A few hours into Far Cry 5, I had a realization: this game would be a lot better if it didn’t have a story.
Ever since its reveal nearly a year ago, Far Cry 5 has invited controversy. Whereas most shooters have players aim their weapons at zombies, demons, or Nazis, Far Cry 5 takes place in Montana, and its enemies are American citizens who bear a strong resemblance to the stereotypical image of a modern, young white supremacist. The first piece of art for the game was a re-creation of The Last Supper, but with Southern hipsters wielding guns and knives and a tablecloth that was an alternate reality version of the American flag.
In the months since, the developers at Ubisoft Montreal have been hesitant to draw any true parallels between the game’s world and the real world. And after playing a few dozen hours of the game, the reason for their reticence is clear: Far Cry 5 doesn’t have anything to say about race in America. It doesn’t have much to say at all. It’s a big, dumb action game with an artificial sheen implying depth. But it would’ve been better off if it was just a big, dumb action game.
Far Cry 5 takes place in the fictional town of Hope Valley, Montana, which is conveniently isolated from the rest of the world; you first realize you’ve arrived in Hope when your smartphone stops working because there’s no connection in the valley. The county is overrun by a religious doomsday cult called Eden’s Gate. They believe the world is going to end, and they’re preparing for the collapse, which mostly means stocking up on guns and kidnapping new recruits in a place free from government intervention.
You play as a sheriff’s deputy who is part of a crew sent into Hope County to arrest the Father, the charismatic and very creepy leader of the cult. Things, naturally, don’t go according to plan, and your group is separated, leaving you to become the starting point of a resistance against Eden’s Gate.
This setup fits perfectly with the typical structure of a Far Cry game. The series is all about territory. You start out as a newcomer in a place filled with bad people, and you slowly take control of areas for the good guys. As you explore Hope County, you’ll rescue townsfolk, reclaim cult outposts, and just generally annoy the gun-toting zealots of Eden’s Gate by ruining their plans. As you do, you’ll open up new abilities and gear, and the citizens of Hope County will start to fight back, giving you backup in battle. Watching the map slowly turn in your favor is very satisfying.
The structure works particularly well because of the new, more open nature of Far Cry 5, where you can tackle the game however you want. Hope County is divided into three regions, each of which is overseen by one of the Father’s trusted lieutenants. The goal is to create enough havoc to initiate a confrontation with all three leaders, before moving on to the head honcho himself. But how you proceed is largely up to you. Most actions you take will chip away at the problem to some degree: you can reclaim farms and orchards from cult control, help citizens with mundane tasks like finding lost trucks or comic books, or just run around town blowing up all of the cult’s oil reserves. Every little bit helps.
At its best, Far Cry is a series about big, action movie-style set pieces, ones that set you loose with a lot of toys and a little bit of direction. It’s also a game where distraction is part of the appeal. Every time I went off with a particular goal in mind, I’d stumble across something — a small skirmish in the middle of the street or a very angry turkey that wouldn’t leave me alone — and spend so much time dealing with it that I nearly forgot what I set to do. Hope County feels dynamic and alive, a place where all kinds of thrilling and strange scenarios can happen. Once, when I was creeping up to a quiet cabin in the woods, a flaming helicopter unexpectedly fell from the sky, destroying the house before I could even check it out. I also really loved the new “guns for hire” feature, where you can enlist key characters to help you out in battle. It’s sort of like the companion system in Fallout, and I spent most of the game with a floppy-eared dog named Boomer by my side. He’d alert me to danger, fetch weapons, and let me pet him whenever I wanted. He’s a very good boy.
But this fun, freewheeling side of Far Cry 5 also feels at complete odds with its substance — particularly the inevitable analogies it invites to the real-world scourge of white nationalism. A glance at the game is like a glance at cable news: tattooed and well-armed white men using force to exert dominance over a society they feel has left them behind. Hope County is like a war zone. Just walking down an isolated street, you can hear gunfire off in the distance. But it’s all surface level, and Far Cry 5 never deals with any of these themes in any notable way.
The game completely avoids discussing race. Some of the cult members are black, though the members are overwhelmingly white, as are all of its actual leaders. The game has nothing to say about white supremacy or American extremism of any stripe, except, possibly, that murder cults are bad. At one point, when one member of Eden’s Gate tries to explain why the apocalypse is inevitable, he yells, “Look at the headlines! Look at who’s in charge!” But it never goes any deeper than a few one-liners. What little political discussion there is veers toward satire, like a side mission that has you searching for what is very clearly, but never explicitly described as, the Donald Trump pee tape. These poor attempts at satire are a jarring shift from the serious tone the game tries to create with its story moments.
A series like Far Cry doesn’t necessarily need to weigh in explicitly on politics — it got along just fine before without doing so — though choosing to ignore politics is as political a choice as any. And in Far Cry 5, a game that directly evokes some of the most malignant elements of American culture and politics, it feels particularly disingenuous. By using the imagery of modern-day American turmoil, it creates the illusion that it has something to say, then stubbornly refuses to say anything. It makes me wonder why they even bothered, beyond the shock of a marketing campaign. And even if you take the developers at Ubisoft Montreal at their word and believe that this was always meant to be a game about the dark nature of religious cults, well, it fails in that regard as well.
Even after fighting against Eden’s Gate for dozens of hours, I have no idea what they stand for, other than the fact that they really hate sin and love guns. I know the former because all seven of the deadly sins are spray-painted around town — on cars and buildings and sometimes even bodies hanging from trees — and because one of the group’s leaders, a stylish TV evangelist, literally carves the names of sins into people’s skin. One of the first things someone said to me in the game was “Fuck you, sinner.” It’s not especially subtle. It’s also disturbing because most of the cult members are presumably regular folks who have been brainwashed. Mowing down the undead doesn’t phase me, but often I’d stop and think about who exactly I’m killing in Far Cry 5, and it didn’t feel great. (The game even attempts to turn the cult members into zombie-like cannon fodder at certain points, where you fight off zoned-out, drugged-up members of the group.)
I love Far Cry games; there’s something singularly entertaining about exploring the limits of their open worlds, whether it’s using a plane to bomb supply trucks or creating an explosive chain reaction that can level an entire fertilizer plant. But I could never get over the tonal dissonance in Far Cry 5. Every time I found myself having fun, the story would rear its ugly head, and I found myself trying to ignore it completely. Instead of completing the missions required to progress, I’d go off and do something completely unrelated, like exploring an uncharted track of forest or fishing for an hour or so. It was much more enjoyable. But, eventually, I’d have to return to the path, and it almost felt like I was playing a different game. It’s hard to take anything seriously when one moment you’re being lectured on the evils of vengeance, and the next someone asks you to help them kill a stoned cow.
These two sides of Far Cry 5 — the half-hearted attempt at a serious story and the bombastic action game — never gel. And that limp, almost nonexistent exploration of politics, race, and religion is at odds with the action, to the point where it detracts from the experience. There are a lot of thrilling things you can do in Far Cry 5. The option to turn off the story should be one of them.
Far Cry 5 is available now on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.