Games Review: Far Cry 5 (PS4, 2018): Ain’t no easy way out

Far Cry 5 has been something of a curiosity since it was announced. While an unquestionably brave move to set this new installment of the 14 year old franchise in the United States, many were curious about the game’s motives — given the political and social turmoil in which the US currently finds itself, would Ubisoft be using one of their headline franchises to make some sort of political statement? Depending on where you stand politically, you may be relieved or disappointed to hear the answer is “Sort of? Not really.” Further, its hard to think of a more precarious moment for a game about the American heartland solving its problems with guns to arrive.

Set in the fictional Hope County, Montana, Far Cry 5 puts the player in the middle of a federal raid on a religious cult. The leader of the cult called the Project at Eden’s Gate, Joseph Seed, has used his influence, charisma and deep-seated rage at a chaotic world to terrorise the citizens of Hope County into joining him. Afraid of what Seed would do if they refused, the locals have let much of the county fall under his control. To further assert dominance, Seed divided the area into three distinct boroughs, each ruled by Joseph’s murderous siblings John, Jacob and Faith. What little resistance the county has been able to put up has been met, every time, with gruesome violence. Seed’s militia are armed to the teeth with military-grade hardware. Hope County is in a bad way.

Not to worry, though. As is Far Cry tradition, you’ll be busily stoking the fires of insurgency within five minutes of your first encounter with Joseph Seed. Speaking only for myself, I know you’re supposed to hate each new Far Cry villain by design, but the decision to make him a shirtless, man-bun wearing Jared Leto lookalike made it really easy for me.

Far Cry 5 marks the first time the series’ has been set within the United States. Americans have an idiosyncratic, enthusiastic and unironic love of many things — freedom, God, guns, revolution — all of which are at the heart of this new installment.

Take freedom, for instance. Far Cry 5 is the first game in the series to open up the entire map to the player from the jump. No more gated content, no more grinding to open up new areas — you are free to go where you like and tackle whatever activities or missions take your fancy. Each of Hope County’s boroughs can be attacked in any order you please, or you can jump between them and hassle each member of the Seed family in equal measure.

What about revolution? In same way Americans threw off the domineering rule of the British to form their nation, so too will your deeds stir Hope County into overthrowing the Seed family and taking back their home. This is no different to any other Far Cry game but given that it takes place in the US, it takes on a rather different meaning. The Seeds don’t want to give up their territory though and the more pressure you put upon them, the fiercer their response. Resistance points are awarded for pushing each member of the Seed family to the breaking point, reducing their control over an area before finally confronting them personally and doing away with them.

But if the game has built its house on anything, its the uniquely American fascination that lies at the intersection of God and guns. The game’s story is about the ugly side of faith and those who would abuse the desperate and fearful for their own ends. While the game revels in the trappings of radical Christianity, it’s never quite willing to come right out and announce which, if any, religious subset Project at Eden’s Gate belongs to. Instead, it takes the rather more careful route of the doomsday cult, modeled on similar, real world groups like Heaven’s Gate and People’s Temple. Where Ubisoft has made a wise move is in not making the villains people of colour. It’s one of the game’s subtler points for American audiences — it would have been very easy to play into the resurgent American fear of The Other, especially The Brown Other. The Seeds are homegrown white Americans. The grotesque call to arms is coming from inside the house.

However, for a game all about shooting, Far Cry 5 has surprisingly little to say out loud about the constitutionally sanctioned worship of guns in the United States, their ubiquity, their availability or the damage they do. The only way the game really alludes to these facets of American life is in small tweaks to the game loop — guns are pretty readily available the moment the game starts, for instance. With the exception of only a few prestige models, if you can afford them, you can have them. It’s all very hidden in plain sight but no-one’s calling attention to it. Everyone, from the police to the citizenry to the cultists themselves are armed to the fucking teeth and at no point does it occur to anyone that this might be a big part of the problem. You see what I mean, I’m sure. There is messaging there, but there’s a lot of it buried under layers and layers of subtext. You have to really go looking for it, to the point where it makes you wonder if you’re connecting dots that aren’t really there.

While it shies away from taking a hard look at guns or religion, the slice of American life it presents is an otherwise deeply absurdist one. The Americans you meet are insane, they are cartoons adorned with stars and stripes and bald eagles and bumper sticker bon mots. They’re so goofy and so hapless its no wonder Eden’s Gate have been so successful. To quote the late, great David Rakoff, “if you simply asked them to cede their sovereignty, you might be pleased with the result.” This stands in stark contrast to the Project at Eden’s Gate cult (or “Peggies” as the locals refer to them), whose exploits are barbarous and cold-blooded, the gory roadside evidence of their cruelty often stomach-turning.

This evasiveness in tone and focus is likely a matter of sales potential more than anything else. At the end of the day, Ubisoft wants their game to sell. In a market as large as the US, they want it to sell to all Americans, not just the ones in favour of gun control. The right to bear arms is so ingrained in the American psyche that they get rather prickly when anyone questions it. Thus, not wanting to rock the boat, the game does everything it can not to draw gun lover ire.

My personal feeling is that if Ubi weren’t looking to rock the boat, perhaps they shouldn’t have set the game in the US in the first place. Given the massive rallies and political upheaval throughout the US this last weekend as the demand for greater gun control from their lawmakers grows, releasing a game that (even tangentially) appears to celebrate the American love of firearms at this particular second isn’t a terribly good look. Couple this with the current scrutiny on video game violence in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and you have the makings of the perfect issue-based storm. Ubisoft obviously had no way of knowing it would shake out like this when Far Cry 5 went into the pipeline three years ago, but they might soon wish they had. I imagine Ubi’s PR departments around the world are feeling a bit nervous this week.

You may disagree with me on all this. I understand that your preference might be to keep politics out of the media you wish to engage with for recreation. That’s a totally fair expectation. I get it. I promise you I do. Personally, I like it when my media gets into the weeds on difficult issues and I want games to do it too, especially when their entire setting is a cluster of political hot buttons. For a developer/publisher that delights in kicking the topical hornet’s nest as much as Ubisoft does, its understandable that this might have been a bridge too far for them. I wish they’d gone there though.

If you’re still reading at this point, bless your heart and thanks for sticking around while I got that off my chest. Lets get back on track.

Visually, the game is really rather beautiful. I don’t know if its possible to explore Hope County’s mountainous landscape and not be at least a little floored by it. I ended a mission of a doorstep of a beautiful homestead looking out onto a gorgeous, wide river with pine forests and towering, majestic cliff faces in the distance and, for a moment, I understood why Americans get so caught up in the power of their own geography. If I woke up every morning surrounded by such natural wonder, I would think my country was blessed in the all the world too. I just stood there and looked at it for minutes on end, enjoying the way the light reflected off the water and turned the tops of the tree leaves translucent.

Ubisoft’s environment artists are without peer when it comes to recreating real world biomes in their games. They’ve been doing it with Assassin’s Creed for years and they’ve put that talent to work here. Every part of Hope County’s environment screams Americana. The Montanan terrain is wildly varied and this allows them to create a map that is not only lovely to look at but very different to explore. You spend a lot of time hiking through the forest in Far Cry games but here it really feels like you’ve embarked on a hike. The map’s south-eastern third is a craggy, mountainous region to give Skyrim a run for its money, with wide plains and rolling farmland to the west. In the north, hills and thick forests dot the militarised landscape. If there’s a problem with the visuals, its more to do with the Dunia Engine, a modified version of CryEngine. There’s an awful lot of pop-in, particularly when flying and its hard not to notice it all. There’s also, as far as I can tell, not much difference running the game on the PS4 and the PS4 Pro hardware besides a jump to 4K resolution. Something for Ubisoft to tackle next time.

Given that it is set in the land of plenty that is the US, certain systems have been pruned back — the crafting and upgrading systems that made sense when the series had you stranded on an island or moving through the mountains of Peru aren’t really necessary in the modern United States. You don’t need to make anything from scratch because you can head down to the store and buy it, thus the bulk of the crafting has been dumped. You can still craft throwables, however, with items like dynamite and molotovs able to be strapped together on the fly. Certain artifacts of the crafting system still remain however — you can still pick up herbs for turning into “Homeopathics” which is Ubisoft getting away with letting you make performance enhancing drugs with which you can trip balls and kill people, and you can still hunt wild animals for skins. The skins, however, don’t really serve a purpose now beyond attracting high dollar amounts for sale. Again, this is America. Why do anything, even something as wasteful and pointless as killing a wild animal, if it isn’t for profit?

Another significant change for the series is a much bigger push for co-operative play than before. The game now lets you take on up to two AI companions from a crop of nine, all with different skills and abilities to compliment any play style. The idea is that you can assault strongholds and various missions from multiple angles, and many of the game’s sub-environments are built for exactly this kind of play. The problem is that, even when you direct them step by step, your AI companions are stupid as hell.

My personal play style is usually quite stealth heavy. Thus, I took the hunter companion Jess Black and the trained cougar Peaches with me, both of whom help you run a three-pronged silent attack.

Peaches would rarely go where I wanted her to, often taking the worst possible entry path when given a mark. She’d take out who I wanted her to take out but would be promptly shot and killed by the 12 other armed guards in the area the moment she did. Jess was a special case all her own. The only way I could manage her kit was if I kept her at my side and played spotter for her. What this means is my game was reduced to me looking through binoculars at various thugs, calling them out to Jess, watching them die and moving on to the next one. This is efficient but its not exactly fun. If I sent her further afield than that, she’d inevitably get confused or caught on the geometry, be spotted and shot to pieces.

Some of the missions completely thwart your AI buddies before they even begin. One mission saw me head up a mountain with a companion-to-be named Hurk. Hurk insisted I jump in his car so we could get started, which I did. Hurk instantly gunned the engine and roared away, leaving Jess behind. Peaches the cougar can’t get in a car, she runs alongside it. Or, at least, I think that’s the idea. In practice she would sprint ahead of us, run across the path of the vehicle and Hurk would promptly run her over. If this had only happened once, I’d have chalked it up to a quirk of the AI and the game. But it happened three times in the same trip. Stupid cat kept running under the wheels of the truck and dying.

Eventually, I just stopped taking AI companions altogether and focused on doing everything myself.

This is obviously not the experience you get when playing with other people. Even adding a second human player to your game makes a huge difference in how you tackle each area. With a person, you can come up with a plan and execute on it in ways the AI simply cannot. It’s tremendous fun scouting an encampment, marking out priority targets and then taking the place down bit by bit. Do it your way — sneak about for that sweet, sweet Undetected bonus or ride a flaming car into the centre of the camp, guns blazing. It’s entirely up to you.

The experience and perk system have also seen a slight change. Gone is anything resembling a levelling system — instead you accrue perk points by completing story and side missions, and completing in-game challenges. Perks are not especially cheap with some unlocks requiring 8 perk points or more. This means upgrading your character requires quite a bit of work on the side if there’s perks you really want. A lot of the challenges are tied to hunting though, which means you can power up and make a bunch of cash at the same time.

I’ve grumbled a lot throughout this review but I do, on the whole, quite like Far Cry 5. It runs a few mechanical experiments, and not all of them work but its nice to see the series is still willing to try new things. It retains a strong sense of fun in most areas and refuses to take itself too seriously. It’s more open and dedicated to player freedom than almost any other game in the series before it. It makes some decisions I don’t agree with, and I’ll be interested to see what the player feedback looks like. But it is most assuredly a Far Cry game and, if that’s your thing, I’m sure you’ll find an awful lot to like about it.

Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Gorgeous visuals; Great soundtrack; Game loop still a good one; Solid co-op
Lowlights: AI companions worse than useless a lot of the time
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft Toronto
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: 27/3/18

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro with a Gold Edition review code provided by the publisher.