When I set out to write this review of Ghost Recon: Wildlands, I laid out a scenario that danced around how the audience might hear of game-related events occurring in today’s Bolivia, not the narco-owned state depicted in this near-future video game. Then on May 15 I read the story about the killing of Mexican journalist Javier Valdez, an “…award winning reporter…’on a black list’”. I knew then that no scenario would draw the audience in like reality and that the world of Wildlands is a virtual stand-in for Mexico.
Enter the mission to rescue “Lupe Vera,” a crusading journalist who has been reporting on disappearances caused by the Santa Blanca Cartel, the game’s antagonists. The fictional reporter’s work is akin to the story Javier Valdez wrote, “The Three Deaths of Sandra Luz,” or pieces by other Mexican journalists tracking the case of 43 missing students in Iguala. The mission to free Vera is one among many that speak to the game’s disquieting realism.
The first thing nearly everyone says after playing Ghost Recon: Wildlands is that the scenery is jaw-dropping impressive. Indeed, the map is overwhelming and a player can reach every height within it by driving, climbing or flying, all the while listening to a narco-owned radio station constantly playing music or propaganda messages
The game is visually appealing but with a purpose: the realism sucks the player into the each mission as well as the larger storyline of a covert US military special operations team sent to dismantle the Santa Blanca Cartel and its allies in the Bolivian police, military and government, one bullet at a time.
It’s an overwhelming task for a team of just four soldiers and their cagey CIA liaison. So players must get creative when tackling various missions or creating new community based challenges like the “John Wick Challenge”. Beyond the eye candy, the visual representation of the characters and their tactical gear shows dedication to the craft of creating a true “operator” on screen. Players can opt for civilian or military clothing in any number of standard street styles or wear the latest camouflage such as Multicam, Kryptek, or ATACS.
Beyond the surface, the scenario itself is much like Ubisoft’s other foray into not-so-farfetched near-futures they have worked on with Tom Clancy Entertainment. The Division, a 2016 game about a US government paramilitary unit given extra-judicial powers and the task to restore order to New York City after a biological attack on Black Friday, showed Ubisoft and Tom Clancy Entertainment were intent on moving the gaming world closer to home. Since the beginning of gaming, the industry has brought us to the deserts and jungles of the world beyond the Atlantic and the Pacific. But Ubisoft has shown there’s an appetite for realistic scenarios in North and South America that entertain as well as teach.
As an educational device, I think Ghost Recon: Wildlands is pure tactical genius. You, as the player, employ all the tools a modern small-unit team, be it Special Forces, regular infantry, or even police, has at their disposal in order to identify a target, plan for action, and then take it down. There is even a non-lethal option, which actually gives you more points, but takes demonstratively more time. Either way, players can rely on their naked eye, advanced weapons scopes, infrared and night vision, long-range binoculars, and even a multi-purpose microdrone or your AI teammates.
I think the microdrone is worth highlighting because it is no mere reconnaissance tool and it is a credible rendition of the kinds of battlefield breakthroughs that are happening worldwide. After initially earning upgrade points, you can modify it to become a fifth flying robotic teammate that can even go kinetic. The drone can also be used as an electo-magnetic pulse weapon in order to disable certain devices on bases. For instance it can disable generators that control alarms or lights before you assault an objective. Cued by the drone, your team can be given the order to fire through the “sync shot” feature to kill a target whenever you order it. The drone can also become a flying IED.
However, the microdrone faces real-world countermeasures. Jammers can be found throughout the game map defending key targets. So the reliance you have on drones, the ones Western militaries increasingly count on, becomes a crutch the first moment your bird’s eye view is obscured by static. Even now as the US coalition in Iraq and Syria looks to figure out how to defeat ISIS’ drones, it seems the members of the Santa Blanca Cartel represent the risk that an adversary is always a step ahead. The game’s cartel has the technical knowledge and finances to build and maintain persistent jamming of your microdrone’s frequency at sensitive sites throughout the game map.
The lessons here for policymakers is that this video game world paradigm highlights the new normal of the future, a future that is already here. Consider “The Day the Drones Stopped” on the US Army’s website, which shows exactly where drone and counter drone warfare is headed. Wildlands does a great job of rendering this new operating environment vividly real in a way that conventional briefings and slides cannot.
Wildlands contains some geopolitical and military planning lessons, as well some glaring contradictions. One is that you are a covert team sent to be completely deniable. But you’ll spend a lot of time blowing things up, speaking like an American, looking like an American no matter how you attire your character, and then stealing people’s cars, as Grand Theft Auto popularized. This presents a dilemma for anyone who has worked in denied or semi-denied territory… stealing from people is an excellent way to draw the wrong kind of attention to your team.
Other reviews have derided Ubisoft on the lethal nature of the ultra-secret operation you are conducting in Wildlands. But that misses the point of the whole semi-guided story. Sure, you can brazenly go after the buchons and then after El Sueno (the big boss). But taking down the network by applying pressure in certain locations while enabling your surrogate local force to work with you is in fact where the true art of playing the game lies. Upgrading allied rebels and your own squad’s ability to assist you makes the game not only more fun for you but also more realistic. You can fight alone against the world and struggle or build a team and function with efficiency, even against overwhelming odds.
Wildlands is fun and beautiful. It also rewards you for taking your time and being a good teammate, especially with your AIs. Indeed, the game could become its own long war of sorts if you wanted it to by completing all the side missions and hunting intelligence down cache by cache on an ever-expanding map, just like in The Division. Ultimately the team at Ubisoft – as in elite military units — want you to work as a team. In Wildlands this means using all of your cutting-edge equipment wisely at every possible opportunity in order to plan to make the combat within the game easier. Not everybody, of course, will play that way. But for those that do, Wildlands is a thought-provoking experience about the narco takeover of a nation state and the US government response.
The author is an Army intelligence veteran with tours to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Korea. He is currently a defense contractor supporting counter-terrorism efforts. He blogs at Point of Decision (https://medium.com/point-of-decision). The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.