Far Cry 5

Picture this: an underground bunker, stuffed full of military-grade weaponry and bedecked with American flags. A middle-aged man with a beard sits at a table, pouring over maps. Red lines and circles criss-cross the maps; targets, avenues of attack. A radio mutters quietly in the corner.

How do you react to this scene? What kind of emotion does it instill? Fear? Uneasiness? Is the idea unsettling? Or do you identify with the bearded man and his bunker? Does this image fill you with patriotic fervor and resolve?

If your answer is “Who cares, let’s go WRECK SOME SHIT DAWG HELL YEAH” then congratulations on your new role as a Ubisoft employee.

Far Cry 5 is entering the world at a time that could be referred to as “charged.” The game’s story, originally conceived in 2007 at the beginning of the financial crash, has taken on a horrifying relevance over the last decade. At the same time, the Far Cry franchise has fallen somewhat in the eyes of more socially-minded critics (including yours truly), who have been expressing discomfort with its “shoot brown people in paper-thin exotic locales” playbook ever since the third game came out. A brief and slightly bewildering foray into prehistory did nothing to dampen that skepticism, much as Ubisoft probably wishes it had.

So we have a game that’s accidentally stumbled ass-backwards into the opportunity to speak to a particular moment in American history, and which comes saddled with an expectation to change up ts formula. It only really tries to do one of those things.

The premise of the game is that Hope County, Montana, has been overrun by a violent quasi-Christian doomsday cult. The self-styled Project At Eden’s Gate and their shirtless, man-bunned leader Joseph Seed believe that “the Collapse” is imminent, and that they must atone for their sins, stock up on guns and canned food, and hunker down for the end of the world. They’re eager to bring as many people into the bunkers with them as they can, and they’re not taking “no” for an answer.

You’re cast as a (silent, player-created) sheriff's deputy tagging along on an attempt to arrest Joseph Seed for the murder of a traitorous follower. This goes badly wrong, you and your colleagues end up seperated, and Joseph and the cult take the botched arrest as a sign that the Collapse has begun and it's time begin the Reaping, raiding Hope County for supplies and taking its people forcefully into the Project’s embrace. Joining up with several resistance factions, you have to liberate three distinct regions of the County before confronting Joseph and putting an end to the cult.

In terms of game design, there’s a lot to like about Far Cry 5. Evidently realising that their repetitive, map-full-of-icons open world template was becoming the butt of jokes, Ubisoft have elected for a more free-form design that doesn’t involve climbing radio towers to find activities and locations. Instead, you uncover points of interest more organically: by simply stumbling across them in the world, or by finding clues like notes and audio recordings, or by talking to friendly NPCs. This all leads to a more exciting sense of discovery, where finding one thing tends to lead you on a breadcrumb trail to other missions and locations.

More importantly, designing a game world where a player can’t be counted on to have hordes of icons leading them on to the next objective has forced the level designers to make Hope County more explorable and enticing than any previous Far Cry settings. Before, the open worlds of the franchise mostly consisted of large dead zones between islands of interest, that the player would never have much of a reason to explore and which you were all but encouraged to zip through as fast as possible. Now, there’s a far greater use of sign-posting and an abundance of interesting landscaping to make the world feel more interesting; you might spot the top of a barn or a silo sticking up over a hill, then on the way to investigate it see a narrow trail leading up into woods, and then from the trail spot a lonely cabin perched on a cliff… and so on. I spent most of the game walking around on foot, the better to find these nooks and crannies.

This is all a welcome change for both Far Cry and open world games in general, but Far Cry 5 is still afflicted with something that perennially plagues the genre: a deathly fear that the player will miss out on content. As such, the game is a bit too good at giving you opportunities to locate points of interest; I actually stopped talking to the roaming NPCs who tell you where to find prepper stashes (excellent environmental puzzles that offer some of the game’s best moments), as I preferred to just stumble upon them naturally.

Those NPCs speak to a larger problem, which is that the game’s designers seem not to have been completely confident in their own design decisions. Having created a huge, beautiful world intended to be explored slowly and methodically, they appear to have worried that players would be bored, and compensated by cramming in as much “activity” as possible.

Simply put, this is a game that never fucking leaves you alone. This is best illustrated by the first time I halted one of Eden’s Gate’s reaping trucks on the road; while attempting to loot its contents, three more trucks full of enemies and two cougars showed up. By the time I was finished, the road was littered with corpses and bullet-riddled vehicles. Later, I lost count of the number of times I approached a friendly NPC to talk to them, only for them to be jumped by a wolf or a mountain lion (if Far Cry 5 is to be believed, Montana is in serious need of some wild animal culls, possibly carried out by tactical nuclear weapons).

Defeating a region’s main boss and capturing all the cult outposts quietens things down considerably by eliminating the presence of roaming enemies, but even then the game will constantly spawn friendly planes and helicopters to buzz you, in the apparent belief that if somethingisn’t moving and making noise, the player will get bored and request a Steam refund. Even retreating to the lonely mountain trails that wind around Hope County’s periphery won’t grant you peace, as you’ll constantly encounter hikers heading the opposite direction--hikers who can then be attacked by wild animals, just in case you were jonesing for something new to shoot.

This would all be irritating enough on its own, but it gets downright chaotic when the multiple interlocking AI systems that govern the game’s world break, as they do very often. NPCs will freak out for no apparent reason and run off (or steal your vehicle) when you try to talk to them, or just won’t respond to attempts to initiate a conversation. Those planes the game likes to spawn overhead so much frequently plough straight into mountains, which is admittedly quite funny.

Less funny is when something goes badly wrong with mission scripting, as in the time I stealthily approached an enemy encampment, only for a grizzly bear to sprint right into it. I’m not quite sure what happened next, but there were a lot of explosions and then everything in the camp died. Mission accomplished, I guess.

These problems aren’t deal-breakers by any means. Most of the actual missions are cordoned off enough so that the chaos doesn’t disrupt them, and the AI problems in the open world, while annoying, don’t detract too much from how fun and engaging that world is to explore.

No, the deal-breaker lies in Far Cry 5’s story and tonal issues.

As previously mentioned, this story could not have landed at a more relevant time, as right-wing extremism sweeps America in the aftermath of Trump’s election victory and white supremacists and neo-Nazis march openly in the streets. The forces that animate these phenomenon are very similar to the ones that drive the country’s long-standing sub-culture of religious cults and citizen militias, and it’s impossible to comment on any of this without hitting on the hottest of hot-button topics: guns, religion, terrorism, the divide between rural and urban America.

At least, it seems impossible. Somehow, Ubisoft managed it.

I kind of feel bad for them. Development on this game apparently started right after Far Cry 4, in 2014, when the next election was still a long way off and no one was thinking seriously of life under a Donald Trump presidency. The development team has to have watched events unfolding with an increasingly wary eye, wondering at every step if it was too late to just scrap everything and start over with a different concept. In a way, it almost feels like they did.

Far Cry 5 says nothing, about anything. It feels meticulously designed to be devoid of any possible message, as though someone took it apart molecule by molecule to make sure each one either fell squarely in the middle of the political divide, or was balanced by its exact opposite. It’s a story composed of equal parts matter and anti-matter, such that it immediately collapses into oblivion.

Are private militias bad? Eden’s Gate is a militia in addition to being a cult, but so are most of your allies. You’re rescued from Joseph’s grasp by a grizzled doomsday prepper with a huge bunker full of guns, and similar red-blooded citizen soldiers are constantly portrayed as salt of the Earth types whose massive stockpiles of military hardware come in real handy against the cult. The northern region of Hope County sees you allied with the Whitetail Militia, whose slogan--Resist, Repel, Remain--would be right at home on one of those home-made shields neo-Nazis take to rallies. Who exactly they were intending to resist or repel if Eden’s Gate hadn’t arrived is never explained. The fact that most real-life militia groups tend to be some combination of hardline right-wing, fanatically Christian, or racist (and that virtually all of them hate the federal government with a burning passion and would be very unlikely to ally themselves with a police officer) is never touched upon. No sir, these are just some freedom-loving, constitution-hugging down-home folks defending their land and liberty.

If the game says anything at all about forming underground militias, it’s that it’s bad when bad people do it but it might be good when good people do it. It takes a similarly waffling non-position on more or less every topic it covers, except for cults and highly addictive drugs, which are apparently sufficiently non-controversial that the story will consistently portray them as evil.

This refusal to follow through on its premise blows a hole through the game’s entire world and story. Hope County is equal parts the noble, hard-working “real America” that the Trump presidency is supposedly working for, and a ridiculous working class caricature, which I guess is for the benefit of any of those coastal elites I’ve been hearing so much about. Multiple missions in the game--I encountered three--involve rescuing souped-up trucks from the cult; the quest-givers will inevitably state some variation on “My daddy loved that truck!” in order to explain why you should risk getting killed to retrieve it.

Eden’s Gate themselves are an incoherent hodge-podge of similar real-life organizations, such that they lack any real identity of their own (this is exemplified by Joseph, who looks like a cross between David Koresh and a generic New Age guru). Their theology consists of three or four different talking points that get repeated endlessly. Each of the three Heralds who you have to take down to reach Joseph have precisely one personality trait, with the two brothers being particularly shallow: Jacob espouses a social darwinist cull-the-weak philosophy, while John has this weird self-help “power of yes” thing that I never really understood.

The only antagonist who stands out in any way is Faith, the adoptive sister of the Seed clan. She initially seems to have a bit more ambiguity to her character than John, Joseph and Jacob (or Jack or whatever the last one is called), in that she’s implied to have become a true believer in Eden’s Gate through possibly abusive means, but this ultimately doesn’t go anywhere; like the other Heralds, she just shows up constantly to prattle nonsense at you, then there’s a big boss fight and you kill her.

All of this could have been forgiven if Far Cry 5 delivered a compelling tale, but its attempts at linear narrative crash against the open-ended structure of the game’s progression. As you wreck shit in one of the Hope County regions, a resistance meter fills up; get it all the way full, and you unlock a climactic encounter with that region’s Herald. At several points along the progression, you’ll be kidnapped by the cultists and whisked off to either a cut-scene or a linear shooter section; by such means does the main plot advance.

This happens multiple times, per region, of which there are three. There’s no way to predict when it will happen, or to prevent it from happening. Once the game has decided it’s story time, setting foot outside one of the main NPC camps will result in you getting jumped and carried off. Once, I was three-quarters through a river journey to my next destination when I picked up enough resistance points to trigger the next story beat; when the non-interactive cut-scene finished, I found myself all the way back at my starting location. At this point, I very nearly uninstalled the game out of sheer frustration. I have no idea how this design decision made it through years of development and into the final product.

The story’s biggest flaw is it over-reliance on Bliss, a drug the cult manufactuers which can do anything the plot requires it to. It’s both a gas and water-soluble, it can cause hallucinations, it can make people suscetible to Manchurian Candidate-style hypnotic suggestion, and if you take too much of it, it turns you into a zombie. Far Cry 3 had a sequence where your protagonist gets high while burning a Marijuana field, which a lot of people loved even though it was incredibly stupid; since then the Far Cry franchise has made tripped-out drug sequences a running feature of the games, and Far Cry 5 goes hog wild with them. Random barrels of Bliss are scattered all over the place, leading to missions filled with hallucinogenic visions. In Faith’s region it’s in all the rivers and lakes, so that swimming causes the screen to go all fuzzy and sparkly.

The game uses Bliss as plot scotch-tape, fudging inconvenient details with a shrug of “It was the Bliss, I guess!” Events that occur while under the psychotropic haze of the drug rarely seem to correspond with anything that was going on in the real world, and sometimes Joseph’s goons will pop up in the midst of a trip to throw plot exposition at you even though they’re not physically present; how they’re actually communicating this information to you is never explained, unless Bliss also makes people psychic.

The worst story stumble occurs in the Whitetail Mountains, where you’re repeatedly captured and brainwashed by Joseph (Jacob? Whatever, it’s not important). This turns out to be a ploy to assassinate the Whitetail’s leader, with the hapless player-controlled Deputy shooting him in the head in response to a certain piece of music. This could have been a neat twist--the specific way its pulled off is pretty well-executed--but it makes no sense, for one reason: the Deputy never tells her allies that she might have been brainwashed, even though the Whitetails explicitly say that Jacob has kidnapped their soldiers and forced them to turn traitor under mind control several times in the past.

In most games with a silent protagonist, the player operates on a tracit assumption that the character isn’t literally non-vocal, and that in the logic of the story they are commuinicatting with the other NPCs and you just don’t see them doing it. But this plot twist only works if you assume that the Deputy really never speaks to anyone; that’s the only explanation for why she never tells the Whitetails that it might be dangerous to let her back into their bunker.

This is just a symptom of how slapped-together and lazy the story feels, from start to finish. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the game’s ending utterly falls on its face.

After defeating the Heralds, you confront Joseph at his main base. It turns out he’s kidnapped all of your fellow Sherriff’s department allies and brainwashed key resistance members into holding them at gunpoint (somehow; by this point his entire army has been wiped out). You’re given a choice: fight and accept the consequences, or walk away and leave. The latter option results in an utterly throw-away “gotcha” twist that isn’t even worth going into; if you pick the former, you free all of your friends in a big gunfight and finally have Joseph dead to rights, when…

Okay, so, each time you beat a Herald they babble at you about how Joseph is actually right and the Collapse really is imminent. Anyone who’s familiar with video game storytelling will know what this means, and sure enough, a gigantic mushroom cloud blooms in the distance. It turns out America and North Korea have declared war on each other or something, and the nukes are raining down. There’s a frantic escape by jeep, a crash that leaves you and Joseph alive (I guess all that time you spent rescuing your friends was pointless), and he locks you up in a bunker with him to wait out the apocalypse. The end.

This is such a stupid, pointless, nonsensical way to end the game that it feels like a slap in the face, as though the entirety of Far Cry 5 was made just to troll the player. Even worse, the entire scene has a bunch of open Bliss containers sitting around for no reason, leaving open the possibility that none of it even really happened.

Do I feel bad for Ubisoft? Is it their fault that a game they had probably already sunk millions of dollars into was asked to speak to current events so unexpectedly. Yes, a bit. But there are any number of ways they could have risen to that challenge, and they picked the worst possible one. Even full-on white supremacist apologia would have felt like a braver choice than the vacilliating shrug they went with.

The events now taking place in America will be remembered, at least in decades to come and (if we’re all extremely unlucky) perhaps even centuries. Far Cry’s brief intersection with historical relevance feels like it’s already been forgotten, which is exactly what it deserves.