Welcome to our Game In Progress review of Far Cry 5, Ubisoft’s effort to bring the series’ distinctive run-and-gun sandbox to the American heartland. This week, we’ll run through the game’s opening steps, up through the liberation of Holland Valley and the defeat of John Seed.
The most striking thing about the rank-and-file members of the Project At Eden’s Gate—the primary antagonists of Ubisoft’s latest beautiful, dumb, compulsive murder sandbox, Far Cry 5—is how strikingly non-offensive they are. For a group of violent, gun-festishizing secessionists, they’re a remarkably apolitical lot, a diverse cast of backwoods crazies united only by their fanatical belief in their leader, a David Koresh-wannabe dubbed The Father, and a shared disinterest in the usage of shampoo. Honestly, these brainwashed, mantra-spewing monsters feel less like an original creation and more like the result of a focus group on easily digestible evil, a concerted effort on someone’s part to committee-up some baddies that folks on either side of the political spectrum could happily murder by the hundreds.
There’s something hollow about that carefully neutral positioning, given how much of Far Cry 5's marketing focused on the specter of a violent uprising lurking in the heart of the tranquil Montana countryside. (Certainly, it comes off a bit chickenshit in comparison to the last big shooter about occupied America, the blatantly political Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.) There are a lot of modern anxieties that a violent video game set in the modern-day American heartland might address, but “What if a group of apocalypse cultists suddenly deployed a heavily armed force of drug-crazed maniacs to secretly seize an entire county?” isn’t one of them. There’s a “have your cake and eat it, too” approach to the way the Cult easily elides any kind of real-world political positioning—outside a certain nostalgic “the old days were better” sentiment, at least—that renders them less the symptom of a peculiar American madness that the game’s writers seem to have been aiming for, and more a sort of fantastical outside force.
Credit to those writers, though: Having settled on the “cult” theme, they’ve committed to it fully, up-to-and-including a series of suitably brutal first-person depictions of the organization’s brainwashing and recruitment process. Each of the game’s three massive, distraction-filled regions is organized under one of The Father’s supervillain-esque sibling-lieutenants, each of whom favors a particular flavor of cult indoctrination that they’ll treat the player to at periodic intervals. The fertile farmland of Holland Valley—where you’re first directed, after a disastrous intro sequence that lays out just how fucked the non-Cult residents of Hope Country are—is under the control of the smiling John Seed, whose televangelist pretensions and motivational speaker cadence belie an interest in physical coercion and shock-and-awe torture techniques.
Full of lingering facial close-ups and stomach-churning sound effects, these sequences are bracingly effective, ensuring that, when it’s finally time to liberate the region and put John in the ground, the player is more than ready to do the deed. There’s an elegance to the way Far Cry 5 builds up to that confrontation, too; rather than placing the final battle with each of the Seed siblings behind a series of linear story missions, each region is instead given a sort of global progression meter, tracking the resistance’s strength. Missions cause it to build, but so does wandering the countryside, blowing apart Cult property and snapping its members’ necks. That freedom from having to play through any particular path—and the removal of some of the series’ most infamously repetitive tasks, like climbing radio towers or hunting the right kind of wild boar to properly upgrade your grenade bag—frees this installment from some of the worst excesses of the series’ usual “scour the map, complete the checklist” formula. When everything the player does contributes to the story, it’s much easier to treat the game as a buffet of interesting experiences that you can take or leave rather than a stern taskmaster, forcing players to work their way down its list.
The fighting and driving will be familiar to anyone who’s dipped their hand into the series before: a mixture of stealth, shooting, and explosions that can escalate violently at a moment’s notice. The series’ reputation as an “anecdote factory” is wearing a little threadbare at this point—almost any story that happens here is going to boil down to “I shot a guy, and then a bear attacked him”—but sneaking, shanking, and shooting all still feel satisfying. The biggest change to the usual formula is the addition of NPC party members that can be added to your squad, providing specialized perks and drawing fire. You can recruit a whole army of generic fighters from the people you periodically rescue from the Cult, but Holland Valley also has three specialists on offer: sniper Grace, pilot Nick, and Boomer. Boomer’s the best one, because he’s a dog, and dogs can’t fucking talk.
Let’s be clear: There is good, even great, writing on display in Far Cry 5. But it’s reserved almost exclusively for the Seeds and especially The Father (aka Joseph), whose alternatively calm and furious diatribes betray a hint of that most important trait for any charismatic leader: charisma. The same cannot be said for the rank and file of Hope County, many of whom feel like extras recruited from a bargain bin of tossed-out Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row NPCs. I’ve yet to encounter the quest giver who supposedly asks you to retrieve the Donald Trump pee tape—complete with a whole bucketload of jokes about wet beds and “the yellow brick road”—but between Nick’s “wacky” combat banter, the mad scientist making meta-jokes about paid downloadable content, and the entire subquest about harvesting a bull’s scrotum mid-rut (for the local “Testy Festival,” you see) I’ve already had about as much of Far Cry 5 ’s “comedy” as I can reasonably stomach. At least the music, which switches between classic rock and the Cult’s eerie hymns, is good enough to drown out some of this nonsense.
For all those quibbles, I’m still enjoying my time with Far Cry 5. Montana features some of the most beautiful country in all of America, and Ubisoft has done an amazing job of capturing its rural glory. And the freedom to get credit for just fucking around in this gorgeous world, doing whatever feels most fun, is legitimately intoxicating. It doesn’t hurt that the Cult story is a compelling one, painting the Seeds (if not their followers) as three-dimensional characters who honestly think they’re doing the right thing, even as they plunge further and further over the edge.
Next week, we’ll delve even deeper into the group’s psychology, as we take on the manipulative Faith, while also discussing the ways Far Cry similarly tries to lure you into bold, inventive, and frequently stupid plays.