Ghost Recon: Wildlands strikes me as a game desperate to tell a story; it just doesn’t know what story to tell. It’s not that it doesn’t have one: the latest in the Tom Clancy sub-brand has cutscenes, scripted characters, and a selection of story missions within its huge open world.
Indeed, Wildlands’ development has its own narrative: lead developer Ubisoft Paris took a 30-person team to the game’s setting of Bolivia to study the environment, talk to locals, and get a feel for the stories that inhabit every corner of day-to-day Bolivian life. The scarecrows that are put up to warn away potentially malevolent newcomers; the swathes of unfinished houses, existing in an endless, near-completed purgatory. (Bolivian property tax is only applicable when a home is finished, and not before.) These tidbits are never explicitly stated in-game, Ubisoft tells me in a recent studio visit, but add flavour and authenticity to Wildlands’ Bolivia.
The Ghosts, a group of four highly trained special ops soldiers, are sent into Bolivia to take down the Santa Blanca drug cartel. The team are supervised by Karen Bowman, a CIA case officer, and will meet a number of other colorful characters along their journey, each with their own personal tales of the civil war materializing in their homeland.
Wildlands’ focus, however, is very much on the stories players construct themselves. The game’s lead designer, Dominic Butler, tells of the different approaches players have adopted in any given mission. “You’ll find people that come in, and as soon as they get in, they’re just looking for that sniper rifle: ‘I’m the sniper, this is what I want to do. I like to play long ranged; give me the drone, give me the long-ranged skills.’
“Some players are going to go in full assault, others are going to try to take out the snipers … Others are going to try to get in, interrogate the guy, and get out, no alarms.”
Right now, you can swap and change weapons and gear, shifting your setup for each mission. But along the way, Ubisoft did toy with the idea of giving the four Ghosts distinct, hard classes such as a dedicated Sniper class, a Heavy class, and so on. This idea was later rejected, says Butler, in favour of allowing you “to build the Ghost the way you want it to be.”
“At one point, during development, we did look at it, and we did look at a way of presenting the upgrades and some of the weapons that way, but we found that players wanted to mix it up, more than the options we were giving them.”
We allow you to build the Ghost the way you want it to be.
Dominic Butler, lead gameplay designer
Butler explains that Wildlands’ needs as an open-world game are very different to, for example, Rainbow Six Siege‘s close-quarters, claustrophobic nature. “Something [that] Rainbow Six does an excellent job of [is that its] roles are clearly defined because they’re based off of a clear need in that environment. It’s very close quarters, it’s very second-by-second, what’s happening at this point, in the next five seconds, in the next twenty seconds. I need to be able to project and understand what the people around me are doing. Where mistakes can be very quickly life or death. The team was wiped out, because I wasn’t paying attention. That creates incredible tension, and it’s so much fun.
“For us, we’re on a much bigger scale, it’s much more macro. It’s also that 360 [degree] approach. In a house, you can say okay, maybe you need to protect the house, and there are several windows, [enemies] come in from different sides; but really, we have the verticality as well. We have lots of different vehicles types; we have the ranged distance as well. With this much variation, we couldn’t represent it properly in just a couple of standard classes, so we wanted to just open it up.”
The emphasis is on player choice, Butler says, and creating memorable anecdotes for the player to tell. He mentions one tester who strapped C4 explosives to a helicopter, jumped to safety out of the chopper, away from an enemy camp, then detonated the C4 to blow up a drone jammer protected inside the confines of the camp’s walls. The tester reported the occurrence as a bug, but Butler’s reaction was far more positive. “That is the opposite of a bug, that is awesome,” he recalled telling the QA team. “We hadn’t predicted it, but if we can do it, yes, please keep it. Keep it, keep it, keep it.”
Narrative director Sam Strachman says these creative, spontaneous moments happen frequently. “Another cool one that I thought of was actually, in Bolivia they have this very famous road called the Death Road, in real life. It’s the most dangerous road in the world. It’s basically on the side of a cliff, and it’s in the game. There were some dudes on a team that were just like, ‘Let’s have a race on the Death Road.’ It was insane, people falling off the cliff, and crazy stuff. There’s not a mission, they just wanted to have a race, and they did!”
Wildlands aims to maximise player freedom from the outset. Missions can be attempted however you choose; the game’s 11 different biomes–from the snowy mountains to the leafy jungles to the imposing salt flats–can be explored at your own pace; and its 26 boss fights and 100 story missions can be beaten in any order, and are repayable immediately.
This creates problems when it comes to storytelling, however. How do you structure a three-act plot when the acts can be attempted in any order? Can you have a three-act plot at all? The solution, says Strachman, lies in the four Ghosts: “We’ve really been putting a lot of our effort more on character than on plot. If we know the player can do whatever they want in any order, it’s really about creating the richest, weirdest, coolest, most interesting, most realistic characters we possibly can.”
We don’t want to be dark and depressing, but we also don’t want to be happy, and flashy, and fun.
Sam Strachman, narrative director
Supporting characters, from what we’ve seen so far, include a comedy pop star, a CIA agent who seems inexplicably and uncontrollably attracted to said pop star, and then–on a completely different note–a human body-melting maniac who uses sodium hydroxide to make people disappear.
Wildlands appears to wildly career from one extreme to the other in an attempt to satisfy everyone who plays it, creating an admittedly varied but tonally inconsistent experience.
When I pointed this out to Strachman, he responded by saying it was all about creating a “nice variety of experiences.”
“There’s one character,” he begins, “called El Pozolero, whose job is to melt human bodies. When you’re playing that, it’s going to be serious. It’s not funny, it’s serious–it’s messed up.
“Then [there’s] El Chido [the pop star]. He’s not necessarily a bad guy, he’s not doing anything bad, he just gets paid by the cartel to write songs. Naturally, when you’re playing the missions associated with him, it might be a little bit lighter, a little bit more fun. In general, we try to keep this balance.
“We don’t want to be dark and depressing, but we also don’t want to be happy, and flashy, and fun.”
Instead, Wildlands seemingly hopes to be everything at once, leaving it up to the player to tackle the game how they see fit.
Like its narrative (or semblance of), Wildlands’ moment-to-moment gameplay can appear at odds with itself. Options are one thing, but you’re allowed to shape so much of your approach–from your loadout and appearance, to which mission you fancy next, to your infiltration strategy within each level–that I wouldn’t know where to begin.
There’s a mechanically complex, seemingly enjoyable, and apparently well-polished game here. But Ghost Recon: Wildlands is doing so much to accommodate every player and every way of playing, that it risks losing direction.
Some players may conjure crazy plans with their friends and pull off unbelievable tricks in the course of experimentation, creating unforgettable experiences in the process. But many will, understandably, want to coast through the game alone, not thinking to explore new methods of winning, and not wanting to play with strangers. Those who, like myself, lack creativity may find the stories they create less invigorating, leading to a rounded but potentially bland end product.
Rather than draw us a picture, Ghost Recon: Wildlands provides a blank canvas and a palette of every color in the rainbow with which it wants us to draw. The trouble is, I’m no Picasso, and I worry the picture I’ll paint might not be the masterpiece Wildlands so hopes to be.