Far Cry 5 is more effective — and relevant — than it knows

, | Game reviews

I don’t hate the cultists in Far Cry 5 because they’ve brainwashed their followers, stockpiled firearms, bought up all the property, co-opted law enforcement agencies, dumped toxic waste into clean rivers, and installed a right-wing theocracy. Whatever. Cultists gonna cult. I hate them because they’re interrupting Ubisoft’s best open world since Far Cry 2.

I’ve come here to shoot, fish, drive around, blow shit up, and pet a mountain lion. I’m delighted with these parts of Far Cry 5. What a fantastic place to pursue happiness and bear arms, among this rogue’s gallery of people doing the same thing. But then I’m drugged and dragged into a mandatory cutscene.

Some people want their open worlds as smooth as ice cream, as consistent as a Slurpee, as familiar as a Happy Meal. They want sandboxes with less sand and more playground furniture. The bottom of the slide leads to the monkey bars which end at the fort which has a doorway to the merry-go-round, which is between the see-saw and the swings. One after the other after the other. They’re here to have fun, dammit. Downtime is not fun. Poorly written storylines are not fun. Mandatory cutscenes about characters they don’t care about aren’t fun. I can understand that. What’s fun is action that never lets up. When that kind of design is done well, you get a Saints Row.

For the most part, Far Cry 5 is that kind of design. The emergent chaos along these rural roads is glorious. The action can be as constant as you want. The bottom of a wing suit dive leads to the car chase which ends at the liberation of an outpost which has a doorway to a prepper’s stash, which is between the mission to unlock a new follower and the mission to unlock the semi with machine guns mounted on the fenders. Helicopters are falling out of the sky. Angry bears are charging out of the woods. Here comes a truckful of rednecks to help one side or the other. Oh, look, someone brought a rocket launcher. If there’s one thing Ubisoft knows, it’s filling worlds with stuff to do, with things that happen, with drop-dead gorgeous landscapes as a backdrop.

But then I have to take a bliss bullet, which is how Ubisoft explains the plot-based interruptions. An unseen sniper drugs me — only after I’ve finished my current mission, thankfully — and I’m dropped into one of those “oooh, scary psychopath!” cutscenes Ubisoft can do in their sleep. A leering bad guy monologues into the camera while tormenting someone I’m supposed to care about. I don’t, mainly because I was busy caring about the well-written characters out there in the open world. But now I have to fight, alone, through some tunnels. Or I have to play a timed obstacle course. Or I have to hope my med kits hold up during a turret sequence on rails. Or I have to plod through a non-interactive dreamscape in which the run button has been disabled. I was playgrounding in an evocative swath of Americana, having a grand time, and now I’m waiting for cinematics to end or I’m grinding away at scripting. It’s the emotional equivalent of enjoying the wheat-golden palette of an uplifting John Cougar Mellencamp video and then cutting to a ponderous screed from Kevin Smith’s godawful Red State.

But here’s the thing about this obligatory half-assed hate building:

It works.

I genuinely don’t like these cultists. Not in the way I don’t like Darth Vader, Joker, Hans Gruber, or other iconic villains we love to hate to love. These cultists are annoying and tedious. I honestly want them out of my game. I feel strongly about them, which is more than I can say about 99% of the people I kill in videogames. When I was shunted into a death cutscene for some villain in an Assassin’s Creed game, Ubisoft thought I cared. They thought I was invested in some 16th century Italian guy’s deathbed confession. I didn’t, I wasn’t. But these cultist brothers and their hippie sister? One boss battle at a time, they won’t be shooting bliss bullets at me anymore. One more of them out of my game. Now back to liberating the fine folks in the wider world.

There was a similar dynamic in Dambuters’ underrated Homefront: The Revolution, another game about liberating Americana, one site at a time. But that world was an uninspired approximation of Philadelphia. Furthermore, I didn’t care about the North Koreans one way or the other. They could have been Chinese, Russian, French, or from Alabama. They could have been flown in from any Call of Duty. They were just soldiers for me to shoot at. But these tiresome cult leaders? Intruding on the glorious emergent chaos in this lovely rural America?

It’s impossible to be comfortable with this tonal shift, where a county you love is co-opted by tedious sociopathic blowhards defying the law, scorching the earth, and thereby uniting everyone against them. Me, a scarred goth chick, a horny helicopter pilot, a flinty sniper vet, the idiot son of a right-winger politician, a smuggler and his wife and their baby, the three randos I’ve recruited, a mumbling meat cooker, a veterinarian scientist, some UFO nut, a movie director, the civilians on the side of the road, the owners of the bars and truck stops and gas stations and bait shops and homesteads I’ve liberated. Even our pets. A coalition of the willing, able, mismatched, and determined. Far Cry 5 is about an assortment of unlikely people coming together because someplace they love has been seized out from under them. It’s time to take it back.

I don’t mean to suggest this is intentional. It might not be. It might be a happy accident that the formula is so effective. Ubisoft has never been a company to court controversy, or even political relevance. But for a couple of reasons, I think they might know what they’re doing this time.

First, Ubisoft treats these sequences like the bitter pills they are. The story sequences don’t wait for you, perhaps because Ubisoft knows you might never go to them. The usual approach is to drain the world of stuff to do until you advance the plot. If the game world is gated, you’ll have to eventually suck it up and play the story. But Far Cry 5 takes the burden of that decision off your shoulders. Now the story comes to you. You will take your bliss bullets whether you like it or not. The story will move forward. You just play the game. Ubisoft will bring you the bad cutscenes when the time comes.

Second, the story bits are mostly brief and have no lasting impact. They do the usual annoying tricks of changing the gameplay, taking away your weapons, applying some arbitrary requirement, or not letting you move. But not for long. They’ll always drop you back into the open world with everything restored. No harm, no foul, you’re back to the way it was. It was all a bad dream, a commercial break, a brief diversion, safely firewalled behind the warning that you are being hunted and an inevitable bliss bullet is on the way. Even the spectacular ending (Ubisoft knows how to end with a bang!) is forgotten as soon as the credits are done.

Third, and most important, there’s a self-aware quality in Far Cry 5 missing from Ubisoft’s previous games. For all their amazing technical work, sometimes even in the game design department, Ubisoft struggles with the concept of context. They don’t know how to put their game designs into effective game worlds, much less stories. Their writing has been tin-eared and leaden, trying too hard and falling too short, with a distinct Ubisoft tone. It’s not like the occasional soulless Electronic Arts release, and it’s certainly not like Activision’s willingness to step aside and let auteurs do their thing in World of Warcraft, Destiny, Skylanders, and sometimes even Call of Duty. Ubisoft exudes this weird sensibility of the corporate auteur.

Despite occasional bright spots — Evie in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, Blood Dragon, the inadvertent story of America in Assassin’s Creed 3, Clint Hocking doing his thing in Far Cry 2 — this has been a liability. If Far Cry 5 had used its tedious psychopaths to drive the story rather than interrupt it, it would have felt like a typical Ubisoft game. Instead, the writing that actually builds this world is full of affection, enthusiasm, and humor. While the corporate auteurs were working on the tiresome cultists, some talented and funny writers, animators, and actors populated this corner of Montana with warmth and energetic vulgarity. This especially applies to the companions, which is where Far Cry 5 shines. They’re all people you want to come along on a mission. Bring them in pairs for their banter. And then there are the pets. Don’t get me started. Seriously, don’t, or I’ll write 1000 words about a cat named Peaches. Suffice it to say, the company you keep in Far Cry 5 is a delight. They’ve earned my affection in a way that few videogame characters can manage. The game world is only partly the stunning scenery. It is also the well written people who live there.

When it comes to interacting with the world, Far Cry 5 feels like a course-correction after the hollow splendor of Assassin’s Creed: Origins. What an unforgettable world in an utterly forgettable game. It’s also a bit of a course correction from Far Cry 3, which was also called Far Cry 4 after a light Himalayan reskinning. The economy of Ubistuff has been streamlined. I don’t have to skin three badgers to make a belt so I can carry two more grenades (that silliness finally made sense in Far Cry: Primal). In Far Cry 5, advancement is folded into simply playing the game. Money and skill points roll in as I do the stuff I would have been doing anyway. In fact, they don’t matter after a while. I’ve got the stuff I want, so I’m no longer playing so I can buy the better shotgun or unlock the skill that lets me pick locks faster. I’m just playing to play the game. Imagine that. In this day and age?

The biggest problems in Far Cry 5 are the sorts of thing the game obviously should do, but for some reason doesn’t. Why can’t Boomer ride in the passenger seat of my muscle car? And, hey, why can’t the bear ride in the back of a pickup truck? Why can’t I level up my followers in any way beyond reducing the cooldown time when I get them killed, which never happens anyway since I can’t bear to see their bleedout timers wind down? How come it never rains? Why is night just a bluer version of day? Why are so many of the weapons obsolete, if not useless all along, because the ones I’ve got are cooler than anything else I could get? Why is there a sniper scope for the shotgun? Why can’t I have three followers at once instead of just two? Why isn’t there player housing so I can mount this massive trout I caught above the falls on Widow’s Creek? Oh, and why isn’t there cooking?

Speaking of which, why don’t these wolves actually eat the carcass of that moose they just killed, which was a pretty cool thing to see? Why can’t I look at an ingame map like in Far Cry 2 instead of having to call up this lovely and thorough 3D map? Why isn’t it easier to drink the potions I made, like with a hotkey or something, since they’re actually pretty useful? Speaking of which, why can’t I have a hotkey that goes straight to dynamite instead of having to tab through the grenades and pipe bombs? And where are the pipe bombs at? Why can’t I figure out how to use the dumb wingsuit? And when is there going to be some kind of survival challenge mode like Far Cry: Primal and Fallout 4 got? Also, what good are these arcade mode options when I’m perfectly content playing the main game? Hey, Ubisoft, next time you include support for custom-made standalone missions, maybe don’t make the main game so good.

It speaks volumes that these are the problems Far Cry 5 has. A handful of minor and sometimes specious complaints idling in the back of my head, mostly ignored because Adeline just said something funny and a truck is blowing up and someone brought a rocket launcher and there’s a fire burning in the trees behind me while Peaches mauls some guy dressed like a biker who can’t believe he’s being eaten by a giant cat and he just said so. We now reclaim this trailer park on behalf of decent people everywhere, celebrating with an American flag, some fireworks, and a defiant lick of folk music. What perfect videogame comfort food for at least, say, another 205 days.

  • Far Cry 5

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Glorious emergent chaos in the company of well written and energetically vulgar characters populating a lovely corner of America. With occasional interruptions by tiresome cult leaders.