Initially, it seems as if there will be little handholding in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Players create their own character, an elite U.S. soldier codenamed Nomad, and after a brief introduction from C.I.A. handler Karen Bowman, are sent freely out into the titular—albeit semi-fictionalized—wilds of Bolivia. There, according to the brief introduction to Operation: Kingslayer, Nomad and his or her squad of three teammates can set about bringing down El Sueno and his Santa Blanca cartel in any way they please.
In actuality, there are clear limitations on what players are allowed to do. The game’s regions are all accessible from the start, which makes it easy to jump into a co-op session if you dislike working with AI partners. Everything else is gated, which means that you can’t just track down El Sueno or the 16 buchons who’ve carved out Bolivia into a series of discrete territories. Instead, players must follow a scripted gameplay loop in order to identify and locate each target, tediously working their way up the cartel chain. Whereas Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain allowed players to skip directly to each mission, Wildlands drags out every scenario, forcing players to drive along (or fly above) interminably winding roads to the various cities, remote shanties, and armed outposts marked on the mini-map with dossier icons.
This is about as dumbed-down as intelligence gathering gets, but it’s sadly the only way to actually unlock missions. You can’t just set about torching the coca fields or blowing up refineries to destabilize the cartel, as was encouraged in the cartoonish Just Cry series, nor can you simply help the local resistance fighters to retake territory, as in recent iterations of Far Cry; enemies and objects will respawn if your actions aren’t part of an officially assigned mission. There’s about as much freedom here as in dominos. Complete missions to draw out the buchons, which in turn reveals their underbosses and, eventually, the heads of the cartel’s four major operations: security, production, influence, and smuggling. Only after you’ve arbitrarily taken out two of those can El Sueno himself be targeted.
Worse is that, because the game can be tackled in any order, the missions end up echoing one another. The same fundamental skills used to take down the sadistic lovers La Yuri and El Polito in the game’s easiest province, Itacua, which boasts a one-skull difficulty rating, are put to the test against the Unitad Army’s General Baro in one of the hardest five-skull areas, Flor de Oro. The actual targets may change—destroy a money-laundering casino here, a cocaine-smuggling submarine there—but the methods do not. Whether you’re dealing with a sleazy American scientist or a propaganda-slinging corrido singer, both are best extracted by taking them to the nearest helicopter.
Time and again, the overwhelming size of Wildlands’s open world is used to disguise the game’s lack of real freedom within it. It’s true that, save for a few rare missions that require stealth to be maintained, players can choose how to best infiltrate an enemy’s station, whether that’s long-distance sniping or up close with one of the game’s many explosive tools (mines, drones, C4). But while players can skydive into the middle of a military base, or call in mortar strikes from outside its walls, these choices are certain death on higher difficulties; there are many ways to skin a cat but far fewer if you’re trying to avoid making noise. Moreover, while pure logistics may be up to players, the missions have very clear conditions: Some targets, no matter how evil, must be safely extracted. Taking the law into your own hands, which is basically the point of the whole game, is punished with mission failure.
Ultimately, Wildlands feels uncomfortable with its open-world setting; as it turns out, realism is the least appealing part of the Ghost Recon series. The game’s most enjoyable moments are those that embrace over-the-top action, like flying an exploding drone into a strafing helicopter, running out of a collapsing mine, or driving a tank through a series of roadblocks. How unfortunate for all but the biggest policy wonks, then, that the game keeps taking detours away from such set pieces so as to better demonstrate how the various pyrolucite mines, coca fields, industrial labs, and oil pipelines all run together to make up the cartel’s Production operation. And while there’s something to be said for the way in which the various biomes of Bolivia naturally bleed into one another, with deforested La Cruz giving way to swampy Caimanes and the mountainous Villa Verde before plunging into the depths of Espirtu Santo’s jungles and mines, there’s even more to be said for just how empty all of these regions are. (It’s genuinely creepy that, despite hearing the sounds of wildlife, you’ll never actually see any animals.)
Wildlands is at its best when it’s focused on the minutia and gameplay of a scenario within the larger world it depicts: a showdown atop the middle of a dam; a bloody ascent through the winding scaffolding that surrounds a mausoleum that’s in the process of being completed; the tricky infiltration of a well-guarded cathedral. They say that freedom isn’t free, and the price of this open-world game is all the unmemorable filler that players must experience in order to enjoy such truly unforgettable encounters.