Developer: Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft Toronto
Platforms: PS4, Windows PC, Xbox One [reviewed]
Released: March 27, 2018
Copy supplied by publisher
It’s impossible to write a review of Far Cry 5, the latest in Ubisoft’s over-the-top open-world first-person shooter franchise, without talking about the game’s politics … or more accurately, its lack of them. Set in the fictional Hope County, Far Cry 5 exoticizes rural America (specifically, Montana) and its people, who find themselves overrun by a militant religious cult. The game’s marketing would have you think that it has something important to say about the state of gun violence, religious extremism, and pretty much any other hot button issue associated with Trump’s America but for better or worse, Far Cry 5 engages with politics on a superficial, surface level. In other words, the game’s Bible-thumping villains are really just there to give you something to shoot at and not really think about on a deeper level.
But wow, is it ever a fun time.
Far Cry 5 adheres closely to the structure of its more recent predecessors, in that it dumps you into the middle of a beautiful landscape teeming with warfare between rival factions. As an unnamed Deputy United States Marshal (nicknamed “Rook”), you’re tasked with liberating Hope County from the enigmatic Joseph Seed and his cult, The Project at Eden’s Gate. After a thrilling opening sequence that introduces you to Seed and a few of the story’s other main players, you’re pretty much given the freedom to start taking it to the Peggies (the nickname given to Seed’s followers) in whatever manner you so choose. As it turns out, this freedom is both a blessing and a curse, but one that is familiar in most open-world games that attempt to hook the player in with a compelling narrative. Even if Far Cry 5 spun a riveting yarn with well-written heroes, villains, and a thoughtful pondering of some real-world issues, it would be diluted by the fact that you can mostly ignore what’s going on and do anything you want in the game’s richly detailed world. As it stands, Joseph Seed and his “family” of nutjobs come across more as cartoon villains than terrifying antagonists, which only makes it easier to ignore them in favor of going on your own twisted safari adventure … at least, when the game lets you.
In an interesting structural change, story progress in Far Cry 5 is measured by accumulating Resistance Points (RP) in one of the game’s three territories, each ruled over by one of Seed’s kin: his older brother Jacob in the north, his adoptive sister Hope to the east, and his younger brother John in the south. These are earned by doing story and side missions, liberating outposts, and other activities littered around the map. Once you accumulate a certain amount, you’ll essentially be forced into a story mission wherein your character is captured or otherwise bothered by one of the territory leaders. While an interesting idea, this system feels more like a cheap way to force the player into being reminded about the story’s “urgency,” which can be annoying when you just want to go hunt some cougars or other Far Cry stuff. Fortunately, these sequences are spaced far enough apart so as to not become truly bothersome but their very presence only further highlights the inherent contradiction in the majority of open world games, as the give-and-take between making the player care about the story while giving them the freedom to go off and do dozens of other activities is on full display in Far Cry 5, with mixed results.
Perhaps the story Far Cry 5 is trying to tell would be more interesting if your character actually had anything to say. While this is the first Far Cry in which you can choose your character’s gender and customize their appearance, this has no impact whatsoever on the actual story since you’re playing a mute protagonist. This effectively means that your character has zero opinion on anything that is going on, which feels like a strange creative decision given how much of what happens to him or her would have benefited from some sort of dialogue. I never got to hear what my character thought of Joseph Seed or any other character in the game for that matter and he effectively had no agency beyond just doing their job (you’re a U.S. Marshal, so naturally you’d be inclined to deal with a militant cult occupation even if other characters weren’t asking you to help them out). I don’t know if Ubisoft was going for something akin to The Legend of Zelda where the player is meant to picture themselves in the character’s shoes, but Link only works as a mute protagonist because the story happening around him really isn’t all that complex. In contrast, Far Cry 5 has rich themes begging to be engaged with and not giving the player character a voice strikes me as a completely callow decision on Ubisoft’s part. I actually found myself missing Far Cry 3’s Jason Brody, who may not have been the best-written character in the world but the fact that he had something to say at least helped give some context for the crazy stuff you were doing.
One of the game’s more successful changes is the way the skill tree is handled. Unlike in previous Far Cry titles where you would earn Perk Points by earning experience and leveling up, things work quite differently in Far Cry 5. Perks can now be unlocked in one of two ways: by earning points through a variety of challenges and by finding upgrade magazines in various hidden “Prepper Stashes” scattered around the map. At first, this system seems like an annoying step back from the streamlined way perks were handled previously, especially at the beginning of the game when you haven’t unlocked any additional weapon slots yet, but it actually makes the accumulation of new skills feel more rewarding. Challenges run the gamut from “Kill x amount of enemies with a flamethrower” to “Skin x number of deer,” which encourages you to switch up your play style frequently and try out weapons you may not have otherwise touched. However, the Prepper Stashes are an even better way to earn perks, as each location is structured as its own mini puzzle that help break up what is otherwise a game primarily focused on combat sequences.
From a technical standpoint, Far Cry 5 is stunning and easily one of the most visually impressive open-world games I’ve ever played. While Far Cry 4’s Nepal setting still strikes me as the most scenic in the series, it’s hard to play Far Cry 5 without immediately wanting to book a ticket to real-world Montana, as the game really does deliver on the picturesque beauty of the state’s countryside (even if a good portion of it is overrun with armed cult thugs and garish religious monuments). I had the good fortune of being able to test the game on both Xbox One and Xbox One X and while the latter offers noticeably improved textures and a native 4K presentation, the standard Xbox One still runs the game well. Obviously, you’ll want to play Far Cry 5 on the best hardware possible but even if you only have a standard PS4 or Xbox One, you’re still getting a well-performing game (Digital Foundry has an in-depth breakdown of the differences if you’re curious).
As impressive as Far Cry 5 is in its overall design, it’s hard to escape the feeling of déjà vu clouding over the whole experience. This is the third Far Cry game in less than five years and much like with Far Cry 4 and even Primal, it still feels like we’re playing a more technically proficient iteration on Far Cry 3 than something new and exciting. Even worse is that, in small but subtle ways, this feels like a bit of a step back for the series. Stealth gameplay feels much less viable this time around, as enemies seem to be able to spot you much easier than in past entries and with little extra incentive for not triggering alarms, combined with just how much firepower the game lets you wield, it usually makes more sense to just go in guns blazing than trying to be a bow and arrow ninja (which is a shame because I love Far Cry’s bows). The other problem working against Far Cry 5 is that, if you strip away the religious cult stuff, much of it starts to feel like Generic Ubisoft Open-World Game. Sure, this one’s in first-person, but you’re still doing a lot of the same busywork you’ll find in other Ubisoft titles like Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Ghost Recon Wildlands – collect x number of trinkets, blow up these resource trucks, capture the enemy stronghold. Rinse and repeat. Much of it is still a blast, mind you, but even Far Cry 5’s subject matter can’t make it stand out that much in a crowded open-world market.
In the end, Far Cry 5 is not the bold piece of artistic social commentary many had hoped it would be given its seemingly controversial subject matter … but perhaps it was misguided to think it was ever going to be. This is a series, after all, that lets you set fire to a grizzly bear and then watch as it pushes over a jeep while eagles swoop down from the skies to attack your face. Not exactly something to count on for a nuanced indictment of far-right extremism. If you set aside those expectations and just accept Far Cry 5 for what it is — a well-made popcorn action game filled with kooky characters, beautiful vistas, and the series’ trademark shooting mechanics — you’ll probably have a great time liberating Hope County. But if you’re looking for a game with anything meaningful to say about the state of the real world, Far Cry 5 isn’t it. But then, how many games let you have bears and cougars as your A.I. buddies? In style and tone, Far Cry 5 falls right in line with the rest of the series, but I suspect this is the last time Ubisoft will be able to get away with this formula. Whatever form the next installment takes, it’s clear that Far Cry as a franchise needs to make some significant structural changes going forward if it’s going to keep pace with the bevy of impressive open-world games we’ve seen in recent years.