Ubisoft's vision of Montana in Far Cry 5 is diverting but ultimately a missed opportunity to explore some potent subject matter.
Early on in Far Cry 5 you’ll come across a big word, set up on a hillside like the Hollywood sign. YES, it reads, over the tops of cultish maniacs, car chases and cougars. YES, it shouts above this strange reverie of insular American anarchy, like a drunk watching a bear fight.
That sign typifies Far Cry 5’s tone. Despite the shift to a setting ripe with political parallels, Ubisoft have swerved from seriousness in favour of something altogether more loud and silly, deflecting specific social commentary with an apocalyptic fantasy of extravagant proportions that’s competently entertaining, but frequently misses its mark.
Like last year’s Resident Evil 7, Far Cry 5 offers up a version of America unhinged, centred on a family headed by a sinister ‘Father’. The patriarch here is Joseph Seed, leader of The Project at Eden's Gate; a doomsday cult that has moved into the area and, somehow, wormed its way into total control of the county. Split into three main sections, the world of the game is headed by different members of the Seed clan, each with their own particular take on fanaticism. YES, you find out, is a central tenet of Joseph’s sadistic younger brother. Then there’s a ‘sister’ to the east, and an older brother to the north. Each will need to be dealt with in turn.
You play a deputy sheriff, initially sent to help a US Marshal extract Seed from his cult’s compound. In an opening scene that teeters effectively around impending violence, things predictably go wrong and the cult’s doomsday shenanigans are raised a few notches. With no phone signal and all communication cut to the outside world, you’re left to integrate yourself with the local rebels and clear out Seed yourself. In typical Far Cry style, this largely involves running around like a hyper-aggressive saviour figure; arguably tongue-in-cheek, but nevertheless a fantasy of power and agency.
Ubisoft has made the decision to lean into the ridiculousness of this setup, running with its Christ the Redeemer-esque statues on hillsides and seemingly endless stream of bearded Manson-esque cult members with barely a shrug. If you’ve played the past few entries in the Far Cry series you’ll be familiar with the spirit of the game; all car chases, explosions and manic villains with a propensity to wax lyrics about human nature. There was a sense that the closeness of Far Cry 5’s world to real-world topics of US gun violence and social turmoil would necessitate a defter approach, but, if anything, the setting seems to have encouraged more in the way of stars-and-stripes cartooning. It’s wacky, outlandish stuff, perhaps angled in such a way to avoid too close a political reading of this particular sandbox. As a game that hinges on shooting people, examining the effects of gun violence on US soil may not be a thread that its creators want to pull too firmly.
There are times when the real-world is gestured at. “Look around you. Look at the headlines. Look who’s in charge,” one character urges at a crucial moment. If we are encouraged to read Far Cry 5 as a nightmare in the age of Trump, this is never taken much further beyond a few winks. The reasons for the cult's spread, which could have examined the isolation and frustrations of working-class Americans, are instead chalked up to mind-altering drugs. The game is happy to make gestures to real-world social issues, but shies away from doing this with any bite.
Same as it’s ever been
In terms of gameplay, Far Cry 5 is an entertaining – if somewhat workmanlike – experience. Like Ubisoft’s recent Assassin’s Creed Origins, efforts have been made to shake up the long-running series with some different features. There is no longer the need to climb radio towers to uncover sections of the map, and crafting has been drastically pared back. The skill progression tree has also been swapped out in favour of a Fallout 4-style Perks system, meaning you can pick and choose from specific bonuses instead of having to follow branches of upgrades.
Beneath these surface-level changes, however, the gameplay will be familiar to anyone that played the past few Far Cry outings. The moment-to-moment action largely involves sweeping across the expansive map, capturing enemy outposts and completing missions for various characters. The pillars of driving, light stealth, melee takedowns and running-and-gunning are all present and correct, as is the encouragement to spend time waiting in bushes to hunt animals for their pelts. There’s a variety of weapons to pick and choose from, although the different rifles and pistols often feel samey, and encounters with cult enemies (called “Peggys”) tend to fall into a repetitive pattern.
Perhaps the most notable change in Far Cry 5 is the expansion of the series’ Gun for Hire system. The game now lets you have a constant companion (or more, if certain perks are chosen) on your adventures. A cabal of characters are unlocked as the story progresses by completing missions, ranging from snipers and pilots to dogs and bears. Ordinary members of the resistance can also be told to tag along, and the whole game can be played with a human partner via co-op.
Tackling outposts with a companion is fun, and there’s some entertaining patter between the AI-controlled companions, but the whole thing can quickly become quite dull through repetition. Aside from dutifully clearing the map of enemy strongholds, there’s little drive to explore the world of Hope County. Even with its radio towers stripped away, the formula feels limp, bettered by games like Breath of the Wild, Metal Gear Solid V or even Assassin’s Creed Origins that have honed open worlds in more interesting ways.
Outside of the main game, Far Cry 5 comes with an Arcade mode that includes a map editor for making your own multiplayer levels. Here you can glue together assets from Far Cry, Assassin's Creed and Watch Dogs, resulting in some entertaining hybrids that also expose how interchangeable one game's approach is to another's. It's too soon to tell whether a healthy community will amass around the Arcade mode, but these maps make it clear that – whether its Ancient Egypt, rural Montana or modern-day San Francisco – these titles are all singing from the same Ubisoft songsheet of open-world design.
Far Cry has long been a series with a certain knowingness about the violent delights it offers, amping up the gunplay to levels that hover around the hyperbolic. Unlike a game like Spec Ops: The Line, however, it never goes so far as to make the player feel uncomfortable with the slaughter they commit – choosing instead to have its cake and eat it too with a lightly satirical approach that simultaneously invites the player to kick back and shoot some bad guys.
This approach skips along unhindered in Far Cry 5, which makes for an enjoyable romp, but is a failing when you have a story that touches on themes of gun violence, social unease and religious extremism. The writing simply does not do these topics justice, and instead of examining dark realities it opts for vague, over the top gestures with little substance. The game is an amusing way to spend a few hours, with bombastic shootouts and some wonderfully absurd moments, but it is also a missed opportunity to explore what could have been potent subject matter.