This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Ghost Recon Wildlands.
Well, as I said from the stretcher after I came runner-up in the All-County Lard-Eating Contest, "No one can say I didn't try." And that's not the only way in which Ghost Recon Wildlands parallels an afternoon trying to hold down a stomach full of disgusting, highly-processed fat. I knew it was yet another Ubisoft sandbox game, and therefore, another round of blandly visiting icons on maps like an overworked Uber driver, but I didn't expect it to be the Ubisoft sandbox game, the ultimate archetype, at long last! "Come on, Yahtzee, be nice. Every game deserves a fair chance, even the obvious dog shit."
Ghost Recon Wildlands is a sandbox shooter reminiscent of-- Oh, blimey! That rabbit hole never ends. It might be quicker to list the games Ghost Recon Wildlands isn't reminiscent of. Well, it's not in the least bit like Jet Set Willy, because at no point do you have to travel down a toilet, except in, you know, the metaphorical sense. The first comparison that comes to mind is The Division, as both are flying the Tom Clancy flag, and between the two, we now have quite an insight into Tom Clancy's view of the world, or rather, the view of the world of whatever creative director is currently holding up Tom Clancy's disinterred head on a stick. The message is, "Have another cheeseburger, complacent subject, for the government has secretly inserted packs of trained killers into all the world's populations, and the moment our way of life is kinda, sorta, indirectly threatened, they're ready to step up and start shooting the disenfranchised." Meanwhile, in the real world, the government can barely manage secretly inserting the president's knob into an intern, but I digress.
A powerful drug cartel takes over a region of Bolivia, so the CIA do the usual CIA thing: send in covert specialists with maximum deniability, overthrow government, entrust power to America-friendly faction, then withdraw presence while crossing little fingers and praying to God that, for once, the infrastructure won't immediately collapse. Our main goal is to take down a dense checklist of leaders and underbosses by completing a fucking endless wall of repetitive missions which we can, of course, approach in whatever way we choose, providing we choose either stealth or a direct assault, except a direct assault may cause high-value targets to leg it, so the actual choice is stealth or extra stealth with bells on. (Very quiet bells, obviously.)
So there's a big chunk of Far Cry 3 in here with the wild landscapes, scouting bases, and marking targets; the drone you can use for such purposes evokes WATCH_DOGS 2; there's a heavy note of Just Cause in here with the whole CIA insurgency plot; and the process of liberating the regions by taking out the local leaders adds games like Mafia III and Crackdown to the hypothetical soggy-biscuit game from which Wildlands was born. What Ghost Recon Wildlands does not have is any of the things that made any of those games fun or interesting. It doesn't have Far Cry 3's tigers (they're probably all sitting around coked up in a wood somewhere), no interesting hacking gameplay, superpowers, plot, personality, or rocking 60's soundtrack. It also doesn't have much in the way of tactical shooting, despite ostensibly being a Ghost Recon game.
The extent of the squad tactics gameplay is this: you can mark up to three enemy targets, then press the magic button that makes your squad instantly kill them with no risk to you or themselves. That is not tactics! That is only tactics if using the fucking Warp Whistle in Mario 3 counts as tactics. And now I've said "tactics" so many times, the word's started to sound weird. "Tac Tic", it's the breath mint from the mirror universe. What we do have is an open world with a splattering of enemy bases vomited across it and little structural order to do them in because letting the player choose their own direction was carved into the design document with a Stanley knife.
I think the players are supposed to choose their own tone, as well, since the protagonist - customizable, natch - delivers most of their dialogue in a faintly offended monotone, including when they occasionally go "Shitballs!" in mild frustration whenever hot lead is tearing bloody gobbets from their living flesh. Well, since the villains are the only people that seem to have personality, then I'm going to decide that we're playing a game about a government-constructed assassin robot on a quest to learn what it is to be human by murdering some. And you can't tell me I'm wrong, because "player choice"!
Another thing Ghost Recon Wildlands elaborately fails to have is challenge, because even putting aside the free squad kills, enemies can take bullets as well as my self-esteem can take mild insults, and the game reads as a headshot any bullet within the same post code as the head. So I sniped my way through a string of easy victories with the starting assault rifle, which comes with a free suppressor, but you have to think really carefully about the pros and cons before you equip that, because it might reduce the weapon's effectiveness from an instant kill to a consequence-free instant kill. Furthermore, you're not supposed to be able to see dudes on the minimap until you spot them, but you can anyway because the game puts a big circle there to let you know you're supposed to be spotting, and so danger never ever comes as a surprise.
So all in all, a complete flatline. I hope you're satisfied, Ubisoft, because you've destroyed sandbox games. Homefront: The Revolution didn't manage that; merely bad sandboxes at least throw the decent ones into sharp relief, but you did it by grinding them out month after month until they were nothing but tedious to-do lists with all the bumps sanded off. We were like schoolkids finding a dead dog behind the playing field; we were having a great time poking it with a stick and saying it was Lee Drummond's girlfriend, but you were the kid who took it too far and ruined everybody's fun. You picked up the dead dog and put it on your head and chased us around with it until the stomach burst and now everyone stinks of rotten, half-digested Chappie.
When I accidentally parachuted into a crevice I couldn't escape from because there's no fucking jump button, I was confronted by yet another opportunity for player choice: I could choose to fast-travel somewhere and start the journey again, or I could quit and play Night in the Woods instead. Have you played Night in the Woods? It's this indie game about a cat girl who drops out of college and comes back to her hometown to find some things changed and some things the same, and there's an undercurrent of lurking intrigue. It reminded me of Gone Home somewhat, 'cos it eschews core gameplay in favor of storytelling; it takes a while to figure out what it's going for, and the supernatural horror stuff feels a bit at odds with the rest of the overall tone, but I respect the game for drawing a line under itself design-wise and not getting bogged down shoving in standard gameplay bullshit until it ultimately forgets to add anything new and the bullshit is all there is.
So in summary, Night in the Woods is a solid "Worth Checking Out!" if strong writing is enough to make you forgive the very slow pacing and gameplay taking a back seat. Wait, was I talking about something else? Ah, it can't have been important.
- A spooky ghost: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- If it takes CIA murderers to stop the cocaine trade then what good are all those twats who come in to schools to rap earnestly about peer pressure
- When you think about it 'Ghost Recon' is what Scooby Doo was always doing
Extra: Will Save the Galaxy for Food Edit
My new book, Will Save the Galaxy for Food, is out now! It's a sci-fi comedy with all the usual sci-fi comedy themes: redundancy, hopelessness, and existential dread. Available in ebook, paperback, and audiobook from all good retailers and some dodgy ones.