When playing with friends makes an ordinary game extraordinary: Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands

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Not pictured: the helicopter you just crashed trying to land on that plateau.

T: “Suppressors on.”
S: “Droning out. Drone’s spotted the target up ahead. Take out these alarms.”
A: “Spotting a sniper, take him out. Wait, there’s two. Can someone sync shot with me?”
S: “I’ve got the second guy. 3, 2, 1, go.”
A: “Nice.”
S: “Clean.”
A: “Shit, I’m about to be spotted. Someone get this guy.”
T: “Got ’em.”
D: “Going wide, watch the patrol.”
A: “Alright, I’ve got overwatch. Move in.”

The cliché dialogue above is reminiscent of what you might find in Ubisoft’s E3 2015 multiplayer trailer for the Division, which was intended to simulate how a group of friends communicates playing as squad of agents in a post-apocalyptic New York City. I recall cringing when I first watched that trailer. “This is so stupid. Nobody talks like that when they play games. Where’s the constant banter and in-jokes?” I scoffed to my two close gaming buddies, who happen to also be two of my closest friends outside of the digital realm. “If an employer ever heard the trash we talked to each other in an average game we’d never get a job again.” In spite of this jape I was still optimistic about The Division’s potential as a game we could play together.

The Division promised a deeply personal narrative that emerged independent of the story of the game itself, and one shaped around the individual and shared experiences of the players themselves. After its release, however, the hype that I had bought into had dissipated, smothered by repetitive gameplay, grindy missions, drab environments and at-launch technical issues. Don’t get me wrong; it was an alright game – just not the quality that I was expecting. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice… And I’ll never buy into hype again. (Yet sometimes I still can’t help myself.)

Playing with mates: finding the perfect game

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If you think love is happiness, you’ve never been online with the squad.

Solid games that the three of us could enjoy for prolonged periods of time are few and far between. Overwatch, followed by Battlefield 1, were our go-to games for a time, until they fell off for no reason in particular. Recently, there had been a bit of a slump. We would spend half an hour debating over what to play and end up abandoning the idea and doing something else.

When Wildlands was announced I intentionally avoided trailers to stop myself getting too keen on a game that would inevitably disappoint me. Playing Rainbow Six Siege had restored some of my faith in Ubisoft – I expected little of it, but ended up playing and enjoying it for over 110 hours (a lot of which was waiting in queue for a game, mind you). But I was still skeptical. Wildlands looked like a generic third-person shooter with gameplay almost identical to the Far Cry series, games which I had enjoyed in the past but have grown weary of. Imagine my surprise then, when we all found time to download the open beta and it was actually… fun! A few weeks later we bought the game, still hesitant that the novelty would quickly wear off and we would regret the $60 purchase. Yet over a dozen hours of time played together and the fun isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

I had to step back. What was it about this game that makes it so fun to play with my friends? Where had Wildlands succeeded where so many other games had failed?

Wildlands for the uninitiated

That dialogue at the top? That’s legitimately the kind of stuff we’d be saying to each other as we played the game. It was as if we had become the elite soldiers in the game, and it made us feel completely badass.

Most readers, even gamers, may not have picked up Wildlands. It has gathered rather average reviews: 71/100 on Metacritic with a 60/100 User Score at time of writing. Despite being technically ‘above average’, many consider this quite low for a video game. I wouldn’t blame you for not wanting to pay full price for this game; in all other situations I certainly wouldn’t have.

In Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands (what a mouthful), you take the role of a US Army Special Ops soldier in a squad of up to four real or AI players, deployed to Bolivia to dismantle a drug cartel: a somewhat generic concept and certainly nothing to write home about. The gameplay, too, is nothing innovative and generally consists of going from zone to zone in an open world with variations on scenarios in which you’re tasked with mostly, you guessed it, driving around and shooting people. Ground vehicle controls are some of the worst I’ve experienced in a game, and driving a car often feels like you’re driving the world’s largest, fastest, and greasiest rhino. Somehow the flying controls I’ve found to be the complete opposite – I am actually an extremely competent pilot (in most other games I’d be lucky to get off the ground). The graphics, contrary to the gameplay, are quite stunning, and the game looks fantastic in motion even on a relatively old computer like mine. Each zone has its own ‘feel’ which came as a surprise when I had expected more or less different kinds of mountains and fields. One area was a dense swamp accessible only by boat or air – another zone consisted of mostly water with a few islands populated only by garish casinos.

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Our progress, as at time of writing, in dismantling the cartel, which is divided into four facets: security, influence, smuggling and production.

Onto the main point of this post; what makes such an ostensibly average game so fun to keep playing? It was obvious that the co-operative nature played into it, but only recently have I realised what it was specifically: it made you feel fucking badass. And not just you. It made all of you feel like a group of badasses, together. In essence this was possible as it provided a loose framework for us to create our own fun, instead of telling us “you have to do this, you have to do it specifically like this because this is how you have fun”. And it just so happens that the fun ways of doing things tend to be the coolest. Despite not really having elements of a sandbox game, that’s sometimes how it feels when it’s you and your mates against a Bolivian drug cartel.

Instead of picking roles or classes from the offset and limiting your abilities, we were allowed to figure out what we were best at and what we enjoyed doing. Tergnitz, pictured above leaning against the vehicle and donning a stupid-looking cowboy hat, is our front-line man who prefers to go in guns blazing (though quite often to the detriment of the mission). Skraelin, wearing the classic backwards cap and sunglasses combo and looking wistfully into the distance, is a skilled marksman who is able to take out enemies quite reliably from long range. I, after investing in a few choice in-game skills, tend to be the group’s explosives aficionado. I also consider myself the dedicated pilot when high skill is required, as I feel quite at home manoeuvring a helicopter in dangerous situations. And that dialogue at the top? That’s legitimately the kind of stuff we’d be saying to each other as we played. It was as if we had become the elite soldiers in the game, and it made us feel completely badass.

More often than not, things go wrong. Yet it’s not frustrating, like we’ve found in other online games. A personal emergent narrative is always being written in the background – regardless of our success. One time as I was landing a helicopter on a ridge, Skraelin attempted to beat me to the ground by parachuting out, but somehow missed the ridge and got stuck on the cliff. “I’ve made a horrible mistake,” Skraelin admits while laughing. “What is wrong with you, you stupid idiot?” I exclaimed between bouts of laughter. As an ultimate test of my skills, I had to pilot the helicopter and rescue him from his predicament without hitting the rotors against the rocky cliff face and killing us both in a fiery explosion. I can’t explain how great it felt when I succeeded. Even though death would have triggered a respawn with no real penalties, I still felt like I was an invaluable asset to the team.

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In this scenario I found myself perched on a cliff, able to provide overwatch for my teammates while they infiltrated on foot.

Through the game, we have managed to retain our own personalities while transplanting our physical abilities onto those of rock-solid US Army Special Forces soldiers. And in doing so we’ve been allowed to experience camaraderie and team-building otherwise not afforded in our day-to-day lives. It’s that element of banter, bragging, roasting, and all the other stuff that comes with solid friendship, which brings an otherwise generic game to life.

More fun with friends

I honestly would not recommend this game if you plan to play it solo. By myself, Wildlands would be a boring slog. I can’t regale anyone with tales of my amazing feats, and there’s nobody there to laugh with me when I fail. Even online with matchmaking wouldn’t be my cup of tea. There’s a huge difference between a complete stranger team-killing you and tea-bagging your downed body, and when your best mate does it while laughing hysterically over the microphone.

Having friends who enjoy playing the same kinds of games as me is a luxury I’ve been afforded my whole life, due to the friends I made in school and university. It’s something I often take for granted. Yet it’s true that even the most banal of experiences can be made great with the presence of a few good mates.

Writing this post has taught me something that I need reminding of every now and again. Reviews don’t necessarily denote the enjoyment one takes out of a game. More and more I find myself a slave to the big number at the top of the Metacritic page. Growing older means having less time for games, and less time means I need to be pickier with what games I choose to play. I tell myself, if it’s not an 85 or above, it’s not worth it. Yet with that logic, I should never have bought Wildlands.

But I’m glad I did.

Image Sources

Image 1: Ubisoft Official Art. Original source could not be located. Accessed from link.
Images 2-4: Screenshots taken by the author.

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