Well over five iterations into the series (lest we forget the likes of Primal and Blood Dragon), we know what to expect from a Far Cry game. Namely, first-person shooter gameplay in a lush open-world setting, pitching you against some bunch of crazed fanatics or another. Occupied outposts which must be liberated and hunting for animals are trademarks of the series, along with intricate storylines that usually include hallucinatory excursions.
Far Cry 5 has all those, but it manages to feel significantly different to its predecessors. That may be partly due to its setting: the Big Sky Country of Montana in the United States, rather than the usual fictional republic or island run by a tinpot dictatorship (although maybe that's its point: is there a difference?). But it's also due to the sheer size and scope of its environment, and the way in which it chooses to deliver its main storyline.
Previous Far Cry games have focused on the main story thread, adding mere excursions into side-missions and activities like hunting (which generally offered a means of acquiring useful items). But Far Cry 5 feels much more of an open-world game in which you are, to an extent, crafting your own story. That approach means its initial stages feel comparatively disjointed, but the good news is that after you've got stuck into it for a while, it becomes a coherent and thoroughly immersive.
Welcome to 2018
Hope County, Montana, has been completely taken over by a sinister doomsday cult called Eden's Gate, which believes the collapse of civilisation is nigh. Eden's Gate is run by Joseph Seed, a soft-spoken but menacing figure, and the three regions of Hope County have fallen under the oppressive yoke of three of his siblings/lieutenants: his brothers John Seed in the south and Jacob Seed in the west, plus Faith Seed (who isn't actually a sibling) in the east.
You play an unnamed, recently recruited Deputy Sheriff, known either as Deputy or Rookie, depending on who is addressing you. Proceedings start with you on a helicopter travelling to Joseph Seed's compound, as part of the party charged with arresting him. But the helicopter is taken out, and you're rescued by a survivalist type who winds you up and sends you out to liberate Hope County from Eden's Gate – which is basically acting like the worst sort of private army, terrorising those Hope County inhabitants who refuse to join up.
Your nearest port of call for kick-starting the resistance is Fall's End, a sleepy village surrounded by the farming country of John Seed's territory. Once you've beaten back the siege which it is undergoing, you begin to meet a number of often eccentric local characters, some of whom can be hired to accompany you on missions (an innovation for a Far Cry game which reflects the fact that Far Cry 5 can be played by two people co-operatively); they all give you story and side missions, or point towards activities such as finding Prepper Stashes (useful given the rewards they bring) or cult outposts to liberate.
It's all pretty free-form – you can take on missions in all three areas of Hope County concurrently if you want. So at first, it feels somewhat disjointed, even if you stay in one area. As you carry out missions, free cult hostages, destroy cult property and the like, you accumulate Resistance Points, which eventually give you a chance to take out each of Joseph Seed's right-hand people.
But your activities come to the attention of the Seeds, and at seemingly random points, they will catch you, triggering encounters with them from which you must escape. It soon becomes clear that those encounters don't constitute the real story, which is your interaction with the folk who refuse to join Eden's Gate, but rather interludes offering an insight into the Seeds' thoroughly unpleasant characters.
Mistaking those interludes for the main story has led to Far Cry 5 being accused of a peculiarly 21st-century crime, namely being "tonally inconsistent". Firstly, why should games be tonally consistent? If they wanted to be that above all else, would that mean that humour, say, henceforth must be banished from videogames?
And anyway, Far Cry 5 isn't, in our view, tonally inconsistent. Sure, it contains outbreaks of gallows humour, which completely fit in with the desperate plight of Hope County's inhabitants. And the encounters with the various Seeds highlight how they have taken different approaches to oppressing their local areas.
John Seed is a standard-issue psychopath who loves torturing people, but Faith Seed is a hippyish type who hops up her followers on Bliss, a plant-derived drug Eden's Gate has developed that renders those who take it happy to commit atrocities in the name of religion. Jacob Seed, meanwhile, is a survivalist type who has an obsession with culling what he sees as the weaker elements of humanity.
Perhaps Far Cry 5 has been a victim of the prevailing situation in the real-life America. It never sets out to be some sort of biting anti-Trump satire, or indeed a reflection on the rise of the extreme right-wing in America – most of the characters you fight alongside in the resistance belong to the prepper tendency and make disparaging comments about "liberals".
It does, however, muse in a more subtle way about the methods cult-like religions could use to induce ordinary people to join them and perform vile acts. Mass-manipulation is the game's theme, which is perfectly apposite, especially without even the merest hint of a manipulative Facebook campaign or army of Twitter bots. But it would have been nice to see that theme developed a bit more overtly.
Vast and engrossing
Gameplay-wise, Far Cry 5 is impeccable. As ever, it contains a huge skills tree – renamed perks this time around – for which you earn points by completing missions and activities, or finding certain types of magazines (especially in Prepper Stashes).
Its range of weaponry and vehicles is fabulous – the likes of helicopters and planes are gloriously easy to pilot. Perks bring items like a parachute, grapple and wingsuit – raising more than a hint of Just Cause 3 (reinforced by the fact that you're essentially a one-person army).
The guns for hire have a gloriously varied range of skills, so you pick them according to the mission type: they range from Peaches, a pet cougar who is invaluable in a confined space faced by hordes of Eden's Gate enemies; to Nick Rye and Adelaide Drubman, who provide air support in a plane and helicopter, respectively. The latter comes in particularly handy, as you can grapple up to her helicopter and get her to fly you anywhere.
There's loads of great hunting and fishing to be done, but this time around the animal skins aren't required for the crafting of useful items; they do, however, fetch a decent price in the game's virtual shops.
Games like Far Cry 5 stand or fall on the quality and diversity of their missions. Happily, it gets both aspects spot-on. One minute, you might be rounding up escaped cows, the next engaging on a full-on, multi-part assault on an Eden's Gate stronghold, or employing stealth to take out cultists before they can kill their hostages. The end-missions in each area are hard, adrenalin-infused and epic – and gratifyingly, they don't end when you've taken out each member of the Seed clan.
Far Cry 5 also looks fabulous, especially in 4K (we played it on a PS4 Pro). The environment is simply stunning, and each area of the map has a distinct character – Fall's End is farming country, Faith Seed's Henbane River is dominated by water and forested lands, and Jacob Seed's Whitetail Mountains area is a breathtakingly beautiful mountainous national park. Far Cry 5 really does provide one of the most glorious playgrounds ever seen in an open-world shooter.
And over and above that, there is Far Cry Arcade. Sadly, due to not possessing a PlayStation Plus subscription, we couldn't experience it in its full glory (it includes a map editor, so gamers can take areas in the game and put their own spin on them). But you often come across Far Cry Arcade posters which drop you into selected missions, which put a clever arcade-style spin on the game, giving you specific tasks to perform in "remixed" confined areas of the game. Happily, those were accessible without PlayStation Plus.
Give it time and Far Cry 5 ends up being a thoroughly addictive and fine game indeed. It's technically superb, while its gameplay is up there with the very best first-person shooters.
But you can see why those who approach it superficially could misunderstand it. It doesn't do itself favours in a couple of respects: notably the time it takes to get going properly – which is the result of a risky but ultimately successful decision to make it less of a narrative game than its predecessors – and Ubisoft's unwillingness to take risks with its (superficially risky) subject matter.
We found ourselves wishing there was more rise-of-the-right-wing-style social commentary, rather than burying its theme of mass manipulation behind a wall of religious allegories. It feels as though the publisher was afraid to run the risk of alienating any particular part of the games-purchasing public, however rabid its views. Can't think why it would take such an attitude in this day and age.