12th Apr2018

‘Far Cry 5′ Review (PS4)

by Rupert Harvey

far-cry-5-ps4

Hope County, Montana. The Seed family (imagine the Westboro Baptist Church with infinite funds and a thesaurus) have enthralled the region with a brand of ranting, right-wing propaganda, channeled through their fundamentalist Eden’s Gate Project. Promising the great Collapse is the Father, Joseph Seed. Beneath him are his deputies: two brothers and an adopted sister. They control three county zones, which you the player must liberate by shooting their goons in the head and stirring up a resistance. Then it’s time to face the Father himself, and the game’s predictably shocking ending.

Those well-versed in the Far Cry games will be happy or sad (but not surprised) to hear that number 5 sticks to the formula of the previous installments. We have the open world map; the emergent moment-to-moment chaos; the charismatic-yet-insane baddies; the meaty gunplay; and of course ample opportunities to release captive animals to eat your enemies. There are the usual outposts, loot stashes and Mad Max-like madmen in psycho-vans. But wait! The Ubisoft towers are gone, and instead you gradually fill the map with icons by reading maps and talking to locals. The busywork this time around makes more sense than in previous episodes.

The brutally cold opening sequence does a marvelous job of introducing you to the basics without channeling you down a tutorial corridor, before ample riches give you a glimpse of the rewards on offer. However, as the story expands, the meeting point between the random encounter gameplay for which the series is known and the thrust of narrative storytelling becomes messier. While Far Cry 5 is a graphically and sonically lovely showcase, the demand for essential story beats to go “right” when the game design allows for so much chaos means that there are frequent immersion-breaking moments – be it NPCs interrupted by gunfire or breaking their flow if you step more than two yards away; or the dreaded “Leaving Mission Zone!” warning.

There are other quirks in design – I hesitate to call them bugs – which could be candidates for future patching. Some questionable AI nearly ruined certain missions for me, with my companion failing to join me at the crucial pickup point; some of the item activation hit boxes are fussy (and disappointingly dependent on the same button); enemy NPCs kept calling me “he” even though I chose a female avatar; and the re-loading times are just about long enough to steal the humour from my (many) would-be-amusing self-deaths. These may seem like minor quibbles, but for a project of this scale and calibre, they’re inexcusable.

I even came across a bizarre bug where I died during a flight mission, only to be put back into the plane as it dropped vertically from the sky. I found that the only way to avoid an infinite death loop was to exit the vehicle, parachute back to earth, and then make my way to the runway and claim another plane. Bizarre.

Flying, it must be said, is a great way to see the glory of the game world. What Hope County lacks in environmental variation it makes up for in detail, design and clarity. Playing on the PS4 Pro, the lushness of its boreal vistas never gets old, whether viewed from beneath dappled canopies, or from high above after sunset as the lights of the towns glimmer across the dark, dangerous world. It’s a pity that the level of detail doesn’t extend to the character models, whose animations and facials are distinctly last-gen. The voice acting is fine, even if the script is sub-Bethesda and sub-sub-BioWare.

With a sprawling, fog-shrouded map waiting to be gradually unveiled, standard open world tropes are in place. Quirky NPCs idle around, waiting for you to fetch or rescue; major settlements offer fast travel options; and there are recorded messages to fill in the world-building details, this time on answering machines or in the form of letters. Then there are the broader gaming clichés – yes, there’s a sequence with a verbose madman with a penchant for torture, closely followed by a moment where your guns and ammo are taken away. And I haven’t yet mentioned the tired over reliance on getting knocked out/drugged as a cheap way of transitioning between scenes. Finally, there’s a pretty lazy and undynamic skill tree, which just comes across as an arbitrary barrier to fun in the early hours.

But what fun there is to be had. The systems are tight enough to ensure that random encounters – usually involving gunplay, cars, helicopters and rabid fauna – occur not only in consistently hilarious yet unpredictable ways, but that they occur all the damned time. And it’s great. You can barely make it along a hundred yards of dirt track without hitting a looted corpse, spinning out, and then being attacked by a crazy mob, who are then set upon by wild cougars. The human enemies lack variation, but it’s made up for in their quantity and their keenness to see you murdered (a job at which they seem far more proficient than their leaders, it must be said).

The game’s themes have triggered quite an online conversation, but after having played the campaign I can’t see the conversation continuing. The writers and developers (on the request of the publisher? Who knows) have gone out of their way to sanitise, de-intellectualise and de-politicise the central plot. For a start, your character is bafflingly silent, so never provides a personal context for his or her battle. Moreover, it’s made abundantly clear throughout that Second Amendment rights are precisely what will save Hope County from the Seed family’s Reaping – a crafty way of avoiding alienating a great swathe of “patriotic” potential consumers.

And while the pre-release marketing (including a very impressive short film) makes it look like we’ll be up against the endgame of Trump’s neofascist Yoo-Ess-of-Ay, what we actually get is a bunch of hackneyed nutjobs ranting about purity and using mind-altering drugs – as opposed to, say, manipulative rhetoric – to draw crazy sheep to their flock. Perhaps it’s a form of satire in itself; an acknowledgement that ultimately the far right is simply dribbling and unintelligible. But there’s surely a missed opportunity here. Games are, after all, the one medium where we can make choices to shift the direction of the story. But no, aside from a couple of very obvious binary decisions, progress is morally linear, without shades of grey, so ultimately without a sense of daring.

As part of an esteemed series, Far Cry 5 is a tale of tiny refinements; of positive baby steps. The ever-present level designer tool is more comprehensive and accessible than ever, and now front-and-centred through coin-operated Far Cry Arcade machines in safe zones. And the whole campaign can be played in co-op (alas, not locally). But in terms of the single-player core, nothing from the previous games has been significantly built upon or overhauled. One could argue that it isn’t necessary when you’re having this much fun. But it feels unambitious: insipid mutton dressed as confrontational lamb.

There are enough fun moments in Far Cry 5 to recommend the game, but there’s also a cumulative array of smaller issues to taint that recommendation. At its best it’s a gleefully violent and chaotic romp; at its most middling it’s a mild improvement over Far Cry 4, which was itself a mere refinement of 3; and at its worst it’s a morally confused mess, and one whose storytelling consistently fails to dovetail with its sandbox gameplay. If this is your first ever Far Cry then you’re in for a treat. If it’s your fifth, be prepared for an enjoyable but deeply familiar experience.

Far Cry 5 is out now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC.

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