The past few months have seen Ubisoft in full swing, releasing strong PC versions of Watch Dogs 2 and For Honor. Quickly following the sword-swinger is the latest in the Ghost Recon series, Wildlands, and it’s a whole new challenge for Ubi. It’s their largest open world ever; rather than the tight street networks of Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed, Wildlands is set in a huge rural sandbox. The sheer size of it puts even Far Cry in the corner, but naturally this new direction has us a little worried. How will it all fare on the performance side of things?
Our tech reports are written to offer you the broadest picture possible, focusing on hardware similar to what the majority of players have installed in their machines. We test the game on all graphical settings using an i5 powered rig with 8GB of RAM, and try to hit 60 fps with four of the most popular graphics cards. Even if your PC is not identical to our test set ups, you should still be able to estimate the performance levels you can expect from your own machine.
While we don’t score the technical aspects out of ten here at PCGamesN, I’d have no hesitation about giving full marks to Wildlands for its graphics options menus. Simply put: they’re the best I’ve ever used. I noted in the For Honor tech review how helpful its menu tooltips were, which explained what turning on and off different settings would do. Wildlands goes one step further and shows you the difference; a screenshot will adjust to demonstrate the effects of cranking up each of the different settings. For people who don’t live and breathe tech, graphics menus can feel like an impossible labyrinth. This novel approach to them reduces any barrier to entry, and acts as an excellent learning tool. A sound understanding of graphics technology picked up here can be easily used in other games.
Praise doesn’t stop at the presentation, either. Wildlands offers five presets (low, medium, high, very high, and ultra), and these are broken down into 18 granular settings. Expect all the usual options: draw distance, detail, texture and shadow quality, subsurface scattering, and bloom. There’s also two depth of field options, and adjustable vegetation levels. Ambient Occlusion is available in Ubi’s bespoke SSBC, and Nvidia’s top-of-the-range HBAO+. Antialiasing comes in the form of FXAA or Temporal AA.
To help determine if your option setup is optimal, a VRAM meter will show how far you’re pushing your graphics card, and a benchmarking test will provide a fairly detailed breakdown of how well your rig is coping.
Outside of graphic settings, Wildlands offers a robust selection of control menus including keyboard re-mapping and adjustable mouse sensitivity for all forms of movement (in vehicles, on foot .etc). As Wildlands is multi-platform, controllers are fully supported. The video menu has options for resolution scaling and a frame rate limiter, plus an adjustable FOV. It should be noted that this latter option is considered an ‘extended FOV’, and comes in values of 0 - 100%, rather than an angle of degrees. This is likely due to Ghost Recon being third-person, but increasing the value still has a broadly similar effect to that seen in FPS games.
Tested on an Intel i5 6500k @3.2GHz, 8GB of RAM, Nvidia GTX 1060, Windows 10
For our graphics analysis we compare screenshots taken on the four standard presets of ultra, high, medium, and low. Wildlands also has a very high preset, which sits as a very happy mid-point between ultra and high. As with most modern games you will need to restart your session or mission if you make changes to the texture quality.
Wildlands is one of Ubisoft’s most detailed open-world games, and the ultra graphics preset really demonstrates this. Huge draw distances mean even far off mountains have impressive detail, and close up terrain like muddy tracks and embedded stones look heavily textured and tangible. Shadow work and lighting are impressive, and vegetation appears both dense and detailed.
All this comes at a price, though. Far more than any Ubisoft open world before it, Wildlands suffers from frequent texture pop-in. It handles itself much better when you’re walking around on foot, but the speed of vehicles means you travel faster than the game renders. The views granted at altitude thanks to the game’s helicopters suffer similarly.
On our i5/GTX 1060 test rig, ultra ran at an average of 40 frames per second, and a minimum of 35 fps. Those are really close values, meaning it’s a very consistent frame rate, but it’s not particularly high. It’s obvious that the open world, with its multitude of vegetation and miles-long draw distance, is really punishing on GPUs. Ultra feels like it’s been developed for truly top-of-the-line machines, which would explain the inclusion of a very high preset that seems to be the analogue of ultra settings in other games.
The high preset retains much of the detail of ultra, but there’s an obvious reduction in quality across the board. The lighting is significantly less naturalistic, with harsh shadows and an overall brightness to the colours that feels more artificial. Vegetation detail has been decreased, which can be seen most obviously in the canopies of the trees. Ground textures, while retaining the depth of detail in mud tracks and stones, lacks the tessellation effects as seen on ultra that make them look so tangible.
High still looks good overall though, and is far less punishing on mid-range hardware. You’ll see an average of 72 fps and minimums of around 60 fps, making Wildlands a much more playable game. By all means opt for ultra if you’re packing a 1070 or better, but these lower settings offer optimal performance and agreeable visuals on a GTX 1060 or equivalent.
There’s not a huge difference between high and medium, but it’s at these settings that you see the draw distance fallbacks begin. Look out to the horizon in this screenshot and you’ll see entire trees missing, especially on the uppermost ridge and around the foot of the rock formation. Vegetation as a whole is reduced in quality; the leafy section to the bottom right looks a little like a cardboard prop compared to the lush structure as seen on high or above. Ground textures are also a quite muddy, with the definition of the mud tracks exchanged for a chocolatey smear.
For these concessions you’ll be able to hit 78 fps on average, with a minimum of 67 fps. It’s not a huge gain, but such results would probably be more vital on older hardware where every extra frame counts.
Wildlands has the most shocking low-grade graphics I’ve seen in a long time. Over the last few years of PC games low has always tended to look a lot like medium presets, just with bad lighting and shadows. Often the lower-res textures aren’t so bad as to make the game look actively dated. Wildlands, on the other hand, looks like a game from the late 2000s on low settings. Flat geography, undetailed and smeary textures, and a what appears to be no real lighting model at all makes everything appear to be running on hardware two or three generations old. Combined with all the jagged edges, Wildlands is ugly and then some on low.
Performance is the payoff though, and low will run on a 1060 at an average of 110 fps, bottoming out at 88 fps. That’s quite a leap over medium, but it’s one heck of a concession to make.
Aside from the pop-in issues that Wildlands suffers pretty much all the time in the higher presets, its other problem is hangups. While not frequent, it’s not uncommon for the game to freeze for several seconds. This seems to generally happen when using helicopters; the altitude means more of the open world being on screen at the same time, and thus leads to freezing. This can be cause for frustration, as often upon exiting a freeze the helicopter will have collided into a mountainside or caused some other disaster. It’s not a frequent enough occurrence to say Wildlands is actually broken (it only happened a couple of times over a day of testing, and I noticed it in the beta too), but it’s worth being mindful of.
To see how Ghost Recon Wildlands performs on various hardware setups, we have tested the game on four graphics cards; two from Nvidia, and two from AMD. We’ve sampled the most popular cards from the current and last generation of GPUs in order to offer the most useful information.
All four cards were tested at ultra settings, with every texture option up as high as they’ll go and every graphical effect turned on. For the test we used the game’s benchmarking tool, which uses scenes of various complexity, including wide-angle sweeping shots and explosions.
In the graph below you can see how all four cards perform.
As mentioned previously, Wildlands’ ultra settings seem developed with very high-end hardware in mind, and that shows when trying to run the game at highest settings on a variety of mid-range cards. None of our test cards achieved higher than 40 fps at ultra, but all but one of them comfortably sat above 30 fps. Despite being half of the standard many PC gamers aspire to, 30 fps is still perfectly playable should you value top-tier graphics over perfect performance.
Importantly, all cards performed very consistently, with all but the AMD RX 470 reporting average and minimum frame rates within five or six digits of each other. This makes Wildlands smooth, if not fast, at ultra.
It’s worth noting that you can yield massive performance gains for small concessions by downgrading from ultra to very high. The RX 470, for example, jumps from an average of 31 fps to 52 fps. We’d hope for a little more, but considering the depth of detail in Wildlands’ grass and tree-heavy world, it’s not an entirely surprising result.
How does Ghost Recon Wildlands run in 4K?
Wildlands runs solidly at 1080p, but what if you own a 4K display? Our UHD test rig - rocking an i7 6700K CPU, an Nvidia GTX 1080, and displaying on an Acer Predator 4K monitor - copes, but only just. At a huge 3840 x 2160 resolution on ultra settings, Wildlands runs at an average of 28 fps, and a minimum of 22 fps. That’s playable, but you’ll ideally be looking for at the very least a couple of extra frames.
This isn’t unsurprising considering the tax Wildlands puts on mid-range hardware at 1080p. If you’re looking to play at 4K and don’t have high-end cards in SLI or Crossfire, it’s worth dropping down a preset or two. However, playing at high at 4K isn’t going to be as impressive as ultra at 1080p; with Wildlands the detail really is the star of the show. It’s probably best to compromise on resolution in this situation.
How to run Ghost Recons Wildlands at 60 fps
If you’re running one of the cards we’ve tested you’ll no doubt be making a decision right now: do you opt for the most beautiful image and make do with a lower frame rate, or settle for nothing less than 60 fps no matter the graphical cost? If you’re planning on doing the latter, we’ve got tips on how to achieve the gold standard frame rate on our selection of four test GPUs.
For a breakdown of how to run Ghost Recon Wildlands at 60 fps, see our settings guide below.
Nvidia GTX 970
On Nvidia’s last-gen hardware you can hit 60 fps by opting for the high preset. Thankfully this provides a really consistent result, meaning there’s no need to tweak the individual options to find the perfect sweet spot.
Nvidia GTX 1060
For anyone with the current generation GTX 1060, using the very high preset will bag you a solid 60 fps. There’s no need to adjust anything, as this preset seems tailor-made to hit the right frame rates on this level of hardware.
AMD Radeon R9 380
As the weakest last-gen card in our test, it’s understandable that the R9 380 would require the most concessions to hit 60 fps. And while my advice isn’t quite ‘turn everything off’, it’s not much higher than minimal settings. Start with the low preset, but then turn shadow quality up to medium and terrain to high. The physical world and all the lighting effects are what provide Wildlands with its character, hence why we’ve given those priority. You’ll still end up with a rough looking game, but you will be able to explore Bolivia at a decent frame rate.
AMD Radeon RX 470
The current-gen RX 470, while not being quite as beefy as a GTX 1060, doesn’t lag too far behind. Wildlands defaults to to the high preset with this card, but it doesn’t quite hit 60 fps. To achieve those few extra frames, it’s worth dropping the terrain detail down to low. This will make the physical geography a little simpler, but the overall look is mostly maintained by the high quality textures and vegetation.
With its huge open world filled with countless trees and leafy brush, it’s no huge surprise that Ghost Recon Wildlands is a very demanding game on PC. If you’ve got the high-end hardware, it will reward you with great vistas and impressive draw distances.
If your rig is built of components that didn’t require you to remortgage your house, though, you won't be seeing Wildlands at its most beautiful without enduring a lower framerate. But rather than feeling like Wildlands is poorly optimised, it appears that the game was designed with multiple budgets in mind. Ultra is clearly a huge step above what you’d see on console, catering for real PC enthusiasts, leaving the still impressive very high preset as a solution for those with more ‘sensible’ machines.
Wildlands is also incredibly scalable. Vegetation is clearly one of the resource hogs, and you can cycle between a selection of detail levels in the graphics menus. Said menus are also incredibly well designed and the best I’ve ever seen in a PC game.
Don’t expect a flawless experience, though. The frequent pop-in at higher texture levels is distracting, and near enough impossible to completely eradicate without either buying more powerful components or settling for lower texture resolutions. Occasional freezes are upsetting, but thankfully uncommon. You should also expect a few Bethesda-style open world bugs; while I’ve yet to experience any, I’ve seen a couple of hilarious videos on YouTube involving chairs that refuse to obey the laws of physics and characters who just can’t stay inside cars.
Niggles aside though, Wildlands is predominantly smooth sailing. If the PC is your platform of choice I’d recommend you opt for it, especially if you’ve got a high-end GPU that’s capable of rendering the ultra preset in all its glory. Plus there’s that little thing called ‘mouse control’, which I’ve heard is pretty useful when it comes to tactical shooting…