Far Cry 5 review: A familiar formula that yields predictable but fun results
- 10 April, 2018 09:56
There’s a lot in Far Cry 5 that feels very, very familiar. Even as someone with some pretty spotty exposure to the series’ trademark combination of adventure tourism and provocative ultra-violence, it all feels very run-of-the-mill.
To elaborate: my first Far Cry game was Far Cry 2, and I wouldn’t hesitate to say my experience has been almost-entirely downhill from there. After being drawn in by the Heart of Darkness-inspired epic, I went back to the original Far Cry and came away both disappointed and frustrated. Seeking greener, neon-lit pastures, I skipped the third game in the series and went straight to the sci-fi fever-dream that is Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. With its pulpy tone and downright-absurd action heroics, Blood Dragon was a lot of fun - but, again, it was disposable, repetitive and significantly-less compelling than the dynamism of the installment that introduced me to the series.
There have now been five Far Cry games since Far Cry 2 - but not one has really managed to capture the immersive (albeit sometimes-hostile) design and hyper-kinetic feel that first drew me in. The latest takes the series to modern day rural Montana - a premise brimming with promise, given the series’ past narrative missteps.
However, even as Far Cry 5 fails to live up to the legacy left by the second game in series, it still manages to find some fun along the way.
The Coward’s Way
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.
You play as a generic, faceless (but gendered!) rookie FBI agent, sent into the fictional Hope County, Montana, to arrest a sinister cult leader named Joseph Seed. Things quickly go sideways, and you’re cast out into the game’s rural and realised open world. From there, you’re tasked with sabotaging Seed’s militarized doomsday cult (known as "Eden's Gate" by themselves and “Peggies” by the locals), building a resistance against him, taking out his three lieutenants and then finally bringing the man himself to justice.
If this description sounds very “video-gamey” - that’s because it is, and Ubisoft haven’t really tried to cover that up. They’ve crafted a narrative arc guided by the structure of the game, rather than the more-natural alternative of letting the story beats themselves inform the structure of play. 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. This is a video game. You need to defeat the mid-bosses before going after the final one. That’s the reality of it.
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.
Unlike the games mentioned above, Far Cry 5 tries to couch any sort of statement it might make about its setting in confusion, camouflage and contradiction. Essentially, Ubisoft have taken the coward’s way out here and opted for an approach that simultaneously says everything and nothing. It takes all available positions - and also none of them. God forbid anyone get offended and not buy the game.
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 around 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.
Unfortunately, a new coat of paint is all that this really is.
Sweet Home Montana
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. It sounds weird to say - but those missing the antics of Just Causes' Rico Rodriguez will probably feel right at home in Hope County.
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 to upliftmoment-to-moment gameplay - 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.
It’s more like a theme park than a safari. There’s a sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle choppiness to some of the textures and character models. Regardless, for the most part, Far Cry 5 tends to look more-or-less as good as the last few games in the series have been.
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 machine gun, female merc with a bow, etc) but it doesn’t take long for the game to rev up the crazy. Before long, I was already calling in air support from a helicopter-pilot and siccing 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. My first hour or so with the game was a time of trepidation. I’d quietly creep around the forest and rely on the element of surprise to triumph over superior odds. I’d hide from passing helicopters, planes and supply trucks and always, always avoid the main road.
Only a few hours later, it felt like me and my posse could blow away scores of enemies without taking so much as a hit. The gunplay in Far Cry 5 feels super-forgiving and, at-times, a bit more arcade-like than I 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 like Ubisoft are terrified that if you’re left to contemplate the moment and just inhabit this world, you’ll get bored and leave it. As a result, it comes across like the game is trying a little too hard to impress. It’s all a bit overwhelming and unnecessarily so, given that the actual gameplay here is pretty robust.
That said, for those that do love the crazy, there is a new Arcade mode in the game. This allows you to make and share custom levels - which can be as crazy or as derivative as you want them to be.
The Bottom Line
To me, at least, Far Cry 5 is a bit disappointing - but I wouldn’t say it’s bad.
At this point, the series is a well-oiled machine. For the most part, Far Cry continues to deliver the goods when it comes to fun and dynamic open world gameplay for the little Rambo-wannabe inside you. If you're looking for something a little more, you'll probably come away disappointed.
The story falls far short of what it could be but the systems and scope manage to keep the experience afloat regardless. The series feels like it’s repeating itself but not all of things it’s repeating are necessarily bad. It doesn’t really come close to the series’ prior heights but - really - that’s probably to be expected at this point.
Like I said before, there’s a lot in Far Cry 5 that comes across as familiar.
Far Cry 5 is available on Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC.