The Far Cry 5 DLC is well worth it, but not for the reason I expected

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With this week’s release of the zombie DLC for Far Cry 5, Ubisoft has fulfilled its commitment to folks who bought the season’s pass. So how did it all turn out? What did you get for your $30? This is not a good week to ask that question. The latest add-on, Dead Living Zombies, is unmitigated junk, and that’s especially clear if you’re playing Rebellion’s surprisingly smart Strange Brigade.

So why would I say the DLC is well worth it?

If you’re a sucker for all things zombie, you were most excited about the Dead Living Zombies DLC promised after the other unremarkable DLCs were released. Obviously Ubisoft was saving the best for last. Obviously the folks who made Far Cry 5 so good were hip to what made Undead Nightmares for Red Dead Redemption so good. Obviously, all your hopes, dreams, and wishes for all things undead and shambling would be realized in the fields and hills of this lovely virtual Montana. In the meantime, you had these other two add-ons that might be worth a look. Who knows. You’re just biding your time.

The Vietnam DLC, ironically called Hours of Darkness in a game where darkness just means “more blue”, is not unremarkable. On the contrary, it’s a fantastic bit of tweaked gameplay on a whole new map. It’s up there with the Mooncrash DLC for Prey, which sets a new bar for breathing new life into an already good game. Hours of Darkness isn’t quite as good as Mooncrash — I would be hard-pressed to think of many add-ons that are — but it’s up there. Instead of just applying a new skin, it puts an entirely new framework under that skin, using solid game design principles and focusing on replayability. The basic idea of Hours of Darkness is a “behind enemy lines” vibe, similar to Far Cry 5 itself, but in a Vietnam War setting. But instead of encouraging Far Cry 5’s cinematic emergent chaos, Hours of Darkness wants your Rambo to Sam Fisher a little bit. Accumulating stealth bonuses encourage you to rack up stealthy kills, but it’s not too punishing when you inevitably sound the alarm because, oops, you didn’t see that guard over there. Hours of Darkness is happy to go guns hot for as long as you want. Rambo away, unfortunate son!

As you work your way east along a long and wide valley, trying to get to the chopper, a variety of activities spring up like mushrooms. The usual Ubistuff. Rescues, collectibles, assassinations, base clearings, and so forth. But it’s all in the context of securing the map for superweapons as you progress. American airstrikes loom large. But AAA guns are keeping American jets at bay, so you can’t call in the airstrikes until you’ve taken out the AAA. At which point, feel free to opt out of the usual skulking about and enjoy some fireworks. This is the overall pattern in Hours of Darkness. Unfortunately, it all culminates in a frustratingly scripted grand battle at the landing zone on the far end of the map. Presumably you’ve armed up along the way, right? You’ve gathered weapons and upgrades and now you’re loading for Viet Cong bear. Getting to the chopper is only dramatic when the LZ is hot.

One of my favorite things about Hours of Darkness is that you can dash through it or you can take your time trying to finish achievements for a better final score. And once you’ve played through once, you unlock a more difficult survival mode and a less difficult balls-out action mode with unrestricted airstrikes. The more difficult mode deprives you of those magic Far Cry pockets that can hold a light machine gun, a sniper rifle, a shotgun, a machine pistol, six each of grenades, remote charges, proximity mines, molotov cocktails, steaks to pull leopard aggro, health kits, dynamite bundles, and a complete set of lures, reels, rods, and flies. Without magic pockets, this survival mode makes scavenging relevant again. Sometimes it’s good to be hungry for bullets. Sometimes it’s good to make hard choices about which weapon you’re going to take. Sometimes those airstrikes aren’t just an alternative to running-and-gunning through a base, but they’re instead the only way you’re going to get by. Although now that I’m reduced to one rifle and one pistol, I’m dreading how that final battle is going to play.

The Mars DLC, Lost on Mars, doesn’t quite have the same gameplay smarts as Hours of Darkness. What it has instead is the same affectionate and vulgar humor on display in the main game. It’s a pleasant reminder that there are folks at Ubisoft who write well enough to rise above the dry corporate auteur aesthetic. Now that these people have been let loose in Far Cry 5, and given a place to play in the Lost on Mars DLC, maybe they can work their way onto an Assassin’s Creed or Tom Clancy license in the future.

Whereas Hours of Darkness is a straight up “eastward, ho!” map progression, Lost on Mars is the usual open world, complete with tropes like towers to unfog the map, boss fights, and jumping challenges. Although the jumping challenges aren’t so challenging because Mars is a low-G environment. This gives you a whole new type of traversal based on a jetpack with a hover mode. You’ll eventually be able to fly around properly, but first you’ll learn how to take battles vertically. There’s a reason the aliens have glowing orange weak spots on top.

The pew-pew weapons start out pretty underwhelming, which is probably the point. Hang in there. But Lost on Mars wants to be about more than just firepower. In addition to the jetpack movement and fighting, it wants you to use a variety of consumables in battle. These are the sorts of doo-dads you won’t find in Montana: invisibility, invulnerability, mezzing, and making monsters go aggro on each other. Oh, did I mention all the guns are laser guns? No bullets. No magazines. No reloading. Just mandatory cooldowns when they overheat, which is a way to remind you that now might be a good time to use those consumables.

Whereas the main appeal of Hour of Darkness is the new gameplay, and the main appeal of Lost on Mars is the sense of humor, the main appeal of the new zombie DLC seems to be, uh, zombies. Which usually works for me. I’m a sucker for just adding zombies. But Undead Nightmares casts a long shadow. I was hoping these zombies would be let loose on the open world of Montana. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are instead chopped up into discrete levels and squeezed into corridors.

There are two main problems with the zombie DLC, called Dead Living Zombies. First, the levels are almost entirely linear slogs through checkpoints that trigger a handful of zombies. If these “hordes” push the limits of the number of enemies onscreen at once, I can’t tell. It doesn’t seem any more horde-like than the usual Bliss-addled cultists I fended off in the main game. Each level is more forgettable than the last. The supposedly grand finale repurposes the bunkers, which were one of the worst parts of Far Cry 5. Did anyone want to go back down into those bunkers? One level manages a pleasantly Caribbean vibe, along the lines of Dead Island. More zombie outbreaks need to happen on sunny beachfront property. Unfortunately, this is a timed level so you won’t get to admire the change of scenery. Your goal is to finish as quickly as possible. Frankly, that will probably be your goal in all of the levels, and that’s even before you unlock the scoring mode that gives you points for finishing as quickly as possible. Without exception, these levels are “ugh, when will this end already?” bad. Where’s the exit? Point me to the exit. I’m ready to get out.

When you reach the exit, your reward is getting to replay the level in a scoring mode. In addition to being timed, now the central conceit is that you get ammo by spending ammo. It’s a balancing act, made more difficult in scoring modes. Every time you kill a zombie, you get a handful of bullets. But, of course, killing zombies takes ammo. So you have to go for headshots, which take fewer bullets and score more points. The less graceful pray-and-spray approach will leave you swinging a melee weapon. Once that breaks, you’ll be punching zombies in the face. This is not very effective. The timer will be along shortly to put you out of your misery. You don’t get a score. You don’t even get zero points.

Bronze and silver medals unlock three free reloads and three instant health potions (no waiting for the bandaging animation) for that level. Now you’re equipped to go for a gold medal which unlocks stuff for the main game. Namely, a costume bit you can’t see because this is a first-person shooter and a gun you won’t need because Far Cry 5 doesn’t expect you to use any weapons beyond whichever favorites you’ve already upgraded.

The second main problem with Dead Living Zombies is the humor. Every single level is a joke about how bad the level is. An unfunny joke. Lampshading at its worst. The couple of Guy Marvel bits in the basic game weren’t this unfunny, were they? I think I would have remembered if they were this bad. Whoever wrote this dreck seems mightily pleased with some meta stuff where narrators call out or argue about some part of the level that changes. At one point, they argue about whether it’s day or night. Again, in Far Cry 5 terms, more blue or less blue. It’s all painfully unfunny, and the poor voice actors seem to know this. For an example of how this sort of meta level humor can work, replay the Tiny Tina DLC for Borderlands. For an example of how this sort of meta level humor can be embarrassingly bad, play Dead Living Zombies for Far Cry 5.

Then there’s a third problem, which isn’t Ubisoft’s fault. But it’s a big problem. Strange Brigade is a really good example of how to do score-based zombie killing. It just came out this week. Imagine releasing that Warcraft movie on the same week the first Lord of the Rings opened. Oops. Timing.

The Far Cry 5 post-release support news isn’t all bad this week. The latest update adds a new game+ mode, which lets you commit to a harder challenge (no changing difficulty once you’ve started!) with all your weapons and skills available. You’ll still have to get out there to recruit your sidekicks, but I can think of no goal in Far Cry 5 more noble than helping out these various well-written and gameplay distinct characters. I’ve started a new game on the hardest difficulty level, which hinted at some special reward. I was dismayed to discover it’s a set of the defaultest clothes I’ve ever seen in a video game. See?

In a game played from a first-person perspective. Go figure.

I can’t comment yet how the game feels with more perceptive enemies that take more damage and deal more damage, as I haven’t gotten very far and the early enemies are easy pickings with the arsenal I’ve accumulated. Besides, Far Cry 5 is like a JRPG in that you have to sit through a whole lot of non-interactive and barely interactive bits before you can actually play the game. The goal of all this early downtime is to make sure you hate the cultists. Mission accomplished on my first playthrough, thankyouverymuch. What kind of new game+ doesn’t let you skip all this expositional padding? An Ubisoft new game+ (the fantastic survival mode in Far Cry: Primal has a similar issue). One of the barely interactive bits is an insufferable on-rails driving sequence in which you ride shotgun in a pick-up truck, die repeatedly because the enemies are doing tons of extra damage, and start over. It took me about a dozen tries. This is never a good thing to do in an open-world game, and it’s especially never a good way to introduce an open-world game.

The new game+ is part of the latest update, so really, it has nothing to do with the paid DLC. But now that it’s all been released, two out of three ain’t bad. The level of quality dipped with each successive release, and the pricing seems to know this. On Steam, the Vietnam DLC is $12, the Mars DLC is $10, and the zombie DLC is $8. Or you can get all three with a $30 season’s pass, which seems to be aimed at people who are bad at math. But if you’re a discerning buyer of DLC, come to Hours of Darkness for the gameplay, Lost on Mars for the humor, and Dead Living Zombies for neither.