When Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands was first unveiled at Ubisoft's E3 2015 press conference, it initiated a guessing game among GameSpot staff members. Ubisoft's open-world action formula has become easily identifiable: many of the animations, many of the trailers' techniques and camera angles, many of the gameplay hooks are shared between Ubisoft series, so when the first glimpses of Wildlands arrived, the challenge was set. There is a large and attractive open world here, along with both stealth- and action-focused gunplay. Could this be Far Cry? No--the four men on screen were wearing military gear, and recent Far Cry protagonists were certainly not soldiers. Could this be a new brand? Probably not; after all, Ubisoft is already juggling enough action brands without needing to confuse its stable with another one. It was absolutely not a new Watch Dogs, and so we settled on Ghost Recon as the brand attached to the cooperative open-world game that sprawled before us.
In a pleasant case of serendipity, we happened to be right. The trailer left with me a lingering question, however: what more could Ubisoft do with an open-world shooting game that it wasn't already doing with Far Cry? Wildland's Bolivian setting and its narrative focus on the country's drug trade aside, this regime seemed covered. What does Ghost Recon gain by becoming more like another Ubisoft franchise?
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Seeing the full game in action answered these questions, and in a memorable way. Ghost Recon: Wildlands does not fully escape Far Cry's shadow, but after only a few minutes of gameplay, there was no confusing this game for the series that brought us Jason Brody's drug-infused, tattoo-driven journey, or Ajay Ghale's violent search for the roots of his past. Where Far Cry maintains an element of goofiness, Ghost Recon: Wildlands' fantasy is a self-serious military one in which you and up to three other special operations soldiers perform missions aimed at disrupting the Bolivian drug trade. These soldiers, of course, are the ghosts, and the hushed and dramatic way Ubisoft's presenters referred to the ghosts at a behind-the-scenes gameplay demo set the stage for the dead-serious missions that followed. (Though to be fair, like the company's incessantly affected seriousness when depicting player communication is more laughable than immersive.)
The ghosts' goal in the demo? To retrieve a snitch who has been imprisoned by the local cartel for his loose lips. As the live demo began, all four players were separated from each other. One was motorcycling through the mountains, one was driving a buggy across rocky terrain, another was enjoying a lush Bolivian landscape, while another yet approached a local informant on foot, hoping to shake down some intel on the target's location. This ghost performed a familiar Ubisoft-game move by marking enemies by aiming at them through his weapons' sights, and later, by deploying a flying drone that revealed the most perilous danger zones.
A few mechanics during this scene and subsequent ones gave the demo that peculiar violent crackle that Tom Clancy games so frequently possess. Firstly, simultaneous stealth takedowns allowed ghosts to remain unobserved, choking their enemies in time with each other as an extra layer of caution. Additionally, cartel cronies make for excellent meat shields should you find yourself in trouble. This was a helpful move when the ghosts alerted nearby goons: grab a guard from behind, and fire at the other bad guys with your sidearm while they try to avoid gunning down their own compatriot.
Another intriguing element arose as all four ghosts finally converged and approached a nearby village. The village was celebrating for unknown reasons, so citizens cluttered the area, making a surreptitious takedown of the corrupt government's military mercenaries all the wiser. Ubisoft representatives invoked the age-old "living, breathing ecosystem" pitch to describe the world and its emergent/scripted behaviors, but I'll give WIldlands credit: the pitch seemed apt. The villagers danced and mingled as a concert played, and the deployed drone spotted a farmer's market from overhead. The ghosts were seeking a helicopter here, for it would make the perfect getaway vehicle for them and the snitch in question. Mission success was a matter of slinking through tall grass and performing a number of synchronized takedowns, just out of view of the innocent Bolivians enjoying the concert just a few feet away.
Flying off with the chopper required the ghosts to down another crowd of hostiles. However, the bad guys of Bolivia are not all marked with a single "enemy" designation. Tensions run high between the game's various AI factions, and you can use that to your advantage. In this case, the ghosts sniped a faction leader in the midst of an argument with a military commander. This lone bullet sparked an all out skirmish, making it easier for the ghosts to gun their way to victory as the hostiles divided their attentions between the faction that had wronged them and the ghosts that approached from below.
The four ghosts boarded the chopper and flew off towards their final destination. As they reached their goal, two of them parachuted from the helicopter, planning to sneak into the cartel's camp and free their target without raising the suspicions of others within the camp. And as it happened, the ghosts pulled off their plan without a hitch. With the snitch freed from his cage, the two ghosts on foot forced him into the trunk of a nearby sedan and drove away, honing in on a rendezvous point where the target could be transferred to the copter. As is so often the case when drug cartels are involved, violence soon erupted, but the sedan's armed passenger, and the helicopter's mounted gun, made short work of the attackers. Once the switch to the chopper was made, the ghosts flew off towards the mountains and the demo ended, leaving me wishing for more.
What grabbed me wasn't Ubisoft's promise that Ghost Recon; Wildlands was the largest open world the company had ever created, but rather that the missions populating this world opened up so many opportunities for military role-playing. Far Cry supports stealth, of course, but these four-person tactics are incredibly appealing to anyone who's ever fancied themselves special operatives in a political hotspot. Ubisoft's presenters refer to WIldlands as a playground, but what struck me about the game wasn't its playfulness, but its solemn earnestness. If Far Cry 4 is aimed primarily at cooperative comedians, then Ghost Recon: Wildlands is for straight-faced allies ready to believe in their cause.