E3 2016 Opinion: Ghost Recon Wildlands has a Major Plot Problem
“I’ve always felt that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
-President Ronald Reagan, 1986.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands was unveiled as the big last reveal at the Ubisoft E3 2015 conference, then was the first game to open the 2016 conference. Players take control of a US Special Forces unit known as the Ghosts in a squad of up to four players in multiplayer as they attempt to fight off the vicious drug cartels that have seized the country and government of Bolivia.
“The Santa Blanca drug cartel has transformed the beautiful South American country of Bolivia into a perilous narco-state, leading to lawlessness, fear, and rampant violence. The citizens of Bolivia have been plagued by the criminal influence of the cartel, but all hope is not lost. Now only the Ghosts, an elite US Special Forces team, can save the country from complete collapse.
“Armed with their tactical prowess and the latest weapons technology, the Ghosts will have to go deep behind enemy lines to complete their most dangerous mission to date. They’ll have to annihilate the alliance between the corrupted government and the cartel before the evil rises above Bolivia to become a major threat across the globe.
“Facing an almighty adversary in a massive, hostile environment, you will have to muster your strength, hone your skills, and sharpen your mettle to become a Ghost and take Bolivia back from its criminal tyrants.”
The story behind Ghost Recon: Wildlands is solid. I would describe it as a cross between Far Cry and Clear and Present Danger. Certainly the dangers and real world issues of drug cartels taking possession of a country, holding the population in fear, and keeping the government, military, and police in their pocket through corruption are problems that exist right now. The multiplayer that exists in Ghost Recon: Wildlands lives solely in that story campaign, issuing players the challenge to come to the rescue of the oppressed citizens of Bolivia.
I had the chance to get hands-on with Ghost Recon: Wildlands at E3 last week, and what I found I can best describe as incongruent, to the point that I have serious doubts about the future success of this title.
The E3 demo was straightforward: 300 civilians had disappeared without a trace over the past few weeks. Our team of four, one of which was a Wildlands developer with another developer on the headset as a coach, was to surveil an occupied village, identify the enemy presence, and capture and interrogate the leader. After that was complete, we were to commandeer an enemy helicopter, fly to another village indicated by the intel we extracted, and hack a laptop for the further intel on the whereabouts of the missing civilians and bring the perpetrators to justice.
For my team’s part, we did very well. We managed to take out all enemies in the first village and grab the leader with no chance for them to respond, captured the helicopter, then grabbed the data without being spotted until the very end. A job well done, and it was quite a bit of fun working together with my squad.
The problem I saw, however, came in any of the many other playthroughs I watched. When done poorly, the leader of the first village fled and had to be chased down by stealing local vehicles, the gas station he fled to had to be attacked head on, and the second village constantly opened fire as the so-called “Ghosts” failed to live up to their names.
Now, I’m typically not one to judge play styles or even a player’s quality when they’re playing single player or with a small group. You don’t have to be a professional video gamer to enjoy playing video games. How good these players were wasn’t the problem.
No, the problem lies in the incongruence between the realistic storyline and the way people will play it. I watched as the group ahead of me, after they failed to take the leader, open fire at the village with civilians in the area. Then, when the leader ran, they grabbed civilian vehicles and pulled the drivers out at gunpoint to follow the fugitive. Then, upon arriving at the gas station, all four ghosts opened fire on the buildings while civilians ran for cover, gas pumps and the vehicles parked at them exploding in the carnage. When they traveled to the second village, the same scene played out; shooting, explosions, civilians finding themselves in the line of fire. Then, when the Ghosts climbed into a vehicle to make their escape, the driver lost control and ran over several people on the side of the road.
By the end of the demo, it’s debatable who killed more civilians – the cartel that caused 300 to disappear without a trace, or the Ghosts who arrived to save the day.
This kind of scene plays out in other open world games all the time, but usually with some form of consequence involved. In Assassin’s Creed, you are notified that the assassin does not kill civilians, and the game will take you back to a save point if you keep killing them. Many games have a good/evil scale that you slide down should you decide to kill innocent people. Even Grand Theft Auto has gameplay consequences for all the stealing and murdering you do.
But in Ghost Recon: Wildlands, there’s not even a mention of all the harm you bring to the citizens you’re there to “save.” Even on my playthrough, I found myself manning a vehicle-mounted Gatling gun as we assaulted the enemy positions at the gas station, and while I was careful to only shoot at marked enemy targets, I couldn’t help but notice the civilians running for cover. My concealed carry training kicked in as I tried as best I could to be aware of my target and its foreground and background, but I simply couldn’t be sure of what was inside those buildings I was shooting at.
The whole experience was reminiscent of Team America: World Police, except as realistic as possible and trying to take itself seriously. It’s to the point where I will expect to see a music video with players shooting up villages and blowing up buildings, set the song “America, F#$! Yeah!”
Ultimately, gamers have fun in differently ways, and I’m not here to tell anyone how to have fun. There will be people who want to absorb the story and feel like a real-life professional special forces unit, and there will be people who want to run in guns blazing. However, Ghost Recon: Wildlands is going to cause problems when four people with different ideas of what’s fun in Wildlands try to play together. Unless everyone is on the same page of how they want to play the game, someone is going to miss out on the experience they want.
I had fun playing Ghost Recon: Wildlands, and the ideas and story behind it are compelling. But unless the juxtaposition of a serious plot and wild cowboy gameplay is addressed, the legacy that Wildlands leaves will inevitably suffer, and its potential to succeed certainly deserves better than that.