Taking on a huge, cartel-controlled open-world might be the most ambitious step the Ghost Recon series has ever taken, and its developers are taking pains to put their own twist on the concept. Rather than falling back on scripted missions and linear events, Ghost Recon Wildlands aims to be truly open, giving players complete freedom to decide how to fight their covert war against the Santa Blanca, the cartel that’s turned a near-future Bolivia into a corrupt narco-state. What follows are a few of the key concepts that truly set Ghost Recon Wildlands apart.
1. It’s Enormous
Flying over the Bolivia of Ghost Recon Wildlands in a helicopter is a great way to get a sense for just how vast it is. Its scenery stretches to the horizon, with little villages appearing even tinier against the backdrop of huge mountain ranges and broad swaths of desert. Activity erupts sporadically below; friendly rebels fight with cartel goons, drug factories are tagged as potential targets, llamas stand around outside villages. This is the biggest open world to ever be used in an Ubisoft action-adventure game, and it fills all that space with a huge variety of objectives, terrain types, and spontaneous events.
To underline this, the E3 2015 demo began with four players – each on a separate screen – in completely different areas. One drove through a seemingly endless expanse of white salt flats, while another strolled casually through a mountain range, passing one of the game’s many creepy, cartel-erected effigies of Santa Muerte. A third rode a dirt bike through a hilly desert, occasionally launching off corrugated-metal ramps, while a fourth crept through a forested area, hidden by vegetation as he slowly approached a clapboard house belonging to an officer of the Santa Blanca cartel.
2. Strategy matters
“When we finished Ghost Recon Future Soldier, one of the things we wanted to do was look at player choice, player agency,” says Dominic Butler, Ghost Recon Wildlands’ Lead Game Designer. “This was the chance to realize a dream we’d had for a long time, which is to really open it up and give the choice back to the players.”
The Santa Blanca officer mentioned above is one example of that choice. He’s an optional stop en route to extracting the mission’s main target, an informant named Luis “El Chango” Alvarez. Once his boss – a woman named Nina Flores, more popularly known as La Reina de la Belleza – learned of his disloyalty, Luis was kidnapped and imprisoned. And the cartel officer now in the Ghosts’ sights knows something about Luis’ whereabouts.
While the other three players make their way across the map, the Ghost outside of the house tags the cartel officer and his lone guard, then steps out into the open. As Far Cry-style enemy awareness indicators light up, the Ghost shoots the guard and grabs the officer, forcing him to his knees for a quick interrogation. Luis is in a nearby camp, he says, and it’s heavily patrolled by guards. Knowing this wasn’t necessary to finding Luis. The four Ghosts could have simply found and charged the camp on their own, taking their chances with the fortifications. They could have set up sniper’s nests and emptied the camp of guards before abducting Alvarez, or they could have waited until nightfall and snuck in under cover of darkness. But now that they have a little information about what they’re in for, they can plan accordingly – and the plan they settle on involves stealing a helicopter.
“It’s not about us determining beforehand that this is a stealth mission, or this is the bit you have to escort the guy, or you have to do a full frontal assault,” says Butler. “It’s, ‘here’s a situation; here’s a singular objective, and then it’s up to players how they want to do it. They write their own story.”
3. Bolivia has its own rhythms
The people you’ll meet in Ghost Recon Wildlands each have their own agendas and behaviors, and they’ll react not just to your actions, but also to changes in the weather or time of day. They’ll participate in events that have nothing to do with you or your mission, seen in the demo as a player-controlled drone pans its camera across a farmer’s market and an outdoor dance party. Your enemies are no different, except that they also have factional politics to consider. Bolivia isn’t simply run by the Santa Blanca; the Santa Blanca pays off the government, which in turn hires a military force called Unidad to protect its interests. The cartel soldiers don’t get along well with the Unidad troops, and so if they’re together, it’s really easy to set them at each other’s throats.
To extract Alvarez efficiently, the team has decided to steal one of Unidad’s helicopters. Again, this could be done under cover of night, but an argument between soldiers and cartel goons at a Unidad base creates an opportunity that one of the Ghosts exploits with a sniper bullet. Not realizing the shot came from a third party, the cartel and Unidad immediately start shooting at each other, and while they’re busy with that, the Ghosts run past, killing anyone who gets in their way as they make a beeline for a chopper, pile in, and take off.
4. Co-op Is Essential
Ghost Recon Wildlands isn’t simply an open-world game that allows for cooperative play – it’s built specifically for four players. Making its four Ghosts – each with their own upgradable skills – work together is a huge part of its open-ended approach to strategy. It’s so important, in fact, that if you’re playing solo, you’ll be assisted by three AI partners, who’ll help you out by stealth-killing enemies in sync with you, or by riding shotgun in any vehicle you commandeer.
There’s good news for lone wolves, though. While it’s in your interest to work together, there’s nothing to prevent players from going off and doing their own thing, or even tackling different missions than their comrades. You’ll want to come back and help out on the big stuff, however, because then you’ll get to do cool things like skydiving out of a helicopter while your friend-pilot follows you to provide air support. That’s exactly how the hunt for Luis continued, as two players bailed out and parachuted onto a hilltop, while the third continued piloting the chopper and the fourth rode in its open side hatch with a machine gun.
After a short hoof, the two on-foot operatives sneak into the camp, stealth-kill Alvarez’s guards, and frog-march him out of the camp at gunpoint. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the guards, who sound an alarm… just in time for death to rain down from the chopper in the clouds. The ground team stuffs Alvarez into the trunk of a car and takes off, with the passenger player leaning out to take shots at pursuing cartel thugs. The chase breaks off somewhere around the salt flats, where the car and chopper rendezvous. One of the Ghosts in the car loads Alvarez into the chopper, while the chopper’s gunner hops into the car’s passenger seat, and the two teams go their separate ways once again, ending the demo.
5. Your actions have consequences
Early in the demo, the Ghosts approach the little village of Huertas from its outskirts, where the Santa Blanca have massacred some of the residents. We’re told this was a reprisal that resulted directly from a previous mission. Your actions carry weight in Ghost Recon Wildlands, and the civilian population won’t be the only ones affected. Remember those factions we mentioned earlier? You can manipulate them into more than just temporary fighting.
“Depending on how the player engages with these factions, their relationships with each other, and with the player, are going to change,” says Butler. “It’s something we really encourage, in fact. It’s for the player to manipulate, and play with the toy.”
Alliances can be forged with rebel groups. Shaky pacts can be broken, as you further exploit the distrust between Unidad and Santa Blanca, and use it to destabilize the comfortable relations both have with the government. It’s a huge world of possibilities, and it’s headed to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
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