How Ghost Recon: Wildlands nails its open-world

An overlook of the open-world structure of Ghost Recon: Wildlands, and why the freedom it offers makes it such a great model for future open-world games.


If you haven’t yet played the excellent (yet flawed) Ghost Recon Wildlands, you might find this interesting review useful for getting a better grasp of what we'll be discussing further on. The very least we can say about GRW, it’s that it divides the critics. From Polygon’s review to IGN’s, many points seem to be recurrent in what’s problematic with the game - its repetitive nature, the peculiar driving and the lack of substantial changes in the gameplay in the progression system, among others. The game offers a set experience that, depending on your expectations, might just not be for everyone. Yet, it offers a peculiar canvas for an open-world game, and I thought I'd share what I've thought out so far about it.


The classic open-world


A vast majority of open-world games are structured as follow: you begin the game in an enclosed tutorial zone that narrates the story of how your character came to be in this open environment. After that, you’re given access to parts (or the entirety) of the game’s open-world, in which you’re quickly introduced to the main missions that you’ll have to follow for the game and the character to advance.


You’ll also be introduced to side missions that serves to fill the world with interesting things to do that often aren’t directly related to the main missions. When you’ll have completed enough main missions, you’ll finish the main story and probably be given free access to the environments of the game for you to finish side missions, collect stuff, etc.


It’s a proven system that works very well in practice. I’m not ready to say that it’s the best way to handle open worlds, although it is a solid blueprint for the genre.


But what about GRW?


Ghost Recon Wildlands is built on a similar pattern, with a few important variations that brings a considerable change to the genre. The first, not the most significant but we’ll still mention it, is that the game drops you directly into the open world. You’re free to go anywhere  you like right from the start, even if, with almost no knowledge of the game at this point, you’ll probably want to follow the mission markers. While not groundbreaking, this change gives a tone to the game: you’re dropped in a mountainous zone that feels VERY large (and it is indeed), and the way to your first objective requires roughly a 2 minutes drive. The size of it all is intimidating. You don’t know what’s out there, so the best thing to do at this point is try to get to know your way around the gameplay and the way the game’s world is articulated. It leads almost inevitably to the player following the mission markers, without wandering around too much. It’s clever design, particularly coupled with the very concise and well-integrated hint system.


After you’ve murdered your first trigger-happy bolivians that were born and raised in a world of violence in which they had no choice but to adapt to the political circumstances to keep having a half-decent life thus making them the ill-fated victims of a cruel and unfair universe, you’re offered the game’s world on a silver platter. The american military puppet that you are is free to go snap the neck of, well, basically anybody.




This is translated pretty well in the world map, which makes you realize quickly when you try to look beyond the limits of your (already massive) current region, that the world you’re in is enormous. Since every province has a set difficulty level, you know that you should steer clear of those above, say, 3/5 difficulty stars for a while, even if I personally went searching for trouble very early in Montuyoc and survived quite well, being already used to the game after the two betas. Still, it proves that the world is truly open, and not hiding a zone order for you to follow behind the levelling system like, say, The Witcher 3, on which we’ll come back later.


The *truly* open world


Yet, HOW this open world unravels to the wandering player is where the game truly shines. When you open the world map in the game, you’ll probably want to zoom back as much as you can to try and take in the size of what’s in front of you. But there you are, surprised to see that scrolling back beyond the maximum zoom distance transforms the world map into a plan of the Santa Blanca cartel’s organization, with who’s in charge of who and many pertinent informations. All the smaller bubbles, except for DEA agent Sandoval, represent one of the buchones, basically lieutenants of the cartel. Each presides a province of the fictive Bolivia, and to take them out will require you to complete a certain amount of “main” missions in their respective province.


If you remember what I said earlier in this article, the traditional model for open-world games generally includes a set of principal missions that you follow, one after another. To me, they always brought a certain level of either discomfort or addiction. Depending on how interesting is the open-world beyond the main story, it really breaks the immersion to be forced to all of a sudden follow a set of mission that are often narrowed in scope, out of the usual open world, but that you’re still forced to complete in order to progress. At the opposite, it sometimes feels like the most interesting thing to do, and you’ll find yourself tearing through these missions without doing much of the optional content. Batman Arkham City/Knight (and other metroidvania games) often lead to this state of mind since you can’t quite play the open environments at their fullest without the skills and gear unlocked by main missions.


In GRW, when I decide on a province to tackle, I start by travelling there. I’ll often be greeted at my arrival by a conversation between my character and CIA agent Karen Bowman, who's in charge of the operation I’m spearheading, and I’ll either be given a task that’ll lead to more intel on the place, or I’ll have to directly search for that intel. What it means is basically that I’ll have to roam the region to find the yellow intel markers on the map, generally around 5-6 of them. Those markers are sometimes a billboard, sometimes a pile of files, a computer or a phone, and tends to be located in cities or enemy bases. Getting to them unlocks for each one a mission that’ll help slowly disrupt the power of a buchone. Those markers, which you could consider being the main missions, are about the same number as (separately) skill points, weapon parts and rebel raids available in each zone, and are often more numerous if you consider they lead to other missions. What it means is that you don’t spend THAT much more time hunting down other tasks compared to the buchone-related tasks. They sort of become tasks like any other, with a pleasant narration articulating it.


(Consider this, and then consider that there are 20 regions in the game, two or three of them being buchone-less but still with tons of things to do. That’s a hell of a lot of content, and I’m not even including the missions leading to the demise of the high ranked cartel officers, or the other missions of which I won’t reveal the nature for spoiler concerns.)


You’re not steered towards the main mission: the main mission IS the open-world. It’s so well integrated with the rest of the gameplay (that consists mainly of running around, killing people and collecting weapons and skill upgrades) that these smaller missions, locating intel and completing the buchone-related quests, don’t feel forced upon you, and nor do they feel like the only interesting tasks in the game. Basically,the narration of GRW follows you without ever forcing itself in your playthrough. And since almost every environment in the game is accessible at any point, you can clear the zone where a main task will happen in the future without knowing it and come back 10 minutes later with a buchone mission, and the way the objective will be set will make you see the place in a new light, thus avoiding too much repetition.


The only other game that does something similar to that, to my imperfect knowledge, is The Witcher 3. When you’re tasked with retrieving a certain person of interest, you’re being told said person has appeared in three different places in the world, and that you should check them out. These three zones are where 90% of the main story will take place. They are what the untrained eye could perceive as very well-written side quests (the Baron, the oppressed of Novigrad and the kingship of Skellige), but they really are the main story divided in three acts that don’t strongly intersect with the main quest, giving you the impression that the complex (and beautifully written) stories you’ll play a role into are all part of exploring the world rather than following the missions obediently. The game is rigged so you can’t really access Novigrad or Skellige without getting ripped apart by high level enemies, which is not something you’ll find in GRW, but the game avoids any debacle by steering you gently where you should go, and you never really have to see that aspect for yourself.


In Conclusion


Wildlands is far from faultless, but it nails its open world in a way that should make every game dev want to study its structure closely. It’s a game truly free of approach, in which every mission you partake in is designed to validate your choice of objective, without giving you the nagging impression that you could/should be doing something else instead.. You’re never completely off the main storyline rail, since it’s fully integrated to the game’s progression structure, but you’re never completely on it either. It’s one style of open-world among many, certainly; a game that would have a strong, controlled narration, like the Batman Arkham or Assassin’s Creed series, would likely run into some storytelling issues, but it’s the first open world game where I really felt the freedom supposed to be inherent to the genre, without any fear of annoyance from the dissonance of the main mission VS my progression in the game. It’s really the fluidity born from the the lack of interruption during the exploration of the free open world that makes GRW so particular.


I hope you learned something out of this, don’t be a stranger in the comment section!

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