It is nigh on impossible to miss the marketing for a video game release. Hardcore fans will seek out every trailer and interview scattered across the internet, cherry-picking the scant details like a magpie at a shiny rock. Most players might see a trailer or a review, or at the very least, pick up the box and see a couple screenshots. This marketing is designed to grab your attention, to make a declaration of what you’ll experience, and hopefully encourage you to buy the Super Limited Gold Platinum Mega Edition™. Put simple, the marketing speaks to a player, and encourages their purchase. The final product and the communication from publisher and developer is intricately interwoven, and difficult to separate.
Why is this important? Because the marketing for Far Cry 5 was ambitious, messy and contradictory. The initial pitch for the game made in May of 2017 was one of modern day religious cults, MAGA fears and domestic insurrectionists. It was a particularly barbarous presentation as the world grappled with the six month anniversary of Trump’s America. Whether by design or unlucky happenstance, their initial pitch would appear to have boldly asked for painful American introspection.
Within two months, the tone had changed. The presentation at E3 2017 was one of the chaos of previous Far Cry multiplayer outings. The difficult representations of modern America were gone, replaced with 1980’s cartoon cariacatures: The rootin’ tootin’ pilot! The sassy sniper! The Dog! Following a delay, the game that was finally released by Ubisoft is a bizarre hybrid of both worlds. Littered with disparate elements that don’t quite mesh, the game is a whole that is less than the sum of its parts.
It starts so strong, with such an inescapably eerie tone. You play a rookie Deputy in the fictional Hope County, Montana. Fanatical, militaristic, doomsday cult-leading Joseph Seed has been served with a warrant for his arrest, and you’re here to take him in. Despite his voluntary surrender, the cult attacks, and the collapse of the world to his loyal followers is proclaimed. Seed escapes, your team is taken and the player is thrust into an extremist American nightmare.
Hope County is divided into three main regions, ruled over by Seed’s “family”, acting as his lieutenants. Completing a region leads to a face-off with the lieutenant, and when all three are finished, the player can confront Seed and complete their mission. Simple premise and a scary opener. All good so far.
Gameplay remains largely similar to previous Far Cry titles, with a few notable tweaks thrown around. Gone are the traditional viewpoint towers that reveal the key points on the players map; now these are discovered through the environment itself. Roadsigns and collectible magazines will automatically fill in fishing spots and hiking trails when they come into view. Talking to civilians and listening to the radios will reveal persons of interest, and locations under attack by the fanatical cultists (colloquially called “Peggies”). This creates a far more organic sense of exploration and discovery, giving the player a reason to explore every boarded up house for an errant answering machine message that could reveal a bountiful Prepper Stash.
These Prepper Stashes are where Far Cry 5 shines most. With a bountiful reward of skill points, cash, craftables and weaponry waiting at the end of each, they’re essential to the player to search out and complete as soon as possible. They best resemble the Shrines from 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild; small micro-dungeons of sorts, allowing the developers to play with a number of different concepts and ideas. Some are simple: A locked door needs a passkey which is hidden behind a maze. Some are more complex, like the flooded room that required draining, or a booby-trapped gauntlet. There’s sniper rifle accuracy challenges, speed tests, grapple races and wild animal hunts, all designed to test the player in a new and original way. They’re genuinely exciting to discover, a unique challenge that takes advantage of the many strengths of Far Cry 5’s diverse range of gameplay.
For better or worse, at its core Far Cry 5 is still a Far Cry game. There’s dozens of weapons to try to stealthily (or very non-stealthily) murder every Peggie for a dozen square miles. Boats, helicopters, wingsuits, ziplines, hunting – there’s still a hell of a lot of #content for the player to explore and fiddle about with to their hearts content, either solo or in co-op.
Playing with a friend is clearly the best way to experience Far Cry 5. Games are almost always best experienced with a friend, and the combined chaos you can get up to in a twosome lets you have buckets of fun. If you’re playing solo, however, there’s been a couple of smart alterations to help. The player can have up to two helper NPC’s follow them around and take rudimentary orders to relieve some of the burden off your Deputy’s shoulders. Almost every NPC can be recruited to help out, but you’ll want to take one of the nine named characters spread throughout the world instead. Complete a little mission and you’ll have access to a better tier of help, each focused on a different school of combat. Snipers, demolition guys, helicopter pilots and bears can be quickly interchanged to help you best take care of an evolving battlefield. They’re great fun, and varied enough to work in almost any context. It’s a great addition that helps smooth the difficulty difference between solo and co-op.
Not all the changes are great. The new style of progression system is a marked disappointment compared to the traditional XP-bar style approach of the previous Far Cry titles. Completing objectives and killing important cultists now serves to progress the story, whilst completing pseudo-achievements rewards the player with skill points. The tasks are simple, and mundane: take ten headshots, or kill forty cultists with a rifle. Once they’re ticked off, that’s it – no need to use that weapon or that combat style anymore. A similar system from Wolfenstein: The New Colossus encouraged players to branch into new combat styles by giving them valuable rewards and new combat mechanics as a result. In Far Cry 5, there’s probably only seven or eight skills you’ll actually want off the unimpressive tech tree that’s presented, reducing the players desire to seek out the remaining challenges. Bizarrely, mechanics like the parachute and the vehicle repair torch are handed out by picking their skills, rather than by some story beat. Acquiring a new skill felt dull and underpowered, rather than exciting. It’s a step backwards, and hopefully won’t carry forward into the inevitable Far Cry 6.
The regional progression bar is a smart way to let players engage in the content they want to on the way to completing their mission, but it’s ruined with one of the most boneheaded gameplay solutions I’ve ever seen. Each region has it’s own progression bar, with a pip at every third on the bar. As you ratchet up the resistance in the local area and reach one of the pips, the lieutenant responds with increased pressure of their own: more armed Peggies on the roads, and more aerial recon units tracking you across the land. It’s a smart tug-of-war of power between you and them, as you wrestle control of Hope County back for the people. This is accompanied by a threat that they’re going to capture you, and after a little while you’ll inevitably be captured and taken to meet your maker. No matter what you’re doing, they’ll pluck you away for a forced story mission and another five minute long cutscene of crazed rambling. The missions are long, and repetitive, and impossible to ignore: once I was “captured” after I killed all the attacking Peggies, in the middle of a friendly militia base. Once, I was “captured” 3500m in the air on a parachute. They are a dark stain that ruins large parts of Far Cry. I absolutely despise the change.
It doesn’t help that the narrative is thoroughly unengaging, and most if not all of the characters simply are not worth your time to engage with. This is where the true problem with Far Cry 5 lies: for a game set in contemporary America that clearly draws from current fears and references modern politics, it has absolutely nothing to say. The entire game is drenched in whataboutism, too afraid to make a stand for anything. Militant occupation, radical Christianity and racism surround the player on all sides, but they’re set dressing: there’s no greater point to their inclusion. It’s not that the world view has been sanitized, instead there just simply isn’t one. I’ve never seen a piece of media that stumbles over itself to set up a world and then ignores it. A friend joked that it was as if the mansion from Home Alone was set up, but the burglars left before any of the traps could go off. It feels cowardly, and hollow.
The four lead villains all fail to connect as a result. Vaas and Pagan Min from Far Cry 3 and 4 respectively were charismatic and deeply troubled, but your engagement with them was satisfying. By forcibly dragging the player into a story mission nine times, the player never develops the goodwill with any of the characters on their own, and once you’re done with each region, you’re done with that character. They’re both oversaturated and underserved, whch is a bizarre mix. Joseph Seed is as close as you’ll get to a character you’ll want to engage with, but you see so little of him that it’s all for naught.
Far Cry 5 left me hollow. Maybe it wasn’t there at all, but if the initial reveal from May 2017 was discarded along the way then what they replaced it with was nothing. The remaining story is so milquetoast and uninteresting that there’s nothing for the player to connect with outside of the running and shooting, and that wears thin well before the end of the 30-ish hour campaign. The crazed ending will leave the internet doused in hot takes for years to come, but that and a couple of gameplay tweaks don’t add up to a whole experience worth your time. If you want mindless co-op fun with a friend you’ll have a good time, but do yourself a favour and play with the game on mute.