You have to hand it to Ubisoft, they certainly know how to make a strong open world.
Plenty of others before me have pointed out that there’s a similarity between a number of Ubisoft-developed titles, at least in terms of the world that’s been crafted. Whether it’s Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, or Watch Dogs, there’s always a sense of familiarity.
I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, mind you. Familiar can be good, and I’ve never not had at least a few hours of fun, harmless dicking about in a Ubisoft open world.
So, as we approach the launch of the Ubisoft Paris-developed Ghost Recon: Wildlands, I had to ask: Does the game do much to change up the tried and tested formula, or does it shake things up in new and interesting ways?
After four hours with the game, my immediate answer was; not really, no.
Wildlands is set – as you may already know – in a near future Bolivia, which has been taken over by the Santa Bianca drug cartel. It’s a preposterous concept, but one that allows America (fuck yeah!) to come in and save the day by shooting lots and lots of guns. So as the set up for an excuse to go kill loads of people, it’s fine.
Your first task is to customise your very own character. It’s not quite as in-depth as a Bethesda character builder (although I was never one to spend hours adjusting chin height, anyway).
Instead, you can customise in fairly broader strokes: gender, skin tone, hair, scars, tattoos, shades, that sort of thing. There’s still enough to change that all of the journalists in attendance had markedly different avatars. Some went for the traditional stealthy solider look, while I found a checked shirt and decided to go for the ‘grizzled lumberjack with eye scar’ style (it’s in this season).
Diving straight into the game after I was happy with my character (who I named Victor Von Die-Hard in my head), and was struck by the fact that through the minor act of customisation, I immediately felt more connected to the world.
I then set off on my first mission, and was immediately unable to shake thoughts of Far Cry 4 from my head. Stealth seemed to be the order of the day, and it wasn’t long before I was tagging enemies, planning the best route for a swift attack, promptly blowing my cover and engaging in a loud shoot-out that attracted the entire base.
It was plenty of fun, to be sure, but not a million miles away from the kind of shenanigans I got up to in Ubisoft’s 2014 open world collectandshootathon (a new word, made up by me).
There is one major difference, though: When you play solo, you’re accompanied by three AI players, who you can dish out commands to. This does, to be fair, add a layer of strategy not really seen in Far Cry.
For example, if you need to take out multiple enemies quickly and without a fuss, you can mark one for an AI teammate to take out. They won’t fire until you act, and in my experience they never missed and always got the job done.
One of the most impressive things about my solo play time was just how smart my three AI buds acted, whether in stealth situations or in the heat of battle, I felt I could trust them to get on with it. Still, there are options to boss them around if you feel they aren’t flying just right.
An hour or so with the AI isn’t enough to say for certain how obtrusive (or unobtrusive) they’ll be in the final product, but I can say that it’s looking good based on what I’ve seen, and offers a genuinely interesting way to play.
The rest of my solo play session was spent driving around the gorgeous open world, admiring the lovely weather effects taking in the sights, getting into fights, gathering intel and tagging supply crates for skill points and weapon upgrades.
To sum up my first sixty odd minutes of Ghost Recon: Wildlands then, I’d say I was impressed with the scope and scale of the game, if a little underwhelmed by the feeling that I’d done it all before.
We then assembled into teams of four for the multiplayer portion of the playtest, and I felt like I immediately got ‘the point’ of the game.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands, is absolutely made to play with three friends, and when you have actual humans in the role of your previously artificial compatriots, the open world game truly opens up.
Obviously, as soon as your team are capable of thinking for themselves, they can make their own choices – and more crucially their own mistakes.
Similarly, everything you decide to do will now impact your team, and you really don’t wanna be the guy that blows cover or accidentally shoots an informant (although all four of us were definitely that guy at some point).
It might just be because it was four relative strangers playing together that I suddenly found multiplayer in Wildlands to be a much more difficult and punishing experience, but I didn’t mind it at all.
Our first big mission together was to extract one bad guy (which means get them out and to a certain point alive), while taking out ten or so others but simultaneously keeping another guy alive who was secretly on our side but would start to get shot at as soon as we made ourselves known.
It took us somewhere between eight and 10 attempts – I genuinely lost count. But, what really surprised me was that the countless failures never really got annoying, and while I can’t speak for my teammates, I was always ready to jump back in and try things a little differently.
With every death, we learned a little bit more about how best to approach the situation and work out who should do what. The very first time, we all went in guns blazing without deciding on targets – it was a mess.
Somewhere around the fifth time, the informant got away in a car. We decided two of us would give chase while the other two stayed to fight off the remaining cartel. An enemy chopper found us and blew us all to hell, but we were getting there.
After a while, we finally realised the best plan of action was for one of us to simply pinch the informant and get him to the extraction point while the other three distracted the rest of the cartel with a good old fashioned shootout. Lives were lost, but we’d finally done it.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands is good as a single-player experience, there’s no doubt about that. But multiplayer really is what makes it a special, intense, rewarding, and often genuinely hilarious adventure.
While you’ll doubtless have very different experiences with friends depending on their skill levels, you’ll always have a great time fucking around in the virtual playground Ubisoft has built for us.
Like all good multiplayer games, Wildlands encourages experimentation and player-made moments of madness – we’ll doubtless be seeing plenty of insane tricks, stunts and kills in the months after launch
Given what happened with Watch Dogs 2’s ‘seamless multiplayer’ at launch, I’m a little worried as to how well Wildlands will run online come March, but if Ubisoft can make sure it goes smoothly, I can guarantee anyone interested in this game will be in for a treat.