomes “like Grand Theft Auto but silly” and any upcoming game in the farming sim genre will become “like Stardew Valley but without the nicest and most humble independent developer on the planet”. These superlatives are reductive, but largely helpful; after all, in a landscape dominated with triple-A titles competing for your attention and indie games slipping under the radar, these comparisons might inspire confidence in the consumer to purchase a product if it is similar to something they know.
This brings me to Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands. The Ghost Recon franchise is part of the tactical shooter genre, meaning that tactics, caution and creative approaches to problems will trump quick wit and fast reflexes. Their previous entries, from the inaugural Ghost Recon through to Advanced Warfighter 2, were brutally difficult, punishing any tactical missteps with a bullet to the knackers, and getting kicked back to the start. It was harsh, but with a team of three other players, it became a tense game of methodical steps forward, fighting clever AI in order to complete a mission. The franchise, then, is rooted in teamwork and cooperation against impossible odds, and Ghost Recon became the gold standard in its field because it offered this particular brand of cooperative challenge against adversity. What I got from Ghost Recon: Wildlands was something that was almost there, but lost something in its execution.
I started playing the game in a single player configuration. Just me and my squaddies, like good ol’ 2006 in the slobberknocker that was Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter. After sitting through the opening cutscene – which is the equivalent of what an online story generator would spit out if you inputted “elite team of American soldiers”, “South American revolution” and “Tom Clancy” – I got dropped immediately into an introductory mission to save an important member of the rebel movement. What is missing from this single player experience is the ability to actively control your own squad mates. Instead, you have two ways to control them; you have a synchronized shot feature where you can mark a target to be killed with perfect accuracy, or shoot at another person for a two-for-one with your squadmate. You can also perform an “ordered assault” while you are in a vehicle, where your three dudes reach out of the windows and fire at whoever is nearby with perfect accuracy. I should mention that the latter is a toggle, which means if you forget to turn it off, your squad becomes a pack of indiscriminate drive-by hooligans.
“Really, officer, we are all completely unarmed.”
The problem with removing this control is three-fold. Firstly, it takes a significant amount of tactical control away from you as the leader of a crack team, except for the flimsiest of pixel perfect assistance when you need to scrape through. Second, the AI are damn near invincible at all but the highest of difficulty levels, allowing them to sweep through with deadly efficiency while you flounder in the rear. Finally, and most crucially, your squad is as dumb as bricks. When I was taking fire from a covered position, their response was to come from the flank through enemy fire and sit next to me in my cover, instead of simply flanking the attacker and moving forward with the mission. Hell, there is even an upgrade in single player for improving the “effectiveness” of your squad-mates. What you have are three very powerful but stupid automaton babysitters that ruin any trace of tactics that you had sitting in the back of your mind. I mean, if the only punishment for going in guns blazing is falling over waiting for a squad mate to brave the thrown pebbles of your enemies and dust you off, why wouldn’t you just save the time and clean house like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando?
It was at this point where I thought to myself that the multiplayer aspect would help Wildlands’ case; if the AI are stupid and cripple the very core of the game, maybe playing with three other people that actually want to be sneaky and tactical would help matter slightly, and it did or the most part. The first mission was ten times more interesting, with our squad working with the efficiency I expect from trained killers. Credit where credit is due, when there are four people committed to the game, the game shines. In the small moment by moment action, there are stories to be told and victories to be had. Alas, where the open world expands, the scope of the gameplay loses focus, and devolves into the same sequence of missions over and over again. The moments of camaraderie are fantastic, and then you get in a car and do it all again in another five minutes.
War torn South American country here we come weeeeeeeeeee
The issue at the core of Ghost Recon: Wildlands is that the series has attempted to offer an adaptation of the core of their franchise; a tactical shooter augmented by its open world. Freedom is what the game offers to the tactical shooter landscape, and they succeeded in granting that freedom. The problem in this freedom is that good tactical play thrives on working around limitations in what you have. The best parts of previous Ghost Recon games were set in working against the odds, and while the story has you believe that you are four men against the might of two militant forces, you cannot convince me of that when I can hunker down with a single sniper and systematically take down one person at a time for five minutes without a single opportunity for tension. The game, for all of its posturing and attempts to feel complicated, is simply too easy. It has torn down the challenges of tactics for the sake of homogenizing its cooperative focus, giving players the illusion of a victory without giving them the pathos that its predecessors had.
I have been tearing the game a new asshole for about seven paragraphs, but the game itself is not bad. The gun-play is solid enough, and it is a decent open world with enough variety so that it does not become stale too quickly. The problem, for me, resides in the franchise’s namesake, and that is the point I began to make at the beginning. Ubisoft have created three distinctly different tactical shooters of late: The Division, Rainbow Six: Siege, and Ghost Recon: Wildlands. They offer the same brand of tactical shooter in different flavors, and they have to distinguish themselves from each other in some way. The Division had the open-world blend of PvP and PvE combat, and Rainbow Six: Siege has the fine-tuned, adversarial tactical shooter. With those two taking up different sectors of versus multiplayer, it is the mantle of cooperative tactical experience that Wildlands shoulders, and this is its greatest weakness. The game has been forced to take on a joviality, a spring in its step that the franchise has never needed. I am not saying the game cannot be fun; what I am saying is I would rather earn my gold stars through adversity, rather than be given them for simply participating in the world they have provided.
To cut to brass tacks, it feels like the jump between Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV. The former found something that it was good at, honed it to a point, and was praised for it, while the latter leaned too heavily on the wrong focus, and hoped that its former strength would prop up its shortcomings. The truth is, in a world that demands a certain quality in its triple A releases, it is not enough to be simply good. The best titles have one thing that they do better than everyone else, to the point where they are a standard in their field, and let everything else enhance that strength. Wildlands has done what no franchise should do: sacrifice the core mission of their games to conform to a social trend. Ghost Recon was arguably the gold standard in cooperative tactical shooter, and with its openness and buddy cop simplicity diluting the formula, the whole game is weakened. I step away, playing Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter and getting torn to shreds with compatriots, and feel better for it.
Image credits go to GameSpot and JollyRoger for the banner, and Stevivor and DesignYouTrust for the in-text images.