Updated: Jan 9
My first GR game was Jungle Storm on the PS2. I had a little group of regulars that I played the co-op missions with back when playing online meant you needed that giant network brick on the back of your system. Ah, to be a teenager.
With clear hindsight the game looked pretty rough. We were elbows deep into both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at the the time of release, but all the models in the games looked it the only gear left at the supply office was from the invasion of Grenada. I'm not going to complain, though. Carry handles, M203's, and God's Plaid (M81) are absolutely items of my favorite aesthetic era.
Of course, things have evolved. After years producing GR games where the players wore as much gear as they possibly could and missions were largely on rails, the folks at Ubisoft put out an open world game in which even they were surprised by the success of.
I remember seeing this game's teasers and being pretty excited about the idea of getting to stalk up onto each objective and scout things out. But largely it had to share the stage with Call of Duty WWII. Likewise, Ubisoft was dealing with the development blitz that was fixing the bugs found by the simultaneous and unexpected success of Rainbow Six: Siege. A game that is STILL getting top views for E-Sports in 2021. The game sold 42.5% better in the quarter after it's release than when it initially came out. That's before holiday discounts even kicked in, folks simply weren't waiting for a sale to buy this game. It was good, and they were willing to pay the full price of admission.
What did this game hit on that previous releases hadn't? Well, that's a bad question. Because the path was blazed already by another pretty stellar game.
The Secret Sauce
The secret sauce is gear. Gear is pretty fuckin' cool.
And gear collecting was a finely tuned aspect to another Ubisoft Tom Clancy game, The Division. While Wildlands didn't have the ranking system and constant swapping of materials that The Division did, it played off it's success of having a wide array of clothing, mission gear, and just a ton of weapons.
When I first heard about Wildlands the immediate thought my friends and I had was "It's like the Division, but in the jungle!" At the time we were all still playing the Division with regularity and got pretty excited about the prospect. I often preferred third person shooters to first person for one reason or another, and was jazzed about having another one to look forward to.
Wildlands finally came to us in the summer of 2017. It didn't take long before we started collecting weapons crates all over Bolivia like a dog who'd spilled their kibble on the kitchen floor. We attacked every small outpost mercilessly. We played much less like some elite unit and much more like pirates with a serious addiction for cool shit. We were basically goblins that could pump the brakes long enough to use a drone.
The Secreter Sauce
To a greater degree than most any other game before this, it allowed grown folks to play Barbies in the coolest way possible.
Whatever look you wanted, you could have it. If you wanted to play it like business casual day at the shoothouse you could wear hoodies, jeans, t-shirts, and aviator sunglasses. They also had some pretty well known kit to gear guys everywhere. You could outfit in Crye clothing, slap on a Mayflower APC, a Tactical Tailor MAV, or a slew of 5.11 gear. Likewise, several flavors of different helmets, face coverings, eye-pro, tats, facial hair, etc. lead to quite a lot of possibilities. Hell, they have gorka suits.
I've done some playthroughs with different crews and have had some fun roleplay fun as a result of this. Simply looking like the crew you want to be adds quite a lot. I recently did a direct action group in which we coordinated gear and changed our camo to match each new environment we were in. I've also done some CIA informant stuff where we ran around doing interrogation missions, using only handguns and ear-pieces. When stuff got harsh, we called in the locals to do the heavy lifting. The general playthrough method for 90% of those out there is to quietly snipe from a hill top. It's effective, and being "ghostly" has always been implied for this game. But big damn YAWN. There are just so many ways to go about things in this game. I had a group of local friends in which we loaded up in pure Russian kit, used only AK's and PKM's, and just rolled around on intimidation and kill missions. If you've got a little imagination, the simply dress-up exercises and self-imposed play limits really transform what this game can be. And I'll be honest, after doing my 100% completion playthrough, I wasn't super motivated to do it again without a quirk or two. That's really because of how complete I felt about the whole campaign and how much I invested into it.
Which brings me to the secretest sauce of all.
The Secretest Sauce
The setting and antagonists are really, really damn good.
In the Division the bad guys are sorta there. But they come in such droves and types that it's as grindy as any other RPG game that's out there. Wildlands does away with a lot of the RPG elements that the Division had. Which is good, because it really made me feel like my unit were autonomous operators in this vast landscape.
The environment was varied and storied. All over were tidbits of lore of Bolivian culture both new and absolutely ancient. When you took out a squad of drug-slingers on some hilltop ruins and actually took the time to look around, you were rewarded. Sure, you only showed up there for some skill point, but that Kingslayer file you found with an old artifact that describes the ceremonial purpose of the ruins you just peppered with bullets really makes you feel like you're in a living, breathing place.
Each territory has a sicario boss with their own personality, signature weapon, and storyline. You'll chase down sadomasochists, genius submarine designers, radio personalities, and every flavor of local hot-shot you can imagine. What's better, you can tell many of the cities they reside in were designed around their plotline and personalities.
DJ Perico is the voice that permeates the airs and can be heard when driving around any vehicle. As you complete missions and explore new areas, his dialogue will change to detail your targets and exploits. Likewise you get to hear the Santa Blanca propaganda and a bit about the lifestyle.
As the big guy, El Sueno, speaks over the radio it is really easy to understand how the impoverished youth of the area can be enticed into a world of brotherhood, cool gats, and steady work. Granted, that does require membership in one of the most violent and prolific cartels to have ever been written in any videogame (basically resigning them to be fodder for the players), but they're not just faceless enemies. Each enemy is some guy that joined for a reason or a cause. Between the citizens, the rebels, the cartel, and the Unidad; the player can really feel the moral struggle of loyalties to either faction, country, or lifestyle that pretty much every NPC in the game is forced to choose between.
In Koani, among the large salt flats, enemies construct large sand piles to waltz between to throw off your long range thermal capabilities in the desert nights. In the mountainous, snowy Inca Camina the bad guys will huddle in nestled shacks out of the craggy winds. The islands of Agua Verde have strategically placed watch towers on flanking sides of every land mass. The designers didn't just put shit where it fit. They really built habitats that fit the inhabitants and the location they were inhabiting. What really gives the most flavor to this game, and is truly the secretest of sauces, is that things are logically consistent everywhere. The buildings and AI for all NPC's are laid out in a way that makes perfect sense for each environment. Bosses who are cowards act cowardly. Those who are tough fight to the bitter end. The weapons you unlock from them match their whole persona wonderfully. El Sueno's egomaniacal monoliths being constructed for the cartel are advertised as a tribute to the citizenry. He's not just some generic bad guy. He's trying to play local politics. There is a real power struggle going on. And he's winning. Which makes it all the better that as you start to take out his main players and narrow in on his close circle of commanders he becomes less composed and more frantic. The radio transmissions you get from him get more angry. DJ Perico's voice over the airwaves is less boastful. You get the feel that what you're doing is actually changing the environment you're in.
I have no clue how they managed all that. It could be entirely accidental, and what a beautiful case of entropy that would be.
The Bottom Line
Man, I don't even really like open world games that much. Everyone talks about their "freedom of play" but it's almost always just a rinse-repeat of go-here-do-this missions where you can mess around on the sides.
But I wouldn't make Wildlands a game on rails ever. The ability to choose how you're going to approach each objective is paramount to this game. The face that each objective has character and purpose is paramount. The fact that you can make each objective plan match consistently with your team's loadout and aesthetics is paramount. The gun play and handling in this game isn't even that good. Piloting and driving sucks and on a controller things are pretty sluggish. But that's all so forgivable because this game is slathered in more sauce than a 10 course feast of Indian food.
Got the itch to play like the SAS? Go for it. Want to be some belligerent Blackwater-esque contractor? Go for it. Want to be a Russian death squad (of course you do)? Go for it! I still play this game when I get the itch to try out a strategy or style. Sometimes I get to researching gear for myself and then I'll just slap it on my digital look-alike and run around the jungle a while to get the vibe either out of my system or settle it in. But the bottom line success to this game, and why I love it, is Bolivia itself. The map is a stellar accomplishment on it's own and that dev team should be proud forever. On my 100% game I'll often just load in and drive around. The most fun I had was when I was just going back through the whole country collecting the lore files. That's almost better than the missions.
If you haven't played it, do yourself a favor and do.