By Neil Merrett
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands on Playstation 4 – released 2017, Ubisoft
“Two little boys had two little toys,
Each had a wooden hourse,
Gailey they played, each summer day,
Warriors both of course”
– Two Little Boys
Among the multitude of sometimes contradictory cliches said about travel is the idea that it is not so much where you travel, but who you travel with that shows the real quality of a trip or misadventure.
Popularly attributed to Charlie Brown and Snoopy in one of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts comic strips, it could as well apply to the latest in Ubisoft’s branded games built around the universe of novelist and screenwriter Tom Clancy.
That Ghost Recon: Wildlands takes place in an expansive, often beautiful setting modelled on a near future Bolivia feels a relatively limited significance to the actual experience of playing through the game alone assisted by AI or with real world friends.
What the player really needs to know is simply that they are working against a Mexican warlord in a deeply entrenched narcotic state with lakes, snowy mountain tops, cavernous mines and fortified church complexes to be liberated and conquered from a vast criminal web.
There are bad guys to take down by foot, road, boat or air and there is any one squad capable of doing it. This freedom to maneuver with friends in your own unique style is both the main draw of Wildlands, as well as the source of a surprisingly satirical edge – whether intended or not by the developers at Ubisoft.
Through the wonders of online gaming, boys and girls – some of adult age – are given the freedom to liberate a country at gunpoint, with a mixture of stealth, bravado, and questionable vehicle piloting across snowy peaks, salt fats and flamingo infested lakes.
Part open world military adventure, part tactical simulation and part stag do/bachelorette party-game, the title perhaps says more about military contracting, covert foreign intervention and failing to understand internal politics than many of the movies, books and games that carry the Tom Clancy brand.
The Bolivian setting is a literal playground to practice shooting, drone infiltration, stealth skills, interrogation, kidnap, weaponising minibuses, booby trapping roads and discovering numerous other ways to capture or kill bad hombres.
The game provides a whole host of military tech to play around with and upgrade. How you choose to make use of them is entirely up to your squad of buddies, whether engaging from the air, parachute, or a daring mini-bus raid. It is your own open world to screw up or blow up, however the player sees fit.
That the adventure takes place in a downtrodden country where people suffer either from state corruption, a brutal drugs cartel or both, need not detract from the camaraderie, if it is just a game with limited consequence beyond surviving and having fun.
Civilians exist throughout the open world for sure, mostly to avoid in your car or motorbike on a daring raid, mainly to make sure they are not caught in the cross-fire. As the games points out, they are targets not to be hit, as is the case with the Virtua Cop titles from the 90s.
But as long as the player does not expressly target them during a campaign, then the mission goes on and an unnamed, unfortunate civilians remain an unfortunate piece of collateral damage to the greater good of a nationwide battle to bring down the bad guys once and for all.
Conveniently, these antagonists are marked out in orange blotches on the huge game map, with the potentially corrupt, faceless paramilitary police appearing in purple, a kind of escalating police presence should you earn their wrath.
There is a mapped-out, plot that focuses on undermining and removing the huge roster of various regional figures that make up the Santa Blanca cartel as you seek to help noble rebels loosen the gang’s poisonous grip on Bolivia. What is really important in the fun and mayhem of this open world is that you are the goodies and they – the irredeemable bad dudes.
Whether travelling in a motorbike convoy, or waging road war with a single family saloon car, your squad are free to tackle the cartel in the most stylish or ludicrous way possible. The option to undertake helicopter sieges to Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ is entirely down to you.
In over 50 years of writing or lending his name to military thrillers, films and games, from The Hunt for Red October, to the Splinter Cell series of stealth videogames, Wildlands could perhaps be the most satirical, certainly surreal experience to date.
The open world approach to Bolivia creates a collaborative playground to live out your most ludicrous or audacious military fantasies free of consequence in a panoramic, strange and unknowable foreign land.
Free from having to really win over or embrace and win over locals, or navigate the complexities of an alien culture, with its language and fractious internal politics, you are charged only with kicking ass and having a good time – should you be good enough to survive one of the four adjustable difficulty settings.
Should the player and their crew avoid the numerous bullets, bombs and baddies out to shoot them down, it is possible to liberate Bolivia from a colourful array of villains, torturers, pop stars and aspiring war lords that are either corrupted by, or battling for what they see as a Bolivia free from Us diplomatic hypocrisy.
Should you have the sufficient sniper, vehicle or explosives skills, no bad guy is safe.
Whether removing an entire village of gangsters from long range without being seen, or engaging in building to building guerilla gun fights, war has never been so much fun than in a virtual open world.
In the current, post-fact reality of modern warzones, we are given few certainties or comforts, such as goodies or baddies. Invaders can be branded as liberators and patriots or vice versa and we are led to only to assume that warfare is just too far complex to understand and make moral judgements over.
Wildlands would probably would be much less a guilty pleasure, far more troubling if you corralled your way around an approximated version of Syria. A player might have less fun accidentally murdering a small child by accident in your quest to save them from death, ruin and casual use of weapons of utter, if not mass destruction, when their real life counterparts turn up drowned seeking a new life.
Straying away from the real world horrors of Syria and Iraq, Wildlands is a pleasurable escape into being noble soldiers of fortune. While the in-game Bolivia is a murky corrupt and cruel world full of torture and warlords, the good guys are there to have a rip roaring adventure in a foreign land.
There is a controversial and very real world history of military contractors being flown into war zones by seemingly principled Western governments to perform the tasks they cannot for very real reasons.
Yet as the player makes their way through wildlands, with its in-game audio trying to map out the moral complexities of blasting around foreign lands in a helicopter blowing away bandits, the open world can serve a double purpose.
The stand-up comedian Al Murray once joked that the UK avoided joining the US in its generation defining war in Vietnam is that we didn’t want our home-made war films to be depressing when compared to the glorious heroes of World War 2 features.
Perhaps developers must make a similar consideration when building ambitious, if bug ridden and flawed action adventures.
War will always have heroes, known and unknown, battling for what they perceive as a greater good, whether it be freedom, democracy or the chance of a better life for others. But what if some soldiers just enjoy a good warzone to play around with their own militaristic fantasies and misadventures.
Excitable girls and boys, battling for thrills in a real world, as opposed to the virtual battlefield that Wildlands offers. It is perhaps more comforting to think such things could only happen in paperback as a form of military and espionage fiction. But a game, like no other medium, can put you in place of the action deciding how it should end,
Games like Spec Ops: The Line have tried to play with the psychological aspects of interactive media and the morality of warfare for entertainment.
As a Triple A title, Wildlands focuses on the fun, chaos, and all around riot it can be to just let off some steam, not to mention a couple thousands rounds of bullets or mortar fire, for the sheer sake of passing time and keeping sane.
It is not warfare, but a playground. It may nonetheless tell us a lot about heroism and military bluster when far away from home and with a whole country that is not your own to “save”.
Here’s hoping they end bungee jumping to the open world fun, who wouldn’t want to try that with a machine gun?
Some games after all are just supposed to be fun. Is real world conflict always so different?
Perhaps consoles do make you think after all.