Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands (2017)

I’ve been holed up at home due to the 2019-nCoV coronavirus outbreak. The news and social media coverage got really depressing really fast. This got me itching to play a laid-back, single player, third-person-shooter with modern military weapons.

Turns out, there’s not many games that fit all of the above. Max Payne 3 was the first game I turned to, even though I had already played it years ago. I quickly remembered my previous annoyance at Rockstar’s heavy-handed narrative style in that game. I could go back and play Max Payne 2, which is probably my all-time favorite third-person-shooter… But the graphics do look a tad dated now. So ultimately I ended up buying Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands during the Steam sale for $30.

(Loosely summarizing the game’s setting: you play as a covert operative in a fictional version of Bolivia that has been overrun by a powerful local cartel. Your goal is to bring down the cartel one territory – from a huge open-world map – at a time.)

I had quite a lot of hesitations going in. The game had fairly mixed reviews (69 on Metacritic for PC), many of which seem focused on the repetitive missions and formulaic Ubisoft open-world. I thought I was okay with these faults – the “job to be done” for me was to chill and mindlessly shoot up some bad guys. I was a lot more concerned with some criticisms around stealth gameplay – to be clear, I didn’t want much stealth gameplay (see my “job to be done”), and I didn’t want to be frustratingly replaying some missions because of stealth requirements.

Thankfully, this game is primarily an open-world shoot-em-up, and stealth is mostly optional.1 Yes, if you crank up the difficulty setting and go for realism, you shouldn’t expect to be able to outgun whole armies (with air support) by your 4-man squad. But at regular difficulty you can certainly approach most areas “weapons free”, especially if you are riding in on an attack chopper with mini-guns blazing. (Doing so has been quite cathartic, in my current state of mind.)

Indeed, the attack chopper approach makes most early to mid-game level content feel broken thematically. The session loop becomes “scour the map for a nearby attack chopper, get it, and then blaze through missions”. To balance against this, some later areas are designed with SAM missiles to enforce a no-fly zone.

Quick commentary on vehicles: like any proper open-world, there’s plenty of variety across land, sea and air, but by far choppers offer the most utility – they are the easiest to control, seem just as fast as the planes I’ve seen, and offer insane firepower. From a design perspective this seems quite unbalanced. As a random idea, setting an ammo limit (at higher difficulties) could be a good way to bring them in-line for players who want more realism, without sacrificing the laid-back gameplay at lower difficulties.

Another commentary I have is around what makes the formulaic open-world core game loop sticky. It’s all about the layering of activities and rewards. A typical mini-loop looks something like this:

  • Look at world map – pick an objective
  • Seek a mode of transportation, often involving acquiring the transportation by force which becomes a player-created mini-quest
  • Travel to objective destination – en route, get offered many optional distractions, from emergent world events (GRW doesn’t offer this, but RDR2 and The Division for example both do this a ton), to optional side-quests / rewards
    • Get sidetracked by optional distractions, after which the loop is reset or continue to original objective
  • Arrive at objective destination, get offered again nearby distractions (some may be trivial, like a collectible reward)

    Finish objective and restart loop (the whole loop might have been anywhere from 5-20 minutes)
  • This short loop is quite sticky, even on repetitive play into the hundreds of hours, as it offers both nice natural branching activities (as well as a player-driven overarching goal), and lots of rewards big and small. All of this is layered on top of the most basic loop – the satisfying gunplay of every single enemy encounter (the audio-visual feedback of a headshot or bullet-spray).
  • After so many open-world games, the above seems common sense, but there are still serious offenders that break the flow – Far Cry 5 immediately comes to mind with its heavily intrusive story-quests, which when triggered will literally snatch you from whatever you were doing (like, flying a chopper) and declare you have just been captured. (That was enough for me to churn from that game.)
  • My last commentary is regarding loot. As a modern military shooter, guns and gear naturally bring a deep loot system, and this game goes as deep as any. There are both standard guns with lots of modification options (which all need to be unlocked), as well as special unmodifiable guns (effectively, legendaries). These loot (there seem to be hundreds of guns) can be acquired via missions, achievements and/or micro-transaction crates. At first glance it looks impressive and desirable, with lots of “chase” items; but after 20 hours or so I think the “chase” items feel largely cosmetic and diminishing returns hit hard (after all, do you really need 20 assault rifles that largely play the same?).

    1. So far I’ve only encountered one mandatory stealth – no kills – mission, which involves a cameo from Sam Fisher.

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