Games

After Three Hours With 'Far Cry 5,' Its Politics Are Far From Clear

After spending three hands-on hours with the game, I know that it's made some big leaps mechanically. But narratively, it's hedging its bets.

by Austin Walker
Mar 2 2018, 3:05pm

All images courtesy of Ubisoft

Last year, during its initial reveal, we learned that Far Cry 5’s fictional Hope County, Montana has come under control of the Project at Eden’s Gate an aggressive, militia-like cult that believes the end of the world is around the corner. It turned out to be a controversial premise, and one that was setting a high bar.

Which is why, as I picked up the controller at a preview event two weeks ago, I was keyed into the game’s presentation of people, place, and politics as much as the new mechanics and gameplay ideas that Ubisoft was excited to show off. With the game out on March 27, I wanted to know: Can a series which had a rocky history with complex political topics in the past dig into such a charged premise with nuance and insight?

(It’s also why I dug into these topics in my interview with Far Cry 5’s director, Dan Hay, and cult expert and consultant Mia Donovan, who were eager to talk about cults and culture with me.)

After playing the opening three hours of the game, any doubts I had about mechanics were eased. Exploration was rewarding, combat felt snappy, and I was genuinely relieved to see the dev team experiment with the overall structure of a series that has become static. But many of my questions about Far Cry 5’s tone, theme, and story remain unanswered, or at least underinformed. Three hours is enough time to learn whether or not the guns feel good, but given how uneven the narrative content was, it’s a still too early to judge whether FC5 sticks the landing on its premise.

What I can say is that across the game’s intro and the couple of open world missions I played, Far Cry 5 was hedging its bets.

That’s partially a matter of inconsistent tones: In one mission, an NPC described a cult member torturing children in gruesome detail. In the next, I met up with Far Cry’s resident clown, Hurk Drubman Jr., to help recover his father’s campaign truck, which Hurk had left behind in a cult compound (after he’d quit due to the lack of “wildin’ out and partyin’.”) It’s almost as if Hurk himself was telling me just to blow shit up and have fun.

But sometimes, it felt like Far Cry 5 was trying to carefully straddle a fence in fear of disappointing both players like me, eager to see the game take on Big Picture Political Ideas, and players who identify with the “Faith, Freedom, and Firearms” tenants of the Project at Eden’s Gate.

Take the intro, for instance: You play a rookie cop—whose face, skin color, and gender are all customizable, a series first—who joins a US Marshall and some more veteran members of the county sheriff to arrest Joseph Seed, the leader and “Father” of the cult. Seed’s ideology is made clear through NPC chatter and his own sermon: The end times are here and we need to be prepared. After the arrest goes sour and Seed secures his place as the latest Charismatic Far Cry Villain, you find yourself sprinting through the woods and in search of help. When you find it, it’s in the shape of a man named Dutch who is, himself, a paranoid doomsday prepper.

It’s such a defensive thing to do, as if it was pre-empting tens of thousands of “Not All Prepper” tweets. And it wasn’t the only moment where Far Cry 5 wanted to have its cake and eat it too, either. Remember Hurk’s dad, the politician? While he’s enlisting you to recover his truck, it’s out of fear that he’ll be pilloried by “Obama-loving libtards” for losing his truck. It’s the sort of barb designed to get laughs out of liberal and conservative gamers alike: “Haha, this fuckin’ guy!”

Joseph Seed

None of this got in the direct way of my fun—after all, I only played for three hours, and the bulk of that was spent exploring the new mechanics I’ll describe in a second. What it did do, though, was underscore what a strange tightrope that Far Cry 5 needs to walk, especially given the time of it’s release.

I can’t help but think that just a few years ago, Far Cry 5 could have totally gotten away with offering Grand Theft Auto-style nihilism. But I’m less sure about its prospects today, especially in the wake of last year’s Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, which offered as its central thesis that the cause of America’s greatest ills are not pathological invaders to the system, but are in its very roots. If FC5 wants to be both love letter and critique of America, then it needs to confront the fact that cults, militias, and extremist groups emerge from the cracks already in society and prey on those vulnerable, wounded, and left behind.

I genuinely hope it can pull that off, but for now, most of my excitement is going to be reserved for how the game plays instead of what it’s going to say. Because thankfully, Far Cry 5 changes up some of the most staid parts of the series formula (while still continuing to be one of the best anecdote generators in gaming.)

There is no place better to start talking about that than with Jake Smith.

Jake is just one of the many random civilians of cult-occupied Hope County who are the cornerstone in Ubisoft’s plan to revitalize the series’ flow and structure.

In the the last couple of major Far Cry games, you rolled into an area, climbed a radio tower, and your map lit up with icons, each representing an activity to do. By the end of Far Cry 4, my map was a tangle of objectives—many of which I had no intention of pursuing. Far Cry 5 attempts to fix this with Jake. Well, not just Jake, specifically, but all sorts of people (and things) like Jake.

All throughout Hope County, randomly named civilians are being harassed, interrogated, and kidnapped by the armed members of the Project at Eden’s Gate (colloquially known as “peggies”). When you rescue these civilians, a number of things can happen: They can let you know about a nearby hidden stash of equipment, offer to fight by your side (like Jake did), or tell you about a side quest and add a single new icon to the map (something that also occurs by reading in game signage, notes, and other marginalia).

That last bit dramatically changes the pacing from previous Far Cry games. Gone are the moments where a dozen objectives appear on your map. Now, someone like Jake will tell you about a cultist shrine that needs blowing up, or a flyer stapled to a telephone poll will let you know about a dangerous wild animal you can hunt down, or a plaque commemorating a daredevil’s death defying stunt will lead you to mission where you can recreate that act.

It’s hard to overstate how important a change this is. Even though I explored a few major areas, I never felt overloaded by tasks. Plus, because each side activity you learn about can be tied to a specific point of origin, each one feels a little more meaningfully situated inside of the world. It also makes moving from mission to mission feel a little less like Assassin’s Creed or Horizon: Zero Dawn and (a little) more like the organic, curiosity driven exploration of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Far Cry 5 was always going to be a game of compromise.

As you complete these missions, you gain Resistance Points, which are the second major part of Far Cry 5’s restructure of the series’ progression mechanics.

Instead of having players slowly move through consecutive zones until they’ve unlocked the full map, Hope County starts out largely uncovered from the jump, divided into three major districts plus the cult’s central compound. Each district is operated by one of Joseph Seed’s “Family,” his lead lieutenants who operate various cult operations. (It really seems like Ubisoft has decided to double down on the Memorable Villain formula of the last two Far Cry games. Take that as you will).

As you finish side missions, you fill a resistance meter, and when you hit certain thresholds two things happen: First, you unlock more main story content. Second, the leader tied to that district “pushes back,” unleashing special soldiers or other means of control. It’s not too dissimilar from the reputation systems in games like Just Cause 2 or the early Saints Row games, and I’m curious to see if it holds up over long periods of time in play. But I will say that I’m excited by the opportunity to visit all three districts out of the gate, since the character (and characters) of each seems genuinely distinct.

Which brings us back to Jake Smith, the least distinct person in Hope County. And my favorite.

The Guns for Hire system debuted in Far Cry 4 and originally let you spend an in-game currency to summon a crew of back up soldiers. It was a cool trick, and it made fights feel a little more like the resistance struggle the story painted them as. But it was also pretty limited: These weren’t your buddies, they were just nameless grunts who hung around until they died.

Ever since last E3 Ubisoft has been showing off Far Cry 5’s “Specialist" Guns for Hire. These are the nearly super-heroic NPCs who join up with your resistance and offer you support with their unique abilities, weapons, and vehicles. (They also are a great example of how incongruous some of the games characters are with each other. Seriously, watch this trailer from about the three minute mark.)

But Jake isn’t a specialist. Jake is just an everyday guy, a “generic” Gun for Hire, a class of character who sits between the nameless conscripts of FC4 and the FC5’s plane-flying, flame-wielding action heroes (who are themselves a little bit like Hollywood versions of Far Cry 2’s “buddies”). These characters aid you in fights, drive you around when you set a waypoint, and even unlock new abilities for themselves when they get kills. But more importantly, they add texture to the game, a sense that you’re fighting alongside people from Hope County. The point is also that they’re goofy, and endearing as hell.

Jake wears a blue, faux-Obama t-shirt in 2018. Jake says stuff like “Y’know, the melody ain’t so bad… I’m kidding” about a song on the radio, seconds before crashing your car into two different tree trunks. Jake punctuates the grimdark narration of an NPC by reciting empty aphorisms like “Eden’s Gate is just another cult! Ain’t the first, won’t be the last,” or “We could put them in cages, but then we’d be no better than them.”

Jake was also part of one of the best, totally emergent sequence I’ve ever had in a Far Cry game, which you can watch right here:

Jake was also glitchy as hell. In fact, a lot of the characters—friend and enemy alike—had some issues with both animation and behavior while I was playing. NPCs would snap into a T-Pose or other awkward positions now and then, sometimes seemed unperturbed by gunfights happening around them, and occasionally moved in truly mysterious ways. In one case, Jake seemed to catapult himself horizontally across 10 yards and into the side of my parked car.

And honestly, that blend of highs and lows is a pretty generalizable takeaway about my time in Hope County. Minutes after rolling my eyes at the Good Prepper, Dutch, I was absorbed in trying to find one of the game’s new hidden caches, light environmental puzzles that did more for me than I expected. Moments after telling my co-op partner how much I liked the new, free-flowing quest system, an NPC got stuck inside of a tree trunk, preventing us from talking to him and finding a new objective.

Far Cry 5 was always going to be a game of compromise. The dev team wasn’t setting out to make a game about Trump’s America—as director Dan Hay mentioned back when the game was first annoucned, he originally conceived of the game in light of the 2008 financial crisis. And Far Cry 5 is, fundamentally, a product made by of one of gaming’s largest multinational corporations and it’s aiming to hit the widest playerbase possible. Given that, it would’ve been easy to set Far Cry 5 in another “exotic” locale, in a place without baggage, and with the same structure that’s sold millions of copies. Instead, the team is taking risks across setting, story, and design. Later this month we’ll find out whether or not those risks pay off.

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