What we thought of the Ghost Recon Wildlands closed beta

Tom Marks, Tim Clark, James Davenport, and Chris Livingston crewed up this weekend in the Ghost Recon Wildlands closed beta, Ubisoft's upcoming open-world tactical shooter. Between co-op firefights with drug cartels and corrupt military forces in Bolivia, they found time to fly helicopters, steal tractors, and acquire pink AK-47s.

Chris: If a game lets you grab three of your buddies, highjack cars together, drive off cliffs, steal helicopters, crash planes, carefully plan assaults on enemy strongholds and freak out when those plans collapse, I’d say you’re off to a good start. Throw in some fun extras, like tiny drones you can dispatch to scout ahead and tag enemies, and the ability to recruit AI rebels and call in mortar strikes, and the result is a lot of fun.

Wildlands feels like a combination of the somewhat senseless destruction of Just Cause and the outpost assaults of Far Cry 3 and 4, and that’s all fine with me. There were a handful of story missions and the usual Ubisoft distractions: while traveling around there were enemy patrols and compounds to tackle, and icons showing places to acquire ammo, skill points, and weapon upgrades. The beta was limited to one section of the map, a mountainous region that was a bit of a pain to travel by car or motorcycle since the driving is currently so sloppy and screechy, so traveling by air was much more convenient, which led to plenty of enjoyable (though often disastrous) helicopter heists.

Note: you can sit in the trunk. Chris is sitting in the trunk.

Tom: I seemed to fall into the role of ‘wheel-man’ for most of the weekend—also helicopter-man, as well as briefly and almost catastrophically airplane-man at one point. It was a lot of fun driving around the mountainside with three friends brandishing assault weapons hanging out of the windows, despite the fact that the driving is one of the worst parts of Wildlands. Most of the cars feel weightless and touchy, and the crash and roll physics are downright comical. And the radio. Man, is the radio bad.

Tim: I think it's that it half wants to be funny like GTA but then is stuck with not being a satire game. The music is just dreck also.

James: I wish the passenger could mess with the radio too. Make for some classic on/off comedy scenes.

Chris: Whenever anyone else was driving I would ask them to please turn off the radio. It was making me mad.

Tim: Shoot the radio out like Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant.

Chris: I've been shooting radios! Not car radios, but the radios you find in camps, because they are always on. Always. Not everyone who owns a radio leaves it on all the time, videogames.

Tom: As Chris mentioned, the helicopters were a lot more practical and more fun to use for planning assaults. One of the best ways we found to storm enemy compounds was to hover a chopper directly over head, send out drones to scout everything out, then land (or parachute out) and waste all that time and planning by blowing up a gas tank and just busting out the heavy weapons anyway.

One time we saw a construction crane overlooking our target, so I carefully hovered close enough to it for Tim to jump on top and use it as a sniper perch. It was a fantastic moment, made better by the fact that it wasn’t any sort of pre-scripted thing. We saw a tall thing, had a helicopter, and said “I wonder if this will work?” It did. Then a minute or two later Tim fell off.  

The perfect perch. Almost.

Tim: I still feel a genuine sense of loss about that. I was going to be your eye in the sky (well, eye on the crane), delivering justice one expertly aimed sniper round at a time. But I got greedy, popped my drone, and stumbled off the edge. Life’s great melancholy is the paths left unexplored, and I fear I will never know the joy of ventilating low level drug industry dudes from the safety of vertiginous construction machinery. Or I won’t until the game comes out on March 7. Speaking of which, my biggest takeaway from the beta is that I actually want to play this game now. Wildlands pretty directly splices Just Cause with the more recent Far Cry games, leaving not much of the serious-ish Clancy stuff behind. Which is fine by me. 

Chris: Syncing attacks is fun. In singleplayer, you can tag and number enemies and your AI pals will target them, and fire once you take out your target. It’s cool in multiplayer, too: we took down snipers guarding a stronghold by numbering them 1-3, then each taking one of them (though I missed my shot while everyone else hit).

Side note: At one point Tim and I were waiting for Tom to pick us up in a chopper, and decided we should destroy the evidence of the car we had stolen using bullets and a grenade. Tom, unfortunately, chose that moment to land. James rounds out the cast. There's video below.

Tim: What I suspect won’t get old for me is the gun collecting and modifying, and the chance to outfit my character is all sorts of differently patterned pants. Pretty standard for this sort of game I suppose, but even with only a single region to explore, I felt a real thirst to acquire and test new weapons and pants. The signature guns you get from defeating bosses are particularly sweet, though you seemingly can’t edit those, meaning I ended the game with a shocking pink drum fed AK-47. It was a good day, etc.

Chris: Tim and I had a fun mission together, infiltrating the remote cabin of some guy we were told to kill because of reasons (I don't watch cutscenes or listen to briefings). We scouted outside with drones, crept into the lodge, moved downstairs covering each other, counting up the bad guys as we went. Then we burst through a basement door and took everyone out. It was nearly flawless, but when we were done and leaving, three more bad guys somehow spawned into the dead-end chamber we had just cleared. We got ‘em, but it was either a bit of a glitch or they were very good at hiding.

Another time, we found ourselves in some farmland and we all stole tractors and drove around, because we are here to help. We are here to help ourselves to tractors.

Tractor Lyfe.

James: I worry about the pacing in terms of character progression. How often will we need to make a detour to find a bit more supply to tag or factions to explode in order to grab a new skill? The beta’s map size isn’t small by any means, and the final map is magnitudes larger. In the greater scope of the game, I worry the pace will fall off into darting around the map for collectibles rather than curiosity. And it’s hard to get a sense whether the skills matter much or not. I hope that the system isn’t easy to max out, and teams will have to specialize in order to succeed in later missions. Let poor Tim have another go on top of the crane, but specced out as a sniper while we work the ground in split support and offensive roles. While dinking around on the map and stumbling through most missions is still a good time, I like the idea of piling on systems to make the stumbling more complex and interesting as the challenge grows.

Chris: I was trying to do something beside sniping, but I found when I went close-quarters combat I just kept getting dropped and having to be revived by everyone else. Eventually I decided I’d be the explosives guy, and unlocked landmines, which worked pretty well when I used them, though I knew where to use them since we were replaying missions and I knew where the enemies would be driving in from.

My penance for blowing up cars was to become pinned under one after a panicking NPC drove over me.

Tom took a picture before reviving Chris.

Tom: When the stealth approach works, it really works. The guns in Wildlands are fairly lethal, so both enemies and allies (including yourself) go down fast when under fire. I think that makes the shooting one of its stronger parts, and the need to be cautious (or at least not too reckless) helps push you toward syncing shots and using silencers. I was impressed that the slow, tactical playstyle could be just as much fun as driving a Lambo full of friends straight into an enemy base.

Tim: Can we talk for a second about the swearing? Whoever wrote Wildlands clearly did so after bingeing the first two seasons of Narcos, and feels compelled to insert “sicario” into every single sentence for instant authenticity. But that’s undermined by your operatives blurting out stuff like “cock knocker!” and “shit balls!” whenever you bang your SUV into a parked car. It’s like dad re-watched Wayne’s World and is now trying to cuss creatively. No. Stop. 

We should probably also mention performance. The framerate was one of the wildest things about Wildlands. I turned most stuff down to around the medium-high marks, and it was still hopscotching between 40 and 60. Worse, several of us encountered freezes that would last about five seconds before the game righted itself. That’ll need fixing, but that’s what betas are for.

James: Let’s hope the beta tag means something and they take care of everything you mentioned, Tim. Terrible driving and juvenile swearing aside, I had a really fun time crashing through Wildlands with you guys. It’s definitely not the hardcore, tactical, open world dream previous Ghost Recon players might have wanted—even on the higher difficulties it’s not as punishing as the older games—but Wildlands is still one of the more playful open world explosion sandboxes I’ve kicked around lately. If it can keep up a good sense of progression and character growth without getting too repetitive or simple once the full game is available, it could be great. So long as I still have friends then.