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All images courtesy Ubisoft

'Far Cry 5' Tries to Do It All, but Fails to Be Much of Anything

Austin Walker

Austin Walker

New changes to the structure are welcomed, but 'Far Cry 5' has no confidence and no heart.

All images courtesy Ubisoft

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By the time I hit the 20 hour mark, I was wondering what could be salvaged. Far Cry 5, after all, was not a complete failure. Its changes to the series’ long calcified structure were genuinely an improvement. There had been a surprising amount of good, original music here, too, much of it going beyond the guitar-infused country I’d expected. I still genuinely liked the game’s generic “Guns for Hire,” too. Oh, and, as far as I was concerned, Far Cry 5’s exploration-focused “stashes,” which provide everything from platform-heavy spelunking to a kind of light forensic work, should be added to every first person open world game.

But there was little else I wanted to bring with me out of Hope County, the fictional Montanan locale where Far Cry 5 is set. As I stared down the game’s final hours, I began to reckon with the fact that despite all of its scale, it was in many ways an empty world. Far Cry 5 is a game that takes excess as ethos, yet, in pursuing that goal of more-more-more, stretches itself so thin as to offer up nothing at all.

It didn’t have to be this way, of course. Far Cry 5’s premise is potent enough: For years, Hope County has been slowly coming under control of the Project at Eden’s Gate, a well resourced cult that is preparing for the end of the world by buying up local businesses, building up a sizable militia, and converting the county’s residents through a cocktail of schlock-y Hollywood brainwashing techniques.

(It’s worth noting that, though I never saw the game use the word “Christian” or “evangelical” to describe them, their particular brand of eschatological belief is firmly drawn from those sources, with the Book of Revelation and other scripture serving as the script’s shortcut to creepy cult talk.)

Acting on evidence that the cult’s wrongdoings have escalated from generally frightening the locals and to outright murder, your character (a rookie deputy) joins a group of other cops to arrest the cult’s leader, Joseph Seed. It all goes wrong, and, seeing this aggression as proof that his prophecies are coming true, Seed orders the county to be locked down to force a Bundy-like isolationist standoff, and for his followers to begin “The Reaping,” an aggressive campaign of kidnapping meant to bring the citizens of Hope County into the Project’s flock (or at least into the prisons of their massive bunkers).

You’re saved from that first, Purge-like night by Dutch, a man who, like John Seed, has been long preparing for the end of the world. (The irony is not remarked upon). Dutch gets you on your feet, teaches you the basics of Far Cry 5’s new, tower-free exploration, and directs you to meet up with resistance fighters spread across the County’s three distinct regions, each of which has been taken under control by one of Joseph Seed’s lieutenants, his “family.”

From there, you move out into the world proper and are introduced to Far Cry 5’s new take on the series’ overall structure. In past Far Cry games, you’d move from section to section, climbing towers to add side quests to your map, and then working away at those until you were ready to do one of the major story quests that would advance you to the next major area. Now, the wide range of activities are added through a much more natural feeling system of exploration.

For instance, if you rescue a civilian from a forced baptism they might tell you about a silo filled with the cult’s explosives, which will then get added to your map. Or find a deer crossing sign or a fishing magazine and your map updates to reflect that information. Even the series standard outposts have been spruced up, as each one now has a unique, combat-puzzle enabling identity—like a repair garage or an observatory—and becomes a real hub for quests after you complete it. This part of the system works well, seriously cutting down on the icon clutter that plagued past open world Ubisoft games and adding much needed character to the world.

Best of all, this new structure gives the game’s level designers two important tools that had previously been relegated to the towers. First, verticality: In past Far Cry games, you climbed towers so often that height itself felt trite by the mid game. Now, the occasional trip high up is dizzying. Second, the light platforming puzzles once limited to tower climbing are now spread across the game’s incredible “prepper stashes,” bite-sized challenges that let you explore the homes and bunkers of those caught up by the reaping. They were the last place I expected clever world building, but the place I most often found it.

On top of these new additions, the new Guns for Hire system means that even when playing alone, you’ll have a few NPC friends around for the ride (or to pick you up off the ground when you get caught out of cover). On top of the 9 “specialists,” ranging from fighter pilot Nick Rye to expert sharpshooter Grace Armstrong to loyal canine companion Boomer, you can recruit just about any random person you see hanging around a captured outpost as additional backup.

Unfortunately, about an hour or two after I started recruiting these companions, I started to feel the game buckle under its own weight. Each character comes with a collection of quips and reactive observations. Mark a crow with your binoculars and Grace might mention that they’re associated with death. Meet a quest giver that Nick doesn’t like, and maybe he’ll mention the fact that he doesn't trust this guy. The characters converse with each other, too… and that’s where it began to fall apart.

Instead of the memorable banter of Mass Effect or Dragon Age, Far Cry 5’s NPCs slip over and over again into the same dialog routines, sometimes even interrupting themselves to start over. In one case, while playing co-op, major quest dialog was halted in favor of one of these conversations. In another instance, I spent 10 minutes hearing two characters exchange the same 4 sentences over and over.

And this general arc repeated too: From appreciation of the effort Ubisoft put in to fill the game with content, to doubt that they managed to focus on the right parts, to disappointment as the game either bugs out or loses focus on what’s working all together. From the airplane combat to the fishing to the weapon selection, so many of the game's numerous features offer only the most shallow level of enjoyment. Within a few hours of exploring one of the game’s three regions, you will have seen basically what the game has to offer. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of content. Instead, Far Cry 5 winds up feeling hollow explicitly because, in an attempt to stuff it with content, it turns to repetitive formulas.

Mechanically, that’s most felt in the game’s streamlined progression system, which trades out the crafting, upgrade trees, and a traditional XP system for a “challenge” based structure that rewards you with perk points whenever you complete certain tasks, like completing the aforementioned “stashes,” racking up kills with a specific type of weapon, traveling a couple of kilometers in the wingsuit, or completing stages in the game’s “Far Cry Arcade” mode (which offers both traditional multiplayer and a level creator that functions as a sort of Mario Maker for Far Cry levels.)

The result is that progression is forgettable, a sort of low background hum that you check in on here or there. I occasionally equipped a certain weapon to get the last couple of kills needed to get a few extra perk points, but within my first 10 hours with the game I had pretty much all the perks I cared about. (It also just generally feels strange to get equipment like the wingsuit, grappling hook, and blow torch from an open ended perk screen instead of through a narrative device.)

The same issues apply to Far Cry 5’s new take on story progress, which is tied a “resistance meter,” a concept which boils down the very idea of resistance until it loses all character. Nearly anything positive you do in a given region advances your meter: Blow up a cult shrine, your resistance meter goes up. Kill a cult VIP? Resistance points. Complete an outpost or a mission? Boom, the resistance is coming for you, peggies (which is what everyone in the game calls the members of the Project at Eden’s Gate. It’s novel for the first hour, maybe.)

On one hand, it’s great to have the choice to pursue the activities you actually want to do and have them count towards overall progress. On the other, because there’s a chance you’ll ignore any given mission, it means that the majority of these activities are utterly skippable.

Despite the seriousness of the premise and the intensity that the game’s main cast speaks about fighting the good fight, the bulk of what I did in Far Cry 5 was diluted, unimportant, or comical in the worst way. I spent much more time killing zombie-like cult members in “novel” ways than doing things that felt like aiding a resistance effort. With rare exception, even missions from major NPCs feel like fetch quests, and the minor NPCs range from forgettable to grating.

This could have been prevented with more focus. Each region is filled with a half dozen quest givers, and none of them are given the opportunity to make an impression. All across Far Cry 5, characters flitter in and out without leaving a significant impression. In one case, an ally broke down in tears after a major plot development, but all I really knew about her was her name and general demeanor.

The only missions that feel “weighty” are those that every player will receive, those that advance you down the task of directly confronting Joseph Seed and his Family. But even these tend to miss more than hit.

Once you gain enough resistance points, the region’s lieutenant will interrupt whatever you’re doing to whisk you away into interrogation rooms or drugged out dream worlds, where they lecture and preach and torture, at all points feeling like cast offs from some unreleased fourth BioShock game. Far Cry 3 and 4 were so driven by their “insane” antagonists, and here it feels like Ubisoft quadrupled down, aiming for unpredictability and finding instead incongruity.

Take one of the constant refrains from both Joseph Seed and Faith, one of his lieutenants: Why do you always try to solve so many things with violence, they ask, despite their own organization's fondness of brutal torture and your inability to interact with the cult in any way except violence.

It isn’t the first game to do that sort of thing, of course: BioShock and Metal Gear Solid both chided the player’s more bloodthirsty gamer-habits, though those at least let you determine your own level of violence. But even when compared to games like The Last of Us and Spec Ops: The Line, which force the player down paths they may not be happy with, Far Cry 5 falters. After all, while those games are able to linger in their chosen tonality, Far Cry 5 spins wildly between didactic, yet contradictory sermons and a relentless, mediocre style of comedy that never rises above an echo of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ 14 year old sketch of rural American culture, down to the UFO expert and amoral CIA agent.

This speaks to a deeper problem, albeit one that emerges from the same central flaw of being stretched too thin: Thematically, Far Cry 5 is such an inconsistent mess of ideas that there is hardly a recognizable through line at all. Instead, the game gestures towards ambiguity as if looking for a shield to save itself with.

This is a game that undeniably knows that Donald Trump is president, but cannot decide if that fact should be punchline or key plot device. When, in two different scenes, cult leaders make oblique references to “America’s leadership” or the failures of the person “who’s in charge” as proof of the American empire’s final days, the game reaches for sincere relevance. But an hour later, you’ll be recovering the notorious piss tape from a Russian spy in a pun-filled quest.

In some moments, it feels as if Far Cry 5 wants to take a neutral position and represent some true complexity of rural America. Take, for instance, the fact that various characters will speak to their various opinions about the country’s gun culture, with some disappointed in our addiction to assault rifles and others “not getting the big deal” about guns.

Yet when facing more obviously troubling truths, like the racism and xenophobia that swept Trump into office, Far Cry 5 hedges its bets. Mission after mission, NPC after NPC, there is a sense throughout the game that Ubisoft wants to make sure you're laughing along with them regardless of why you're laughing.

In one case, a white quest giver asked me if I was “One of those eye-talians,” who she was concerned were stealing her jewelry. The joke, of course, is that racism is bad, and that this is a particularly unlikely form of racism, since Italian-Americans have been largely assimilated into white culture. Of course, the truth is that very similar statements are actually made about people of color regularly, especially those in service sector jobs. The irony is that if she'd followed through and said “Hispanics," if there had been no comedy alibi for the racism, the game would have the genuine ability to test what players thought their characters would do. Instead, we got "eye-talians."

Or consider the fact that the surprising racial diversity of the game’s cult (which I explored in my interview with creative director Dan Hay last month) means that the Project at Eden’s Gate never quite assumes the stature of the primarily white militias that the game’s developers heavily emphasized during their original pitch. It’s a point only further extended by the fact that you work directly for one such militia for a good third of the game, but due to the poor job of characterization and worldbuilding, you never learn what the militia stands for, why it came into being, or what it would be doing if not for the Project at Eden’s Gate.

That last question—what would Hope County be if not for the cult?—haunts Far Cry 5, and its inability to address it directly hobbles any meaning that could be gleaned from some of the game’s more surprising twists. Which isn’t to say that you can’t interpret the game’s story or that there won’t be a million theory videos about what is going to be one of the year’s most talked about (and most unearned) endings. But it does mean that any final interpretation wiggles out of grasp, deferred for lack of clarity.

After all, what are we to make of the Project at Eden’s Gate, itself? At key moments, when you and the resistance score major blows against them, the game offers us a brief vista of the nearby area, lit by fireworks and decorated by the raising of an American flag waving in the breeze.

Yet Joseph preaches in front of a modified American flag, and the cult’s leaders are as American as they come: A business savvy self help guru, a military vet, and a sort of pop-culture-and-drug wielding micro-celebrity. Their entire mobilizing purpose is an anxiety about the collapse of the American system, and the appeal they make for joining the cult is the ability to escape the stress of your daily news feed. Honestly, what could be more American than the Project at Eden’s Gate?

Perhaps, in a different game, the message would be clear: You, player, are the agent of the broken status quo. You’re the one working for conspiracy theorists who complain about globalists and politicians who grouse about “Obama-loving libtards.” You’re defending a culture where every member of Hope County has individually invested in a personal bunker that will never be able to provide them a life of safety and comfort, while the Project supports a collectivist vision of survival. The cult is nothing more than a scapegoat, a whipping boy for all of the problems of Hope County and America writ large.

But Far Cry 5 doesn't earn that reading. Instead, this is a game where, in search of shock, one of the cult leader’s rips the flesh off of a living victim and staples it to the wall. It’s a game that leans all the way into the debunked “brainwashing” view of cults, despite Ubisoft hosting interviews with expert consultants who emphasize that cults work through social pressure, not drugs and programming. It’s a game that retreats from its own moments of sincerity, which is a shame, because in the rare cases where it spends time with some of its slightly more restrained characters, you can genuinely see what a better version of Far Cry 5 might look like. Instead, we got this version, one wrapped in a safety blanket of disinterest and reference-as-punchline.

What’s so frustrating about this is that you don’t need to look far from Far Cry 5 to see other games manage to be both funny and thoughtful, or which offer even more content but which retain some central thematic through line. In fact, you don’t even need to leave Ubisoft’s own catalog: 2016’s Watch Dogs 2 had some missteps but its anti-authoritarian ethos was always clear, and rung true across missions both serious and comical. Last year’s Assassin’s Creed Origins is an even bigger game than Far Cry 5, yet it never loses sight of its primary tension: Protagonist Bayek is torn between a quest for personal revenge and a larger responsibility to his community, and most of quests he takes on relate to one or both of those goals.

Instead, despite carrying a premise with a lot of potential, Far Cry 5 ends up feeling like two other recent Ubisoft releases: Tom Clancy’s The Division and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands, both of which scratch a certain mechanical itch but which demand you not think too hard about them. For me, that makes Far Cry 5 something like a vacant mansion. I can admire its shape from a distance, and I enjoy moving through its halls, walking both the old familiar steps and a few new ones. I can recognize the cleverness at work in its flowing structure, and can imagine the person who can see themselves at home here. But for me, it’s empty of life and meaning.

There was a moment towards the very end of my time with Far Cry 5 that I can't quite shake. In an effort to 100% one of the game's regions, I took to exploring some of the hills that none of the quests had taken me to hoping to find the one last mission I'd somehow missed. Suddenly, I caught the sound of guitar over a ridge, and came across a trio of folks at a campsite. One was playing guitar and singing "In the Pines (Where Did You Sleep Last Night)," while the other two danced.

It was a quiet moment, and more than that a confident one. It wasn't sticking its tongue out at the intimacy of the couple, or treating the musician's performance as a joke. And it was unmarked on the map, and that made it feel more true somehow. This was, in a sense, not for me to find. It was simply a routine this trio would repeat until the end of time, undisturbed. Meant as a curiosity, yet in effect one of the rare times that the game felt like it understood what it could have been. Even writing this now, I feel a pang of regret that I didn't stay longer, that I didn't get a better video of the them.

I never found anything else like that moment, but again and again, Far Cry 5 served up its opposite: Moments that were incredibly loud, but increasingly timid. And because of that, Far Cry 5 itself will always be more of a curiosity than a destination.

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