Friday, April 13, 2018

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands review

    I'm actually a huge fan of Tom Clancy, which is kind of oft-kilter since he's the original "Dad's thriller" author who created a genre defined by America being under threat by any number of increasingly ridiculous threats. I'm particularly fond of the excellent marketing he did before his death, creating the character of Sam Fisher, the Rainbow Six series, and Ghost Recon. Still, there's one thing about the man's legacy which leaves me kind of iffy and that's the fact despite being no more realistic than your average James Bond movie, they tend to be taken as more "realistic" than your average shooter.

Hundreds of fun missions in pseudo-South America.
    This is no better illustrated than by the Ghost Recon: Wildlands game where you take place in Bolivia, a nation of 11 million people, and see the entirety of the population are either enslaved peasants or members of a Mexican drug cartel. Really, Ubisoft, you couldn't even let the Bolivians have their own cartel? They used to be third in the world for cocaine production and now they have to outsource their supervillains? Mind you, in real life, they legalized coca (not cocaine) production and basically won their War on Drugs where other countries still struggle but that's not the premise of the game. No, in this country, they're utterly boned and have been effectively turned into a narco-state. When doing this sort of thing, I think it's better to take the Far Cry route and make a fictional nation. They could have named it New Bolivar or Cocaineland or something--Tom Clancy "realism" be damned.

    The premise is that a U.S. embassy has been bombed by the Santa Blanca cartel. They're a Santa Muerta worshiping cartel headed by, for all intents and purposes, Batman's Bane (who doesn't sadly wear a luchador but has a cross tattooed on his face). It has effectively conquered Bolivia and runs the country like one of Saint's Row's archvillains. You have to eliminate his carnival of crazy badasses before moving against him and freeing Bolivia from the iron-grip of the cartel....except not.

     Politically, a game set around a bunch of US Special Forces working for the CIA going on a campaign of anti-narco terrorism could be highly controversial even without setting it in a real life nation. Famously, George H.W. Bush decided to take the War on Drugs literally and thousands died in the conflict against genuinely bad dudes (sadly, many of them not at all bad). A lot of people dismissed the game as being propaganda as a result--which is bad because while this is a deeply silly game about fighting narco-supervillains, it's also surprisingly well written with a lot of nods to the fact the War on Drugs may be unwinnable even in a world of Hydra vs. the A-Team-level cartoonishness. In fact, it reminds me a lot of Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger. A book which did NOT turn a real life country into a caricature of narco-terrorists vs. heroic Americans.

Worst car driving in gaming--and it's BETTER than it was.
    Clear and Present Danger basically amounts to a stand-in for Pablo Escobar murdering the President's best friend (who was laundering money for them) followed by a terrorist attack against several American officials. This causes the President to sign off on a bunch of American Special Forces teams to privately go into Columbia and murder the hell out of a bunch of cartel bosses. It quickly turns into an enormous disaster as the government has taken on more than they can chew and the cartels retaliate. The movie makes it an even bigger scandal as the President's men attempt to sweep the soldiers in Columbia under the rug.

    Ghost Recon: Wildlands is never better than when it analyzes the complicated and morally ambiguous politics behind the War on Drugs. As cartoonishly evil as the Santa Blanca cartel is, it's also got plenty of grey figures like a CIA doctor betrayed by her employers, a native coca grower criminalized for making the same plant his ancestors have for 8,000 years, and the fact the poverty of the local communities is something the charitable arm of the cartel does more for than the government ever did. You don't expect that from something where the majority of the cartel worship the Angel of Death to a Temple of Doom degree (including human sacrifice).

Some of the characters have fascinating backstories.
    But how is the game? Pretty fun, actually. It's not great, to be honest. The car driving in this game is absolutely awful with the machines being barely able to stick to the road. You can either go in guns blazing or stealthfully, eliminating people one at a time. The game resembles Just Cause 2 only with an artificial multiplayer (I don't play with other people) and it doesn't take much to put down the various sicarios you face throughout the game. The missions get a bit repetitive but are broken up with quite a few very entertaining ones like filming a general's tryst with a prostitute where he admits to stealing a cat's prosthetic leg. I admit, by the end of the game, I was mostly just using the drone to mark targets and eliminate them before sneaking in.

Fast cars on dusty dirt roads and hills. Weee...not.
    I had a huge amount of fun stomping around Faux-Bolivia, shooting up the cartel's numerous fortresses and completing the innumerable sidequests for the local communist resistance. The exploration of the vast map is something I've enjoyed for weeks as I love the fact the "cartel heads" information gradually opens up as you collect information as well as explore new provinces. It made me go out of my way to pick up every little piece of intel I could. Not all of the Cartel underbosses and buchon are identified so you need to interrogate people to find out who they are as well as what they're up to.

    Still, I feel like the game is a bit dated and could have been done a bit better in terms of performance. The tactical portion of the game mostly consists of sending off your little drone, marking targets, and then having your invisible team mates eliminate them all. That is, unless you're like me and just want to slaughter everyone Call of Duty style. Except, that's a terrible idea and I've been revived by my teammates hundreds of times. I think the game would have benefited from a few more side-activities or perhaps the inclusion of more enemy types like animals. Honestly, most of my complaints could be summarized as "make it more like Far Cry except with better driving."

El Sueno is like Killbane from Saints Row 3. High praise!
     The environments are beautiful and it's a wonderful playground for our activities. If I have a complaint, the environments are a bit hard to traverse whether in vehicles or on foot. There's a lot of travel which has to be in this game and I hate to come back to it but the bad vehicle handling hurts my enjoyment. On the plus side, Ubisoft seems to be interested in supporting this game and has added everything from Predator to Splinter Cell.

   Much of the game is the usual Ubisoft grind. You scour the map for collectibles because that's the only way you can raise your skill set as getting the ability to use a grenade launcer, plastic explosives, or fly a drone all depends on having enough resources. This means quite a bit of the game is grinding. That is, if you want to play with all the special toys. The honest-to-God's truth is that you could probably finish the game without any of the special toys as the enemies mostly die when you shoot them once or twice. Still, I must have done hundreds of cargo heists and rebel operations in hopes of getting those toys--which is terribly addictive. I wanted to extend out the experience as long as I could.

Needed more nods to the book.
    I'm reminded a bit of the game Mafia III that overdid its grinding in order to take down the various mob bosses necessary to remove its Big Bad from power. Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a lot like that in its format but doesn't end up overstaying its welcome like Lincoln Clay's adventures did. Many times you're required to capture rather than kill cartel bosses, interrogate others, sabotage events, or steal vehicles. These managed to break up things so its not just a constant series of "infiltrate X, kill Y."

    My biggest surprise is the fact I think the game has one of the best casts of characters in the past few years despite the fact you rarely get to interact with them. The villains are a diverse bunch of interesting characters with most having distinctive personalities and a few of them surprisingly sympathetic. I also very much liked the main character, Nomad, who is a customizable character that still exudes a detached badassery as well as cynicism about the whole mission he (or she) is on. Karen Bowman, your CIA contact, is a sociopath driven insane by her time down in Bolivia but that just makes her even more determined to destroy the cartel. I also loved the casual chatter between your squadmates about everything from Bolivian history to how much they'd love to steal some of Santa Blanca's hot rods for themselves. The bittersweet ending is also great, showing there's no easy answer to cocaine trafficking.

    In conclusion, I recommend fans of the game pick it up but not to think it's going to be a gamebreaking example of the genre. Still, I enjoyed the journey through the heavily fictionalized Bolivia and shooting the hundreds of drug-cartel members I faced. I also thought the characters were all very well-designed and suitably theatrical. I wouldn't mind another game starring Nomad, his team, and Kate Bowman.



  1. Chavez was an evil warlord. He just had the luck to die before Venezuela's economy went to complete shit.

    1. If we define leaders by their legacies, Chavez certainly left things in complete disarray. Fun fact about Bolivia: They actually recently won their War on Drugs by legalizing coca (not cocaine)--bad timing there.