Games Preview: Far Cry 5 feels very familiar. Whether that sounds like good news or bad is up to you

The moment I jumped into Far Cry 5 at E3 this year, the thing that struck me was how familiar it felt. Ubisoft have been pushing a very particular vision for the series since Far Cry 2 comprehensively reworked Crytek’s 2004 original action adventure title into something more akin to survival adventure, a design template they’ve been gradually honing ever since.

But it’s actually 2016’s Far Cry Primal with which the forth coming Far Cry 5 has the most in common. Both games display a willingness to throw an interesting setting at the franchise and see how it can apply its very fine-tuned game loop to it.

Far Cry 5‘s Montana setting feels good right away, environmentally. It’s diverse enough to make you feel like you really are in the backwoods of the American central north. Everything about the landscape feels uniquely American — pines, rugged mountains, fast-flowing rivers, ravines and flat plains, and sprinkled throughout, little hints at rural civilisation. Small towns and communities that now find themselves under the thumb of the Heaven’s Gate religious cult.

The cult’s presence is everywhere, from wild haired hillbilly types that make up their foot soldiers to the more well outfitted troopers that guard the cult’s many outposts. Evidence of their grip on the area is omnipresent — billboards, religous songs on the radio, the constant rumble of the cult leader Joseph Seed as he broadcasts his ministry over radios stationed in towns and camps. He’s even gone to the trouble of erecting a giant YES sign on the side of a mountain in the distance in the style of the Hollywood sign, in spite of his dogged insistence that the bleeding heart lefties and the Hollywood elite don’t understand the plight of his people.

The thing that weirded me out the most about my three hour sit down with Far Cry 5 was that it didn’t feel like it was really using its openly controversial story and setting as anything other than window dressing. I hope that I’m wrong about this. In a social and political climate as tense and turbulent as the one in which we all now live, I really want to see Ubisoft take their survival franchise and dig into the meat of it. The most important foundational element in any good story is having something to say, and I wasn’t getting anything from this beyond the sense that the game wanted to stir up trouble. It has the trappings of something that looks timely and speaks to the political zeitgeist. Whether or not it actually does remains to be seen.

In every other respect, this is Far Cry as you know and hopefully love it. A sprawling map with plenty of things to do, buckwild locals to meet, vehicles to drive, animals to hunt, missions to undertake, and wingsuits to glide about in. Two of the series most well-worn features — that of the story always centering on your character igniting a revolution and the liberating of various fortified strongholds, camps and towns around the map — are thrown into particularly American relief here. After all, what’s more American than liberty and revolution?

(Again, this is an area where the game, or at least the part of it I played, seemed all too happy to sit back on its political laurels and say nothing when I really want it to say something, one way or the other. Gun control, religious fanaticism, the increasing divide between progressive and conservative points of view, religious morality vs common morality. Pick a fucking number. Alright, alright, I’m dropping it, I’m dropping it.)

A lot of Far Cry 5‘s character comes from its dedication to being a near-parody of American culture. Many of the locals I ran into during my session were precisely the kind of loud, boorish yokels those who don’t live in the United States often associate with the country. They curse and holler, they get around in overalls and wear servo speed dealers, they install gigantic chainguns on already oversized 4WD’s and they paint the star spangled banner and van art depictions of bald eagles on every available surface.

There are hundreds of dirt roads that will take you off the beaten track and deep into the wilderness. In my first few minutes with the demo, picking up moments after the conclusion of the E3 demo — the same one you likely played at EB Expo and PAX Aus this year — I jumped onto a quad bike and sped off into the hills. I stumbled upon a woman being bailed up by some hillbilly types. I jumped off the quad to help, dispatched them quickly and spoke to her to grab the random quest reward. She thanked me, and then promptly jumped on my quad bike and tried to roar off. I stopped her, insisting that she get off the damn bike and all the while she protested vehemently that the quad bike, the one she had just literally stolen from me, was hers and how could I do this to her? Series fans reading this will be either pleased or exasperated to know that eccentricities like these, those moments where the game goes full Far Cry on you, the flat defiance of logic, haven’t really changed.

Gunplay feels as solid as it ever has, and from what I can tell the bow remains the most satisfyingly overpowered weapon in the game. Why it’s so much fun to plug dudes with arrows, arrows capable of doing more damage than a shotgun in many cases, I couldn’t tell you but Ubi have got the feel of it down pat at this point. The controls haven’t changed much at all. In fact, I was surprised to discover that my brain keeps the entire default Far Cry control setting in long term memory, so easy was it to jump back in after over a year away from the franchise. It was quite literally 15 minutes between me beginning the demo and liberating my first encampment with zero tutorial time. That should tell you everything you need to know if you’re worried about Far Cry 5 being a wild departure from the formula.

Inkeeping with the series’ propensity for being a visual show pony, Far Cry 5 is very, very pretty. The weapons all have a very angular, machined look to them and you can make out tiny details like serial numbers and modifications. Nice touch.

It’s the audio that struck me though, particularly the music. Far Cry has always pulled solid voice casts together and this game isn’t an exception, but it was the music — there’s a lot of that good, good, boot stomping, gang-vocals, Rubber Factory era Black Keys shit going on and I’m into it. I’m also into the wailing virtuosic guitar that kicks in when you get discovered creeping around an enemy held encampment. The music rules and it gave my few hours with Far Cry 5 genuine character and a racing heart rate.

So where do we stand with Far Cry 5 right now, three months out from launch? It feels like Far Cry, and your personal mileage may vary on whether that’s a good thing or not. I’m quite fond of the Far Cry game loop so I’m on board there. The setting is cool but I really want to see Ubisoft dig into the more obvious social, racial, religious and #MAGA-centric issues that setting currently both implies and shies away from. Hopefully the finished game will change that.