I was on my way out of an enemy compound. It was one of the larger bases that I'd seen in Bolivia so I opted to sneak in and grab the intel on some cartel boss or another without engaging the entire base, taking out just the perimeter snipers and guards I needed to gain entry unseen: avoiding idle and sleeping guards largely by cover of night and rain. I already had my exit set up so as I was seen making a run for the chopper the base had on hand I blew the C4 I'd set on their generator to take out their lights and create enough confusion to get in and take off safely. I was on my way out and feeling pretty good about the op when the alert for an incoming missile started flashing. No time to be irritated with myself for missing the air defense platform I immediately evaded the first and then second missile with a series of quick turn dives. I ran out of room to maneuver though as I got closer to the mountain I was trying to put between myself and the incoming fire when the third shot found it's mark. My aircraft started tumbling and spinning in a cloud of smoke so I jumped out and remembered I had just unlocked my parachute ability not 20 minutes before. I managed to pull it just in time and landed hard with a roll on a mountain road. Not exactly the exit I had planned but at this moment I didn't mind at all.
If there's one thing that repeatedly surprised me in Wildlands, it's scale. While I don't believe size for the sake of size is to the benefit of most open world games I do feel like it works largely to the benefit of Ghost Recon. Where much of the world can feel empty if you're looking for stuff to do everywhere I found it lends itself to gameplay opportunities and establishing a sense of place for a South American narco-state. In short, it feels like you've got room to work. Where large swaths of land are covered in forests with little in them, you'll appreciate the cover when you're trying to escape Unidad helicopters or pursuing sicarios. Making the terrain your ally just feels like what a game about special force operators should be about and Wildlands succeeds by giving you one of the largest and most varied outdoor maps I've ever seen. I was never more acutely aware of how much I'd depended on the terrain for safety as when I visited one of the more mountainous and barren regions on the map. Without any vegetation to cover an escape these large open areas could become a death trap if I made a bad move. Enemy helicopters became something that either forced me deeper into an enemy base in search of cover or made me hightail it out of there in whatever the nearest vehicle I could grab happened to be. This would result in a pursuit that could last miles as they peppered me from above with no response other than my teammates hanging out of the car windows returning fire with rifles.
The one drawback to a world this size and the sequences I described is just how necessary vehicles can be to the experience. I wouldn't consider this a knock against the game if the vehicle controls weren't so rough. There's very little give when trying to turn while driving in this game. I can't count how many crashes or falls off the side of a mountain I had because I was wrestling with vehicle mechanics that just didn't respond the way I expected them to. Eventually I learned to compensate for it and by the end it was little more than a mild irritation even if the way cars and trucks bounce around over rough terrain is goofy and unrealistic in a way that feels out of place for a game that strives to feel grounded. This extends to a few bugs and glitches I encountered that while mostly harmless, did pull me out of the experience from time to time. Getting off a motorcycle and watching it roll stiff and upright back down the hill I just rode up was goofy if not exactly game breaking.
The game looks and sounds great for the most part aside from some unimpressive character models and facial animation. It's hard to gripe too much about what the game looks like though as I often found myself taking in a sunset over a mountain range, lightning flashing in the distance during storms and the spectacular draw distance that continually pulled me in. Flying around at night in a helicopter and seeing all the mountains lit up with little towns and scoria outposts was as beautiful after 30 hours as it was in the first.
Gunplay feels great whether you're taking your time with a stealthy approach or going full assault mode. I wasn't always able to get into cover the way I wanted to but given that most of my firefights were over before the enemy knew they were in one it was rarely a problem. You can opt for iron sights or maintain an over an over the shoulder cam when you take aim and the transition feels smooth and snappy so I always put my shot where I intended without feeling disoriented.
The open world structure of the game doesn't deviate too far from what you may have come to expect from many of Ubisoft's other titles and there's certainly similarities to be gleaned here. How much a purist you are may affect how you feel about some of these additions to what has classically been a pretty straightforward tactical shooter until now. While most of this is presented in a way that fits its subject matter such as raiding intel caches to unlock mission and collectible icons on the map, the character progression and gadget unlocks feel a bit more out of place. I didn't find that it really takes away from the gameplay experience but it seems kind of absurd that the Ghosts wouldn't bring a drone already equipped with thermal vision than upgrade one with skill points raided supply parts once they reach level 15 in Bolivia. It's a little artificial but I did like finding the weapon caches to unlock the parts I wanted in the gunsmith to suit my play style.
Ghost Recon is built to be a co-op experience top to bottom and co-ordinating with a team to execute a plan flawlessly is certainly among the most fun you can have in this game. My worry going in was that it wouldn't work as well as past games as a single player experience but I'm happy to say that that's not the case. Your AI teammates are mostly blank slates without a ton of character but they do have some fun chatter all through the game. More importantly however is that they don't get in a way or unwittingly mess up your plans by getting spotted or opening fire when you're trying to recon or be stealthy. They're there to man the guns when you get in a vehicle and support you with sync shots and a revive if you get into trouble but otherwise stay out of the way. This is only a detriment in that when you get into a vehicle and take off without them they'll often just spawn into it a few seconds later. It's when you visibly see them spawn that this breaks the immersion the most so while they certainly never get in the way I definitely reached a point where I knew I didn't have to worry about their safety at all. This probably took some tension out of some escape sequences and so I'll simply say that they'll never be as good as having some co-op partners at your side.
While many of the standard open world game trappings and side missions can get a bit repetitive they're suited well for short co-op sessions and I found that I didn't have to do too many of them before I was able to get a character build and loadout that I was pretty happy with. I'd still be happy to run some of these side missions with buddies to help them get materials they need and still get something out of it for myself. Even after finishing the main story there are enough cartel members left over and upgrades to unlock to make me want to keep playing. This is largely thanks to just how satisfying it is to recon an enemy compound and methodically tear it to the ground before the enemy knows what hit them.
Ghost Recon Wildlands is in many ways the Ghost Recon game I've always wanted. It's massive scale and freedom to approach the enemy in your own way allow for all manner of tactical possibilities and strategies and often becomes more fun when things don't go according to plan forcing you to improvise on the knowledge you gathered prior to a fight. Doing the Recon may not always guarantee you remain a Ghost but it will give you the edge you need to survive when things go awry. Some rough edges break it's grounded setting and realism here and there but the lure of taking down another arm of the Santa Blanca cartel with a few nicely (or poorly) executed raids never stopped being fun.