I know people are hyped for a subscription-based future of video games. But if it’s anything like a streaming service, the actual experience of having a big library is scrolling around your options and going, Hmm, I sort of remember hearing about this thing five years ago. And because the stakes are low, you try it, and more often than not, you realize why you never bothered paying to see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle in theaters.
Sometimes, though, a mediocre product can be gratifying, especially if you go into it with some pals.
I stumbled upon Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands on Xbox Game Pass, which, from the title, I assumed was a game about doing recon, in the wildlands, in search of Tom Clancy’s ghost. Turns out I was wrong. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill open-world third-person shooter and feels very of its time (2017). You just drive around, and then when you feel like it, do some casual murders.
Also, these “wildlands” are apparently… the country of Bolivia? Booting up the game, you get treated to a mealy-mouthed disclaimer that everything about this rendering of Bolivia is fictitious. Which is how I remembered hearing about this game: that it was so offensive that the actual Bolivian government threatened legal action against Ubisoft.
And they’re not wrong to be mad! Everything about the game’s politics is straight-up appalling. You play as some form of secret operative, trying to overthrow the current regime — a move the United States does often and nearly always results in disaster. The writing has zero self-awareness of this. At one point, my character, while interrogating someone, proudly exclaimed that he was there on behalf of the CIA. (A more accurate title would be Tom Clancy’s War Crime Simulator 2017.) But maybe more embarrassing is how often the character exclaims “shit balls.” It happens every time you flip your car off the road in this open-world environment, which will be a lot since the driving physics are extraordinarily shaggy and cartoonish.
Actually, the loose vehicle physics are fun because Wildlands is a game that goes from solid to great with other people. Adding co-op is like finishing any dish with chili oil — it’s the laziest way to make the most unimaginatively cooked proteins pretty tasty. And to the game’s credit, the multiplayer works effortlessly. Players can drop in and out as they please; mission progression is easily shared; you can even fast travel to your friends. Maybe more impressive, especially for a game published in 2017, is that there’s no limitation to where you can be on the map. Four players can roam the expanse of “Bolivia” freely. Or (and I would recommend this), each person can find a helicopter, converge on the site of a quest, and parachute out of their aircraft and into a cartel base.
One of the game’s key features is called SyncShot, which signals to other players who you’re going to snipe. Hypothetically, you could take bad guys out in unison. In playing this game for several hours with friends, we kept trying to coordinate our targets. But someone always went early or missed, and we would alert the guards and get into a messy shoot-out. And honestly, it was very funny each time. Really, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands is at its best when it’s going “shit balls.”
It’s an incredibly self-serious game, and the silliness that comes with multiplayer is a nice counterweight to its intentions. There’s a very narrow breadth of mission type in Wildlands — shoot this guy, defend this point, steal this truck. But the chaos of co-op makes every repetitive goal fresh and weird.
And maybe this is the best case for the subscription-based gaming service. It’s a good value when you think about it as a group activity. Everyone has equal access to the game, and you can have a good time even with a problematic shooter that’s five years old.
The running joke among the friends I played with involved the driver of the car we were in announcing that they’d “found a shortcut” and then immediately taking the vehicle off a cliff. Technically, it was never a lie, though. This was always the quickest way to a good laugh.