We didn't know much about the mission, except for the fact that there was a going to be a laptop with some vital intel on it somewhere inside a small base up on top of a hill, and that it would almost certainly be guarded by a small army of Santa Blanca cartel thugs. As the four of us piled into the small SUV at the bottom of the mountain in the gorgeous Bolivian countryside, we decided we'd hatch our brilliant plan as we got closer to the base rather than waste time trying to plan things. First things first – we quickly learned that highly-trained "Ghost" operatives are no different than four friends planning a night out when it comes to deciding who gets stuck with driving the couple of miles of windy road that lead to the base. After a couple of minutes of "not it" bickering into our headsets, our burly crew squeezed into a small truck that looked a bit like a crappy early-1990s Isuzu and trundled up the hill.
After what seemed like an eternity riding in stoic silence, we eventually neared the base and slowed the truck, hiding it behind a big rock before the lookout noticed us. As we slowed, one of our bearded badasses opened the back door and exited in a spectacular combat roll before we came to a complete stop. Our manly silence was broken by fits of giggles. "What. The fuck. Was that?"
As we all tucked in behind a rocky outcropping to scope out the defenses, we launched a drone to scan the area for what we were up against and see if we could locate our target. Once we'd identified that the laptop was in a small tower on one side of the base and that there were at least half a dozen soldiers patrolling the area, we started to move closer, splitting into pairs so we could approach the main entrance from either side as stealthily as possible. We'd taken to whispering over the comms even though there was no indication that the bad guys could actually hear us, and things had quickly become very serious and purposeful – at least until one of our team made an important discovery. "Hang on a minute, there's a tank here!"
Screw subtlety. Two of us squeezed into the six-wheeled armored truck that was idling outside the base while the other two held back and braced for the imminent carnage. We slammed the tank through the main entrance to the cartel base, and quickly learned that it was far from the fragile structure we'd anticipated. Where we'd expected delicate fencing that would crumple as we sped through, we were faced with giant concrete blocks that seemed impervious to our heft. The tank bounced up into the air, its wheels spinning while the whole vehicle teetered on top of the barrier. "Oh dear," came the disappointed commentary over the comms, as our comrades slipped into the base unseen and the cartel opened fire. Explosions, smoke, carnage... and then silence. Somehow we'd managed to take out the enemy onslaught with the tank's main gun and amid the slaughter our teammates had slipped up the stairs, broken into the base and hacked the laptop. Mission complete.
Victory was ours, even if our methods were a little...unconventional. This is Ghost Recon Wildlands, though – a game with as much in common with the open world anarchy of Grand Theft Auto or Just Cause as it has with its earnest squad-based predecessors.
"The team has spent nearly five years working on Wildlands," says the game's senior producer Nouredine Abboud at a special hands-on preview event in San Francisco. "We started as soon as we finished Ghost Recon Future Soldier and when we finished that, we tried to make something that just wasn't possible before."
Most obviously, this meant doubling down on the amount of freedom that the game offers the player, and creating something that four players could play co-operatively in the most seamless way possible. The virtual Bolivia created by Abboud and his team is, he proudly declares, the largest open world ever to appear in a Ubisoft game. Its vast map features 21 distinct provinces and simulates 11 different ecosystems – including mountains, jungles, rivers, swamps and salt flats – filled with thousands of AI-driven non-player characters that go about their business as the action unfolds around them.
Unlike some of the studio's other open world games like Assassin's Creed or Far Cry, Wildlands doesn't feel like a specifically segmented world that's presented to the player in carefully curated chunks. In a way, it has more in common with the sprawling recreation of the Bay Area in Watch Dogs 2. There's no equivalent here of climbing a watchtower in Assassin's Creed to unlock areas of the map. There's basically nothing stopping you from getting in a helicopter and flying all the way across the map to trigger something miles away from the game's start point.
"There's no barrier that's stopping you from taking a left and going and doing a mission in a different province at any point," says lead designer Dominic Butler. "When you look at the map, you're going to see the 21 different provinces that are divided up into lots of different regions, but that's just the map. The player is free to go wherever they want and we wanted to make sure that you're never hitting this barrier where the missions stop you going any further, or your level stops you from going somewhere. You play the way you want to."
If you're the kind of player that's paralyzed by indecision in giant open world games with this kind of freedom, you're probably going to want to stick to the primary storyline in Wildlands as much as you can
This is a dramatic departure from the previous games in the series. Although a central premise of Ghost Recon has always been the freedom to tackle individual challenges as creatively as possible, the games have always been fundamentally quite linear in terms of structure. If you're the kind of player that's paralyzed by indecision in giant open world games with this kind of freedom, you're probably going to want to stick to the primary storyline in Wildlands as much as you can, because its scale is really quite intimidating.
"We can't specify exactly how players have to complete things because there so many different approaches," says Butler. "We're very conscious of daisy-chaining too many objectives. We worry that players may feel that they lose a little bit of agency in that kind of experience. Basically, it tends to break if you give players all this freedom but then tell them that in a particular mission they have to do very specific things, like drive on a particular road at a particular speed. Instead, we prefer to give you an objective, and it can be as simple as 'get this guy to this point.' That seems quite straightforward but in fact it's all of the systems that are interacting with each other and how you approach that – that's your narrative. We're still telling a compelling story, but at the same time, you're adding to that narrative by the way that you choose to complete things."
Unlike previous Ghost Recon games that have typically been the futuristic counterpoint to Ubisoft's other big Tom Clancy-themed shooter, Rainbow Six, Wildlands has a much more grounded, present day feel. Where previous games have leaned heavily on space age tech like augmented reality headsets and adaptive camouflage, this new game feels much more contemporary. "The big thing was that we wanted was to have the feeling that you're deep behind enemy lines," Abboud says. "As soon as we brought in the open world, we had the feeling that you would feel much more behind those enemy lines if we reduced the number of futuristic elements and also it made more sense with the storyline that we had."
That main storyline about taking out a powerful drug cartel actually draws quite heavily on Clancy's 1989 Jack Ryan novel Clear and Present Danger, albeit in a different region. "This is a Clancy game, so it has to be about a what-if scenario," says Abboud. "What if a Mexican drug cartel moved into Bolivia, decided to take over control of the production of the coca leaves for cocaine and tried to create a narco state?"
From the few hours we spent with Wildlands, it's clear that it's an incredibly ambitious game that definitely steps outside what we've all become used to as the Ubisoft formula, and also what we're used to from military shooters. Yes, it has a map full of objectives but the tasks the game sets for you throughout draw on tropes that you've seen elsewhere in both open world games and other shooters – in our brief time with the game, we saw hostage extractions that evoked Rainbow Six, carjacking that reminded us of Grand Theft Auto, and a wave based defense mission that felt like Gears of War's Horde Mode. Missions are generally short and swift, with many of them only taking five or ten minutes to complete.
The real delight when we're all playing it in early March is going to come from the stories we share with each other. Because so little of the game is scripted, our experiences are going to be wildly different. Not just because we'll all approach things differently, but because all of the interconnected systems will generate vastly different outcomes.
Is it the future of military shooters? When it comes to narrative-driven single player or co-op experiences, it's certainly far more ambitious than anything we've seen from Call of Duty or Battlefield of late. If you're not a fan of the competitive multiplayer that those games rely so heavily on, Wildlands is a welcome change.