Far Cry 5 Blends Minor Political Commentary With Predictable Fun
Far Cry 5, is the latest in Ubisoft‘s long-running franchise that stays true to the series’ trademark combination of adventure tourism and provocative ultra-violence. Where previous games cast you as action heroes on tropical islands or Himalayan villages in the throes of violent conflict against despots and dictators, Far Cry 5 is set in Montana. Hope County is a fictional region that plays like a greatest hits collection of America’s heartland: soothing rivers, scenic mountains, idealized farmland framed by dense forests.
Only that slice of Real America is in the throes of a religious doomsday cult, one that has taken over the region by force and trapped you, a lone deputy cut off from the outside world, within its borders. Now, it’s on you to fight back and build a resistance—the result of which is a masterwork of contradiction and tonal whiplash. Watch out for spoilers.
You play as a generic, faceless (but gendered!) rookie FBI agent, sent into the fictional Hope County, to arrest a sinister cult leader. The Project at Eden’s Gate is, on its face, a church led by the charismatic Joseph Seed, a man who believes the end of the world is coming and has begun amassing followers who will ride it out with him. Just prior to the game’s start, his cult has become hostile, abducting locals and brainwashing them with a drug called Bliss, closing off Hope County in a Cliven Bundy-esque standoff with the rest of the state. The game begins with your mission to arrest Seed going immediately awry, as an Eden’s Gate plant within law enforcement cuts you off from the world and the heavily-armed cult takes your team captive, and you barely escape alive. Rescued by a doomsday prepper named Daryl, he tasks you with the job of kickstarting Hope County‘s fledgeling resistance.
From here, Far Cry 5 stops being a story and starts being a video game, as it swiftly and succinctly introduces you to the way things work—namely, you complete missions and take out cult property in order to build a “resistance meter” in three regions—each controlled by one of Joseph Seed‘s lieutenants. Wreck stuff in a region for a few hours and that meter will max out, leading to a confrontation with the region’s lieutenant. Take out all three, and Joseph Seed himself will re-emerge for a final confrontation.
That’s only the spine of the game though. Far Cry 5, like most of the Far Cry games before it, exists primarily as a chaos engine built to power your first-person Rambo fantasy of taking on armies armed with a lot of guns and a little ingenuity. You can fly planes and helicopters, drive semis with machine guns strapped on; glide wearing a wingsuit; and command snipers, cougars, and attack dogs to watch your back. It’s fun in the way video games are, in that it gives you guns and a plethora of ways and reasons to use them. When you think about why, though, it all falls apart.
Far Cry 5 really wants you to believe it has something ballsy as hell to say. Its main narrative arc plays up the “Real Americans” of the heartland, the kind that pundits have eagerly invoked with regularity since Donald Trump was elected. It makes overtures towards religious fanaticism with the Eden’s Gate cult and makes explicit references to America‘s gun and prepper cultures. It wants you to think it’s timely and relevant, but also fun. Far Cry 5, however, is not merely dreaming up a scenario in which its fun to blow shit up in Montana. It wants you to think about this cult, the reasons people would join it: economic anxiety, a disconnect with and lack of faith in politicians, an increasingly hostile global climate. It jokes about pee tapes and liberals, but also sincerely monologues on the disenfranchisement and disillusionment that would lead someone to lose faith in their fellow man and simply commit to preparing for the end.
The rhetoric characters frequently discuss the end times from “the guys up top” and talk of “walls being built”, the attitude, it all reminds the player of America’s current Commander-in-Chief and the rise in hate groups since 2016. Yet, the game never seems to really ground itself in either harsh satire or commentary on today’s politics. Of course, Far Cry 5 was likely in pre-production before the result of the 2016 election so perhaps it’s unrealistic to assume its insights could amount to more than gentle ribbing. Yet the game also feels incredibly safe. It never forces the player to identify with the cult members or people under Joseph’s spell. No insight is gained on why people fall for charismatic leaders despite their impossible promises or how the hierarchy of a cult really works. In fact, it’s implied that most cult members are just brainwashed into believing everything Eden’s Gate preaches as opposed to any real beliefs.
To say that Far Cry 5 has a story is maybe a little on the generous side. It has a setup. It has a setting. It has a cast of ancillary, caricatured support characters. However, there’s an intrinsic and transparent artifice to the whole affair that really drains that roster of any cohesive feel and the overall narrative of any tangible impact. The story here feels more game-like and contrived than it ought to be. There’s a “reason” you can’t go after Seed right from the get-go – but it’s never rarely a convincing one.
Frustratingly though, it’s so easy to see past that and gaze into the tantalizing possibility space of what this game could be. Games like Wolfenstein: The New Colossus and Mafia 3 arrived with a willingness to explore the darker side of the American psyche that paid huge dividends. Breaking from the tradition of the usual exoticism of the series’ past to explore modern-day America should, in theory, serve to give the hyper-violent adventure tourism of Far Cry more nuanced and meaty set of ideas to play with. Unfortunately, the exact opposite proves to be the case.
That said, despite these larger narrative issues that picked away at me during my time with the game, Far Cry 5 still manages to be a lot of fun. Sure, it relies on the same formula as the last couple of games but – for the most part – it’s still solid formula with reliably fun results.
You simply pick a direction and (eventually) you’ll either run into an objective or an objective will run into you. There are shrines to destroy, convoys to ambush, VIPs to assassinate, hostages to rescue, loot stashes to find and outposts to capture. Far Cry 5 offers up a greatest hits list of open world mission objectives tied together as seamlessly as possible with little – if any – tower-climbing involved. The world around you looks nice enough, though it lacks the depth and detail found in certain other Far Cry games. Still, there’s a solid sense of tone and style a lot of which can be easily attributed to the game’s soundtrack. The world doesn’t quite feel alive but it does feel fun to explore.
While Far Cry 5 does start out as a solo affair, you’ll quickly unlock specialists and mercenaries who you can call in to help when the going gets tough or just enlist as companions you can roll around with. Initially, the options here are pretty straightforward and conventional (male merc with a machine gun, female merc with a bow, etc) but it doesn’t take long for the game to rev up the crazy. Before long, you can call in air support from a helicopter-pilot and sic a pet cougar on unsuspecting cultists.There’s even a mutant bear named Cheeseburger.
If there’s any clear weakness to the accelerating sense of chaos – it’s that the game can often feel a little forced in how quickly it escalates things. Your first hour or so with the game is a time of trepidation. Quietly creeping around the forest, relying on the element of surprise to triumph over superior odds. Hiding from passing helicopters, planes and supply trucks and always, always avoid the main road. Only a few hours later, though you and your posse could blow away scores of enemies without taking so much as a hit. The gunplay in Far Cry 5 feels super-forgiving at times, a bit more arcade-like than expected. Enemies are quite generous about how long they take to aim up each of their attacks. Meanwhile, the weapon variety – initially quite vanilla – escalates so fast it all feels a bit meaningless. Rocket launchers lay around like trash and even novelty weapons like the flamethrower are practically showered upon you as you steadily fill up the progress bar for each region. It’s more like a theme park than a safari.
Over the 15-25 hours it will probably take you to get through Far Cry 5, the game touches on a lot of different things. However, the story here doesn’t really have remotely-meaningful anything to say about cults, doomsday preppers, private militias, drugs, religion, polarized-politics, economic anxiety, gun violence, rural life or even America in the most general of senses. It’s all set dressing. In fact, the only thing it really comes down hard against is evil doomsday cults who get high on drugs and murder anyone in their way – and that’s a description that isn’t all that far from the character you yourself are playing as.
Video games based on violence often necessitate a certain amount of cognitive dissonance but it feels like Far Cry 5 takes that quality to a strange and sometimes disconcerting extreme. It desperately wants to be seen as this relentlessly-chaotic sandbox filled with emergent experiences but also this finely-crafted and provocative narrative that puts a fresh coat of paint on a franchise that feels like it might just be starting to repeat itself.
Far Cry 5 is a game that tries to have its cake and eat it too—a thing that games are, historically, pretty good at doing, simply because they’re video games. Video games don’t have to be morally unimpeachable, but the ideas that a game wants to be taken seriously should be taken seriously. And Far Cry 5 falls aon the disingenuous side, that wants the intellectual validation that comes with a good provocative political statement, but doesn’t walk the walk.