Far Cry 5 review
Far Cry is complicated. That’s the point of Far Cry. The series had a weird start (including off-shoot games where maybe you become a cat monster? No, we needn’t talk about those). But from there, Far Cry becomes a series about destabilized regions and how there is no clear way forward for any brutally politicized region that doesn’t ruin lives for generations.
I dunno. Here we are. This is entertainment.
Far Cry has done an incredible job at raising the bar on the concept of Bad People. From Far Cry 2 onward, you get to play the game of toss-up regarding whether you’re the worst person or if you’re the Worst Person while deciding how you want to rate the evil around you. I’m not dismissing this, it’s just that Far Cry now has a Bioshock streak of “here’s something too complicated for games to take on.” But instead, this round of the series has me asking what was intended. The scope and scale of this game’s seemingly obvious political targets seem easy to tackle; and yet, the mark has been missed so fully that I’m scratching my head.
In Far Cry 5, you take on the role of an anonymous police officer out to arrest Joseph Seed. Seed runs a cult out of a small town in Montana and has, by virtue of his lack of virtue, built an entire state in revolt. Eden’s Gate is his cult, and with three direct subordinates, he has delegated control of a gigantic area that wants you dead. The Whitetail Militia represents the few people in this area who resist Eden’s call, and you’re expected to help tear apart Seed’s family and their control over this gigantic region.
You do the normal Far Cry work here. You dismantle enemy bases piecemeal and you race vehicles and survive animal attacks and steal anything that is not tied down. The Far Cry series has alway thrived on being a direct focus on a destabilized third-world country. Perhaps that’s why it was such a shock to its audience that the fifth installment would take place in the grand U.S. of A. It is remarkably easy to adapt all of the same game formulas from fictional failing countries to a very real location in a very real modern political climate.
This is the part of the review that feels like I need to just lean into the franchise expectations. Yeah, it’s a Far Cry game and yeah, it has the traditional Ubisoft Game Problems. Much like an Assassin’s Creed, this is just a plague of gigantic map meets a million small details and to-do’s. It’s so much busy work that, all other criticism aside, how would you even find priorities in what to handle here? Where do you find time to find the story in Far Cry 5? I still don’t know. But you poach animal hides and you try to save prisoners from roaming gangs of bad guys and with some frequency you take on small adventures that are just regular non-narrative based adventures… or side-quests where you try to find aliens. Who knows? Everything you could do in a first person video game is included, a dozen times over.
Much of this made more sense in a game like Far Cry 3, where you were an adrenaline junkie frat boy on Spring Break who wasn’t sure where he fit in the universe. Sure, man, hang-glide wherever you want. That’s trill. You’re a baller. If you want to crash a plane into a drug factory and then jump into a hovercraft while getting drunk… you know, good on you? It was video game “gameplay” expectation that resulted in you falling up into helping oppressed populations. Anyway, that was my first draw into the Far Cry series: a satirical twist on the hero’s journey refusal that winds up being a surfboard you ride directly into Hell; and by extension, the appreciation of a complicated culture.
So what is Far Cry 5 and what is it trying to do? From the opening moments, you build a character and set both their sex (with a binary choice) and then their skin color. I…. Look, I don’t do this without extreme reservation but I’m positive that there’s no better comparison than the Family Guy meme on the left.
When you start up Far Cry 5, you can give your character a skin tone, and I swear to God it is this same palette of six colors. I hate that I knew what it was referencing (maybe) but I hate even more that I live in a world where this reference could have a real base. And here’s the worst part: your skin color choice does not (to the best of my knowledge) affect how characters treat you in the game. Not only is that a missed opportunity, but it also means that last year’s South Park tie-in game, which made the game more difficult for non-white characters, had a more interesting take on the concept than freaking Far Cry. Not a better handling, but at least there was a handling?
Far Cry 5 builds the narrative basis of its White Nationalist occupied world on an idea that is hammered into the player, via every interaction with the Normal Type Folks that still occupy the land. The idea is basically that a mix of fear and/or not paying attention to small fringe forces eventually leads to a tipping point, from which there is no return. “I have a kid on the way… was I supposed to stand up to them?” is a pretty common NPC refrain. It’s an entire game based on the idea that our government cannot protect people but that this also depends on the government reflecting people and at some point silence allows darkness -- and then none of your formal/historical structures of protection can function. That’s why you’re building a resistance, even though you’re a police officer: the most obvious stand-in for structural law and order imaginable.
The problem is that Far Cry 5 wants you to have that side of its philosophy, but it also wants to endear you to the world of Good Ole Boys that you’ve come to infiltrate. It’s…. God, it’s just incredibly frustrating for me to write about and put my finger on. There’s a dozen gameplay points that sell this, but the personal experiences of my life sums it up quicker? This is a game that gives you mini-missions and side quests and constant opportunities to hang out with the hicks that you went to high school with who still love four-wheelin’ and blowin’ things up for the sake of blowin’ things up. But no one ever lets you ask them about their politics. And in a gigantic setting where everything has gone murder-apocalypse because no one checked in on what their drinkin’ buddies were up to --- THIS IS KIND OF IMPORTANT.
A brief aside here: This is also more a game about Christianity than it is about cults or White Nationalism. Your car radios mostly blast praise music that is so on point that it sends memory shivers down my spine. But here, too, the game feels afraid to commit fully to naming names when it comes to the target of its ire. There is an African American minister who is a part of your resistance, but the two of you rarely discuss what about his faith is different than the Christian doctrine of the cult. Where was he when all of this went down? What were his parishioners doing that allowed the cult to rise and how many of them were already on a similar path to redemption?
As you’ve come to expect from Far Cry, there’s of course a hallucinogenic flower in this region that can be adapted into a potent drug. Far Cry 5 goes the extra step, and gives the drug a bullet delivery form that allows the cult to drug you and baptise you. Yup, big ole evil hillbilly baptism -- that’s a thing. But it also shows normal people being taken, under the influence, and converted to this religion. That’s not The Point, guys. The Point is that all of these people were willing participants in this cult because they were religious. The Point is that the cult exists because these Americans had the agency to choose this path. The cut into that agency by saying “well, some of them were drugged and converted” is pretty gosh darn close to declaring that there “were excellent people on both sides.”
The tonal whiplash from start to finish is just so confusing to me? Far Cry 5 wants to tackle some of the most important religious and philosophical issues of our time but also I can hire a grizzly bear named Cheeseburger to come help me murder Bad Christian Gunboys. That’s right. You heard me right. A bear… named Cheeseburger… helped me spill blood in a church. That’s either Wacky Fun or Super Messed Up but it cannot exist at any point in between -- simply because no one thought about what any of this means.
The disconnect between fun and meaning is just on display from start to finish here. Side quests have you doing Wacky Fun Video Game Things and then a story quest will require you to take on Some Painful Emotional Weight and there’s simply no line between the two. Wolfenstein 2 just showed the world how to handle complicated, modern political satire while also being an incredible gameplay experience. Far Cry 5 feels like someone either sanded the edges off a really important game, or that someone put a few fake Christmas reindeer horns onto a title that was fairly nondescript. The later feels unlikely, because the game was willing to take on its location. So… what are we doing?
There are practical things to bring up to make this a full review. Many of the Far Cry progression systems have been streamlined but also, like, an assault rifle and a bow & arrow occupy the same spot on the weapons wheel so you can only carry one at a time. The radio towers are gone, which I was surprised to miss, and replaced by just… y’know, wandering around? You can also hire co-op partners, including men with guns and the aforementioned bear for some reason.
The general video games-ness of the entire world seems to detract from the experience. For example, a woman I hired in game to by my mercenary co-op buddy (Yes, women can be mercenaries too) wound up dying and having her arm glitch into the door of my car. Wherever I drove the car, her body was dragged but she was also screaming (even though she was dead) and the game thought I was hitting her against an invisible wall so blood kept exploding out of her. It was one of the most disturbing glitches I have ever encountered in a game, and it comes directly from the game-y part of the engine this world was built on. Ubisoft wants you to have big mindless fun with this, but if you’re trying this hard to force fun on me then it is very easy to see the mistakes between the lines.
Beyond that, the Season Pass content wants to dive into Far Cry: Blood Dragon territory by taking us to Mars and zombie wars and Vietnam for some reason? That looks more exciting than the main game, because on Vietnam Mars I don’t have to think about what we’re messing up politically by even participating in the game. The Arcade Made also offers a robust set of map editing tools, so some of my favorite moments from the game have come from the user created maps that have no rhyme or reason to why they are as delightfully narratively complicated as you might expect. My first map “Upside Down” (above) is basically just a level from Alan Wake and there was no combat. I’m…. I’m just really excited to see what happens in this space? It might be worth the price of admission for the game.
But here’s the big end-note criticism bow: In the last few Far Cry games, your character’s story has been what propels you forward. Whether you were the heir to a country or a naive college kid-- you had a purpose and you fulfilled that purpose, no matter how you went about it. That’s the problem with Far Cry 5: you have no identity. You’re an unnamed police deputy whose past and future do not matter. In a game that is overwhelmingly about sins and the history of sins, giving your player-character a non-weighted cypher with no distinguishing features is otherworldly terrible storytelling. And look: we’ve seen it go very poorly before. Sure, I don’t want to place myself in the shoes of Bioshock Infinite's protagonist because, my god, I don’t have his demons. But there was no place in this game for me to fill in the blanks or make any part of this apply to me. Instead, a brutal religious stronghold and their desire to cleanse me actually accomplished the goal. Because no one has any boundaries, or even details, every step of the story remakes my character in the images of my antagonists.
Far Cry 5 is the story of the bad guys and not me. It doesn’t matter how much I fight back if, at the end of the story, I’m not a person.
There’s no soul to clean when you’re soulless.