“I love coming home, especially with a victory.” –Dominic James
During the cold dark of February five years earlier, I drove out to my founder’s place for a team pizza party and poker night. This evening coincided with Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands‘ open beta, and I still vividly recall wrapping up a mission before driving out into the comparatively balmy weather. After settling in, we went about making our pizzas from hand-made dough, before challenging one another to poker. Despite not knowing any of the rules behind poker, I found myself learning quickly, and after three matches, ended up breaking even. The evening’s festivities were punctuated by discussions of where the start-up was headed, and at this point in time, the company had been around nine months old. I’d finished delivering an app for an American computational oncology firm, and the focus had shifted towards utilising a similar technology for handling medical surveys. We had been in talks with the university, and a handful of research labs had expressed interest in signing on to test things; although I’d been a novice in iOS development at the time, I was working towards building a functional prototype. In the five years that has passed, this company has since gone under, leaving me with a few years of iOS experience and a lingering wish to play through Wildlands in full. This opportunity would present itself by May, when Wildlands went on a sale. After picking up the game and returning to Bolivia, I resumed my journey of working to dismantle the Santa Blanca cartel, which has gained control of several regions in the country. While the Bolivian government establishes La Unidad to fight the cartel, the cartel’s power meant only a truce was reached. Months later, the United States deploys members of Delta Company, a black ops team to Bolivia with the aim of taking down the cartel and bringing their enigmatic leader, El Sueño, after a DEA Agent was executed. Unlike a majority of the titles I’ve played previously, Wildlands is a tactical cover shooter, encouraging players to recon their surroundings and pick their targets before engaging them: open firefights are discouraged, as even a few bullets are enough to put an operator out of action, and when enemies realise what’s up, they will swiftly call in reinforcements.
The end result of the combat system in Wildlands creates a game where patience, stealth and tactical play is rewarded. Wildlands speaks to the importance of planning out one’s moves before taking any action, and being flexible for the inevitable moment when even the best-laid plans fail. Missions typically begin with taking up an overwatch position and using either one’s drone or binoculars to tag as many foes and other environment hazards, like alarm towers and mounted guns. Subsequently, one must work out a plan to take out enemies simultaneously to avoid detection. If one is successful, no alert is raised, and one can then mosey on into a hostile facility and complete the objective, whether it be collecting intel, intimidating Santa Blanca lieutenants for information or assassinating a higher-ranking member of Santa Blanca to begin dismantling their drug empire. This is the easier route, and more often than not, impatience or ill-timing means that a body is spotted, or a shot is heard, leading Santa Blanca patrols to become suspicious. Players can still employ stealth here to dispatch any threats before the team’s cover is blown: a quick trigger finger and thinking on one’s feet can still preserve the element of surprise. However, if everything goes pear-shaped, players must now ready themselves for a firefight and use every tool at their disposal to survive. Completing a mission is still possible, as is eliminating the reinforcements that show up to the party, but the differences become apparent: if one doesn’t plan accordingly, the combination of adaptive thinking and skill can still save the day, although things become significantly riskier. Conversely, the patient and observant players can sneak into an installation, complete their objective and fade back into the shadows before anyone even knew anything was amiss, speaking to the incredible difference that a little bit of planning can make. It feels incredibly satisfying to coordinate with teammates and drop up to four patrols simultaneously, move to another position, pick off any stragglers and clear out a base in this way.
Screenshots and Commentary
- The last time I played Wildlands, it was early March in 2017, and I’d been rather looking forwards to a trip to Japan. Back then, I was nine months into work as a novice iOS developer, and this was during a time when the start-up I’d been with was still on a good path: we were working on apps that would help medical researchers, clinicians and doctors follow up with their patients by providing surveys that could easily be completed. Originally, I’d been brought on as a Unity developer to lead the production of 3D visualisations, since this is what my graduate thesis was on, but over time, the American computational oncology company suddenly decided they needed an app more than they needed the visualisations.
- This sudden change led to the dismissal of several developers, and my reassignment from Unity to iOS – I had planned on building my own iOS projects in my spare time until I’d developed enough skills, but this represented a chance to really pick up Swift. While we were on the hunt for a suitable backend developer, I spent most of my days learning the ins and outs of completion handlers and delegation, two features that are indispensable for mobile development. At this stage in my career, I was a complete novice with UIs; another coworker handled building the view controllers and getting Auto Layout to play nice.
- By late February, we had gotten enough done to demo a prototype to some of the researchers at the local university, and our founder decided to celebrate this milestone with a pizza party and poker night at his place. This coincided with Wildland‘s open beta, and I vividly recall driving out into the winter night to enjoy some poker after spending a quiet Saturday afternoon exploring Bolivia. One of my other coworkers, a physicist with a keen eye for programming, also was a deft hand at making pizza dough from scratch, so we enjoyed an evening conversation over hand-made pizzas before starting the poker tournament.
- After an enjoyable evening, I drafted out my post on the Wildlands beta and concluded that the game was not for me. The main drawbacks in Wildlands, I claimed, was the fact that all of the missions in the beta entailed sneaking into an enemy-held area and killing a high-value target. The movement system had felt janky and difficult – driving was especially difficult, and I found the cover system to be quite unintuitive. Moreover, everything in Wildlands was far apart, and this made travelling between areas of interest to be a chore.
- As with The Division‘s open beta, my impressions five years earlier stemmed from the fact that in the open beta, fast-travel had not been available, and moreover, not all of the missions were available. However, curiosity about the game has lingered for the past five years, and upon a chance sale back in May, I decided to pick the game up for 10 CAD, reasoning that at this price point, it would represent a chance to explore Bolivia and see just what taking down El Sueño entailed. I thus began the game, took down my first Santa Blanca lieutenant and found myself impressed with the game.
- While vehicles remain terrible, the movement system isn’t quite as floaty and inconsistent on foot as I remember. I thus began making my way through Itacua, the starting region. This time around I had a decent arsenal of weapons already – besides the starting P416, I had access to the LVOA-C and G36C. Before even attempting any of the story missions, one of my first goals was to locate the M40A5: having a good sniper rifle had allowed me to pick off distant foes with consistency during the open beta, and as bolt-action rifles can be suppressed, these weapons become excellent tools for softening up a site before entering the fray.
- The gameplay loop in Wildlands‘ full release is considerably more impressive than the beta – mission variety is greater in that some missions involve sneaking into a mansion and planting listening bugs, while others will ask players to destroy slot machines and tables at a Santa Blanca casino. My personal favourite involved flying the drone into a politician’s room and capturing him in the middle of an indecent act for leverage over the Santa Blanca cartel. With this, my desire for mission variety is satisfied, and all of the other activities in Wildlands are preparation leading up to these missions.
- To support players in a hostile land against overwhelming odds, players are equipped with a skill tree. Exploring the land will yield skill points, and completing supply missions provides provisions that are used to unlock and enhance traits, as well as gear performance. Right out of the gates, I opted to improve my weapon stability and maximise the number of sync shots Wildlands provides, allowing me to coordinate with AI squad members and take on up to four hostiles at once. From bolstering the drone’s range and battery life, to obtaining an under-barrel grenade launcher and even reducing the amount of time AI squad members can revive one with, these skills will become essential as one plays increasingly challenging regions.
- The most useful skills early on should be spent on the drone and firepower: having the means to destroy helicopters and ground vehicles with a few rounds would be an immensely helpful trait, since blowing cover often causes reinforcements to show up with vehicles. For my part, I’ve tended towards stealth and make tracks when Santa Blanca calls in vehicles – over time, hostiles will stand down if the player cannot be found. This allows one to either disappear back into the wilderness, or clear out the remaining hostiles at a site. The latter approach was helpful in missions where I had to linger, and I vividly remember taking out a helicopter before destroying a Santa Blanca casino.
- On the topic of casinos, I ended up buying Poker Night At The Inventory 2 during a Steam Summer Sale, but never got around to playing it. This year’s sale saw me pick up Half-Life: Alyx, an impressive and immersive title I’m moseying through; I’m gaming a lot less now as a result of the beautiful summer weather. This summer’s been fantastic for getting out, and I’ve spent many weekends capitalising on the weather. Weekdays have also been pleasant: I go to the office on Wednesdays as a change of pace, and of late, the food trucks have been present every Wednesday.
- Yesterday, I went in so I could have a comfier environment for the longer meetings, and a food truck I’d never tried out was there: the Family Fry Guys is a food truck specialising in fries and poutine, and while they only have simpler poutines on their menu, this was plainly to their advantage. I ended up trying their pulled pork poutine – the pulled pork was impressive, being juicy and succulent. Family Fry Guys nailed the poutine with their thick-cut fries, savoury gravy and squeaky cheese. With this, my longing for poutine has been sated, and now, I’m left wondering what I should do on my Friday off. I’d been originally looking to visit a poutinerie, but two pounds of poutine is all the convincing I need to spend my Friday off a little differently.
- While I would have loved to take a longer trip to Japan, the logistics surrounding travelling abroad right now are still nightmarish, and so, rather than one large vacation, I’ve opted for the odd Friday and Monday off here and there. These days off can still be quite enjoyable: I already took a Friday and Monday off a few weeks ago, using this time to explore a side of town I’d never been to and spend time with family at a provincial park we’d similarly never visited. As tempting as it might be to stay in and game, watch anime or blog all day, it is not lost on me that vacation time is special, and as such, my desire to unwind away from a screen outweighs my desire to do something that I could do on a weeknight.
- For my current run of Wildlands, I’ve equipped the G36C, an excellent all-rounder that was already unlocked for me. By default, the starting P416 is an okay performer early in the game, and while it is eclipsed by other weapons, all of the assault rifles in Wildlands can deal with a foe in as little as a single shot to the head (or a few round if impacting centre mass). The high damage model means that firefights are over very quickly if one can place themselves tactically, and this minimises the chance that one is downed by enemy fire.
- For almost all of my firefights, I leave my suppressor on: in Wildlands, suppressors are the norm, and leaving them on allows for one to sneak around and pick off foes, who will only be come suspicious and investigate the sound of a suppressed shot. On the other hand, firing a gun unsuppressed increases bullet velocity and penetration, but firing a round immediately alerts foes to one’s positions and renders them on alert. Players can freely take suppressors off and put them on, allowing them to quickly adapt to a different situation as the situation demands.
- I remember how during the Wildlands beta, I ended up travelling from Itacua to Montuyoc. According to the maps, Montuyoc now has a difficulty rating of five, meaning that enemy bases are heavily fortified, have excellent guards and possess an intricate array of alarms and defenses. Conversely, in Itacua, bases are lightly guarded, and one can sneak in without having to worry about detection. As one levels up their skills and unlocks more equipment and perks, every tool in one’s arsenal will be needed to deal with the threats at tougher bases.
- Although it’s easy to get lost in Bolivia and focus purely on the mission at hand, Wildlands does have a bit of a political tilt to it, as do many games that Ubisoft publishes. Unlike games that are geared purely for relaxation (such as Among Trees), shooters often are tied to commentary on current or recent events. Wildlands deals with the moral ambiguity of the drug trade, and in fact, reminds me a great deal of Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger, in which the unnamed President of the United States authorises a black operation against drug cartels and ends up doing a backdoor deal that leads to John Clark’s men being killed by cartel enforcers.
- Clear and Present Danger represented a reminder of why the War on Drugs is not going anywhere any time soon, showing how democratic governments abuse their powers, as well as how compartmentalisation of large organisations removes accountability in the name of maintaining the status quo. Clark and the Navy SEALS with him see none of this: all they know is their mission, and as such, there is no context for them to consider the consequences of their action. As such, when the government decides that having a black ops team running around behind enemy lines could be inconvenient, it’s easier for them to allow their own soldiers to die.
- Wildlands‘ story sounds strikingly similar to Clear and Present Danger‘s, except since this is a game, the narrative won’t have the United States suddenly betraying the player and their team. However, through audio logs and communiques, it becomes clear that the players’ handler has troubles of her own when dealing with Santa Blanca, and that this mission is somewhat of a personal one to her. I relate to Bowman in that I have no love for narcotics or the drug trade, having seen what they do to people. This is an incredibly tricky topic because there are no easy solutions. As much fun as it is to cut the crap and send a wet team in to start lighting up drug dealers, the complexity of the real world means this is not a solution by any stretch (a real solution involves education and social support, implemented over several decades).
- Generally speaking, I try not to talk about my own political views in blog posts because readers don’t come here for listening to me share my thoughts on current events and the like; compared to, say, my thoughts on whether or not delegation or notifications is better for sending information back to a view controller, my knowledge on politics is meagre, and my main rule about blogging is that I don’t try to sound more knowledgeable than I am about current events because this could lead to a misinterpretation of events. Instead, I prefer sticking to my strengths, and note here that in the context of a video game, I do have a bit more room to talk about how well a game presents certain topics.
- This belief isn’t one that everyone shares, and I have noticed that some folks allow politics to overtake their lives to the extent where that’s all they’ll discuss. I understand the frustration surrounding the direction in which the world is headed, and while it can be gratifying to gain upvotes and retweets on social media, this does nothing to address either the issue or one’s unhappiness. There is a solution that Mark Manson outlines in his clever and helpful book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: we can actively choose to decide what matters to us and embrace life’s simplicities, and in excelling in the ordinary, well-being is found.
- Back in Wildlands, I’ve finally entered the province of Pucara: El Sueño’s mausoleum is visible from here, and it’s an unnecessarily grand and ornate structure that prompts one of the AI squad members to remark they’d wished to be remembered to such an extent. Another squad member then counters that being a Ghost means not being remembered at all. I’m of the mind that a life well-lived is a life where one generates value for those around them in some way: not everyone who is remembered generates value, and not everyone who generates value is remembered.
- While Montuyoc would’ve been a nice place to visit because of the large lake at the heart of the province, I’ll settle for exploring the other regions of Bolivia in Wildlands first: the open beta had only given players a very limited taste of what’s available, and it became apparent to me that my first impressions of the game notwithstanding, the retail version is a full-fledged experience that is anything but repetitive. Besides a larger variety of missions, emergent events mean that every single session is different. For instance, here, I was aiming to clear out a Santa Blanca outpost, but owing to the way things were lined up that day, I ended up drawing the ire of a nearby convoy.
- On any other day, it would’ve been a simple and straightforward matter of synchronously taking out the five hostiles here, grab the intel and then leave, but things simply lined up in a way to make things more thrilling. Viewers will have noticed that I predominantly play Wildlands during the daylight hours. This is a deliberate choice, since it is under daylight that Bolivia’s at its most beautiful. At night, while guards have less visibility, and stealth becomes even more powerful, the scenery isn’t quite as exciting. Granted, if I wanted to play Wildlands like a real Tom Clancy novel, I’d play exclusively at night.
- This is made possible by the fact that in Wildlands, there is an option to change the time of day. I can’t remember if this was available in the open beta, but here in the full release, it allows players yet another option to play the game in the manner of their choosing. Wildlands excels in providing players with options: there isn’t really an optimal way of playing, and this is where things get exciting. If one wished to run exclusively with a suppressed bolt-action rifle and submachine gun, one can do so. Alternatively, players who want to push their third-person firefight skills to the limits may choose to run an unsuppressed light machine gun and pair it with a shotgun.
- The game further encourages customisation by providing players with a gunsmith, which allows for swapping out various attachments on one’s preferred weapons. It is not lost on me that Modern Warfare‘s gunsmith is very similar in style, and in fact, it may have been inspired by Wildlands‘ gunsmith, since there are large similarities in the UI and UX. The gunsmith in Wildlands is a ways more sophisticated than the weapon customisation options in The Division and The Division 2, and looking back, I’m surprised that I did not appreciate this aspect of the game during the open beta as much as I presently do.
- The gunsmith in Wildlands adds one more facet to the game in encouraging players to explore: throughout Bolivia, weapons cases and attachment cases can be found in each region, and locating them permanently adds them to the players’ loadout. Outside of a firefight, this option actually allows one to switch over from a stealth-based setup to one that favours direct combat. On several occasions, I’ve used this to my advantage: during objectives to defend a radio from attacking Santa Blanca forces, for instance, I was able to swap off my M40A5 for a light machine gun.
- From this point onwards, I’ll make my way slowly through the remainder of Wildlands‘ campaign and continue the journey I’d started five years ago. I will occasionally return to recount some of my misadventures as I make more progress throughout Wildlands; the game is quite large and has proven enjoyable enough to the point where I am considering picking up the Fallen Ghosts DLC, since it’s on sale at the time of writing: besides extending the campaign further, Fallen Ghosts also adds the MDR and a Serbu BFG-50A. I’ll sleep on this decision before making a call, but at 6 CAD from its usual 20 CAD, this doesn’t look like a bad deal at all.
One of the biggest challenges that I encounter in any open world game is where to get started. Typically, after an opening cinematic, players are just dropped into the world with a single objective, and this can create a feeling of being overwhelmed, as one is uncertain of what the next move is. However, this single objective provides players with grounding: whether it’s meeting allied forces or helping them with a goal, a game’s first few moments set precedence for what can be expected from the remainder of the title. In Wildlands, the first objective after insertion is to locate a Santa Blanca lieutenant and liberate rebels being held at a Santa Blanca site. These rebels, after being freed, help provide vital support for the player, and with the first goal done, CIA contact Karen Bowman will open the rest of the world to players. With a semblance of what to do next, the open world of Wildlands thus becomes easier to navigate, and one can begin the lengthy trek of clearing each region out and disrupting El Sueño’s operations enough to draw him out. This is the appeal of open world games: like reality, starting out is often difficult, but once one begins, one gathers more information and accrues more experience, making it easier to make decisions and take action. In this way, Wildlands acts as a rather curious metaphor for life itself; starting out is difficult, but once one finds their footing and approaches problems with both planning and an eye for improvisation, things will gradually fall into place. Having now cleared out three of the provinces in Bolivia, my journey in Wildlands is just getting started, and it feels great to return in the present: in the five years that have passed, my first startup no longer exists, but I have accrued five more years of experience, and I am curious to see what kind of learnings I will pick up here in Wildlands.