Far Cry 5 is a game at war with itself.
Not just in terms of the civil war between the game's citizenry and the militant religious cult terrorising them - no, Far Cry 5’s internal conflict goes deeper. Its tone and mechanics are woefully inconsistent, rendering nearly the best game in the series a frustrating exercise in half-measures.
Far Cry 5 puts players in the shoes of an unnamed (and customisable) police deputy sent to Hope County, Montana, a region under the thrall of a militant doomsday cult known as the Project at Eden's Gate. After an attempt to arrest cult leader Joseph Seed goes horribly awry, your rookie cop finds themselves stranded in Hope County, their colleagues kidnapped and cultists hot on their tail. For reasons not made entirely clear, calling for backup or leaving the area in one of many available aircraft are not viable options, so it's up to you to rescue your colleagues and bring down the Project.
This is where the war begins, in more ways than one.
First: the elephant in the room. Far Cry 5's vision of Montana is, depending on your outlook, either unrealistically aspirational or just plain unrealistic. Aside from one slur against “eye-talians,” nobody in Hope County ever addresses race or gender - a utopian state of affairs often preached by internet “egalitarians,” but one that doesn’t ring true for a consistently red state. That the cultists treat your character the same regardless of their sex or skin colour just doesn’t feel accurate for violent religious zealots. It’s better than having characters shout slurs, I suppose, but compare this to Mafia III or even Wolfenstein II, both of which dealt with American racism in thoughtful, incisive ways. Maybe Ubisoft removed all non-cult evils from its Montana so as to avoid offending Americans. Maybe they did it to avoid offending anyone. But in 2018, it feels like a creatively short-sighted decision.
In one of its most critical mistakes, Far Cry 5 references Trump's America - there are quests about gerrymandering and the pee tape, and references to gun laws, political correctness, and “Obama-loving libtards” - but refuses to engage with the issues surrounding it. It feels like a time capsule of the early stages of the 2016 election, when a Trump presidency seemed a ridiculous proposition and MAGA jokes didn’t carry the weight of people’s lives. What’s more, the ridiculous volume of enemies turns Hope County’s citizens’ vocal defense of gun rights into kind of a joke. When you’re constantly faced with video-game levels of danger, of course you’re going to need guns - which neutralises any attempt at commentary on the subject. That the game is conscious enough of real-world developments to make halfhearted fun of them, without taking into consideration the impact of those developments, is sub-South Park satire at best.
Irrespective of politics, the cult is inconsistent and vague - another example of a game at war with itself. Hope County's three regions are each ruled over by a different Seed sibling, and they’re so different they feel like entirely separate cults. The Seeds are performed exceptionally well - for once, video-game motion capture actually supports the actors’ creepy performances, accentuating the real-world uncanny valley effect cults have on people. But John’s obsession with sin, Faith’s drug-induced mania, and Jacob’s military brainwashing don’t gel; they’re united only in subservience to Joseph, whose apocalyptic prophesying presents yet another fundamentally different worldview. The Project at Eden’s Gate plays as a jumble of holy-war bluster without a unifying ethos. It’s just a limitless army of crazy people, even reduced to little more than zombies in some cases - a glib cartoon caricature of what could have been an interesting look into psychological programming.
Tonally, too, Far Cry 5 is so divided it's as if it was written by multiple, completely separate teams. On one hand, the madcap open-world adventure is a fun-fair of base jumping, vehicular stunts, gratuitous explosions, animal antics, exploration, and of course, consequence-free gunplay. It's a world filled with wacky characters, amusing dialogue, and side-stories that include a search for Bigfoot and something called a “Testicle Festival.” But the cult itself is serious business, defined by acts so inhuman they cease to make an impact, communicated via endless overwrought cutscenes that disrupt the flow of the game. I think back to Far Cry 2, which for all its faults at least had consistent tone and intention. The Far Cry 5 team clearly wanted to say something, but they ended up saying a dozen different things in a half-assed way.
Despite its detachment from reality, Hope County is by far my favourite setting I’ve played in the Far Cry series. Rustic and real, it feels less consciously like a playground than Kyrat or Rook Island, full of bucolic farmland, majestic pine forests, and babbling streams to utterly ruin with munitions. From its three-dimensional in-game map to its ground-level details, it’s absolutely gorgeous, with atmospheric and lighting effects that frequently stun. As you explore, you’ll discover factories, houses, haunted hotels, industrial and commercial spaces, and a comical number of apocalypse bunkers - all with little stories and environmental puzzles attached. And of course, it’s populated by a huge menagerie of well-animated animals, including one of the best video-game dogs in the business.
If only the game let you explore uninterrupted. In theory, Far Cry 5 progresses more naturally than earlier games, which gated off areas and activities until players completed certain story missions. The new structure takes after Mafia III, triggering story missions upon completion of a certain number of open-world activities and side quests. But the implementation of those story missions, involving a borderline slapstick number of forced player abductions and cutscenes, leaves something to be desired. It's completely at odds with the free-roaming ethos espoused by the rest of the game, and interrupts any sense of flow you might have built up.
That's a real shame, because the free-roaming activity loop is terrific this time around. For the first time in forever, activities aren't revealed by climbing radio towers, but by talking to NPCs; reading maps, notes, and signs; or simply encountering them in the world. That makes gameplay more natural and less repetitive; it rewards exploration; and it makes you feel like you're discovering the area for yourself. Sidequests themselves are almost all character-driven, with a greater variety of stories and and volume of writing, making your adventures feel more important and substantial. The openness and emphasis on character just makes the whole thing more organic - at least, until you're hit by a tranquiliser dart and abducted for a main-story mission.
Moment-to-moment gameplay is also as entertaining as expected. In keeping with the game's newfound character focus, nine different companions (three pattable animals, six unpattable humans) can be unlocked as in-game squadmates. Each companion lends satisfyingly different assistance - Nick Rye will perform airstrikes with his plane, Grace Armstrong will snipe enemies from afar, Cheeseburger the bear will maul enemies to death - and they're surprisingly chatty, too, trading anecdotes and bantering amongst themselves.
Though Far Cry's gunplay is solid as ever, the range of weapons available this time out is pretty narrow, with the starter weapons more than capable of seeing you through the whole game. Many weapons and vehicles are mere garish reskins, optionally purchasable with real-money microtransactions - which don't grant any gameplay advantage, but do encroach on the experience a little. At least you don’t have to murder animals to craft a bigger ammo bag this time around - that's just another item on the thankfully-streamlined perk table. Weirdly, though, some gameplay features, like the grappling hook and wingsuit, actually feel surplus to requirement in this much flatter environment. They're just there, carried over from previous games, evidence that you can't remove features in video game sequels, lest fans rage about a perceived drop in value.
Far Cry’s feature creep is also evident - in a mostly good way - in its online component. Though its “live events” have not started well (with a simple hunting challenge yielding uninspiring rewards), its multiplayer mode - dubbed Far Cry Arcade - is driven by an emphasis on community-created maps. On console, the level editor is fiddly and over-reliant on menu navigation - don't even think of trying to create original structures with a controller - but you can get good results with experimentation and perseverance. The engine is robust enough, and the available assets wide-ranging enough (featuring items from a slew of Ubisoft titles), that good designers can make solid content. Even the relative paucity of available game modes can be overcome by clever level design. As a result, there are some really interesting maps coming down the pipe - as long as you're willing to put up with a lot of shitty ones.
Drop-in/drop-out co-op is once again one of Far Cry's best features - tooling around Hope County with a friend increases the fun exponentially - but introducing a second player often breaks the game in strange and sometimes amusing ways. I encountered more glaring bugs in 90 minutes of co-op than in hours upon hours of solo play. Co-op also only advances the host player’s game progress, which is a bummer for the guest player, but the open-world stuff is a better co-op experience anyway. You haven’t lived until you’ve swung from a helicopter piloted by a buddy, dropping grenades on enemies.
Playing through Far Cry 5, I couldn’t help feeling that this is the most Bethesda game Ubisoft has ever made. Its focus on character-driven quests, its greater variety of locations and environmental storytelling, its removal of the minimap in favour of a compass, and its talkative companions all feel distinctly like something out of a Fallout or an Elder Scrolls. It’s even a bit buggy, just like a Bethesda game. Hell, one of the game’s multiple endings (all of which, it's worth noting, invalidate all the work your character has done) suggests the next Far Cry may take after Fallout in more ways than just the mechanical.
But these are strong elements to borrow. In many ways, Far Cry 5 is the most immersive Far Cry yet - Ubisoft simply has yet to perfect the balance between its storytelling and the open-world antics players seem to love most. But I kinda love Far Cry 5, in spite of its irritating forced storytelling signposts and complete and utter thematic cowardice. Hope County is too much fun to explore, too stunning in presentation to write off completely. Perhaps it’d be less "fun" were it a more realistic depiction of Montana. But maybe, just maybe, it’d be a better game. As it is, it’s at least as thematically confused - and as viscerally entertaining despite it all - as previous series high point Far Cry 3.
It’ll sell like gangbusters.