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What We Do in the Shadows

‘Ghost Recon: Wildlands’ will make the most hardened gamer wonder whether the game they’re playing is morally acceptable

(Ubisoft)
(Ubisoft)

I’ve done things in video games that I would never want to do in life. Just in the last year of my digital existence, I’ve committed innumerable acts of wanton murder (The Division, Far Cry Primal), ran my bayonet through the virtual guts of countless online schmucks (Battlefield 1), became an organized crime lord (Mafia III), assassinated a dude at a fashion show by dropping a lighting rig on his head (Hitman), used black magic (Skyrim, The Witcher 3), captured and enslaved harmless pocket monsters (Pokemon Go!), and hacked people’s credit cards (Watch Dogs 2). I’ve never been particularly troubled by video game violence, nor seen evidence in any of the myriad studies on the subject that I should be. Some video games strive to be apolitical; others, like the Grand Theft Auto series, lampoon the left and right with equivalent ruthlessness. I have played and enjoyed many games with politics counter to mine. A game is just a game.

But context is everything.

Ghost Recon: Wildlands (Ubisoft), the latest chapter in the Tom Clancy–branded third-person military action franchise, is a morally and functionally vacant experience. Wildlands is a gritty, plucked-from-the-headlines, realistic open-world game that undermines itself with bizarre concessions to play expedience. The plot borrows liberally from the fourth book in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novel series, Clear and Present Danger, which later became a major motion picture starring Harrison Ford, when he could still fly planes.

The game is set in 2019, and the country of Bolivia has been effectively taken over by the fictional Santa Blanca cartel, a once-minor Mexican crime group. (Bolivia, the actual country, is currently exploring avenues for legal action against Ubisoft.) The Santa Blanca’s rise puts them in the crosshairs of the U.S. government, whose citizens constitute the main market for the cartel’s product. When a DEA agent is murdered in Bolivia, the U.S. decides to take action. The “Ghosts,” an interagency special forces team, are inserted into Bolivia and tasked with disrupting cartel operations and exposing links between the Santa Blanca and the Bolivian armed forces.

The first thing a player sees upon booting up Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a cutscene of El Sueño, the Santa Blanca cartel’s charismatic, heavily tattooed leader, monologuing in a crypt. After a short preamble about how many people he’s killed and his dedication to telling the truth, he says, “I had a dream,” then proceeds to outline his goals for the cartel. Did Ubisoft purposefully model its drug-lord antagonist’s opening speech on the most famous civil rights speech in American history? I honestly don’t know, but pondering that is a strange mental space in which to begin a video game.

The player controls the leader of the Ghost squad. Three computer-controlled teammates who are little too good at their jobs (more on this later) round out the task force. You can kit your soldier out with a range of lovingly rendered real-world weapons — assault rifles, sniper rifles, pistols, shotguns, grenades, C4 explosive, mines — and all manner of tactical vests, face paints, helmets, and the like.

The open-world map design is impressively wrought, especially the first few hours you spend in the game. There are steep, heavily wooded mountains crisscrossed by dirt roads. Standing on the jungle slope of a mesa, you can see for miles down into the valleys where shiny, brown rivers snake across the screen. There’s a technically competent weather system that rolls a carpet of storm clouds, bristling with lightning, over the mountaintops at semi-regular intervals. But the world feels sterile, despite the details. There’s no wildlife to speak of — no deer, no monkeys. There are bird sounds, but no birds.

Ghost Recon’s brand is “tactical shooter,” which is another way of saying an action game grounded in realism and military-style squad tactics. Whereas Call of Duty, the most popular military-style shooter in the world, incentivizes the player to take on an enemy military base head-on via fast-twitch shooting mechanics and nigh-superhuman ability perks, Ghost Recon encourages caution.

Movement speed is pegged to normal human locomotion, which, in the context of video games, can feel sluggish. Switching weapons takes a couple of seconds, roughy analogous to the amount of time it might take highly trained operator to sling his M4 and unholster his sidearm. Reloading your rifle leaves you vulnerable for what feels like forever. Players are kitted out with a pair of binoculars and a personal drone that they can use to reconnoiter cartel positions. You can order your squad to hold or advance, or have them synchronize their fire in order to take out enemies in one fell Zero Dark Thirty–esque swoop. At best, the results are credibly suspenseful as you sneak, crawl, and silencer your way to whatever your mission goal might be. Mostly, though, playing this way is fucking tedious. I find the game much more enjoyable when I eschew the planning stage and just ride up to a cartel spot with my squad hanging out the windows firing loudly.

That’s just my own subjective read, though. You may enjoy slower, more planned out, more realistic games. That’s fine. But Wildlands can’t even live up to its own branding. The game walks itself into the classic trap: Realism in video games begets an expectation that can be difficult, if not impossible, to live up to. In this context, any “video game-y” moments stand out as strange and work against immersion. A common example that every gamer has encountered is a military-style first-person shooter using realistic art design in which players can’t climb over low walls or pick up simple objects.

The most egregious example of this in Wildlands is the teleporting squad. When the player enters a vehicle, the computer-controlled squadmates queue up at the doors and hop in for the ride to wherever. If you happen to be impatient, you can drive away before your teammates get in the car and the game will, presto chango, beam them right into the car or boat or helicopter or plane while it’s on the move. This concession to gameplay fluidity seems rational from the point of view of expedience. But Wildlands wants its players to approach its challenges — which are couched in real-world details, bound by realistic physics, and set in the actual country of Bolivia — as if they were really happening. It aims for seamless immersion in a world that looks and feels like a heightened version of our own. In that sense, the teleporting squad is almost game-breakingly dissonant.

Players under fire and on the run from cartel troops can simply hop in a car and take off, leaving their squad behind. No need to swing back or cover them as they make for the car. They just pop up in the passenger seats like magic. Similarly, if you speed off from one of the Ghosts’ safe houses on a dirt bike, the rest of your team will just magically appear at your destination.

Your computer-controlled squadmates are nearly unkillable and rarely miss. To be fair, hitting the balance between non-player character teammates that do too much and ones that are useless, can’t shoot straight, or die all the time, is tough. Very few games, if any, get that right consistently all the way through a campaign. That said, Wildlands definitely skews too much toward the “doing too much” side of the spectrum. Many missions can be easily accomplished by directing your squad to open fire on the enemy then hanging back as they mop up the field. This and the teleportation issue are the biggest gameplay hang-ups of Wildlands.

Then there’s the message. I’m no prude when it comes to video game violence or the power fantasies that spawn such games. Wildlands, though, feels different. Or maybe the world does. Games exist in a wider societal construct, but the separation of the two is what makes the game’s violence feel safe. What happens when society shifts? When I play Ghost Recon: Wildlands, with its depiction of an entire country and all its citizens as tools of a vast narco-criminal gang, I immediately think of the eventual president of the United States characterizing some Mexicans immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists.” When, on a drive between missions, one of my squadmates inquires whether the Santa Blanca cartel uses “real torture” or just “does something soft like waterboarding,” I immediately think of the president’s campaign promise to use similar tactics against the nation’s enemies.

I don’t mean to say that simply playing Ghost Recon: Wildlands, a just-OK open-world tactical shooter, might cause gamers to go and shoot people while yelling “Get out of my country.” Who knows what kind of poison floating in the ether would cause someone to do that. A game is just a game, after all.