This, the fifth main entry in the stalwart first-person shooter series, is the first to sidestep concerns of Imperialist or disaster tourism tendencies by being located in rural Montana. You, as a silent character referred to as “Deputy” or “Rookie” (you’re given the option to choose your character’s gender and race), are initially involved in a chaotic attempt to arrest doomsday cult leader Joseph Seed, and soon find yourself picking up arms to take back Hope County from the messianic Seed family and their Eden’s Gate followers.
Far Cry games have always suffered from a certain cognitive dissonance between the Looney Tunes-esque “run n’ gun” shooting they provide once off the beaten track and the comparatively straightforward action of their mandated story sections. The last of the main series’ games offered mercenaries draining an African country of its soul, pirates and PMCs destroying an idyllic island paradise, and Nepalese despots doing their evil thing, but all managed to ensure the comic book exploits of the core game ran parallel to or segued into those less madcap narratives. Far Cry 2 even let the degradation of its Central African setting feed into the actual gameplay, as the frustrated screams of many gamers forced to contend with jammed guns can attest. Such mechanics have since been dropped for a more streamlined gaming experience, but in return the storylines offered plenty of meat. Vaas, the main antagonist of Far Cry 3, was a complex character and a top ten gaming villain, whilst the “best” ending of the last outing was arguably the one achieved without actually playing the game, a cute Easter Egg at the start letting you sit still after a cutscene and eventually allow what may be the lesser of three evils to continue to rule over a Himalayan kingdom.
Far Cry 5 is having none of that complexity. The gap between what the story wants to say and what the game lets you do is wider than ever – partly because the main plot winds down a sober path to an ultimately nonsensical and unearned conclusion (we’ll get to that).
The Montana setting is first truly glimpsed atop a radio tower, and even on an original Playstation 4 it’s fantastic to look at – and to hear, courtesy of the rustic score by Beasts Of The Southern Wild soundtrack composer Dan Romer. In a cheeky nod to previous games, you’re assured you won’t have to climb another tower to unlock other areas, and, indeed, from the off you can go wherever you want to within the world. You soon find that Hope County is split into three regions, each controlled by a member of the Seed clan, and to lure out their leader Joseph you’ll have to take down the three “Heralds”, Jacob, John and Faith (Far Cry 5 loves this biblical allusion stuff). As with previous games, outposts need to be liberated and you can hire buddies to help you. Personally, I found the AI of these guns for hire to be a little confused. Whereas as with, say, MGS V: The Phantom Pain, in which you could set targets and task your computer-controlled partner Quiet with taking one out either on your command or simultaneous with your own shot being fired, here you’ll be at the whim of your rather trigger-happy squad mates. Stealthily take down a cult member, and you’ll probably find a twitchy buddy taking that as a sign to get the bazooka out and ruin an opportunity to earn a “No Alarms” trophy. To stay with the MGS V comparison, canine buddy Boomer ain’t no D-Dog; watch how he fails to pick up a member of the cult until right against them. That all said, once you get a bear and a few air strike options on the go, it is entertaining to sit back and let those culties ride the pain train.
Although in theory the freedom to explore is liberating, in practice you might find it’s actually an exercise in keeping the story away from the gameplay. Each region has a “resistance meter”, and every action taken against the cult – no matter how small – adds to that meter. When filled, a confrontation with the Herald of the area occurs. Sound novel? Well, unfortunately, each meter has checkpoints that initiate your kidnapping and force you to sit through a cutscene where the Herald mumbles about the end of the world or the grace of God or whatever the writers thought would sound deep. Due to the nature of the resistance meter filling with even the slightest action (and if you do just campaign missions, get used to sitting for a cutscene every twenty minutes or so), these forced encounters limit the freedom to explore the vast area provided. Worse, their dark leanings – baby killing, anyone? – jar with the action adventure game around them in a way that the antics of the flamboyant Vaas and Pagan Min in previous entries didn’t.
It’s not that the writing is bad – to the game’s credit, each of the antagonists have solid character arcs – it’s just that too often the religious ramblings of the Seeds start off like the charismatic preaching of real-world Christian pedagogues, but ultimately seem designed to not offend either the liberal or MAGA crowd (a feat in itself, but not one that provides high drama). You can’t fault the developers at Ubisoft for using real world turmoil to market a game, but you can definitely hold it against them for having a minimal amount of commentary of such – a Pee-Pee Tape retrieval mission and a lone satirical Tea Party character aside – in the actual finished product. Recently, Wolfenstein II went big, picked a side, ran with it, and that decision made for a more focussed experience. By contrast, Far Cry 5 provides players with the option to buddy up with a bear named Cheeseburger, a cougar named Peaches, and set them upon cultists willy nilly, but then takes that genuine laugh riot away for some biblical mumbo jumbo that means diddly squat. Come the close, the ending means it truly does all come to bugger all, as this lack of depth extends to the finalé.
And here be spoilers.
All through the game, the Seed family speak of a forthcoming Collapse, with Joseph Seed’s capture being the Seventh Seal that destroys humanity. And lo, when the cuffs are placed on the preacher’s hands at the end, well…a North Korean nuclear missile lands.
Yeah, really. At that exact moment.
Now, in fairness, this week Ubisoft did contact a griping Polygon to inform them that the mushroom cloud was not a Seed curveball, and was foretold before the confrontation with the leader by several in-car radio news reports throughout the game’s climax. However, as you’re given access to transport by plane, helicopter, wingsuit and parachute, you may (as I did) not notice these sudden transmissions. Hell, I only noticed one after making a choice that turned out to provide an alternate ending on my first play-through of the final mission, and then the game spat me back out before that choice was provided, a short SUV ride from the last boss. If there were other reports, like most players who took down the three Heralds, I was too busy trying to find Bigfoot and existing in my own experience, rather than return to the straitjacket of the main campaign.
It feels like an ending for the sake of providing what TV critics refer to as a “water cooler” moment. Of course, shock or twist endings can be completely fine, be they heartbreaking (The Last Of Us), surreal (Bioshock: Infinite) or just plain tragic (Spec Ops: The Line, a game whose self-referential shadow has cast itself far and wide, including into the Far Cry series). Yet all of the above – even the cascading realities of Infinite – are based on an in-game world whose rules have been established, and whose final moments are shaped by character arcs that feel as if they’re playing out to the sound of destiny. This ending feels completely foreign to the rest of the game, to the extent that major publications – such as IGN and the aforementioned Polygon – have needed guidance in figuring out what has gone on (in their defence, when more than one mission takes place in nuclear silos occupied by religious fundamentalists, you can see where the confusion comes from).
It’s all well and good when a game’s ending falls flat but the excellent gameplay keeps you in its world – looking at you once again, The Phantom Pain – but it’s quite another when that world is destroyed, leaving only a sour taste and a fourth wall that can’t be unbroken.
Far Cry 5 was developed by Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft Toronto, and is published by Ubisoft. It is available now for PS4, Xbox One and PC.