Night has fallen. Up ahead, enemy forces have set up defences in houses and watch towers, guarding a high-value target. You scan the area with your remote-controlled drone, equipped with thermal vision, to mark every last threat and opportunity. Edging forward into hostile territory, you screw a suppressor to your weapon of choice, ready to silently pick off anyone who stands in your way. It’s here that Ghost Recon Wildlands absolutely shines; the freedom to choose your approach, to plan and execute your strategy and be as quiet or as loud as you want. When things are going your way, Wildlands is one of the most satisfying games around.

Without trying to compare it too much to other games, if I had to draw upon other titles as reference then it feels very much like Metal Gear Solid V via the tactical squad-based military action of SOCOM: US Navy Seals. As a huge fan of both games, I fell in love with Wildlands almost instantly. From the moment you’re dropped into the open world sandbox of Bolivia, you’re essentially given free reign to go anywhere and do anything. Your first mission is a tutorial of sorts, but don’t expect Wildlands to take your hand and guide you through the proceedings. Aside from some pop-up hints that pepper your first couple of skirmishes, you’re totally free to explore the game and tackle missions in any order you see fit.

See, your mission is to take down a massive-scale drug cartel called Santa Blanca. Bolivia is huge and divided into zones and districts, a cartel figurehead dominating each one. You complete a series of missions in each zone to gain intel and work your way up to your target, but you aren’t forced to play by any rules when it comes to completion. Each zone carries a difficulty rank, but you’re never prohibited from entering a part of the map – for better or worse. Some areas might have gang members patrolling the streets in cars or holding checkpoints on the roads, but others will pack anti-air missiles, armed helicopters and heavy ordnance to really mess up your day.

Then of course there’s UNIDAD. Yes, alongside a sprawling and behemoth-like drug cartel that seemingly holds dominion over the entire country, there’s another enemy to worry about. What began as a unit to combat the cartel forces has turned into a corrupt army, avoiding run-ins with Santa Blanca unless absolutely necessary. However, they’re more than happy to take shots at you. Engaging UNIDAD gives you a wanted level and believe me, you definitely don’t want to max that out. Choppers packing miniguns and armoured vehicles will hunt you down and kill you if you don’t make your escape first, so tread carefully if you want to stay alive.

So, to recap; you’ve got a massive environment to explore, two hostile forces to watch out for and a series of targets to take down and side missions to complete. But what makes Wildlands so much fun? Without a doubt, it’s the level of customisation you have at your fingertips. After choosing your gender and face, you’re free to change hair, tattoos, scars, facepaint, clothing and accessories on the fly. You can go super casual with civilian clothes or kit yourself out in military gear, with a range of patterns and camouflages to pick from. As for your loadout, you can select your weapons of choice from an arsenal of assault rifles, submachine guns, light machine guns, snipers, shotguns and pistols. Each weapon can be stripped down and rebuilt with a wealth of parts, attachments and paint jobs.

This level of personalisation extends to the gameplay itself, giving you carte blanche to sneak in or go loud in most situations. Though some situations require you to take the quiet approach, you’re given a lot of leeway in how you complete your objective. For example, one mission tasks you with arriving at an enemy base and destroying four parked vehicles. As a stealth connoisseur, I opted to recon the area with my binoculars and my drone, take out each enemy in the base silently and blow up the convoy on the ground with some well placed C4 explosive charges. However, there’s nothing stopping you from hopping in a tooled-up helicopter, ordering your squaddies to rain down bullets from the skies and use the powerful mounted gun to tear the trucks to ribbons.

To really take advantage of Ghost Recon Wildlands, you need to get a team together and play with your friends. Unfortunately, the computer-controlled squad you’re given in the single player game aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed. You have a limited set of commands you can issue out, simple orders like ‘move there’ or ‘open fire’, and to their credit they follow them well. But controlling three men and moving them into the fray can be infuriating, especially when you factor in some major oversights like the lack of a ‘hold fire’ command or the ability to split them up like in SOCOM, a game which hit the PlayStation 2 in 2002. It does hurt that a fifteen year old game is more advanced in this respect than a triple-A title released today, but on the whole the squad system is serviceable. They are quite useful in that they will call out and spot enemy locations in the immediate area, but apart from that you might find yourself leaving them out of harm’s way and going in alone. This is why multiplayer is a near-essential experience for Wildlands.

Getting together with friends and using voice chat makes the game a much more rewarding experience. Suddenly, you have up to four soldiers who can think and communicate together, space themselves out and put together a solid game plan. Instead of having to generalise your playstyle for maximum effectiveness, you can designate yourself a role within the squad. Want to keep your distance and cover your friends from a distance? Grab a sniper and get into position. Eager to lead the charge and push towards the objective? Get up, close and personal with a submachine gun. If players use their heads and take advantage of the customisation options available, then Wildlands can easily deliver something truly mesmerising, something that evolves shooters and military games to a richer level of play.

The story isn’t going to win any awards and as the freeform mission structure shows, the narrative is purely functional. Santa Blanca are built effectively enough as a formidable threat and some of the sub-bosses and cartel figureheads are interestingly written and depicted. For the most part though, the cartel is here to serve a purpose, just like the Cleaners in The Division and the White Masks in Rainbow Six: Siege. You won’t find yourself caring about them the same way you might with Metal Gear Solid V’s enemy characters, but there’s enough creativity here that things feel fresh with each cartel member you take down.

The gameplay itself is surprisingly varied for an open world game. Side missions see you hijack helicopters and planes loaded with supplies and taking down convoys, The Fast and the Furious style, as well as racing to activate radio antennas. My personal favourites are the raids, where you have to assault a radio station by blowing down a door of your choice, wiping out the enemies inside and hacking the signal. It feels like a full-on Sicario style assault and I loved each one I played. Overall, the main missions are much more simple (go to location, kill/destroy target, done) though there are some tweaks and exceptions along the way. The game is also incredibly easy to control, too. Crouching, going prone, lying on your back and switching between first and third person shooting is incredibly reminiscent of MGSV, especially when using the binoculars to mark enemies. The control system also cribs some elements from The Division too, such as double-tapping to equip your sidearm. Every button on the controller is used effectively, giving you full control over your virtual soldier.

Finally, the game carries some really solid visual heft when it comes to rendering the massive world of Bolivia. The variety in locations – from snowy peaks to desert plans, urban towns to dense jungles – is excellent. Though pedestrian AI is as basic as it comes and there’s little in the way of traffic or activity, the world feels real and believable as you make your way across it. One of the most impressive graphical aspects is the incredible draw distance, rendering huge stretches of land with very little noticeable pop-in or loading. On the ground or in the skies, Bolivia really feels massive in a way that few free-roam games have achieved. Explosions, rain effects, and other atmospheric touches really help to make the world feel tactile and immersive. It’s certainly no graphical powerhouse and anyone trying to compare character models to Uncharted 4 or Horizon: Zero Dawn would be a fool, but the world is rendered brilliantly and everything looks as good as it needs to.

Overall, Ghost Recon Wildlands is an absolute must-buy for anyone who enjoys their more serious, modern-day military experiences. It’s got the level of polish and finesse that you’d expect from the Tom Clancy franchise, even if there are still a couple of bugs in the system (a helicopter flying through a giant structure with no collision being a particularly memorable one). Ubisoft are going from strength to strength with their output as of late, not only by introducing new IPs like The Division, Steep and For Honor but also by reinventing tried-and-tested series. Wildlands is a brave new direction for a series that has struggled to find its own identity, taking what worked from previous games and cribbing elements from its peers. As a single player game, Wildlands is more than worth a look. As a multiplayer experience, it’s an absolute masterclass.