In Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands, nameless special operations soldiers skulk through a rough facsimile of Bolivia, cracking jokes about military life and committing extrajudicial killings with extreme prejudice and no real thought.
Every member of a Mexican cartel called Santa Blanca is fair game, no matter who it is. The game is happy to tell you that this criminal organisation has coerced, bribed and murdered it's way to a position of absolute power, but never asks you to consider that maybe the nameless mook standing watch with an AK-47 might be an innocent man, pressed into service by a horrific regime.
At least the guys you deliver to your CIA handler for torture are high-up figures in the cartel and undeniably evil, such as the... pop star you kidnap and stuff into a car boot, or the radio DJ you push to his knees and hold a gun to and threaten with death.
Here, every kill is a triumph for American foreign policy, a jingoistic tour-de-force as you seek to take down the evil drug cartel – not to mention the corrupt paramilitary force backing them up – and liberate the narco-state Bolivia has become.
Ghost Recon Wildlands is a game of superlatives, and hiding behind this black and white depiction of the war on drugs feels like a missed opportunity. There's room for some exploration of the theme here, that's much darker than the celebration of America's world-policing role we see. I'd have liked a more nuanced exploration of the politics at play here, or for that matter anything interesting about the plot at all.
Your three AI squadmates are all gruff, male military stereotypes, gunmen that fail to be even slightly useful in combat. Your efforts in the character creator can be much more varied however, whether they're male or female, clad in a hoodie or with a tattoo of the American flag behind a screaming eagle running up their arm.
There are plenty of options, and plenty to keep the military fetishists happy too: Want to clad your operator in the latest real-world camo options like AOR2? That's in here, rejoice!
There's a similar amount of attention lavished on the guns. There's a hefty selection of real-world firearms in the game, from old favourites like the G36 and P90 to newer options like the MPX or SR3M. Don't worry if none of those name mean anything either, as every weapon in the game is similar, differentiated only by slight changes in recoil, control and the parts you can strap onto it.
Guns are at their best here silenced and fired in semi-auto, so you probably won't notice the difference between the gun you start with and the weapon you're using after 30 hours of play. The gunplay doesn't get that much better in pitched battle either. All of your weapons feel a bit puny, like peashooters, even if it takes only one or two rounds to put down a target.
The same applies to the skill tree. You'll get some new items, but largely skills are incremental increases that come in most useful when you're in the thick of a gunfight. If you've got enough patience to be sneaky, you'll rarely notice you're levelling up at all.
Because a lot of Ghost Recon Wildlands' content involves collecting weapons, attachments and skill points from around the open-world, this is a problem. Traipsing from location to location to get your hands on the different weapons can get old quickly in single player, and it's the same for the game's campaign, which is light on scripted sequences and big on simple objectives: Kidnap this guy, blow up this thing, kill those guys. Bolivia as a setting is interesting enough, but it feels a little tame, and I found my enthusiasm to play the game in single player waning quickly.
Played in co-op mode, it takes on a whole new edge. Getting four guys together to infiltrate bases or stop convoys reveals a beauty to Ghost Recon Wildlands' structure. What seemed loose and disinteresting in single player suddenly opens up with a host of new tactical options.
Take ambushing convoys, something you'll regularly do to try and get your hands on precious resources, valuable for levelling. In single player, you can drive up to the back of the convoy and tell your AI partners it's time to rock and roll. They open fire and eventually, you'll manage to force the convoy to a stop. Boring. In co-op, you're driving a Lamborghini down the road as your passenger fires a grenade launcher at the escort vehicles. Above, you've got two guys in the air, one flying a chopper above the action while your fourth man is hanging from the skids, raining down rounds from above.
Ghost Recon Wildlands is so obviously a cooperative game, that once you've had a taste, you'll struggle to go back to single player. It still has its high points: a perfectly executed sync shot, taking a village without a single alarm raised, or parachuting into a hostile outpost in darkness. When playing it mobbed up, though, it's easier to bear all of the bad parts, whether that's hunting collectables, a glitch that kills you for walking into a parked car, or the game respawning you after a failure – just a stone's throw from an objective. A target that is now on the far side of an impassable mountain, with the entrance located a 1500-metre trek away.
It's not all bad. The game is a lot of fun, and Ghost Recon Wildlands succeeds as both a competent open world adventure game and tactical shooter. Unfortunately, competent is all it is, with a series of excellent ideas marred by poor execution and some pretty heinous bugs appearing in the PC version – with hangs, memory leaks and, bizarrely, a bug where my grenade launcher kept firing normal bullets – all appearing with regularity.
Will the bugs get ironed out? Probably, Ubisoft's post-game support has been top notch for the past few years. Does this mean you should wait for a sale before getting involved? You will have to decide that for yourself.
Ghost Recon Wildlands delivers on the promise of a special operations sandbox, but its version of Bolivia is toothless, with its vivid colours and bright ideas coming together to create just a bland grey. The stealth gameplay is satisfying, and co-op gives the game more tactical depth than might first seem apparent, but technical issues and mediocre AI teammates and enemies lead to a performance that's more "meh" than "yeah!", and it's unlikely you'll hear anyone talking about Wildlands a month from now.