Apart from the fact that the preview session was punctuated by my fingers getting jammed in an electric car window, the most startling thing coming out of a preview of Ghost Recon: Wildlands was the official footage released over the weekend. It was so ... serious. Intense. Calculated. Methodical.
In other words, the complete opposite of the Ghost Recon I played.
Given that Ghost Recon: Wildlands won't have a PvP mode until after launch, the game as it stands is as thus. You're a member of a special forces team dropped into Bolivia, which has been tasked with cleaning up the drug cartels and factions that are decimating the country.
It all sounds a little Just Cause 3, and it kind of is. Wildlands doesn't have the focus on structural destruction that Avalanche's explosion simulator does, although there are plenty of other similarities. There's four faction states, and if you're fortunate you can engineer a situation where the AI armies start having a go at each other.
But basically the mission statement is to go around, kill or interrogate the various lieutenants and leaders of the various factions, cleaning up the fine state of Bolivia in the process. It's not a cover shooter the way that The Division was, and you won't find the MMO-like treatment of loot in Wildlands either.
So far, so good then.
But what Wildlands hasn't really communicated, through gameplay videos like the one above or through Ubi's messaging, is the lack of consequences.
Dying for instance, simply takes you back to the most recent checkpoint or a safe spot within a decent proximity to where you died. There was no loss of resources, which means you're not penalised per se for failing. There are instances where you won't want to fail - like side missions where you have to chase a convoy around the map - but for the most part you're encouraged to tackle things as you see fit.
And it's not until you go, "I wonder if this works" that you realise just how malleable the Wildlands world is.
Case in point: not long after completing the first story mission, which is basically scything through an enemy camp with bullets before interrogating some bloke in a shack at gunpoint, a couple of motorbikes were left lying around. The camp was atop a summit, with the next objective a couple of kilometres away via a winding road.
So given that previews are generally an opportunity to mess around anyway, I thought, "Fuck it," and drove the bike off the cliff.
To my delight, the bike flew a solid 100m downward, hit the rocks, and kept going with my rider intact. Emboldened by the lack of environmental damage, I decided I would treat every hill and cliff like a direct path - and the game was happy to let me do so.
There's other benefits to ignoring the road and flying down a mountain, too. I came across a couple of encampments off the radar holding precious resources, which you tag and then "send back" to prop up the rebels. It's really the core reward mechanic, since the resources you "save" can then be spent on skills ranging from passive abilities for your squad members, boosts to your physicality, drones, weapon attributes, items, and support from the rebels.
Most of the abilities revolve around ways to either kill enemies faster, or spotting enemies so that you can kill them slightly easier. The cost of the skills is fixed, and it's designed to make you upgrade a little bit of everything rather than maxing out one ability or one skill tree at a time.
But you have enough firepower from the outset to wipe the floor with most encounters, provided you actually use your AI teammates. Commands are issued through a radial menu, ranging from simple movement or hold position orders to lining up synchronised shots. They're capable enough that they'll cover your back if you run off and do something stupid (my default behaviour, basically) but they're not particularly proactive.
For instance, I couldn't convince the AI to drive me anywhere. It wasn't too bad with the four-wheel drive the game started me with; I figured it was more of an unspoken Here's How To Drive tutorial. But when I came across a helicopter or two, I was quite looking forward to enjoying the scenery.
But my special forces brethren apparently don't know how to fly. And quite secure in the fact that I couldn't either, I jumped in the driver's seat and started going up.
And kept going up.
If you're wondering, the highest you can fly in Wildlands is around 3.6 kilometres. That was measured by starting at an objective point and flying upwards for about five minutes, counting the distance displayed on the HUD. I don't know why that would be the limit - technical limitations, perhaps - but it's fun to know that there is one, and that it takes a good amount of patience before the dreaded invisible wall kicks in.
Other fun things I discovered: don't worry about the AI. Really. In the rare occasions I wasn't turning mountains into giant off-road ramps for my dirt bike, I'd jump into a vehicle or helicopter and take off without waiting for my squad to catch up. And you shouldn't wait either: because after a few seconds, the game will teleport Team Bravo into the passenger seats just to make sure you've got some company.
It also takes around 3 civilian kills before Wildlands hits the reset button. I also discovered, after mowing through an enemy village like it was a chapter from the original GTA with a stationwagon, that Civilians will nick your vehicles if you leave them laying around for too long. I can understand the appeal of wanting to grab a car and flee after a bunch of black ops soldiers go all Hotline Miami on your town, and I'm all for it. Just as long as it's not my car.
All of this carries over to the co-operative play as well, which is partly why I've been looking forward to Wildlands so much. The whole purpose of the game is to shoot and blow shit up, and unlike The Division, Wildlands does a reasonable job of getting out of your way. There's 26 boss fights, so you'll still have the odd bullet sponge moment, but for the most part it's up for you to make your own fun.
None of that will serve as any comfort to people who grew up on the original Rainbow Six games, or people who saw the name Ghost Recon and immediately started thinking of a hyper-militaristic stealth shooter. There's an obvious attempt to draw from games like Metal Gear Solid 5 and Far Cry, and even the official trailers have promoted Wildlands as a calculated, tactical open-world experience.
And don't get me wrong: it can totally be that. But Wildlands is best taken as a laugh, a Just Cause 3 with C4-carrying drones to replace the wingsuit. At its heart, it's not really a serious tactical shooter: it's an opportunity to get three mates together and blow an awful lot of shit up, time and time again.
Please don't take Ghost Recon: Wildlands seriously. That doesn't mean you should ignore the game: only that you should treat the world as a goofy sandbox, rather than the super-serious adventure it's seemingly made out to be.