Flight in Ghost Recon: Wildlands
Updated: Oct 3, 2022
A helicopter drops a sniper onto the side of a cliff in the dead of night. Minutes later, a pair of operatives leap from the aircraft, parachuting into a compound while the chopper orbits waiting to extract its allies or provide follow-on support. This type of idealized special operations approach is an everyday occurrence in Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Admittedly with some quirks and restrictions.
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon is a long-running game series that specializes in infantry combat, covert operations, and the use of fancy tech to outsmart dozens of enemies. Ghost Recon: Wildlands (March 7th, 2017) was the first to include player-controlled aircraft outside of on-rail shooter events. Its open world and diverse geography make powerful aircraft tools for transportation and insertion of troops. But with a handful of aircraft available in a few variants, no way to repair them and two different flight control systems, flight in Wildlands needs to be approached in a certain way to make it enjoyable.
This article is primarily from the point of view of online co-op with a group of 2 to 4 human players working together. But I will also be making brief mentions about the singleplayer campaign using "AI teammates". Let's start by discussing the aircraft first.
There are two fixed-wing aircraft. One visually similar to four-seater Cessnas and the other similar to the Beech Model 18. They are relegated to occasional use as regional transports or have to be stolen as a part of optional side missions. These aircraft are undoubtedly the fastest airborne vehicles in Wildlands, making them great for players that want to avoid teleporting themselves across the map using Fast Travel. They require much more space than a helicopter would needs to land or takeoff. For the most part, they are restricted to landing in either defended local airports or rebel-controlled dirt airfields in semi-remote locations. Landing them on roads or other flatlands is an option but not recommended. These aircraft are unarmed, with no ability to fire handheld weapons from inside of them. As a result, they are frequently landed and forgotten as new combat operations begin or are ditched into the wilderness as the players and/or AI teammates jump from them for high-altitude parachute deployments.
The only attack helicopter in the game is based on the AH-1Z Viper. They are found at forward operations bases and the main operations bases of the Unidad, a well-armed government-controlled organization that opposes the player for story-related reasons. Stealing them is a challenging prospect. They are usually found in the middle of bases, surrounded by infantry, gun emplacements, alarms, spotlights, jamming equipment, mortars, and surface-to-air missile launchers.
Once in the player's control, the limitations of the AH-1 make you wonder if it was worth the risk. The gunner in the front seat controls a suspiciously ineffective chin-mounted "cannon." Often needing five to eight hits on an infantryman to neutralize them, its accuracy immediately diminishes to borderline unusable after a second or two of sustained fire. The firing pattern of the cannon spreads so widely that half-second trigger pulls seem to be the only way to try and maintain accuracy. Factor in the altitude and motion of the helicopter as factors that further reduce its accuracy, and suddenly flying without a front seater seems like a better use of an ally. The rocket pods are the most effective weapon and are controlled by the pilot. They are limited to firing a pair of rockets simultaneously, either as unguided rockets or as a guided rocket, after getting a weapons lock onto hostile vehicles.
The attack helicopter may be helpful for immediate, overwhelming firepower, but trying to operate it long-term comes with inherent problems. The already limited squad of four operators will be split into two groups. The two-person ground team must transport itself, complete objectives, and heals themselves if knocked down in combat. Meanwhile, the attack helicopter crew cannot repair their aircraft, cannot transport the ground team, has a mostly useless chin-mounted weapon system, and its crew must land to dismount and complete objectives anyway. Furthermore, they are very uncommon helicopters and are hard to re-acquire. Getting a new one is quite a detour. If used in a singleplayer campaign, where AI teammates cannot operate autonomously, the AH-1 is nearly useless in the grand scheme of things.
Viable, vital, versatile. Transport helicopters are the primary airborne means of transportation in Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Aircraft like the UH-60 Blackhawk and the MD-500-inspired designs can do everything asked of them. Most important for this game, they can transport the squad of players to any location on the map, depending on air defenses. They are also the most common airborne vehicle, easy to find at airfields, checkpoints, in allied controlled areas, and even in random towns. They can also be requested for vehicle drop-off directly to players using in-game support functions.
They come in unarmed or armed variants with varying numbers of pilot-controlled miniguns and/or rocket pods. Door-mounted guns that passengers can control are exclusive to the UH-60, but both types of helicopters allow for passengers in the cabin or the external benches to freely fire their weapons. They can quickly reach a stable hover with a little effort, even allowing snipers to land long-range shots from inside the helicopter.
However, these aircraft aren't made for taking incoming fire for prolonged periods of time. Getting into a long-term slugfest with bullets from rifles, machine guns, or other heavy weapons is a guaranteed way to heavily damage the aircraft or lose it within a few minutes. Being smart, engaging from a distance, and choosing your battles correctly remains the best strategy.
While slower than fixed-wing aircraft in this game, the general distances players will cover from objective to objective are reasonable for helicopters to travel. High altitude parachute drops are also possible. These aircraft can land anywhere the terrain permits, even dropping off troops in hard-to-reach areas, like cliffs or on top of buildings, as mentioned in the opening of this article. The helicopter pilot can remain in the air to spot targets, attack as needed, or land to join the ground team. After the mission, all troops can reembark on the transport helicopter and move to the next objective.
Flight Controls / Flight Model
Flight in this game is obviously not the primary focus, and there is a priority on making it as accessible as possible. Generally, the flight characteristics you'd expect from even a flight sim lite aren't a factor either. This is firmly an arcade flight experience where constantly barrel-rolling a Cessna comes with no risk. There is no risk of stressing airframes or the crews blacking out. The aircraft themselves are pretty durable and can survive most accidental ground strikes, but it's not a great flight experience out of the box. There is a bit to be desired.
There are no first-person cockpit views or readings for flight instruments. Parts of the user interface provide general speed, altitude, and direction data, but by default, there is no symbology for pitch or where weapons mounted on the aircraft aim. Aircraft also attempt to auto-level themselves when the player makes no inputs.
Fixed-wing aircraft can be flown with four buttons controlling pitch and roll and two buttons for throttle control. This is pretty standard, but helicopter controls are where the quirkiness comes into play and issues arise.
The "Classic" helicopter control setting coordinates multiple controls to a single input. For example, pressing the vehicle movement thumbstick to the right will keep the helicopter level and rotate the entire aircraft right. While the helicopter is in forward flight, the same input will bank turn it to the right. Forward on the thumbstick will move the aircraft forward with a minor throttle increase, but holding the throttle increase button while keeping the thumbstick forward will eventually put the aircraft into stable forward flight at top speed. Stopping any inputs will have the helicopter automatically deaccelerate and attempt to auto-hover. With no symbology for weapons and no way to precisely coordinate pitch, roll and yaw independently, providing fire support for friendlies on the ground is more frustrating than helpful.
A second flight control scheme was added after an update on July 21st, 2017. The "New" control scheme gave pilots a crosshair for aiming weapons onboard, but the tradeoff was that flight characteristics were completely changed. These full-sized helicopters would now fly more akin to the backpack drones that players with a remote control device. Strafing from side to side was snappy, with the helicopter coming to a halt almost immediately, all with a single thumbstick flip. Rather than the helicopter pitching nose down to bring weapons onto a target, the right stick, which controls free look, tilted the weapons up or down to attack.
The options for pilots were to either make a compromise and use one control scheme or switch between the two settings as needed. Using the "Classic" control scheme for transport and drop off, then opening the game menu and switching to the "New" control scheme for combat. Switching control schemes as needed works, but it is not a great solution.
Even with the unusual flight model and less-than-ideal controls, the aircraft in this game are worthwhile. Being able to fly past roadblocks, deploy troops in sneaky positions or cruise long distances at maximum altitude is immensely useful. They can be vital to any strategy, both with other players or AI teammates. Recently, this series has been known for some unfortunate business and game design decisions made by Ubisoft. For that reason, Ghost Recon: Wildlands continues to be the last Ghost Recon game I seriously partake in. I can only hope that if the series survives this tumultuous period, the future game that features aircraft will have a more well-thought-out aircraft control scheme.
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.