“Far Cry 5” begins with a harrowing scene of federal agents attempting to arrest a cult leader deep in rural Montana. The cult is clearly driven by survivalist paranoia, cloaked in Bible quotes, and protected by absurd amounts of guns. You are one of the accompanying deputies, there at the flashpoint when everything goes sideways. No surprise: the feds are captured, the cult digs in, and you’re left alone in a forest scrambling to put it all back together. It’s an audacious beginning – particularly at this moment in American history – but “Far Cry 5” spends the rest of the game pratfalling away from that dramatic moment.
Immediately after the opening scene, “Far Cry 5” lets you know just how video gamey this video game is. An unknown character who ends up having nothing to do with anything presents you with a map and instructions to go take back occupied Hope County. The map is divided into three regions, one for each of cult leader Joseph Seed’s three lieutenants. (Yes, the baddies’ names are all appropriately Biblical: Joseph, John, Jacob and, most eye-rollingly, Faith.) This too-tidy map is the your first clue that the game is not going to be terribly deep.
This is not a bad thing. It’s just not a particularly impressive thing.
For example: “Far Cry 5” struggles with balancing the go anywhere/do anything open world with its super-serious storyline. The solution is to have the game’s enemies kidnap you when the story requires it, dropping you deep inside some underground hellhole where you must fight for your freedom. This would be interesting if it only happened once or twice, but when each of the three lieutenants gets to faux-kidnap you multiple times, it turns the game into a copy/paste job.
Even at the easiest difficulty, you can expect to die a lot in “Far Cry 5.” Enemies are great at sensing your presence and swarming you on all sides. The balance for this is that you can have sidekick characters join you, any one of whom can bring you back to life. While most of these specialists are human resistance fighters armed with flamethrowers and sniper rifles, three of the sidekicks are animals. It’s fun to try to sneak through a base with a dog to scout out enemy locations and a bear to clobber them.
Having a pet cougar on your left and a helicopter pilot on your right is the just-slightly-ludicrous gameplay sweet spot that “Far Cry 5” excels at hitting. While you’re drilling through enemy lines on the ground, you’ve got a chopper pal doing strafing runs and a giant cat tackling people. It’s enjoyably chaotic.
That chaos extends to the world between the missions. Montana’s animals, cultists and survivors clash with amusing regularity, whether you’re actively involved or not. You can be walking along minding your own business and watch a shootout up ahead get crashed by an angry moose.
In a series first, you can play the entire thing cooperatively with an online friend. Plus there’s a surprisingly beefy Arcade mode where you can build your own arenas and challenges (it’s very reminiscent of the build-it-yourself Toy Box mode in “Disney Infinity,” even to the point where you can mix and match elements from other video game franchises.) “Far Cry 5” is a bulky game that does not skimp, from character customization options to gorgeous scenery.
And Hope County is a beautiful place. Farms and fields lead to forests and mountains, crossed with creeks and dirt roads. You can travel by plane, boat, wingsuit or car (although the map routing system is frustratingly inconsistent about providing directions) and have a grand time pulling off stunt tricks and helping out the many citizens who do not seem especially bothered by their community being under martial law.
This is another point where “Far Cry 5” said “well, it’s just a video game” and shrugged. Like the guy you meet at the very start, almost every person you talk to throughout the course of the game just isn’t… important. There’s an entire town of people rising up against the cult and each one of them needs you for three missions tops. The only ongoing story with persistent characters involves liberating the other kidnapped deputies, and those deputies barely do anything aside from scream in pain, vow revenge, and thank you for your service. “Far Cry 5” lacks a solid, interesting narrative to stitch everything together. There’s a bad cult. Go stop it in discrete chunks. That’s it.
The meat of the this task has you taking over enemy outposts, but be prepared for tone-breaking whiplash. One mission has you rescuing torture victims, while the next has you driving around town collecting baseball cards. It gets worse when “Far Cry 5” starts diving into jokey stuff, like when you’re asked to collect steer… um, parts… for the annual Testicle Festival.
Why is Hope County still holding a big, drunken outdoor party while a cult has barricaded all the roads out, occupied every structure larger than a single family home, and drives around in white pick-ups kidnapping citizens at gunpoint? I guess if we don’t hold our Testicle Festival, the terrorists win.
I get it. You’re not supposed to think about that in a big, loud video game like this. However, the lead characters of “Far Cry 5” are very obviously the “good guys with guns” who are rallying to stop a sinister invasion and occupation by the bad guys with guns. It’s unfair to ask the player to not apply a real world sensibility to a situation that is clearly pulled from real world headlines.
This narrative sleight-of-hand is not uncommon for gun-heavy video games. “Far Cry 5” just handles it worse than most. The game wants to wade into complicated American politics, but also wants to be a laugh riot where you’re constantly murdering generic enemies. Maybe we can’t expect a video game to take sides on the issues of government excess, gun control and personal freedoms, but when a game gets this close and then starts turning in animal testicle jokes, it’s a missed opportunity to stand for something. “Far Cry 5” wants to be taken so very, very seriously, but it undermines itself at every turn.
In fairness, maybe this is what the “Far Cry” series has always done: offer a shallow synopsis of political events as an excuse to have Video Game Hero Character run around and shoot everything up. For the first time, however, this “Far Cry” is set in America, with our real-life backdrop of Bundy family standoffs and MAGA hats. Perhaps the lesson here is that “Far Cry” has always done a lousy job and as Americans, we just never noticed because the locations were all foreign lands that we only know as settings for action movies.
“Far Cry 5” would have been better served to play it straight and stick to the serious storyline, rather than watering it down with goofy gags and cowardly political sidesteps. As it stands, it’s far and away a better game when you don’t have to think about it.
“Far Cry 5” is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. This review is based on product supplied by the publisher. Images courtesy Ubisoft.