Far Cry 5 review - a competent yet conflicted open worlder
Make Montana emergent again.
You can kick off a spectacular set piece pretty much anywhere in Far Cry 5. All you need do is stand in the road. Give it 60 seconds, and - yes, there it is, a van full of hostages, cruising around unescorted, the lowest of low-hanging fruit. You pour hot lead into the windshield until the driver flops out of his seat like a spent shell casing, then follow the vehicle into a ditch and help its dazed occupants to safety. One grateful civilian waves you over, a side quest icon materialising over his head. "Wh-" he says, and is promptly swept off his feet by a speeding pick-up truck.
The truck screeches to a halt and a huge, tattooed lady with a light machinegun climbs out, only to be set upon by the cougar you didn't notice lurking near the treeline. Your AI companion blasts the cougar with incendiary buckshot, setting it on fire; the cougar charges into your AI companion, setting him on fire; everybody runs in circles, yelling at each other, until a plane soars over a hillside and bombs the whole, silly escapade to ashy gristle. Moments of unrehearsed, systemic inanity like these have always been Far Cry's calling card as an open world shooter, and the fifth game continues that proud tradition: between the hostage trucks, convoys, roadblocks, sniper's nests, air patrols, wildlife, plentiful explosives and cartoon physics, you'll seldom want for distraction (or incineration) on the way to the next story objective.
Sadly, the game which unfolds around these interludes isn't half as enjoyable. The first instalment to be set in North America, Far Cry 5 is Far Cry at its least engrossing, clumsiest and most basic, though there's still just enough going on here to keep a returning fan involved. Its attempts to address the fractious state of US society through the lens of a game that is essentially about dominating an Orientalised world are a predictable mixture of half-baked and callous. The mechanics of exploration, combat and conquest, meanwhile, lack charisma and substance for all the longer development time, with few new tools or challenges to speak of. Save for its campaign co-op, jaunty Arcade level editor and bland 6v6 multiplayer, it very much feels like the filler episode Far Cry: Primal was supposed to be.
Far Cry 5 casts you as a rookie police deputy, travelling to the fictitious county of Hope, Montana to arrest one Joseph Seed, the McConaughey-esque leader of the Christian doomsday cult Eden's Gate. Seed's followers don't take kindly to their prophet's abduction, needless to say, and one hectic car chase sequence later, you're at large in a county that has become a warzone, sealed off from the rest of the US. Your job is to take down Seed's three siblings, John, Jacob and Faith, each the boss of a particular region and section of the cult's operations, before launching an assault on the Father himself. You'll be aided in this endeavour by a homespun resistance, including nine unlockable AI companions with fully fleshed-out backstories and an endless supply of more generic accomplices who can be recruited on the fly.
It's business as usual for Far Cry, give or take a few local variations. You undertake story and side missions to fill up a bar representing local resistance levels: reach certain milestones, and the cult will redouble its efforts to bring you down, dispatching tougher foes such as fighter planes to hound your steps. As you sink your teeth deeper into each region you'll also be sucked into the odd clash with one of the Seeds, who'll typically monologue a bit before somehow allowing you to slip their clutches. Fill the bar up completely and you'll trigger a final battle, followed by a race to the region's bunker to rescue all the locals the cult has abducted - a corridor gunfight with the odd, very lightweight puzzle element. As campaign frameworks go it just about keeps you awake, and Montana makes for an appealing backdrop, though it lacks the visual variety of Far Cry 4's Kyrat. But it's also very bland, and more importantly, a serious obstacle for the game's hapless stabs at social commentary.
Far Cry 5's key problem as a story is that it's utterly at odds with itself. It wants to say something about our world, about evangelical ecstasy, gun advocacy and nihilism in America's heartlands, but all of that plays second fiddle to the real core of any Far Cry game, a colonialist fantasy that imposes its own criteria on the writing - casts split neatly between identikit footsoldiers and larger-than-life lieutenants, a struggle for survival that can only ever involve the gradual flipping of nodes on a map. It wants to dissect anxieties about nuclear war and the rise of "patriot" movements in the US, but it also wants to be an "anecdote factory", in creative director Dan Hay's words - a game that teaches its player to think of the setting as a cauldron of apolitical "gameplay" props, waiting to be jostled about until something explodes. It wants to analyse how cults rise and fall, drawing upon consultation with real-life cult deprogrammers, but in practice the Pledgekeepers of Eden's Gate are just another army of expendable, dehumanised grunts, irredeemable from the get-go.
Presumably, many are relatives or old acquaintances of the various friendly Montana residents you'll encounter, but the writing waves this aside; as far as your red-blooded American allies are concerned, the only good "Peggy" is a dead Peggy, whoever they used to be. Where the game does try to take you through the mechanics by which people become fanatics, it does so at the level of cheap sensation, via devices such as mass hypnosis or mind-altering drugs that can be easily translated into the brutal lingo of an action game. There's little sustained investigation of wider social factors, like the overlap between militant Christian extremism and white supremacy or sexism - indeed, the game generally ducks such questions. The cult's ranks are stocked with a mixture of races and genders, in what feels like a careful sanitising of the subject matter.
Adding insult to injury, the tone is all over the place, as though several writing teams were fighting for control of the pen. Torture scenes and talk of rape and infanticide sit alongside unspeakably lame wisecracks in weapon descriptions and spoofing of Donald Trump. One moment you're following a scarred huntress around while she weaves a story about cannibalism, the next you have to rescue a bear called Cheeseburger. It's possible to get away with these kinds of tonal shifts - see the Wolfenstein series under MachineGames - but you need a lot more flair than is on offer here.
Where Far Cry 5's narrative is merely bad, the moment-to-moment of play is a cunning blend of competent and boring. Much of the action revolves around securing outposts, and these are structured exactly as in previous games - their compact layouts dotted with mounted turrets, vehicles you might turn into timebombs, cage locks you can shoot off to loose a wild animal amongst the guards and alarm systems you can disable to thwart the summoning of reinforcements. It certainly takes a bit of thought, and there are a few missions that change the tempo by, for example, forcing you to sneak for fear of a hostage being executed, but none of it is memorable. Far Cry's outpost design has been ripped off and bettered by any number of open worlders, within and without Ubisoft. Now would have been a good time to throw a few curves, and yet the game's assorted gas stations, ranches, airfields and hilltop bases are as unsurprising in structure as they are easy to upturn.
The outposts might be more fun to roll over if your arsenal and customisation options weren't so deathly dull. There's no standout new weapon or gizmo, just the usual crop of SMGs, shotguns, rifles, pistols, launchers, flame throwers, light machine guns and bows, all very lightly accessorisable with scopes and expanded magazines. The kinesis of Far Cry combat is as mouth-watering as ever - no other shooter save Battlefield quite grasps the joy of lobbing a perfectly timed grenade beneath the wheels of a speeding car - but the lack of inventiveness is startling. The perks system is just as insipid: it consists largely of passive upgrades like inventory expansions and faster reloads per weapon category, plus familiar active abilities like the repair torch and wingsuit. The practice of chaining melee executions - one of Far Cry 3's most vicious flourishes - returns but has been strangely de-emphasised, bundled up into a single unlock. It's one of several, promising systems the new game might have elaborated upon; instead, Ubisoft has stripped it back.
In some respects, Far Cry 5's heart of hearts doesn't lie anywhere in Hope, Montana. It lies in Far Cry Arcade, a map editor where the fundamentally reductive nature of Far Cry's open world is caught in the neon glare of a faux coin-op interface. Here, you're free to bodge together and share your own PvE or deathmatch levels within a generous memory budget, using assets lifted from previous Far Cry games, Watch Dogs 2 and Assassin's Creed: Unity. There are some entertaining concoctions on the servers already, which you can sample at random as part of a 6-12 player group or tackle all by yourself - a barebones yet surprisingly moreish shooting range in which all players wield AK47s, and a crackpot neon labyrinth of water traps and jump ramps that could almost be a nod to Action Half-Life.
The real intrigue of the Arcade mode, however, is that it exposes how Ubisoft's open world games have become slaves to a formula. In letting you mingle pieces from several franchises - the skyscrapers of San Francisco towering over the ruins of a daydream Tibet, the cannons of revolutionary France lifting rusted muzzles amid the splintered daylight of backwoods America - the editor reveals their basic interchangeability, the way all of these series default to the same broad framework of killing, conquering and unlocking. This is the apparently inescapable truth of Far Cry, a series that still has a lot going for it, but remains in serious need of a revamp. It is a moribund apparatus of conquest that is unable to tell any story other than the rise to power of a well-armed outsider over a lushly imagined, exoticised realm, however urgently it might try.