At its core, Ghost Recon: Wildlands is about information gathering. The drug dealers and terrorists you kill are just obstacles between your special ops unit and whatever clues you uncover. Hacking an enemy's computer or interrogating a wanted lieutenant can reveal half a dozen more leads and you're given the freedom to decide which lead to pursue next. Wildlands' openness and the flexibility of choice has, so far, been one of its strengths. Moreover, the first 10 hours of my playthrough amply provided a diverse sampling of what the greater game promises. It took little time to knock out the first batch of objectives, sample the local vehicles, and get reacquainted with the series' style of tactical gameplay.
Wildlands marks Ghost Recon's first foray into an open world, where its Bolivian setting is a playground of both destruction and distraction. You can infiltrate a stronghold with the best of stealthy intentions but you have to be prepared to wreck havoc the moment you're spotted. And the path to every main quest destination is littered with potential detours, whether it be an optional piece of intel or a medal that gives you a bonus skill point.
Ghost Recon's wild lands are expansive enough that using a helicopter is a practical method of transportation, given that the rocky region you start at isn't especially off-road friendly. The best part of taking a helicopter is jumping out of it and surprising enemies from above, provided you've unlocked the Parachute skill. Think of Wildlands as a less cartoony take on the Just Cause series with the all-business seriousness one expects from a Tom Clancy game.
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Given the pre-launch videos and trailers' emphases on wanton mayhem and nondescript missions with friends, it was pleasing to watch a couple scene-setting cinematics shortly after firing up Wildlands. Even with the open world setting, I'm hopeful that it retains the series' emphasis on narrative and goal-driven missions. The ultimate goal is to take out El Sueño, the leader of the Santa Blanca drug cartel that essentially runs Bolivia. Your CIA contact, Karen Bowman also has a vindictive score to settle as one of her friends in the DEA was kidnapped and tortured to death by Santa Blanca. While revenge is a valid enough reason to upend a narco-state in the Clancyverse, I suspect that Karen might have other motives.
Forming squads has been one of Wildlands' more intriguing features during these initial hours. In keeping with Ghost Recon's history of team foursomes, having a full squad made up of your friends is the ideal experience. So far, a team of four humans with at least a modicum of experience in tactical shooters is a powerhouse in Wildlands even though enemy headcounts adjust to scale with the size of your team. Players who already have a squad in mind might want to consider starting off the game at the highest difficulty. However, playing solo with a squad of three AI companions offers its own unique benefits. When coordinating a synchronized kill of three targets, the AI is reasonably efficient in moving to reach line of sight within seconds. And they're more durable than your friends when taking fire, which is immensely helpful if they're out in the open healing you. What is puzzling is that you can't have a mixed team of humans and AI. If you and a friend are playing a private session, you can't round off your team with two AI operatives. What's all the more amusing is that you can still hear the story-related banter between all four squadmates.
There's comfort in falling into a tactical routine with your buddies as you reach the perimeter of every enemy outpost. This infiltration cycle begins when you use your tiny drone to survey the stronghold and mark all visible enemies. The ability to track marked enemies through multiple walls feels like cheating, though it hasn't diminished the appeal of the many other Tom Clancy games that use this feature. The openness of Wildlands makes this feature all the more essential and helps your team decide on the best strategy. It remains to be seen whether Wildlands retains the same gadget appeal of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier later on in the game, though perhaps a drone is all the advanced tech you need in Bolivia.
In the 10 hours I've spent on the road to liberate Bolivia of El Sueño's rule, I've unlocked 20-percent of the map. As I've slowly made my way through the hit list of underlings, I've been curious about the risks of sticking to the critical path, and whether there's such as thing as being underleveled in Wildlands. That said, it's been easy to take brief detours to earn extra experience and skills, thanks to the added efficiency of my teammates, AI-controlled or otherwise. Whatever path my journey takes, I know it will involve more diversions to earn extra abilities, the takedowns of the boss' lieutenants, and the elimination of El Sueño himself, which I estimate will take an additional 30 to 40 hours. Stay tuned for our full review in the coming days.