If you ratchet up the difficulty, the newest Tom Clancy game feels like a completely different experience
Much like its overstuffed title, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands – the 13th game in a series once prized for its stealth gameplay – is Ubisoft's latest attempt to see just how much can be crammed into a single video game. There's a tremendous amount to do in Wildlands, some of which is even fun, but it's hard to escape the sense that the game is a lazy packing job. Rather than examining how all the genres that Wildlands alludes to might be combined in new and interesting ways, Ubisoft has taken the opposite approach. With Wildlands, the studio created the biggest container they could – in this case, a massive, lawless rendition of Bolivia – and tossed several games worth of content into it with little regard for how it fits together. It's your job to rummage around until you find something you like.
For that reason, this week's coverage of Wildlands has seen the game compared to everything from Grand Theft Auto, Just Cause, and Mass Effect, along with the more obvious examples in Ubisoft's bulging catalog of open world games. In different moments, Wildlands feels like 12 different games. Sometimes, it seems dated, with insta-fail stealth missions and enemies that are conjured out of thin Andean air. Other times, the game is obviously in step with the game design zeitgeist; collectibles dot the terrain, forcing you to scour the landscape and inflating the amount of time it takes to hit 100% completion. What you get out of Wildlands, in other words, probably says a lot more about you as a player than it does about the game.
To an extent, at least. In addition to your own proclivities when it comes to games, Wildlands' character is determined by the difficulty level you choose to play it on. This is true of all games to varying degrees – the more a game pushes back, the more it forces you to confront its ruleset – but the experience of playing Wildlands is altered more than most by the lethality of its enemies and the fragility of its heroes. No matter the difficulty, it's still an open world shooter. But how, when, and why you shoot changes so much from the easiest setting ("arcade") to the highest ("extreme") that they might as well be different games entirely.
Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the low-hanging analogy to Ubisoft's last vistas-and-violence epic, Far Cry 4. You could be forgiven for thinking that Wildlands is a variation of the Far Cry theme – the story arc of both games entails destabilizing criminal organizations in "remote" landscapes by capturing outposts and killing mid-level leaders. In both Wildlands and Far Cry 4, your missions take place against a running war fought between some underdefined (but "good") rebels and a drug-fueled army in the service of a psychopathic strongman. Thematically, they're even quite similar. Say what you will about Far Cry's politics, but the series is at its most interesting when it explores how modernity is felt at the "limits" of civilization, and the contradictions that emerge when pre-industrial communities are confronted with the backwash of global capitalism. So too in Wildlands. At one point, your squadmates wonder why a drug kingpin needs a Lamborghini when he can only drive it on dirt roads at low speeds.
Played on "arcade" or "normal," Wildlands really does feel like Far Cry 4 transposed onto Bolivia. Once you've climbed the game's skill tree and outfitted yourself with upgraded weapons, it's perfectly plausible to bully your way through a well-defended outpost without ever fearing for your life. But once you ratchet the difficulty of Wildlands up to "hard," the analogy starts to fray, and by "extreme," it implodes all together. Not only does combat become exponentially more dangerous, but its rhythm changes. Quick, one-sided skirmishes devolve into dug in, house-by-house firefights where a single shot can be lethal. Winning these dustups often requires organizing covering fire with your squad mates, in hopes that you can slip around a building and pull off a single flanking headshot while moving up to the next bit of cover. At its best and most ruthless, Wildlands can feel like a strategy game – XCOM in real time.
As Wildlands' difficulty increases, then, so does its quality. Played on its easiest settings, your encounters against the cartel's endless reserve of foot soldiers are tiresome roadblocks that exist only to prolong your progression through Wildlands' cumbersome plot. On extreme, these fights give the game its fundamental, capable of sustaining your interest beyond the story that demands them. This is even more true when cooperative play is involved. Though your squadmates' AI is passable, there's no substitute for the creativity and frustration of human players in an environment that necessitates a lot of both.
None of this is meant to excuse the game's naked jingoism, the kind of clear and present bullshit that's inseparable from the Tom Clancy name. I'll come back to that in more depth soon, but for now, know this: buried somewhere deep in Wildlands, there's an elegant tactical shooter to uncover if, and only if, you're willing to fight for it.