A Postcard From... is a column by Jack de Quidt about the people, and the places, and the stories in the games we play.
I brake hard and the motorcycle's engine whines and stutters. My character puts her foot on the ground, and I wheel around a hairpin bend and begin to accelerate up the mountain. To my right, a thin road marked by more tight corners winds its way up a stony escarpment. At some point, unknown figures had gathered hundreds of white rocks and spelled out a sentence on the mountainside in tall letters: "BIENVENIDO TODOS INGLESIADE LA SANTA MUERTA." Welcome to the church of Saint Death. But I can't see that from this close.
I spin the camera to my left, and the land drops away into impossibly wide valleys, farming communities, rivers, forests. Bolivia is laid out like a quilt below me, and I want so badly to park the motorcycle and take it in, but I can't. It is very important that I don't stop moving.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands is vast in a way that games are beginning to be with more and more regularity. Attempting to imagine the full scale of its world is difficult; it does not lend itself to being bracketed by radio towers or forward bases, not because those things don't exist but because they exist in such a large number and are spread so widely across the map.
When I picture the sweep of Wildlands' Bolivia, it is not in concrete places or memorable routes but in a series of fractured images: cows running as my helicopter descends into their field; a grove of purple blossomed trees around a churchyard. A shootout in a cemetery. A shootout in a quarry. A shootout in a little town.
Look, I said " Wildlands' Bolivia," and I put the apostrophe there to show possession and perhaps that's about right. This isn't Bolivia, it is specifically this game's Bolivia, in which all the radio stations talk about are cartels, in which landmarks are demarcated "Sicario House" or "Ancient Worship Site" or "Cow Farmer's Town." The basic pitch for the game is as simple as it is insidious: In the face of a weak government and police force, an enormous narcotics gang called "Santa Blanca" have taken control of the entire country.
We are briefed on this by an American handler called Karen Bowman. She makes it clear—speaking with a sort of pride—that is not her real name, and she talks us through briefing video after briefing video. Before each one, a screen trumpets the security clearance required to access them.
Karen's tone switches from military precision to fury with the cartels to bizarre, off-key jokes. Once, she confessed to having a crush on one of the cartel leaders—a hip hop star—and requested that we don't harm "his beautiful body." A mission soon after sent me after the star's agent, and in the process I killed four men in a parking lot with silenced weapons, and then three in a car with a grenade.
The cartel is as sprawling as the map itself. Organized into four branches, each containing five or six leaders, it permeates the entire game. Nothing in Wildlands can be separated from them. See that resort town? Owned by a gang boss. See that tall library with the wide windows? Slip a drone inside and you can overhear a conversation about a million dollar bribe.
Wildlands cannot conceive of a situation in which you wouldn't want to spawn with your weapon in your hand...
Playing in single player, you are assigned three AI controlled squadmates. They are all men, and I cannot remember any of their names. One is probably called Hopper. Another, Weaver. Good, strong, two-syllable military names. They are entirely indistinguishable from each other in any way.
Loading a save, the four of you spawn in formation, crouched, weapons in hand. It is as if the game is saying "we got it all ready for you, you're ready to go." I have to press one button to stand up and hold another to put my weapons away. Wildlands cannot conceive of a situation in which you wouldn't want to spawn with your weapon in your hand, just as it cannot conceive of a Bolivia that is not defined entirely by the cartel.
Zoom out on the map for long enough and it will be replaced, literally replaced, by an image of the Santa Blanca network. In this way, is impossible to get a full view of the country.
Sometimes my three AI squadmates start talking, and when they do, I want to turn the game off and delete it from my hard drive. It's not clear who plays what role in the conversations, because all three men are identical, but they talk about practical jokes in the military, or their lives back home. They talk about the heat and the smell and the country.
They are hyper-masculine to such an extent that it would be laughable if it wasn't deeply troubling: Their stories are all dirty jokes delivered with sledgehammer punchlines or anecdotes without any at all. There is nothing human about these conversations in any conceivable way. The three men talk very loudly. There are noticeable, awkward pauses between their lines. A recent patch gave the player the ability to turn the radio off completely, and I launched the game, changed this setting, and then quit it immediately.
The game is so proud of them that, even in a co-op game where the squad isn't present, the conversations miraculously continue. Hopper and Weaver and Carter will begin a disembodied anecdote about spitting in a man's shoes as if they are ghosts.
Their chatter—if you leave it turned on—is a chorus to truly functional combat: I arrive at a "Sicario House," and then I interact with the game, and then there aren't any more gang members inside. I have a number of choices in how to do this: I can send a drone up into the sky to find them; I can climb a sniper tower and take a few out while my squad flanks them; I can shoot out lights if I want to feel stealthy, or shoot at a barrel if I want to feel loud and explosive; I can call in some rebel friends, and they'll arrive in "local clothes" and bright green trucks and die within forty or fifty seconds. Whichever I choose, it functions.
Hopper or Weaver will shoot a man in the head from two feet away and then say a one liner and then you'll have cleared the base. There are hundreds of such bases in the game. Some have purple-blossomed trees around them.
In order to properly clear a base, sometimes you have to take out people who are asleep. Though a tooltip tells me that some enemies will occasionally surrender, there is no clear way to arrest or avoid attacking these sleeping people, so I took to firing a weapon near them so they woke up, grabbing them from behind, and then knocking them out with the butt of my pistol. Three out of the five times I did this, my character shouted something like "not going to wake up from that!"
So perhaps I killed them.
Right after beginning the game, I noticed a strange thing. Climbing into a car without waiting for my squad, I set off suddenly into the countryside and made it a short distance before, soundlessly, they appeared in the empty seats. I stopped, and got out of the car, and they piled out too. I climbed back into the vehicle and screamed away down the road without them, only for them to pop back. The squad will appear, faultlessly, in boats and helicopters and semi trucks. Sometimes they'll begin an anecdote about a general who wanted to be paid by reference to how large his balls were. Sometimes they'll open fire out of the windows.
All of this is to explain why I'm on the motorcycle, struggling to climb to the top of this mountain, the countryside laid out to my left like a quilt. There is only room on the motorcycle for one person. My squad is, presumably, still waiting at the radio tower where I left them, but I am glad to put them behind me if only for a moment.
The motorcycle really isn't bad. It handles alright, it picks up speed quickly, it bounces satisfyingly over the rocks and ridges of the escarpment. It became clear to me as I began to climb the mountain, though, that the moment I stopped the bike, my squad would teleport next to me, and that is why I haven't stopped yet.
Thousands of years ago a meteorite struck Bolivia and created a vast mountainous crater. Snow falls lightly inside of it, and llamas and alpacas graze the thin grass. In the middle of the crater is a "Sicario House" but if I give it a wide berth, I avoid the text on screen that would make that true. For me, it will always just be a little red brick building. The sound of the wind.
I'm going to come over the top of the mountain on my motorcycle and speed down into this crater, and if I'm very careful and don't lose control, I'll be able to travel in a straight line for a good while. Probably won't see my squad for ten or fifteen minutes.