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Ghost Recon Wildlands seems innocuous at first glance. It is a passable open world shooter where cooperative play leads to exciting gunfights and silly stunts. But Wildland's core is far more insipid. It is propaganda. It is jingoism made playable, perpetuating the failed logic that all it takes to solve the world's woes is enough ammo.
Set in Bolivia following a terrorist attack by the powerful Santa Blanca drug cartel, players assume the role of a "Ghost," an Army special forces operative with the authority to do whatever it takes to dismantle the cartel and deal with their leader, the sinister but charismatic El Sueño. With either a team of AI companions or playing cooperatively with up to three friends, players are dropped into the Bolivian countryside to slowly dispose of the various buchon, lieutenants, and major players of the cartel.
Provided with a tactical map that outlines the cartel's organization, players track down cartel members by collecting intel and completing side missions. These side missions involve destroying cartel supplies, tailing and eavesdropping on the enemy, and aiding rebels in larger battles. Once enough missions have been completed, it's time to take down your target.
The process is something of a merger between the wild bombast of Mercenaries and the tactical affordances of Far Cry 2. Missions are either clean, precise affairs or clumsy bullet storms full of explosions. Wildlands is a game that takes up military trappings, chucking out "hooahs" and "check your targets, people!" but it never really cares too much about discipline or precision.
The moment to moment gunplay in Wildlands is strong. Views shift from over the shoulder to ironsights with ease, weapon recoil is temperamental but never untamable, and every successful kill feels like an accomplishment. At the best of times, enemy bases become miniature puzzles, rife with tactical possibility. You might disable the alarm and leapfrog from soldier to soldier, knocking them out. You might coordinate with your team to send a diversionary force to their gates while you snipe from a ridge. There are few things more rewarding that a clean takedown of an enemy encampment.
But this process can get wearying over time. Wildlands' core loops offer the illusion of progress, promising you that each bullet brings you closer to taking out El Sueño. You blow up base after base, take down soldier after soldier, but nothing in the world really changes due to your actions. There is one meaningful thing to do in Wildlands: shoot. Everything else is filler meant to shuttle you to the next firefight. After so many hours, you'll wonder what the point of it all is. In my impressions, I wondered if the fun could last. It doesn't.
Progress is further stymied by a superfluous skill tree for unlocking special gear or receiving boosts to stamina or weapon accuracy. Players accrue experience points to level up that generate skill points that can be spent. Each unlock also takes an arbitrary amount of raw material resources like medical supplies or gasoline, which can be found and "tagged" in the open world. Lacking The Division's stat-focused RPG elements, Wildlands' inclusion of a skill system feels out of place.
The game's saving grace comes from its cooperative mode. Wildlands is best explored in the company of friends. Tackling obstacles with a pal gives them more weight and increases the chance that something will go south. It raises the stakes---missions matter when your buddy is on the line. The presence of other players imbues the game world with a genuine tension and excitement playing with AI lacks. Plus, the long helicopter rides from target to target are made much more bearable for the company.
It is possible to play the game with a team of AI partners, but their personalities are so insipid that you'll yearn to leave them at base. They churn out banter that moves from unbearably dull to patently offensive, tossing out the kind of pithy one-liner that only teenagers would find cool before sitting down to make a homophobic joke. Wildlands wants them to feel alluring, but they mostly just feel like assholes.
The nature of your companions' chatter exemplifies Wildlands' biggest issue. It pretends to be politically mature, but it has nothing of value to say. Caught between Grand Theft Auto and ARMA, Wildlands can't conjure cogent or meaningful gameplay systems, nor does it even bother to consider the real world ramifications of its gun happy gameplay.
Chief among Wildlands' conceits is the idea that a cartel can be disposed of by killing off kingpins but this is a contentious theory in real life. Instead of building a system that stresses the difficulty of the method, Wildlands is content to presume that nothing bad will come of your violent interventionism. In some alternate timeline where Wildlands is a good game, it has a Shadow of Mordor nemesis system that dynamically fills power vacuums with unending opportunists and ganglords.
Wildlands, continuing in the footsteps of The Division, is a game about being special and empowered. You are the player. The person with the gun. The government operative with the license to kill. Your enemies are the savage 'other', no better than wild dogs that need to be put down. Bolivia is your playground, made to look like any other video game warzone. It is only the occasional corrido playing over the radio or small bit of environmental design that conveys any humanity.
There are times where it feels like Wildlands wants to say something. The game makes heavy reference to social media and information warfare but never does more than note how the cartel maintains a powerful media presence, which the game is keen to show in glitzy, tone confused briefing sequences. Wildlands also thrives on jingoism. It wants to talk about 'narco-states' but can only muster the brutish El Sueño as the villain while depicting a caricature of Bolivia.
The result is rubbish. Wildlands' gameplay is too chaotic to call back to Tom Clancy classics like Rainbow Six or the series' earlier titles. Its politics are too vapid to compete with the Splinter Cell series' pulpy yet prescient narratives. Wildlands wants to be everything. It succeeds at being nothing.