I'm about 30 minutes into my first encounter with Ghost Recon Wildlands, and I'm getting a distinct Grand Theft Auto vibe. I'd stolen a jeep, and once my team of three AI characters had piled inside, we set off down a Bolivian highway towards a nearby mission objective. Driving from a third person perspective, weaving in and out of traffic, and avoiding the occasional errant pedestrian as I headed towards my destination just felt very familiar.
That's because Ghost Recon Wildlands is an open-world game that enables you to drive any vehicle that you encounter – be it a truck, motorcycle, car, or even a helicopter. While this is a standard gameplay mechanic for titles of this ilk, I can't help but make comparisons to the genre benchmark, Grand Theft Auto. This is by no means a bad thing – indeed it's a compliment. I love the GTA series, and Ghost Recon Wildlands' combination of go-anywhere gameplay and deep tactical shooting action is very much my cup of tea.
Once I arrive at my destination, my team and I leave the jeep and head towards our objective – a house where low-level drug dealers are holding a person against their will. I go in guns blazing, advancing swiftly across the rocky terrain towards the house, and eliminating the few guards that are patrolling the area. It's easy going and I'm soon using the stock of my assault rifle to break open the lock of the cage in which my target is imprisoned.
He gives me valuable information that unlocks a new mission, although when I take a quick glance at the tactical map, there are actually a variety of different options available to me in terms of what to do next. Since this is just a fairly brief preview play session at Ubisoft's offices, I decide I might as well follow the game's "golden path," rather than tackling its side missions. To that end, my team and I hop into a helicopter that's parked behind the house we just raided, and head off towards our next destination that's situated a fair distance away.
Flying towards our new target, I'm given the chance to admire Ghost Recon Wildlands' terrific landscaping. It's feels incredibly lifelike, and the impressively long draw distance gives a quite remarkable feeling of depth and space. One thing's for sure – Ghost Recon Wildlands is a fantastic-looking game.
I land close to our mission objective, and once again we head across open ground towards the small complex of buildings that contains a car that we need to steal so we can access its GPS to gain valuable data about its owner's movements. Like the prior mission, the proceedings are not scripted in any way. I'm free to approach it how I see fit, so we skirt the perimeter of the complex looking for a way to advance without being seen. There are a number of guards patrolling the area, and I use my drone to scout them out and mark them as targets for the rest of my team to take out. As they do, I run towards the garage, gunning down anyone who stands in my way. Most of the guards are still tied up fighting my team, and that enables me to quickly slip behind the wheel of the car, and drive it out of the compound at speed. The smash and grab tactics work well, and make the mission tense and exciting. I'm sure I could have taken things more steadily and methodically, but that seems to be the beauty of Ghost Recon Wildlands' design – its missions are completely open and you have the freedom to tackle them however you want.
I ask the game's lead designer Dominic Butler about this freedom of choice when I interview him after my play session.
He responds, "What we've tried to do – and we're really happy with the outcome – is to keep the gameplay very simple and objective-based, and have that freedom of choice. When we've traditionally built missions in the past for our bigger games like Assassin's Creed or Far Cry, we would build narrative content: We want you to attack this base. You're going to go here, and you're going to take out the guards. Then you go to a sniper tower, and then make sure you secure a vehicle. And then you go get the guy, and you take him to the vehicle, and then there's a big chase. Or this one is a night mission, and it's going to be raining, and you can use cover of darkness, and you need to be stealthy so you don't set off any alarms. We'd try to set these things up as moments, but we found that they didn’t always work. When we gave the player the chance to do whatever they want whenever they want, they tended to enjoy doing that. We didn't want to block that, so the easiest way for us was to give the player a clear narrative goal, and let them discover how to secure that goal."
"In the beginning of the game, because you're being introduced to the action, we make sure we don't overwhelm you with too many systems, so you're going to do simple missions. Later in the game, you're going to have to kill targets, take on destroy missions, go to places where you have to find information, or coerce people to talk, or convince them of things. The goals are always simple, but it's the situation that makes them complex. That's where the game's different world systems meet in its big ecosystem, and that's where the stories get created. That's where you as a player will create your own stories."
"You're free to go where you want, but you're not left with no guidance at all. There's still a compelling story, and there are lots of different narrative arcs, lots of different ways to discover new missions. There's a breadcrumb trail that leads you through the game. We know you're going after El Sueno, the boss of the Santa Blanca cartel, and we've identified some of his immediate high-level bosses, but there are a lot of places you don't know yet. We know someone's controlling a region, but we don't know who they are. And just like the spec ops would have to do in a real situation, a lot of the time they're dropped in ahead of time. There's nobody there who says, here's a dossier on everybody and we've prepared the mission for you. These are the guys they send in when they're not sure what to do, and they're the best of the best – they're trained and super-smart, and they're adaptable and quick on their feet. That's a fantastic setup for players. We're going to give you some simple breadcrumbs, some narrative context. Like, we know a lot of people have been disappearing in this particular province, but nobody ever finds the bodies. They're used to finding bodies dumped by the side of the road, but in this case they're not finding any. More than 300 people have disappeared – find out what's going on."
"So then you'll have some starting points to go look for information, so you can pass it back to the CIA. They'll then say we've looked into these files, and been able to find out that a convoy that heads from here to here seems to be related to this. Find a way to take down the convoy and see what you can get. Maybe there's a high-value target with them, or maybe there's a GPS on the truck that we could use, or some variation of that. It's about setting things up, rather than making a big checklist of things you need to do. Instead, we present a world – go and discover it."
"It was a big design challenge. All that combination of stuff, the freedom of choice is what's key to the player experience. That's been the driving force behind every decision we've made along the way. So everything we're doing, every new feature we come up with, every time somebody on the floor says, "wouldn't it be cool if I was able to do this," the first filter it needs to pass through is, is this in support of the player freedom? It's a challenge, but it's something we've wanted to do for quite a while. We were confident we could do it – we weren't sure exactly how from the outset we were going to do it – but we're really happy with the way it's come together."