Today I want to talk about one of Ubisofts biggest franchises, based on character archetypes in the Tom Clancy universe, which Ubisoft purchased the rights for from the namesake creator a while ago.
Ghosts are a special section within the secret branch of the military known as spec ops, lauded for their quiet professionalism, unrivaled skillsets and levels of aggression, unmatched by the run of the mill grunt, plus they get the best toys.
The reader may have seen one of a couple hundred thematically related movies or read a book someone who used to be a Navy Seal wrote, but more on that maybe later.
Within the world of tactical third person shooters Ghost Recon has been a staple for several decades, gradually shifting its focus from slower paced methodical gameplay to a twitchier, more arcady approach, likely in an attempt to compete with similar games in the tactical shooter genre and as a result of an ever more crowded field of competition within that particular video game category.
The last two entries specifically, which I’ll talk about in more detail, have been received with declining critical praise and commercial success in that order, in spite of noticeable technological achievements and levels of good looking imagery on screens never seen before.
Ghost Recon Wildlands, released in 2017, had an initial struggle with functional bugs impeding enjoyment of the product for a large portion of the playerbase and received mixed to slightly positive critical reviews.
As the de facto authority in tactical shooters with an emphasis on realism blessed with name recognition and love for the franchise, it still managed to turn a profit relatively quickly, so instead of fixing all the broken parts in the world of a clearly fictional Bolivia, with no relation to anything actually happening in real world Bolivia, content was added over the years after release, on top of the microtransaction framework already in place to let players purchase items such as guns they didn’t feel like looking for on the game map, bandanas, or sometimes special otherwise unobtainable version of guns, with stuff wrapped around them.
Wildlands features a large scale traversable area with a range of biomes from lush jungles, to sandy areas and an eery otherworldly saltflat with somewhat hypnotic qualities, lots of verticality and many civilized hubs, populated by virtual fictional Bolivians, free roaming pigs, chickens that stay close to their coop and naturalistically roaming Llama herds outside of the populated areas, usually on hillsides. The occasional Armadillo can also be found sprinting through tall grass and bird swarms draw interesting patterns of movement in the evening sky.
The player, in typical clandestine fashion, is tasked with the destabilization of the locally omnipresent drug cartel by means of befriending local rebel forces, gathering intel of cartel operations and surgically disabling them, from cocaine production facilities, human trafficking networks, infiltration of the dwellings of the rich and Lambo like cars on dust roads driving career criminals for assassination and interrogation purposes and fighting off the local Unidad military force, that function as a sort of buffer between the cartel and the populous, but are rather keen on shooting the player on sight.
It’s a video game, so of course the player isn’t limited to driving undercover vans taken from random yet friendly looking NPC’s at gunpoint or stolen small and fast attack helicopters taken from the cartel, who never seem to fly the little birds themselves, but also capable of teleporting between home icon rest sites at will.
Ample opportunity for the collection of weapons and resources is provided by means of interrogation techniques, like hitting people over the head with a pistol, which consequently points out spots on the map.
Options to purchase outfits, guns and other resources by money transfers are available through the options menu, crates with special items can be purchased with in-game credits that can either be acquired through play or bought with credit cards or other tools of financial transactions.
Based on the difficulty the player sets the game on, the mechanics shift from the player eating enemy bullets for breakfast with ketchup, to instant split second death and enemy NPC’s chewing through heavy artillery hitting them repeatedly without issues.
As an intended support, three AI Recon Ghosts tag along in loose formation, equipped with a hang back attitude, constant quips that eventually turn into kinda friendly comments and guns that couldn’t get a silencer attached to the barrel, obviously some ghosts have to be noisy yeah.
The AI squad in this specific case is behaviorally laughably simple, likely due to the fact that a higher level of intricate situational awareness would have broken their functionality completely, or someone got frustrated by looking at code for too long and had to find an outlet to vent.
As a base behaviour, the squad will stay at a distance behind the player, regardless of current activity. In the event of climbing a random hill the squad stays behind and when entering an enemy tunnel network with the goal of taking out a former Ranger who’s now training new cartel members in the art of killing innocent civilians in a base swarming with heavily armed cartel that could pop up at any moment, the squad will also stay at a nice distance to the player, sometimes a good 10 second run distant and they will never initiate an attack, even when the player is involved in active combat, unless given the order, or sometimes they do, but when, that’s random and usually results in death.
Death is temporary, however, as the AI is really good at running up to the downed player, stabbing her in the chest with a big needle to resuscitate and then going back to doing nothing unless told otherwise, while the player gets shot and downed a second time, and so on, resulting in many expectational letdowns and and lots of activity fumbling on advanced to extreme difficulty settings.
Once given the order to attack though, the squad will open loud and heavy gunfire and push forward to eliminate any given threat, obviously ignoring CQC rules of entering and clearing rooms, neatly stacking up behind each other to get mowed down by waiting NPC’s, leaving the player to fend for herself, get flanked and killed quite often, specifically on missions to recover the brother of a friendly Rainbow Six agent sporting skull face paint that include taking out up to 50 enemies in two bordering buildings, with the failure to move quietly, efficiently and fast enough letting Unidad randomly join and reinforcement units enter the base to make the day even more fun.
So in a game about stealth and tactics and surgical strikes that allows for the acquisition of optic camouflage, to make the player even more stealthy and ghost like, the accompanying AI don’t have the means to stay quiet, or tactical or surgical, apart from time limited orders to execute spotted enemies, often through walls, hillsides or other objects in direct line of site, because video games and they will insult the player for shooting out of a building aiming at an enemy combatant in the middle of a firefight with friendly NPC running straight in front of the players gun and expiring, with adult swear words, but can’t be shot in the face with any effect as a retaliatory gesture.
Once a mission failed because the otherwise undetectable friendly AI, that has been observed to walk alongside an NPC enemy for several seconds at a distance of less than 2 meters with no issue whatsoever, tried to get close to the player who was protecting the Sam Fisher hacking away on a computer like a real NSA agent inside a building inside a Unidad base and got detected with one of the mission parameters defined as: Remain undetected.
In Wildlands, the AI can be turned off, but the entire story of the game revolves around them being present and talking during conversational cutscenes and as they’re not equipped with optic camo either, it’s another thing that does seem awkward and there is utility to their sync shot ability, which doesn’t equalize the other grievances nor the fact that it’s taking a stroll through the uncanny valley by means of ignoring ‘physics’, so as a general comment on this topic: Please make the AI less dumb, thank you.
Wildlands also has the player gather several types of resources by tagging containers or stealing vehicles to enable the upgrade of skill types for both the players Ghost herself, the Ghost players Ghost drone or the ‘AI’ squad ranging from not shaking like a leaf while aiming the gun, adding tiny black holes in the players body for bullet absorption purposes and other fun totally realistic stuff, so if the goal is to be able to snipe at medium to long distances with a high damage sniper rifle for instantaneous kills, it’s only a question of first finding a spot that tells one where skill points are located in any given area, then finding another spot that lets one find where weapons and weapon attachments in that area are, finding the weapon, finding a scope, then collecting resources by, say, putting little transmitters under the lid of gasoline containers, as a spec ops does, or stealing a couple planes or helicopters and landing them in rebel outposts several times, to then unlock the stable aim skill for one of four upgradable slots and repeat.
Bullet drop is a real thing in Wildlands, with the standard issue MK14 zeroed in at around 170ish meters, requiring aim compensation beyond that range and some enemy types, since enemies are able to absorb more damage in open combat compared to stealth kills for obvious reasons, like to get shot more than 10 times with an MK14 before they pass out.
On Stadia, slightly more than 5 years after the initial release, Wildlands still has bugs like falling through the ground when exiting a helo on uneven surfaces or the camera spinning like crazy for a couple seconds, as if someone was going nuts on their mousepad, wall clipping here and there, limited AI, NPC’s teleporting in front of the player from one spot to another, enemies taking a lot more damage without dying than they’re supposed to etc., plus fun logic gaps like letting the player wait for that chest needle with all his AI buddies in similar states, unable to fulfill their poking destiny and no option to ‘opt out’, unskippable cutscenes and teleportation to a 3km distant random spot on the road upon failure to complete an objective without getting killed etc.
Apparently both Wildlands and Breakpoint, released in the fall of 2019, were created at least in part by the same team, which makes certain design decisions and inclusions from one game to the next even more baffling. Many of these are minor gripes, but they add up.
In Wildlands, the player can holster their guns, not so in Breakpoint, minimizing role playing aspects in NPC conversations and traversal. In Wildlands, any time an interrogation sequence is initialized the player must remain frozen in place, sometimes while getting shot at, until the conversation concludes - or she dies, which was improved upon in Breakpoint. Climbing up or down a hillside or mountain works without issue in Wildlands up to near verticality, while traversal in Breakpoint - featuring an expansive mountain area in the center of the over 20km large archipelago map - is bundled with a lot of sliding down or grabbing thin air and failing to improve position upwards in any meaningful way.
Vehicles in Wildlands handle quite intuitively, even with every car running on a V8 or something for incredible torque, with the inclusion of a couple of seconds spinup required before helo liftoff for that nice ‘realistic’ touch, while steering cars is a pain in Breakpoint, but motorcycles are easier to handle.
Wildlife and enemy patrols are sprinkled seemingly random throughout Breakpoint, while the placements in Wildlands seem perceptibly more ‘realistic’, a probable procedural algorithm to ascertain a specific amount of encounters is likely to blame here and that’s a guess coming from someone who failed creating the stairs to the flag in the first Super Mario level in C.
Enemy behavior in Wildlands seems a lot more dynamic and proactive with many more CQC situations even though the landscape is spread out and seemingly larger, enemies randomly teleporting in may be a factor, but it’s hard to tell with so much stuff going on, while patrols in Breakpoint are relatively prevalent and can be easily dispatched and seemingly infinite roadblocks by destroyed vehicles created due to the failure of NPC’s realizing they’re coming up on a several burned out vehicles with no survivors strong situation and the game not failing to stop spawning in new vehicles from a distance until complete pandemonium ensues.
Breakpoint features a system where killed wildlife provides animal protein, that, among other plants and morsels can be combined and used to craft health stims, which the player uses to stab themselves in Breakpoint, to heal, among other items.
A nice feature sort of counter acted by the fact there’s an option to enable the shop in any encountered bivouac, but redundancy is obviously desirable sometimes.
Enemies also drop useful ammo, often regardless of what type of weapon they use, so even when with a specialized DMR with a rare ammo type, chances of running out are almost nill, compared to ammo crates sprinkled everywhere enemies are located in Wildlands, which also minimizes chances of having to use the secondary or tertiary weapon, whereas the second is a requirement, that is to say Breakpoint lets the player have just one gun and a pistol, while at least a folded Kriss Vector attached to the backpack that holds the 20 pound optic camo tech is a must in Wildlands.
Breakpoint also features the Wolves as an elite enemy faction, which are interweaved with the games story, while Wildlands Unidad features in one or two missions, but isn’t explained or further explored beyond the fact they exist in the setting.
Wildlands seems to be a lot more fleshed out in terms of lived in spaces, where entire villages and small towns are intricately arranged in a lifelike manor and friendly NPC’s roam the area, sell their plush teddies and electric keyboards, but nervously walk away when they see the player, even with his guns holstered compared to many deserted places in Breakpoint, which is a plot element, but a bit boring regardless.
Yet another aspect of a cultural background in Wildlands is the worship of Santa Muerte, a deity ranging back to pre-hispanic Aztec times in latin America that spread throughout the area and is today celebrated with an annual holiday, compared to futuristic drone inspired technology by the fictional company Skell Tech in Breakpoint.
Both games seemingly make a varying range of concessions when it comes to the idea of inhabiting a simulated world based on real world knowledge for the sake of providing an optimized experience that creates moments that cannot be processed by acknowledging ones suspension of disbelief and must simply be accepted as ‘video game’, hence resetting the players mind on a regular basis to ascertain the perception of video game, while also providing sometimes near photorealistic graphics and sounds recorded in real natural environments for the listeners pleasure.
The question then is, does Ubisoft have a department dedicated to keep the game real videogamy or are these games a result of an intuitive process that is simply executed based on seasoned experience and feel, with the help of well paid military consultants.
Certainly important points since the claim is to have created a realistic tactical shooter while in reality providing a preset framework based on an arbitrary ruleset created as a facsimile of many things we know, but at the same time diverging from our expectations in many ways.
It should probably be noted that the writer is a bit of a military enthusiast that never actively served in the military for a range of reasons, but has watched several hours worth of Youtube content on the M1A civilian version of the M14 rifle specifically, which is today still used a designated marksman rifle in some cases and provides a real punch with its 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge, a similar type of ammunition that is used in the AK47 rifle, which is one of the reasons many spec ops guys don’t bother wearing much body armor in some cases, since the worlds best plating still is only able to stop about one of those effectively and at the same time likely to at least knock out its wearer, so there’s basically no point in wearing any to begin with, or so it seems.
This potentially interesting little bit of pure internet knowledge is just one of many perceived discrepancies when it comes to the claim of realism with the Ghost Recon series, as they seem to be a random patchwork of truths and made ups more than anything.
Even games like the ARMA series (or S.C.U.M supposedly) that focus on many more details based on physiological, tactical, environmental, physical and other fields of knowledge and try to provide an experience as close to a simulation as possible without actively switching over to the serious games side, game like experiences used to provide training for real world applications, many of them used for non military purposes like navigating a freight ship through a slim funnel or learning how to operate a crane without messing up actual containers and so on, can’t fully claim the realism stamp of approval, but it leaves open the question whether the complete randomness of the experience in Ubisofts titles deserves this exact mark.
That is to say that Ghost Recon games do provide fun, several hundreds hours worth in this case, but there are many seemingly unnecessary frustration points mixed in with the experience and while some people may argue both games were bought on sale for 50% off, a 50% drop in fun shouldn’t be acceptable in this situation.
Ubisofts upcoming Ghost Recon title will be a free to play class based Battle Royale, a genre inhabited by other very popular titles up to this point since 2017ish, where up to 100 players drop into a zone by parachute and attempt to escape an ever shrinking energy bubble towards its center, while also collecting items and battling other players. It’s a relatively high interaction density type game that often creates frantic moments but also leaves room for contemplation while running around all by ones lonesome, but due to its inherent systems leaves little room for a methodic slow paced stealthy approach in most cases, the bubble is shrinking, after all, movement is key.
Ghost Recon is going to be a free FPS experience that likely will limit the last remnants of the essence of the concept created by Tom Clancy to specific skull patches for in-game military backpacks and the ability for some players to turn themselves ‘invisible’ for short periods of time, likely counteracted by some technological implement other character types will be able to utilize.
Why not call it Tom Clancy’s Battle Royale, so Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell characters can be used likewise, without dragging the Ghost Recon brand in the mud and having to wait for that very special upcoming update.