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(Pocket-lint) - You certainly couldn't accuse Ubisoft of playing things safe with Ghost Recon: Wildlands. By opting to give it what may be the biggest play-area ever seen in a mainstream game, and decreeing that it would be playable co-operatively by up to four people in its entirety, the French publisher set itself a daunting task.

Overall, it has prevailed. Wildlands is great fun to play, which is what matters most, and it's certainly an imposing spectacle to witness. Is it the ultimate Ghost Recon title fans will have been waiting for?

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands review: A new kind of game

However, what existing Ghost Recon fans will make of it is uncertain: the move from the tight, linear, micro-managed squad-based third-person shooting of previous Ghost Recon games to a giant open-world playground has resulted in a considerable shift in the general feel of this game.

If you play Wildlands solo with three computer-controlled squad-mates stripped in, you can still order them around, but you can only do so in the most basic manner, so the squad micro-management which characterised the likes of Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter has been pushed far to the background.

Instead, Wildlands feels more like a Grand Theft Auto, Far Cry or Just Cause game, with added military authenticity. For some that will sound like the ultimate reason to buy this game (we found it hilariously good fun when previewing multi-player at E3 2016), while for diehard fans it might feel like it's shifted a little too far away from its core.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands review: A storyline not to be sniffed at

Story-wise, Ghost Recon: Wildlands also shows a penchant for risk-taking. It's set in an alternate-world Bolivia, in 2019, in which a corrupt government has invited the Santa Blanca cartel (run by nefarious characters from neighbouring South American countries) to take control of the cocaine trade, and effectively the country itself.

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A corrupt military/police force, Unidad, makes cosmetic efforts to keep Santa Blanca in check, but its main focus is on oppressing the unfortunate people of Bolivia. As one of a four-man squad of Ghosts - the US military's most elite soldiers - it's up to you to smash the cartel and liberate Bolivia, with the help of a burgeoning force of rebels.

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The way you go about that is by working your way up to the Santa Blanca underbosses and taking them out, bringing you closer to the bigger bosses and, ultimately, a show-down with head honcho El Sueno.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands review: Missions by the boat load

Which isn't going to be achieved swiftly, since there are four distinct divisions of Santa Blanca - production, trafficking, influence and security. A local CIA operative, Karen Bowman, offers overall direction, but it's up to you to find the intel which opens up story missions leading to the cartel's main players.

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Along with the story-missions there are countless side-missions of various distinct types, pop-up missions which you randomly encounter, objects to find such as skill points, weapon cases and bonus medals which ramp up your abilities and arsenal, and activities to pursue such as marking useful objects for the rebels to pick up.

At first, even with a tiny area of the map unlocked, it all seems a bit much, and it did take a while before we found ourselves completely immersed in Wildlands (partly because we could see Zelda, all boxed up, not being played - how's that for launch inconvenience?).

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The storyline is introduced in a pretty skeletal manner - although after a while, it begins to mesh into a satisfying whole. The story missions can be undertaken in any order, although it's worth paying attention on the map to the general difficulty level assigned to each boss's mission-trail.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands review: A sprawling open-world co-op game

That take-your-own-approach structure proves invaluable when you jump into co-operative play, as it means that it doesn't matter if the people you play with are exploring a different part of the play-area - indeed, that's an advantage, as it opens up new areas for you to explore.

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Ghost Recon: Wildlands is at is most enjoyable when you play it co-operatively, especially with a full complement of three others, since with one or two human squad-mates, it doesn't strip in extra AI-powered players, but adjusts the number of enemies you face accordingly. So, it's probably at its hardest when just two or three of you play co-operatively and, in keeping with past Ghost Recon games, it's pretty uncompromising difficulty-wise. If, for example, you die twice in the course of a mission (squad-mates can revive you), you will have to restart that mission.

Two aspects of the game that will satisfy existing Ghost Recon fans are the weaponry and the skills tree. You can carry three weapons, which are real-life ones, and customise sights, barrels and the like. But the key item of kit is a drone, which can be upgraded from reconnaissance tool to a stealthy, lethal box of tricks via the skills tree. If you're playing solo, you can use it to mark enemies for your squad-mates to snipe, which is invaluable when it comes to tipping the odds your way when facing the trickier missions.

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The skills tree, in keeping with the rest of the game, is huge and, cleverly, it forces you to perform various missions and activities on behalf of the rebels as well as to deploy skill points (which are awarded when you level-up and also available on the map for you to pick up - effectively another form of side-mission). But while the skills tree is huge, it's also readily understandable. Structurally, Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a tour de force which other open-world games would do well to copy.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands review: Makes you go glitchy

One obvious downside, though, is an inevitable level of glitchiness - unavoidable in a game of such scope. Mostly you come across visual bugs, such as Ghosts hanging half-in, half-out of vehicles, which make things look messy, yet doesn't really detract from your general enjoyment.

However, a few more egregious bugs - such as the ability to drive off cliffs without sustaining damage - have been reported, so expect Ubisoft to start rolling out the patches shortly.

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The Ghosts themselves have received a bit of criticism for their voice-acting, too, but they do at least have some catch-phrases - most notably "shitballs", which is often heard in the midst of a fire-fight.

But much of the game's personality comes from the environment, which is stunningly constructed and very varied. The missions, too.


Ghost Recon: Wildlands won't be for everyone, in particular the diehard fans might find its shift unappealing. Others, however, may find its Far Cry-esque sense and sprawling open-world the exact hook they need to get into the game. 

At times Wildlands fulfills its name and feels almost dauntingly huge, though, so if you like your games to lead along a particular path then you'll find it bewildering. But if you get into it then it's a near-endless sandbox of military-shooter fun.

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Wildlands is at its finest when played co-operatively: the inevitable long car or helicopter rides (one handy by-product of Santa Blanca's arrival in Bolivia seems to be that half the world's helicopters have been relocated to the country) provide plenty of opportunities for banter and team-bonding, and the whole experience is much less constantly intense than, say, that of Rainbow Six: Siege. You don't have to be or play with a bunch of absolute ninjas in order to progress, although you will have to concentrate at key times.

Ghost Recon: Wildlands does very well to avoid becoming monotonous, given its scope, and it's impossible not to marvel at the game's sheer scope and ambition. Yes, you will find some glitches, but it's otherwise undeniably a technical marvel that pushes the boundaries of what was previously thought to be possible in a videogame.

Writing by Steve Boxer. Originally published on 10 March 2017.