*This is a spoiler free review*
The politics of Ubisoft’s Far Cry 5 were controversial since its inception. The overwhelming and self unaware use of force in many First Person Shooter games causes the public to scrutinize the genre and its antagonists through a variety of lenses, and many video game production companies have had to walk a fine line in justifying or explaining the essential nature of their game’s conflict. While some companies endeavor to give players non-lethal options, the Far Cry series has always relied on the drama of traumatic first strikes by scene-chewing tyrants to motivate the player to suspend their moral rigor and dive into the killing. As previous critics have noticed, these past games have not been without their political implications.
Throughout most of Far Cry, protagonists of the series was a white man pulled into the orbit of a foreign power struggle, in which they invariably work with a resistance to save the (non-white) locals from the rule of some up and coming warlord. Far cry 2 allowed you to choose form a global rogues gallery of mercenaries to be your player character. In Far Cry 4, the players played as a second generation American Immigrant, returning to the fictional country of their mother’s birth, in South East Asia, which is notable, though not fully relevant to this article. The tropes that the Far Cry series has most relied upon rest within the pantheon of tried and tested mainstream appeal, with all the bigotry such inclusion entails.
Which may be why Far Cry 5’s proposed inversion of this pattern gather so much attention, not only does it continue the improvements of Far Cry 4 (not to mention much of the gameplay in Far Cry Primal), but for the first time the series’ recurring elements would be brought to an American setting. Not only would the NPC’s depicted approach a racial diversity appropriate for an American community and, also for the first time, the protagonist would be of player determined sex and race. However, early promotional art depicted the antagonists as a white Christian extremist cult. The Alt Right took to their keyboards, lobbing complaints and petitions against the game, and Ubisoft responded by releasing expanded art that showed both white and black cult members (though the Cult’s paraphernalia and iconography remain white supremacist). While many gamers wondered if this new edition would pit the player against the Alt-right, or draw political conclusions from the American themes from which the game draws, this reviewer’s experience of the game found that the writing and dialogue never get any bolder than that early response of Alt-Right appeasement.
The problem, in a sentence, is that Ubisoft wants to enrich their game with the real and everyday realities of American extremism, rural politics, and cult history, without grappling with the implications of or making an artistic statement about any of it. Just as the creators attempted to remove race from their conflict by mixing black antagonists in to the cultists, the game retreats from making profit-sapping controversial statements. While the cult’s ideology demonizes the Federal Government’s authority as meddling in their affairs, the first NPC aid the protagonist garners is that of a Sovereign Citizen, homeschool advocating, survivalist named Dutch, who is being sued by the Feds for collecting rainwater into a private stash on public land. In fact, most of the protagonist’s allies in this game are loose collection of militia extremists who, I guess, have decided, between their twin adversaries of this cult as the U.S. government, to reinstate the latter, a political gesture that is explored not at all. Patriotism and its banner displays are abundant, without discussion nor nuance, and are often lampooned with hyperbole, also without satirical substance.
Meanwhile, some NPC’s deride the cult as “hippies”, “Hipsters”, and assign to its members the pejorative “Peggie”, from their name “Project at Eden’s Gate”, because what’s more american than emasculation through misogyny? An Alex Jones type screed about the cult’s suppressive application of the fictional hallucinogenic Bliss turning all the animals “homosexual” can be found in an abandoned cabin, complete with an admission by the author that they aren’t judging homosexuality, followed by praise of their gay brother and their nice family. Like a Microcosm for the game it was written for, the note is rendered devoid of real world connotations and, therefore, satirical value. If you bought Far Cry 5 for political commentary, social satire, or a fascinating mirror to American life, you will be disappointed.
Which is too bad, because the detail, the research, is obviously there. Making good on their desire to bring in the uniquely American cult-ure of religious cults, Ubisoft brought in Cult expert, Rick Ross, to bounce ideas off of and bring a realistic gleam to their depiction and, the thing is, it shows. The cult’s name, ideology, Fascistic undertones, religious culture, violence, and political invasion are all true to events in Modern American History, drawing from the events of Jonestown, Waco, and Wasco. The research that the game put into what makes a cult realistic and the trappings of the Rural American West is evident throughout the final product. The company even went so far as to hire a look-alike actor, Greg Bryk, to portray the Cult’s leader in promotional videos and press events, who provided all the voice work for the character in the game. Whether Bryk had one-on-one time to develop the character with Ross is unknown, but the characterization the actor brings forth is well considered and compelling. You can get a representative taste of characterization in this video in which the actor and a lead developer discuss the character of The Father. Perhaps it is telling that the developer seems uncomfortable and disengaged by the depiction: the discomfort clearly palpable in this video could also describe Ubisoft’s reticence to engage with the weighty themes they seek to yoke to their product.
But is it fun? Undeniably so, this game is easily the culmination of the various explorations of gameplay attempted throughout all the iterations of Far Cry. This includes the Beastmaster portion of Far Cry Primal, allowing you to hire trained NPC predators such as Peaches the Cougar, or Boomer the Dog (who is a good boy, yes he is). The map is divided into three regions, and the starter location at the State Park, each of these regions are beautiful and diverse in local (within what is reasonable for Montana), and as the sum of the three, Hope County is simply immense. If you invest your challenge points (awarded for killing cultists/hunting animals in this or that way, a set number of times) in the grapple hook, parachute, or flight suit your options for exploration and accessing vistas is expanded considerably. Various boats, cars, helicopters, and airplanes are available for commandeering, earning, and buying, unarmed and otherwise. Perhaps my favorite feature is “autodrive” which allows you to freelook or shoot freely while the car/bike you are driving follows the road at safe speeds or takes you to your chosen destination, allowing you to gawk at the luscious environment and fire pot shots at passing “Peggies”. For a more offensive tactic, selecting a way-point on the map while partnering with a human NPC allows you to use your complete arsenal while hanging out the passenger window, or use any mounted weapons, while the NPC follows the fastest road to the location. There are kidnapped prisoners to save, Cult shipping to disrupt, shrines to deface, as well as fishing and hunting to be had….and all of this can be enjoyed, at any time or point, with other players, as the full game supports push-in/push-out co-op play.
In fact, the game’s open world, named and vocal NPC’s, and perk system would lay the foundations of an excellent action RPG, if there were any dialogue options or self-personification from which to choose (if you want your customized Deputy to have a name, you’ll have to mumble it to yourself while the NPC’s call you “Deputy” or “Rook” for rookie). Far Cry 5 also has the most seamless off-the-rails story progression, I’ve ever played, aided both by the Intel system and the all-encompassing focus of the mission system in which all endeavors hurt the cult and help the resistance in someway, if only by outfitting you. The intel system is particularly noteworthy, and many Roleplaying genre games could take note: new locations and possible missions are revealed through exploration and interacting with NPC’s. As you explore the world any maps you find generally detail the area closest around you, while notes can hint at secret stashes and interest points, and missions are introduced to you through the conversation-interaction of every NPC you meet. To clarify, it doesn’t matter what you do or who you talk to, the game will feed you new “Intel” on missions and locations through whomever you talk to. The effect is organic, smooth, and gives that impression that there isn’t so much a “main quest” as the Main quest is whatever path I decide to take. It’s seriously refreshing.
Far Cry 5 is undeniably the best Far Cry to date, the most fun, the most robust, and possibly the best written. It would be difficult to find a shooter with as much freedom in gameplay and such wide margins in which to explore that freedom. Such permissiveness could have extended intellectually deeper, a flaw in gameplay most apparent in the lack of non lethal takedowns and weapons options, frustrating considering that you are supposed to be playing a Police Officer attempting to carry out a Federal warrant. Far Cry 5 wants to give its players ultimate freedom, and does so in everything except in exploring it’s basic concepts. It’s, sadly, an asterix on the game’s achievements that the writing is so timid. While the profit driven causes that led to such a state are fairly unsurprising, gamers expecting a thoughtful treatment of compelling political issues will be led on by the game’s evocative opening and thorough research. If all you want is a ginormous area in which to explore and enact armed and vehicular violence, you’ll find nary as much freedom to do so outside of Far Cry 5.