Far Cry 5 is a game caught between two extremes. It wants to retain the general audience action blockbuster tone of past installments. The freedom of exploring an open world full of challenges to complete. Villains oozing comic book-levels of fiendish excess. Colorful side characters. Crucial refinements to well-worn tropes in the series.
It also wants to be an incendiary look at the current political landscape. A harsh indictment and commentary on the militant doomsayers of the religious extreme. A humanistic look at conservative Americana uprooted by the paranoia of the far-right, and a close examination of the ideologies perpetuated by the Trump presidency.
While the developers have put a painstaking amount of effort into making this installment the most entertaining on a fundamental gameplay level, it is the mashing of these two extremes that noticeably hamper the rest of the experience thematically and tonally.
Cops and Zealots
Far Cry 5 starts strong. You play as a local deputy sent to arrest the leaders of a Christian-based cult known as Project at Eden’s Gate. But when your superiors try to take the leaders by force, things go sideways. Your allies are captured. Contact with the outside world is severed. Their militia has began taking land and people by force. No one is coming to help. It is up to you to rescue the people of Hope County, build up an underground resistance, and reinstate order.
Much like all prior entries in the series, the entire game’s map is open for you to explore. You have access to three distinct regions, each controlled by a different member of Joseph’s family. In order to progress the story, you simply must enter those areas and perform various tasks such as rescuing prisoners, taking down cult-occupied outposts, or doing missions for members of the resistance. Missions that usually include shooting some guns, blowing stuff up, or driving fast cars. Once a certain amount of these tasks are performed, you will trigger encounters by Joseph’s siblings, all meant to bring you one step closer to a final encounter with The Father.
In short, if you have played any other open-world adventure published by Ubisoft in the past decade or so, you know what you are in for with Far Cry 5.
There has been great strides in revising the formula. First, it cannot be understated just how fantastic the game looks and plays. The Dunia engine is put to great use making something as easily mundane as rural Montana look lively and inviting. Special mention must be given to the lighting and bloom effects as well, combined with some of the best shadow mapping I’ve seen makes this game look utterly gorgeous.
On the gameplay side, there have been some appreciated updates as well. Gone are the tedious radio tower climbs needed to get details on the map. Markers cluing you in to important locations and events are now displayed in small conservative doses instead of splattered all over the overworld map like a cupcake drowning in sprinkles. There’s also no mini-map, encouraging you to fully explore your surroundings. It all leads to a more inviting environment to get lost in, rather than a checklist of superficial fluff to mindlessly plow through.
All welcome changes that helps make the sandbox antics feel more exciting. I cannot count how many times I got into car chases in this game only to be run off the road, leading me to sprint through the woods looking for a new ride… only to be mauled by a cougar. Or a concerted infiltration of an outpost turn into gross spectacle by a grizzly bear showing up and mauling everyone. The first time attack planes started firing on me while I was modifying a truck, triggering an impromptu high speed pursuit, it was a clear sign that this game wanted every potential moment to escalate into gleeful action.
These water cooler moments even extend to the boss battles. Each one of the three major antagonists have distinct and exciting final stands. The closest thing to a low point was a pitched sniper duel in the woods with elder brother Jacob, while avoiding his trained pack of wolves.
Sadly, it’s this newfound dedication to action thrills that leads to some unwanted changes. Hunting animals is only used to make money, a crucial step back from using their parts to craft weapon holsters and other useful items. Those upgrades are now part of the game’s new skill tree, which somehow manages to be more open and restrictive at the same time. For example, being able to make pipe bombs and exploding arrows is a perk you have to earn, but you can casually make molotov cocktails and remote controlled plastic explosives from the start.
Far Cry 5 also has microtransactions. In addition to being able to buy weapons and vehicles with money earned in-game, you can spend real world dollars on a premium currency called Silver Bars. Given how generous the game is with money, this option can easily be ignored, but it does offer the temptation to just pay your way to a powerful weapon early on and just snooze through the rest of the story.
The worst change is health management. Far Cry has always had a segmented health system, you had to press a heal button to bandage yourself or forcibly pull bullets or glass from your body. It was the series’ signature approach to action and went a long way to make each gun battle that much more harrowing. But in this game, your health regenerates like any other first-person shooter. There are medical kits, but they mostly feel tacked on. Clearly it was done in service of making certain gun battles feel more high speed, but something crucial got lost in translation.
The real problems with Far Cry 5 has nothing to do with the gameplay, but rather what it is in service of. In the broad strokes, the plot reads like a dark yet weirdly campy take on the paranoid homeland invasion thriller. Red Dawn but with domestic terrorists holding heavily revised Bibles. This is cemented in the game’s opening moments. A frighteningly grounded documentary about how Project at Eden’s Gate slowly took over Hope County, scaring the locals. Then it displays a several stories tall concrete statue of Joseph Seed like a bizarro version of The Vatican.
If Far Cry 5 decided to maintain this level of audacity, it wouldn’t been a real problem; on par with sillier elements displayed in the franchise. The rest of the game even seems to lean in this direction with its content. The supporting cast has some level of endearing blue-collar sincerity. Every single support partner you can recruit toe the line between gritted seriousness and small town kitsch. The greatest example of the latter being a fully trained diabetic bear named Cheeseburger. The villains use cartoonish methods for recruiting and molding their soldiers, ranging from something as nasty as torture to as ludicrous as using a drug that turns regular people into mindless superslaves.
But Far Cry 5 also wants to be a game of the moment. Joseph Seed (played with unfettered intensity by Greg Bryk) keeps alluding to current events to justify himself. “You’ve seen the same news as I have, you know we are on the brink.” Most of your allies are anti-government doomsday preppers going on about how things have gone to crap. There’s even a side mission called “Make Hope Great Again” where you help a crotchety old man run for Senator by “violently gerrymandering” the cult out of certain districts.
But anything resembling a distinct prevailing theme is met with backpedaling. Characters will insult the President in hushed tones while in the same breath be thankful that the elite liberals didn’t take their guns. Certain questgivers believe everyone in office are lizard people, but there are also some woke people in the bunch making off color remarks about gender identity. This non-committal stance winds up muting a game that otherwise would be screaming from the top of its lungs about the dangers of extremism or radical isolationism. Leading to a thematic experience that somehow manages to spend a lot of time talking over itself to ultimately declare nothing meaningful. A sentiment all but confirmed when it comes to the game’s explosive and mean-spirited finale.
Keys To The Kingdom
If you are looking to Far Cry 5 for an engaging online experience, Ubisoft has you covered. In addition to there being an online Co-Op mode for the main campaign, the biggest selling point is Far Cry Arcade. A fully robust level editor where you can make full levels and share them online.
The shear variety on display is staggering. Levels can range from intense survival horror journeys through trap-filled caves, endurance challenges against waves of enemies, or even wacky distractions like having unlimited explosives with moon gravity on. You can even make competitive PvP maps with these tools, allowing for all sorts of unregulated mayhem.
My only major complaints with Far Cry Arcade come down to how these levels are curated and overall quality of the maps themselves. While the tools themselves offer a lot of creative possibilities, many of the maps that actively showed up during my sessions that were barely playable. There was an unbearable stretch where I was recommended multiple maps that literally could not be won. No reachable end goal. The final enemy could not be found. The nonsensical placement of buildings and enemy spawns leading to an incoherent mess. The list goes on.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t good levels made by talented people available. There are plenty. But the way these maps are curated is in desperate need of an overhaul.
At its most basic level, Far Cry 5 is a great time. The various elements of gunplay, stealth, driving, and exploring are still immediately gratifying. Despite losing a bit of its own identity in the process, it sports a thrilling twenty hour-long campaign, and the shear creative possibilities with Far Cry Arcade give it a potentially unlimited shelf life.
But with gaming constantly evolving in complexity in both narrative and real-world commentary, Ubisoft’s latest adventure feels like an artifact. Trying to say something profound and winds up toothlessly paying lip service, leading to a flat and hollow narrative.