Introducing Post Mortem! / by Caleb Sawyer

Welcome to Post Mortem, where I take a game that I have played exhaustively, and go in depth on my thoughts, positive or negative about the title. Now this isn’t exactly objective review. I will talk subjectively about these games and explain, to the best of my ability, where my conclusions are drawn from. It is a conversation, from me, to you. Critic to consumer. Critical thinker to critical purchaser, player, participant. These games may not all be new. Some may be years old, some weeks.  I will warn you ahead of time, these pieces will contain language. Explicit language, that is. So, get comfy, and welcome to Post Mortem.

For the first installment of Post Mortem, I will be digging into Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands, a title developed and published by Ubisoft for Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Wildlands was released on March 7th, 2016. A game in the Ghost Recon family, it follows suit with most of its predecessors but in fewer ways than most expected. It is still about an elite squad of operatives, embarking on a highly classified mission on foreign soil, and if they are captured the government will disavow their existence. Pretty boilerplate in terms of Special Forces fiction.

Where Wildlands sets itself apart from prior Ghost Recons, or prior Tom Clancy titles for that instance, is in its open world. Since Tom Clancy games first stepped onto the market, they have been contained within the walls of a linear story, guided along checkpointed levels. Point A to point Z. Now, I understand that, as games have matured, the idea of specific “levels” has become more open to debate. In this case, by levels I mean that the games have always been divided up by missions, when you are outside of a mission, you are in some kind of hub location. In Wildlands, from the start, you get dropped into an embroiled Bolivia and the voice in your ear, in far more descriptive dialogue, tells you it’s your job to fix the country.

A Mexican gang, the Santa Blanca, has taken Bolivia by the throat for their cocaine production potential. The leader of Santa Blanca, El Sueño (which translate to The Dream), sits on his high throne preaching to his people messages of “making Bolivia strong” and “creating a paradise’’ essentially. The Ghosts are tasked with dismantling his operation by toppling Santa Blanca’s four pillars: Security, Smuggling, Production, and Influence. A tall order, sure. But were talking about the Ghosts; America’s best and baddest.

Now, given the sort of typecast framework, what sold me on Wildlands was the ability to play the entire story in four-player co-op. In an environment where co-op story is frequently replaced with persistent multiplayer, it was a breath of fresh air, and for the first 10-15 hours or so, I breathed freely. Three friends and I took to the diverse Bolivia wilderness armed to the teeth, ready to toe-tag some baddies. And boy did we have a blast. The missions, in that early stage of the game, were diverse, complex, and genuinely difficult for stealth players. And stealth isn’t required for most of the games missions, so if run and gun is your style, go ahead, act like you’re in the Expendables 4, or whatever number they are up to.

Wildlands gameplay is clean but quirky, a designation that, until recently, wouldn’t make much sense. But currently games are in this sort of inverse renaissance I think. Most games have very sound mechanics, but that machinery often gives way to strange design and gameplay decisions that take some getting used to. Like Mass Effect: Andromeda, Wildlands is a third-person cover-based shooter that doesn’t give players the ability to snap into and out of cover. The security of a button-push cover-snap has been replaced by a trending adaptive cover mechanic, meaning players, when near cover providing surfaces are animated into cover stances. This is not in itself problematic, but it is still a fresh style of stealth gameplay that takes getting used to. I can’t count the number of times that I tapped A to cover up and, instead, vaulted over the cover I intended on hiding behind, into clear sight of dozens of gun toting enemies.

Awkward cover systems aside, Ghost Recon’s gunplay, stealth or otherwise, is very satisfying. Perhaps not extremely satisfying, it isn’t Destiny, but it makes the game fluid. And when stealth fails, because your squad mates fired on a target before everyone was ready (a relatively frequent occurrence early on), transitioning to run and gun, duck and deal firefights felt natural; a trait that button-less contextual cover is almost wholly responsible for.

Using gadgets, like grenades and C4, is a bit tricky, but when a game has so much going on, there are a few things you can forgive. There is a ton going on with the controller, but I will come back to that later.  I only ever used C4, so the number of times I needed to toss one in a hurry, during a firefight, could be counted on one hand. I played stealthily, allowing me to take my time and place C4 carefully. But I can only imagine the headache of being on the run and having to switch your thumb from stick to D-pad to rifle through the absurd number of gadgets you can carry. For one, the removal of your thumb from the stick means you are no longer running, so good luck not getting lit up like a target practice Christmas tree.

This isn’t to say that all the gadgets are hard to access. Ubisoft has been getting intimate with drones recently, as has half of the game industry, and Wildlands drone is astoundingly useful. It is easy to pop out, and its upgrade tree makes it one of the most useful tools the Ghosts have. When it comes to scouting an area, planning your method of attack, and executing with the precision the game requires, the drone was my go to 99% of the time.

In a nutshell, that is all you need to know about how Wildlands plays. It is how those elements are applied that makes the game interesting and, in some cases, unbearable. You see, I mentioned earlier that Wildlands is the first Ghost Recon to leave the walls of constrained level structure and venture into the open world. This choice in framework isn’t immediately troubling, many games have done and are currently doing it. But where Wildlands lost me, and the friends that I played with, was in its utilization of this open world.

Bolivia is beautiful, there is no question there. Ubisoft crafted a map that is as diverse as Skyrim, with rocky plateaus, lush jungle, arid salt flats, marshy wetlands, and snow cloaked mountains. There is eye candy in every locale. But Ubisoft has had an issue recently, in my opinion, populating an open world with things to do that don’t feel like needless, run-on minutiae, and because Wildlands is so big, there is this requirement to fill it with “things to do.”

 What you get in Wildlands, is a world map smattered with hidden collectibles, auxiliary quests, and enemy hotspots. Again, I know this isn’t altogether strange. But if you take The Division, Ubisoft’s first foray into open world Tom Clancy, almost everything you came across held importance to the mission of the agents. There were recordings, camera feeds, drone cameras, and digital recreations of events that the player was tasked with finding and they all helped the player get a better sense of what happened in the first weeks of the crisis. They were completely optional, and if you chose to ignore them you still got a good enough story to piece together what happened. Unlike Wildlands, finding them felt more like your duty rather than an outright time sink. Wildlands collectibles offer little in terms of story building. Sure, there were a few that filled in holes that I wanted filled. But there were also relics of the world that they tasked you with finding that had so little to do with the story or the Ghost’s involvement that they just felt like busy work. This may sound like nitpicking, but games ask players to reach 100% completion nowadays, and when that task seems less important to the game’s existence than say, knocking out a hideout, those blips on the map become out-of-the-way hassles.

On top of that laundry list of menial “go-fetch” quests, there is a system of optional side quests built on strengthening the Rebels of Bolivia so you can call in stronger support. Side ops that add strength to reinforcements, mortar strikes, diversionary groups, vehicle drops, and area scouting also litter the map. And there are weapon and weapon attachment drops, skill points and unique medals, and resource drops, all of which are discoverable by proximity or interrogating gang leaders that randomly occur throughout the map. Add all of that with the sheer size of the task at hand, and Wildlands can be downright overwhelming.

Every pillar of the Santa Blanca has four to six Buchons, think of them like store managers, that you must eliminate to draw out the Underboss, the GM of the branch. Each of these figure heads comes with a three to six objective mission set. Then, after the Buchons and Underboss have been taken care of, players take a crack at the Head of whatever pillar you are working on, the regional manager, if you will. So, to put things in perspective, there are 19 Buchons in total. Taking them out means completing about 76 missions. Then there are four Underbosses, which adds about 15 more missions. Then you get the four Heads, and while they don’t have multiple missions, many of their missions are complex or multi-step, so add the equivalent of about eight more missions. That is a measurable fuck ton of stuff to do, and while Wildlands only requires you to take out two of the Heads to get to El Sueño, leaving two operating branches and “beating the game” feels like a half ass job, right?

 So, say you are like me, and you did it all. You completed 90ish missions, a bevy of side quests to boost the Rebel forces you can call in for assistance. We’re talking a 20-30 hour commitment. I played stealthily, so increase that by another 10 hours. So 45+ hours of gameplay in I finally took down El Sueño. And SPOILER ALERT, the final cinematic is about as Deus ex Machina as an ending can get. Forgive me for this bit of literary nerdiness. Deus ex Machina is “a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.” Without giving the whole thing away, the ending of Wildlands wraps up with El Sueño, this big bad you have been hunting the whole game, falling into a Blacklist (of the James Spader variety) resolution, leaving the player with a stifled sense of achievement, if not a feeling of doing far more harm than good. And this, this is where my beef with Wildlands begins.

I enjoyed Wildlands for about 75% of my playthrough. Tactical stealth gameplay is my bread and butter, so taking out countless baddies without so much as a breath heard was thrilling from start to finish. But eventually (see 75% above) I started to feel like a mass murderer. Wildlands, in a manner less subtle than a whisper based conversation in a helicopter, pits American troops against third-world, brown, gangsters in a very lopsided game of last man standing. And about 35 hours in, I started to think about the people I was killing.

We are given the wildlands of Bolivia, a country struggling to support its people with a crippled economy, a Mexican cartel that has invaded, a shaky premise for American involvement (that sounds familiar), and a team of operatives who kill first and ask questions later. At first, that set up is easy to not look to deeply into. It is familiar, after all. But after thousands of confirmed kills you start to think about why you are there, right? You have to think about the environment that the game is in. A struggling, third-world country where a foreign gang has infiltrated almost literally every level. So, when you are walking about, armed to the teeth, who is it you are fighting against?

I admit, this is going to ramble a bit. But hear me out. The Santa Blanca cartel moves into Bolivia and takes power. They infiltrate every level, the government, the military, the police. Inevitably they start recruiting. They go into the barrios and farm towns and offer protection for service. In no time, due to lack of other opportunity, you have a force of young, order followers who are trying to protect their families. Sure, there are some who volunteer for the work, some who see the opportunity as their chance to get back at the powers that have left them destitute. But Bolivia, in this game (I don’t mean to paint a picture of present day Bolivia here), is ravaged by poverty, corruption, and violence. It is safe to assume then, in my opinion, that many of the “gangsters” that you are killing, are kids with no other feasible, profitable options.

Take that situation and insert the Ghosts and their orders. “Fix Bolivia,” right? How does one do that? With guns, right? Now remember, I didn’t see this immediately. There was a moment, one of those moments of failed coordination, when a teammate open fired on a target while the rest of us were settling into position. Maybe he had moved up too far and was exposed, maybe he had an itchy trigger finger. Regardless, here we are on the cuff of a firefight, when I took out a leader in the area and suddenly, almost instantly, the lower level gang members who saw the leader go down, drop their guns and fall to their knees. Silence. The chatter in our party stopped, mid-command. We are confronted by this image of one man down and five men on their knees, surrendering. The first words uttered in that moment? “Oh fuck.” That was when it dawned on me. These are fucking kids. Kids without options, given an opportunity to make money while protecting what is close to them.

I had played most of Ghost Recon Wildlands stealthily. That was the way I wanted to play. That was the way I liked to play. But in this moment I realized that, by playing stealthily, I had removed this opportunity from the game. I had, for lack of a better description, been acting as the hand of god. Killing indiscriminately from the shadows. Never pausing to question my actions. Never giving them a chance to surrender. I had been wiping this country clean of its misguided youth.

I have had similar realizations like this. Watch Dogs 2 threw me for a loop once that I didn’t recover from for nearly a week. But this felt different. It was an event that hinged completely on the way I played the game. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are a multitude of missions that don’t allow for stealth. Times you have to take on waves of bad guys thrown at you like cannon fodder, or times when UNIDAD, the military force in Bolivia, was abusing citizens. In those moments, I felt vindicated by my actions. I was saving the people of Bolivia. Right?

This changed the way I played this Wildlands until I beat it. I avoided firefights, almost completely circumventing conflicts to just take out who I was there to take out. But even then, Ubisoft started playing with my emotions in the quests. For instance, and some spoiler warning may be necessary here, there is a mission that tasks you with taking out El Boquita, the Underboss in the Smuggling pillar. As you are en route to taking him out a tapped phone call plays over your agent’s earpiece. El Boquita is on the phone with his daughter, who can’t be older than 8. Now, for some back story, the only reason you are going after him, as described by the game, Nidia Flores, the Head of Smuggling, has forced El Boquita to lead a convoy from Mexico back to Bolivia. The convoy is huge, and therefore easy to track. Making El Boquita an easy target. In his conversation with his daughter you hear a man who has been absent from his daughter’s life because of Santa Blanca. He is dismayed, and comforts his daughter, promising he will see her soon. He promises that when he gets home, they will spend time together like he promised. Then his little girl asks him if they can get a puppy and he promises when he gets home he will get her a puppy and anything else she wants. IT is tender, quiet, a glimpse into the life of a man who has become a slave to a cartel that has stolen him from his family. After the call, the agents in your squad say nothing. I arrived on scene, located El Boquita, and unceremoniously put a bullet between his shoulder blades. I felt like a monster.

Ghost Recon Wildlands, like so many games, falls victim to what people call Ludonarrative Dissonance. A term that, in short, means that the mechanics of the game don’t line up with the characteristics of the protagonist. The Uncharted series was the first to confront this issue, trying to justify Nathan Drake as a loveable character even though he murders hundreds of people throughout the game. While Wildlands never “tries” to make you love the agents as people, it operates from the understanding that they are doing what is right, and by the end of the game I no longer believed that.

In the end, I would say I enjoyed most of my time with Wildlands. It was a slightly unique attempt at open world and a new take for a Ghost Recon title. Two things that, unpaired, seem less impressive. Stealth co-op was difficult, contributing to the fact that I only played the game with friends for about 15 hours. Your AI squad doesn’t fire when you don’t want them to, doesn’t get recognized by enemies on their own, and never misses when you coordinate targets. Mission diversity is there in the beginning and that eventually gives way to environmental diversity that makes up for repetitive missions. But if I am honest, after more than 100 missions, any game starts to drag, and in a game with Wildlands premise, half-ass doesn’t make sense.

Mechanically Wildlands is sound enough to be thoroughly enjoyable, but the complex control scheme can make flexibility in tool usage and perspective changes more tedious than it should be. The game rewards stealth, makes run and gun fun, and the versatility of cover makes switching between the two addictively smooth.

What hurts Wildlands comes down to its size. It is too big to be easily palatable. The size makes missions repetitive, makes side quests and collectibles overwhelming, and makes the actions of the Ghosts look less justified as the hours drag on. So much so that if the game were half the size, I don’t think I would have had such a problem with any of those things.

Wildlands is ambitious. For that I am pleased. Its message is a bit misguided and it is a bit bigger than its capability to entertain, but it rests on framework that should be built upon, reiterated, and refined. There is always room to improve.

Thanks for reading Post Mortem. The audio version is just below. Stay tuned for the next piece on Mass Effect: Andromeda, and shoot me questions or topics that you want to read or hear about. Game hard, think harder.