Bolivia, 2019. Mexican drug cartel and skull tattoo fan club Santa Blanca bombs the US Embassy in La Paz, and kidnaps, tortures, and executes DEA Agent Ricardo “Ricky” Sandoval. Team America responds with Operation Kingslayer, a joint task force initiative between the DEA, CIA, JSOC, and probably some other intimidating acronyms, and the US Army deploys its own black bag Ghosts unit to infiltrate and dismantle the narcos’ organisation, investigate rumours of a conspiracy between them and the local government, and blow shit up. Mostly blow shit up.
Because the thing about Wildlands is that the the super-duper serious narrative doesn’t work. Between the embarrassing, disingenuous 1990s “war on drugs” moral panic propaganda, the game’s pantomime villains – including the obligatory rogue agent, the beauty queen, and the social media celebrity – and the awkward bro jokes and that-time-I-hooked-up-with-a-twenty-two-year-old anecdotes during missions, not even its sanctimonious condescension and U-S-A!, U-S-A!, U-S-A! conceit can cover up what’s basically a series of extrajudicial murders committed with total impunity. Oh, if you shoot too many civilians it’s game over, but… you can kill some. It’s okay. The US Army won’t tell. And there’s no meaningful or critical engagement with the context, and definitely no mention of the uncomfortable reality that the whole narco system is a result, in part, of questionable American policies and imperialist politicking. Nah, you just kill people because fuck them.
And yes, it’s (technically) made up and IT’S JUST A GAME and whatever, but it’s gross. How Ubisoft could push out a game like this in the middle of Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric and some of America’s worst international PR since… Afghanistan? Iraq? Vietnam? It’s hard to choose out of so many, but it’s also absurdly oblivious.
So that sucks, but playing in co-op with three other very noisy people, I was able to tune out most of the rubbish plot exposition and get busy blowing shit up instead. Because the other thing about Wildlands is that, despite its pretensions of TACTICS! and STRATEGY!, it’s a game about blowing shit up. Even when you plan everything, you designate targets and objective zones, and you coordinate complex manoeuvres into enemy-occupied territory, it always, inevitably ends with blowing shit up.
In one mission, for example, we had to capture one of Santa Blanca’s chemists for interrogation. We tried a lot of different approaches to accomplish this – sniping the cartel soldiers, covertly entering the compound, dropping in with parachutes (don’t try this one at home), and even blatantly knocking down the front door. We failed every time, for one reason or another. You know how we did it? We planted C4 and mines in the road and blew shit up while he was trying to escape. He staggered out of the burning wreck of his car, and we got him. SCREAMING EAGLES.
Wildlands plays a lot like a megamix of recent Far Cry games and The Division, with about a million things to do in an enormous sandbox spanning 21 regions, and 11 distinctive biomes – including arid mountains, deserts, and even salt flats – all reproduced with astonishing detail, and open to explore from the start of the game. Besides the obligatory multitude of collectible stuff and rebel faction activities that boost your own available resources, there are also 26 cartel bosses – or buchons – to apprehend and/or execute, destabilising Santa Blanca from the outside in, on the way up to big boss El Sueño at the top of your hitlist. While not substantially much different from the blow-shit-up-repeat loop of everything else in the game, these missions do reward players with some cool unique gear.
It’s all unavoidably repetitive and kind of perfunctory at times, but it’s also undeniably fun with friends. Despite its problems, Wildlands features the sort of chaotic co-op gameplay that makes for a lot of laughs and silly situations, even if that’s not what the designers intended. I’d expect that playing solo, however, would be very tedious unless you’re vehemently antisocial.