Ghost Recon Wildlands hands-on: outstanding sandbox buffoonery in Bolivia

There is a specific pleasure to barraging around an open world in vehicles with friends, and I feel it as our team cram into a pickup truck and set off to kill some cartel gangsters in Ghost Recon: Wildlands. The driver carves a comically wobbly path across the red Bolivian mud as we lean out of various windows, aiming our assault rifles across huge glassy lakes at the mountains beyond.      

It's beautiful, though this E3 build is not as pretty as the debut trailer implies. However, it is the biggest open world that Ubisoft has created, and it is truly a sandbox, with 100 missions that you can take in any order. You can play them all alone, or with up to three friends.

You play as a special forces taskforce on a mission to split up an alliance between a corrupt government and a vicious drug cartel. That involves weakening both across a series of varied provinces. That's the big picture, in our E3 mission we merely have to steal some intel from a heavily fortified base and get out alive.

The demo is carefully guided by our team overseer, who suggests routes into the complex. The data in the base will point us toward a local gang lord, who will surely become a target in future missions. For now, though, we've stolen a chopper and base-jumped to an overwatch position (after idly taking out a gas station along the way, just to watch it explode). Here we deploy personal drones—a staple of many games at E3 this year—to mark targets, mortar points, machine gun emplacements and a cage of prisoners.

The drones are a nod to the old gadget-heavy Ghost Recon games, but functionally this is third-person Far Cry. The icons used to mark enemies and weapon installations on the HUD are almost identical to Far Cry. Those caged prisoners will rebel and cause chaos when released, which makes them the Wildlands equivalent of Far Cry's caged bears.

This is great. Ubisoft appears to have built an entire game around Far Cry's excellent outpost missions. As we fumble our way through the mission I enjoy the same emergent chaos that makes Far Cry's outpost missions so satisfying. Someone flies too low with the drone and almost alerts the enemy base. I sneak in through a gap in the wall and take out the guards on the mortar, and almost set off an alarm in the process. You can crouch-walk and prone-shuffle to maintain a stealthy approach. Silencers can be fitted and removed at will, and we all have access to an assault rifle, pistol and sniper rifle, which allows any of us to fulfil any given role in a plan.

In this case, we do not have a plan. Our overseer starts to lose control as we recklessly open fire. I barge my way up to a heavy machine gun emplacement and start firing wildly into some bushes. Someone steals a car and we all race to get in, forgetting the button prompt amid a hail of bullets. The driver lurches forward, but realises someone isn't in yet. There are loud explosions that sound suspiciously like mortar fire. As we escape, firing backwards at a few pursuing vehicles, I hope that nobody remembers that it was my job to deal with the ordnance.

It's a delightful shambles, largely because we're four strangers who have never played the game before. In the hands of more experienced players I can easily see how the base could be infiltrated quietly and efficiently, but it's a good sign that Wildlands can be so immediately entertaining for players that want to drop in for some light co-op.

As we career up a hill and nearly crash into a tree, I'm left wondering about Wildland's progression systems. Our simple loadout was fun enough, but I hope there are more inventive gadgets, weapons and vehicles to experiment with. If the game taps into its Ghost Recon heritage it could emulate MGS5's excellent suite of gadgets and move the game out of Far Cry's orbit. A sandbox is only as good as the tools you have to affect it, after all. Ubisoft says that day/night cycles and loadout choices will matter greatly in the final game. I hope we see more of that as we move toward the March 2017 release.