When confronted with touchy geopolitical complexities, the Ubisoft 'map game' meets its match
From the moment it was announced at last year's E3 show, it’s been clear that the real star of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands – the latest open world extravaganza from Ubisoft Montreal – is its gigantic map. One of the first abilities Wildlands grants you is parachuting; inevitably, your next step is fly as high as you can and surveil the landscape like a drone. I don’t know how many square miles Wildlands’ lawless rendition of Bolivia is splayed across, but it’s enough that I gave up trying to drive its perimeter.
It’s really too bad, then, that Wildlands absolutely fails to live up to the promise of the world it brings into being. Wildlands is very nearly the Platonic ideal of what AV Club's Clayton Purdom recently dubbed a "map game," a genre (or, really, a philosophy) of game design that entails building a massive world and filling it with a nearly limitless pile of shit to do. Ubisoft is the map game's most dedicated practitioner, and Wildlands stretches this form to its outer limits.
In my first set of impressions of Wildlands, I suggested that the game feels like a hasty packing job, stuffed with several games worth of content with no regard for how any of it fits together. The game is outfitted with the standard-issue rigging that accompanies every other Ubisoft open world game – meaning that there are plentiful waypoints, dynamic side quests, collectibles, outposts, and supply drops. Taken together, they all grossly inflate the amount of time you could spend in Wildlands. There’s lots to be done in the game, but at no point was I convinced that any of it matters.
In most open world games, the task of making your actions meaningful falls to the plot. In Far Cry – another Ubisoft series to which Wildlands is obviously indebted – the open world is an extension of your character’s journey of self-mastery. Far Cry might be a blatant primitivist fantasy, but it least it has direction. As you liberate outposts, there’s a palpable sense that you're helping your allies towards a goal, and the changing tactical landscape reflects your efforts. I can't say the same for Wildlands. There are rebels in Wildlands too, and, in theory, they’re aiding me (or vice versa) in the struggle against the Santa Blanca Cartel. In practice, though, even after several days of playing, I have no idea who they are, how tagging random barrels of gasoline helps them in any meaningful way or why I should care about them at all.
In its own words, Wildlands follows the exploits of The Ghosts, a "legendary US Elite Special Operations team [who] create chaos that will destabilize and eventually break the Alliance between the Santa Blanca Cartel and the corrupt [Bolivian] government." It’s exactly as eye-roll-inducing as it sounds. But unlike Far Cry 4’s likeable, soul-searching protagonist, Ajay Ghale, it's very hard to give a shit about your Wildlands character or her squadmates. They're all the worst kind of yippie-ki-yay motherfuckers, and their only redeeming quality is their extensive catalogue of profanities. “Cock holster,” “shit balls,” and “fuck stick” might not exactly be clever, but at least they’re inventive in the same way that a KFC Double Down is.
The fact that Wildlands is based on a real conflict only exacerbates these problems, which means that the game’s issues are not just ones of design, but also of politics. Wildlands might as well be a narcocorrido for the American military. The game is an uncritical celebration of the myths of American exceptionalism, and its trigger-happy worldview is about as nuanced as The Expendables movies – or really anything at all with Jason Statham in it. It trafficks mostly in one-dimensional stereotypes about the drug war and Latin America and it does so, I suspect, precisely because the political, economic, and cultural intricacies of the drug trade do not fit easily within the tidy strictures of an Ubisoft map game. How could they?
No where is this dissonance more clear than in the sham that is Wildlands' narrative setup. In Wildlands, your actions are performed under the guise of "destabilization," which is tracked in each of the game’s 21 regions on a simple one-to-five scale. Each region is associated with a different aspect of the Santa Blanca Cartel's operations – security, production, smuggling, and influence – and is led by an underboss, most of which are based on some caricature of a real-life cartel capo. The flow of play in Wildlands involves collecting intelligence to move against each of these regional bosses, eventually working your way up to the organization's leader, El Sueño (the guy in all the trailers with the tattoos on his face.) It's a simple adaptation of what's known in counter-narcotic operations lingo as the Kingpin strategy: cut off the cartel's head(s), and, hopefully, watch the whole thing come tumbling down.
It's not hard to see how the Kingpin strategy – the kind of populist model that plays well on cable news – easily lends itself to a map game like Wildlands, generating a motive to naturally move the player across the vast Bolivian landscape that Ubisoft has terraformed to fit its needs. As a narrative engine, though, it runs out of steam very quickly – in effect, Wildlands is asking you to do the same thing in different regions, 21 times in a row. What’s more – and this is where the “real world” intrudes – the Kingpin strategy is no longer seen as an effective way to combat cartels for the simple reason that there's always someone waiting to take the place of an imprisoned or dead capo. Every major cartel now operating in Latin America has several revenue streams beyond their traditional drug production and distribution activities, making organizations far more resilient to sudden vacancies.
The problem with Wildlands is not that it dramatizes a real conflict – Tom Clancy did that for decades in his books – it’s that the open world action shooter game is, almost by design, the least best option to do that with. The result is a game that feels schizophrenic at best and pointless and offensive at worst. When I quit playing Wildlands, long before I’d downed Santa Blanca, it was because I came to the conclusion that the only thing I was still consuming was my own time.
That dissonance between Wildlands’ narrative subject and its gameplay is especially striking given that the game shows some signs of genuine research into drug trafficking and its culture, like the elaborate system of religious iconography employed by the Santa Blanca Cartel, discussions of how cartels have adapted social media to their own ends, and tactics that the Cartel has learned from the asymmetric global war on terror. Several missions are clearly based on real world events and people, like the female cartel leader, Sandra Béltran, who appears in Wildlands in caricatured form as Santa Blanca’s head of trafficking, Nidia Flores. But Wildlands engages the reality of the drug war only when it’s convenient for the open world formula it's peddling.
Wildlands is fiction and Ubisoft is under no responsibility to make a game that accurately depicts the reality of the drug war – even while showcasing all the background research. Yet the company’s response to any suggestion that the game is irresponsible – including a formal complaint to the French embassy from the government of Bolivia – has been to insist that the game should be seen merely as an entertaining fantasy. Ubisoft wants for itself the same kind of freedom from responsibility that Wildlands’ Ghosts receive.
Ironically, Bolivia has actually evaded the wave of violence that has gripped other Latin American countries with newfound intensity since 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Caldéron declared his own war on drugs. In 2008, Bolivia's recently elected president, Evo Morales – who himself was once a coca farmer – evicted the Drug Enforcement Agency. Bolivia then altered its agricultural policies to allow farmers to grow and sell limited amounts of coca leaves for personal use and to sell. As a result, the value of coca has dropped dramatically in Bolivia, and cartels have largely moved on to more profitable pastures beyond the country's borders. In the end, the necessarily imperfect "solution" the country's drug woes had very little to do with the military at all.