Saturday, June 1, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Ghost Recon: Wildlands

If there is any difference between video games of old and new, it is the potential for immersion. Enhancements in technology now allow game developers to create ever more detailed environments that almost capture the illusion of being in the game’s world. Super Mario Brothers is fun, but it is nothing like the 3D, first-person experiences of Soma or Resident Evil 7. And this is not to even mention VR games. In short, players these days are thisclose to being the heroes or anti-heroes of their games. From apocalypse survivor to elven princess, WWII grunt to yakuza gangster, modern games are putting people in the shoes of characters like never before. Want to be a black ops operative working to stem the narcotics trade in Bolivia? 2017’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands puts you (and best played with, a handful friends) in those shoes.

Short on story, long on content, GR:W is a massive open world game filled with main and side missions in which the player infiltrates the Santa Blanca drug ring and takes out its leaders, region by region, until they arrive at the big boss El Sueno. Along the way, players will destroy cartel outposts, raid supply depots, assassinate targets, kidnap and interrogate cartel members, destroy comms infrastructure, assist local rebels, tag supplies like medicine and technology to be repurposed, hijack helicopters and airplanes, pilot gunboats—in general be a bad ass, black ops operative in an amazingly realistic rendition of Bolivia.

Not precisely a solo experience, GR:W’s is tackled with three fellow squadmates. The squadmates controlled either by the game’s AI or online friends (no local co-op, unfortunately), GR:W is a cooperative experience by design even if it means controlling the team yourself, and, I would argue, is likely best enjoyed in the long term with real friends fighting alongside you, as otherwise it might get repetitive. Developers clearly put effort into the backdrop and storyline, but it’s equally clear the majority went into creating as good a multiplayer experience as possible. The game plays perfectly fine in single-player, but when the squadmates are controlled by other living, breathing humans the game really comes alive. For this, Ubisoft should be commended for finding a game mode which allows the entire campaign to be played single, multi-player, drop-in drop-out, or mixed. GR:W may not have earned top marks critically upon release, but from a sales perspective it has done extremely well, and I think the multi-player freedom is the main reason (along with the stealth-shooter game type).

Where most video games these days make things easy on the player by offering regular checkpoint saves so little progress is lost when dying (Shadow Tactics even goes so far as to allow the player to save any moment with the push of a button), GR:W opts to balance realism with practicality. Upon “dying”, squadmates have roughly 1 minute to come to your side and revive you (and you, them). If successful, the player continues playing. If it happens again in the same fight, then ‘real death’ occurs, and the player must reload a save, meaning they must start the entire mission over again, or try another mission. It can be a real bummer to get 99% through a mission, only to die in the last firefight. But perhaps more importantly, it adds a layer of realism. Players are forced to take each action with careful consideration—plan B as well, in case things go awry. A more difficult game for it, GR:W is likewise more satisfying when the missions are pulled off successfully.

Looking at reviews of GR:W, one finds a portion of its player base appears to be gun nuts. I am not a gun nut. (I dislike the things; our world would be a better place without them.) But if you are, Wildlands will be a treat. Not only are their major options for assault rifles, sniper rifles, and pistols (most or all of which seem drawn from the real-world), there is also the possibility to upgrade and modify them in extremely detailed manner. Clips, braces, paint schemes, grip, under-barrel, scopes, butts, barrels—seemingly everything can be interchanged or customized. (I laughed to myself: “Why can’t I switch the steel screws for titanium on this gun?) But perhaps of further interest to gun nuts is that the physics are extremely realistic, i.e. bullet trajectory is arced rather than straight, unlike most shooting games. Like real-world snipers and target shooters, players will need to account for bullet drop (i.e. aim high) when taking out targets over long distances.

Another area which Ubisoft has given players near complete control is deciding what information appears on the screen. From icon-heavy to no icons, and everything between, the player can choose what info appears on their HUD, mini-map, and game environment. If the player wants gameplay to be as realistic as possible, they can turn off everything and go in with pure recon and stealth to depend on. Or conversely, they can have the full blown display turned on: collectibles here, enemies there, info cache here, gun part there. Or lastly, they can mix and match to suit preference. Game immersion is not only a thing, but a customizable thing.

But in terms of 100% immersion, GR:W is still lacking. Overall gameplay is quite realistic. Lighting, terrain, weather, weapons, locations, vehicles—all are drawn from the real world. But there are a couple of things that break the illusion. First is the sheer spread of the Santa Blanca narcotics ring. It feels the player cannot turn over a rock without finding a cartel gangster. Everyday people are part of the game’s environment, but they seem to occupy only 50% of the total population, the other half the cartel. No matter how bad Columbia or Bolivia’s real-world narcotics problem may be, it’s not as widespread as GR:W's gangsta epidemic. Secondly is the AI squad members. Put bluntly, they are best used in hold position as snipers. Too often are the occasions where you stealthily crawl your way through the grass to scope out a target, only to have the target spot your doofus AI teammate as he stands beside you, and begins shooting. Why the teammates couldn’t have been semi-synched to crouch or crawl with you I don’t know. In the real world the teammate would be intuitive enough to know as much. And thirdly, the player’s appearance has no bearing on the setting. I understand developers chose to prioritize character creation, but the fact wearing a cowboy hat and brightly colored clothing (vs. camouflage and other, more stealthy apparel) has no effect on enemies’ ability to see you is strange. Moreover, players walk around in public armed to the teeth with rifles, pistols, grenades, C4, etc., yet nobody bats an eye. In the real world, such black ops operatives are going about their business much differently.

Looking back at the early reviews of Wildlands, there is a fair amount of negativity, and I can’t really understand why. Perhaps the game was released with bugs that have since been fixed, or perhaps gamers who played earlier Ghost Recon titles disliked the open world approach? Regardless, they game doesn’t appear worthy of some of the criticism it received. It is not the greatest game ever made, but it’s very solid. For players wanting to be undercover operatives taking down targets and directing field missions, the game wholly captures that feel. Guns and gun physics (for those who care) are realistic. The action sequences are tense and exciting given the patience required. The multi-player is very satisfying and may just be the best 4-player experience produced yet. Even if the side missions are repetitive, there is still a huge amount of content, and ultimately no better or worse than most regarded titles. And while the player is overpowered, AI teammates don’t react realistically, etc., still, the game delivers the immersive experience of being a special ops agent going on stealth missions with friends, which is by rights the main design and selling point of the game, and something we just didn't have with Contra...

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