Crysis of Faith
Far Cry 5 takes the longstanding first-person shooter franchise in a brave and inventive new direction. Gone are the endless waves of cookie cutter, cannon fodder enemies. Gone are the annoyingly larger than life supporting characters; cartoon imbeciles, peddling questionable objectives whilst showing little to no concern for the deathly chaos encircling them. And gone is the irreverent sense of humour that has underpinned recent entries to the series; making way for a more somber tone that appropriately underlines the dark imagery and themes found throughout the subtle and nuanced narrative.
So… that was the opening paragraph that I hoped I would be able to write when reviewing Ubisoft’s latest triple-A juggernaut. Far Cry 5’s grand unveiling last year seemed to tease something of a watershed moment. Could we see a more mature approach to storytelling, allowing for some hot and sexy social commentary on the back of the seemingly endless political turmoil gripping the United States (not to mention much of the Western world)?
It always seemed like a stretch…
Personally, I mostly hoped for a slower paced game. One that shared the beautifully designed worlds and gratifying gunplay of its forbearers whilst also allowing time for the player to breathe, to digest the artistry on display, and to enjoy some much needed negative space between the game’s trademark action encounters and honey badger ambushes.
Others hoped that an utterly corporate French video game development powerhouse would finally lift the lid on the grand neo-Christian, politically hard right, conspiracy gripping the USA and subjugating her populace – challenging once and for all the myth that the middle-East holds a monopoly on theocratic fascism (if you think Helmand is bad, you should visit Montana, apparently).
With the release of Far Cry 5, both our hopes have been severely dashed.
Anyone who hoped for a more of the same approach will likely be delighted. The endless enemy hordes, the poor man’s Grand Theft Auto cast, and the inconsistent (yet consistently unfunny) attempts at humour are all present with plenty to spare. This is very much the next logical step for a prototypical Far Cry game, albeit one unshackled from the now ancient hardware of the PS360 era which Far Cry 4 sensibly supported.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend the first few hours of my Far Cry 5 experience feeling disappointed. The game does have the best opening sequence that I’ve seen since 2017’s brilliant, Prey. A tense and beautifully rendered few minutes that have our silent protagonist (a US Marshall, no less) swooping in on a cultist compound, looking to take its enigmatic leader (Joseph Seed) into custody. The scene creates a palpable sense of dread and portrays the Project at Eden’s Gate cult as a well equipped yet isolated group, fiercely loyal to Seed.
Shit then truly hits the fan and the player soon finds themselves participating in a highspeed car chase, shooting guns and throwing explosives at cars, trucks, quad bikes, and planes (yes, planes). It’s a gear shift that doesn’t really ease for the remaining 30 or so hours that it takes to complete the story and acts as a harsh awakening for anyone who thought that Far Cry 5 wouldn’t share 3 & 4’s outright action-heavy focus.
40 hours later and I’ve completed the campaign, along with a generous helping of the optional side content. My initial disappointment was well founded – I still think that there’s a moodier, more intelligent, more relevant experience brewing below the surface. In a post-Player Unknown Battlegrounds / Breath of the Wild / GTA Online world, Far Cry’s beautiful and vast engine is kind of wasted on something as archaic as a cinematic, narrative focused first-person shooter.
Yes, the reigns are loosened considerably when compared to previous entries, with the player given far more agency when it comes to earning upgrades and the exact sequencing of story progression. But I couldn’t help thinking throughout my time in Hope County – what if these extremely talented developers didn’t need to worry about marrying their incredibly fun and dynamic sandbox with this convoluted narrative which insists on taking control from the player so often just to deliver forgettable (at best) exposition? Oh well. Maybe next time.
Putting my personal wants for the series/genre aside – what I can very happily say is that with each passing hour I spent taking over encampments, skulking through darkened woods, landing desperate headshots, throwing dynamite at bears, and generally being a one man (or woman, actually) murder machine – I enjoyed Far Cry 5 rapidly more and more. Yes, the game is evolutionary vs revolutionary, but the way in which Ubisoft has smoothed the edges and geared nearly every element of this game to embolden the player and heighten the sense of sheer fun is a triumph. Little things such as having the dull-eyed mission givers provide a one-line summary of what’s required should the player choose to skip their agonising diatribes make a tangible difference. Ubisoft knows that players just want to get out into the world and greases the wheels intelligently.
The combat in Far Cry is superb, which is a relief as, surprise surprise, it’s what you’ll spend most of your time doing. Guns feel weighty and your shots have a decent sense of impact. Standard enemies won’t withstand more than a couple of hits from even the most basic of hardware, which helps to counter their sheer numbers and also adds a layer of realism that was missing from Ubi’s other big shooter – The Division. Landing a headshot from half a mile away can feel godly, multiply this tenfold when the head in question is piloting a vehicle of some sort. The terrain is littered with items that have a tendency to explode (all an appropriate shade of red, of course… zzZZzzzzZZZzz), which can help or hinder in equal measure but never fails to add to the awesome Hollywood action movie vibe.
The player’s chances are further bolstered by an assortment of support characters who all bring a unique potential advantage to each confrontation. There are nine in total, gradually unlocking as the game progresses and the player completes key missions. A maximum of two can come along for the ride (quite literally when driving/flying), with my personal preference being to bring along a moody sniper lady who could make crack shots on demand from a distance (think Quiet from MGSV) along with an enthusiastic pilot chap who would lend air support including dropping bombs and fending off pesky planes/choppers.
The final pillar of Far Cry’s exemplary combat is the perk system. Nothing mind-blowing here in terms of implementation but the sense of the player becoming an ever-increasing threat is as good as it’s ever been. Perks are locked behind a point system, small numbers of which being awarded in line with set challenge criteria (think – kill X bad guys with a shotgun, skin X wolves etc) replacing the more traditional steady flow of XP and level-gating. Basic utilities such as increased weapon slots and improved health capacity can be purchased, along with more game-changing abilities such as being able to airdrop above any of the world’s many discoverable fast-travel points – a skill which when combined with the fan favourite wingsuit makes for an extremely effective mode of transport, letting you zig-zag across the sizeable map at a decent clip.
The sheer scope of tactical options available to players in Far Cry 5 is second to none, which in conjunction with the silky smooth Dunia Engine rivals Destiny in terms of delivering consistently responsive and rewarding firefights.
All of the above elements combine to make for routinely thrilling encounters, especially when it comes to completing Outpost missions. Outposts, now considered a Far Cry staple, are essentially enemy bases which require the player to infiltrate and completely clear of enemy forces. Both stealthy and offensive approaches are viable, and I tended to settle on a hybrid approach – sneaking in solo to deactivate alarms as my support team waited out of sight until things inevitably went awry. The largescale battles that followed were almost always memorable, with the fantastic soundtrack kicking in at just the right moments and the highly emergent nature of Far Cry’s world dealing out just as many close shave victories as frustrating and/or hilarious defeats.
It’s absolutely worth noting what a technical showpiece Far Cry 5 is – especially on PC (not to take anything away from the impressive console versions). Large budget Ubisoft games tend to enjoy their fair share of technical polish and this is by no means an exception. Everything from the gorgeous main menu and loading screens to the luscious audio mix and score look and sound incredible.
In action, the game is a joy to behold – rural America is framed in a hyper-realistic aesthetic which begs the player to put down their barb wired baseball bat and take in the view. Gorgeously realised woodlands, rivers, crops, towns and more, merge into one of the best-looking environments seen in video games to date. Red Dead 2 actually has some early competition to consider when it comes to this kind of world building. Impressive stuff.
It’s from above that Hope County can be seen in all its glory, which neatly brings me to a standout moment that occurred during a high-altitude dogfight (the flight engine is great, by the way). I had aggressively chased an enemy plane so far into the air that we hit that world’s limits, causing both our engines to cut out at the exact same moment. Both pointed dead upwards, our respective craft stood silent and stationary for a brief moment as our propellers came to a halt. We then tumbled gracefully in and out of each other against a gorgeous blue sky, with the trees and roads mere specks below until our engines spluttered back to life and our fight to the death resumed. It clearly wasn’t scripted (or at least didn’t appear to be) and was just one of many strikingly beautiful moments which punctuated the otherwise endless hours of pure carnage.
And it’s in these kinds of moments that Far Cry 5 can really shine. Yes, it’s a more than competent shooter, but we’ve got plenty of them. Really, it’s all about the unexpected and seemingly random moments. The moments when the game’s mechanics suddenly click and spit out something awe-inspiring – something worth investing dozens of hours to experience. Whether it’s downing an attack helicopter at night with a desperate throw of your last Molotov cocktail, or being close to death as a group of rabid zealots approach – when suddenly a pissed off cougar (we’ve all been there) jumps into the mix, tears someone’s face off, and creates enough confusion for you to either run away or mount a comeback. Or shooting an explosive barrel to kill one measly enemy only to have the resulting fire spread uncontrollably and send half a dozen friendly AI dullards to video game heaven. Good wholesome fun.
Seed and his cohorts are an unsurprisingly eclectic bunch. Their cult borrows heavily from the Evangelical strain of Christianity, with dashes of the Manson family, hypnotic/moronic self-help gurus, and other modern American phenomena such as the disturbingly odd and morbid, Heaven’s Gate. Three of Joseph Seed’s underlings hold dominion over fairly equal sections of Hope County – with each growing increasingly impatient with your interference, culminating in a final confrontation once you’ve completed a set amount of objectives. The most notable of these adversaries is Faith – a young, beautiful, and clearly brainwashed girl who, like some knockoff DC villain, uses hallucinogenic plants to turn her entire section of the map into a trippy, feverish, dreamscape. It’s fairly uninteresting stuff but does manage to mix up the gameplay a little versus the more conventional areas, with the player never really certain of what is and isn’t real. The other two sub-bosses are your typical sadistic beardy men with a penchant for torture and proclamations, there’s little to explore here.
Joseph Seed himself is as charismatic and well constructed as you’d now expect from a big-bad in Far Cry – constantly walking a thin line between pious conman and murderous demi-god, right up to the game’s ambiguous conclusion. Overall the group works well as a foil for the player’s heroics and adds a moderately creepy undertow to rally against.
Ultimately, there’s also plenty to criticise about Far Cry 5. The story is cliche-filled and quickly loses its edge, control is taken away from the player far too often – with each of the three secondary atagonists capturing our hapless hero multiple times, non-player characters joke and bark idiotic nothings in complete contrast to the dire setting, leaps of logic are rampant (why oh why doesn’t the player just escape the county to find help? And how doesn’t anyone from the outside world notice a bonified civil war kicking off in small town USA? … #VideoGames), the final boss fight is strangely low key and the end sequence is baffling (but kind of cool) with little payoff… the list goes on.
But none of these gripes really matter in the face of such a fun and open-ended sandbox that looks this good and plays this well. All the chatter around if the game is ‘political enough’ is largely the result of an unforced error by Ubisoft that I’m sure they’ll never risk repeating. It’s also quite a depressing indictment of our social climate that we would actively look to something as innocuous and disposable as a Far Cry game, of all things, for our political musings but here we are, I guess
I came into Far Cry 5 feeling like the series had already peaked and confident that without major changes I’d likely drop off early. Fortunately, Ubisoft proved me wrong and have mustered what I now consider to be a clear high point for the franchise. That’s not to say that they won’t need to be more ambitious next time, and I’d still like to see them fully embrace the sandbox nature of the games over these increasingly nonsensical narratives. But it’s a testament to Far Cry 5’s quality that I’m now excited about future installments. That said – with baked in end-to-end co-op, the potentially awesome Far Cry Arcade suite, and multiple upcoming DLC packages akin to the much-loved spinoff game, Blood Dragon, on the horizon – it’s likely that we won’t be wanting for Far Cry content from now until… the end of the world.