With the latest entry in the Far Cry series, Ubisoft has shown they can master open world gameplay – but when are they going to master telling a story? Sam Brooks reviews.
Far Cry 5 starts off engagingly enough. Taking a well-worn page out of the Elder Scrolls book, you’re placed in a highly controlled and cinematic scene and you watch it play out around you – in this case, you’re playing a military officer who has been sent to arrest the leader of a highly militant and extremist Christian cult in Somewheresville, America (the game is very careful not to place it anywhere that could lead to any backlash, but the accents code it pretty clearly to somewhere in the South). You’re in the middle of the night, surrounded by highly armed cult members and because this is a video game where you have to shoot up lots of things, you’re pretty sure things are going to go wrong.
Which it does, about ten minutes later. You arrest the cult leader, but surprise surprise, your helicopter goes down because cult members kept climbing on it (with predictably bloody results). And then, in a gripping and terrifying moment, the help you’re calling on is… not coming. They’re part of the cult. You’ve been played by the cult leader who is imaginatively called The Father.
And then you’re dropped in the middle of a huge open world and given some vague direction as to what to do. Like every other goddamned open world game that’s been released in the past 15 years. You can go anywhere, collect resources, do side missions which have little variation, and roam around in a world that is meant to be a reflection of our own world but is suspiciously empty of life. All the work that Ubisoft has done to engage you in the game – and that opening interactive-ish cutscene is an incredible feat, one of the best deployments of the on-rails opener – dissipates.
It’s a common issue with open world games, and it’s not exactly revolutionary to bring it up. It doesn’t mean that these games are bad – god knows I’ve put in several hundred hours of my semi-precious life into Dragon Age: Inquisition, which commits similar sins to the ones I mention above – but in these Ubisoft games especially, it seems to run at odds with the games that the developers are actually trying to make. What that opening promises is a game full of huge cinematic setpieces, one that will rocket you along from one to the next, closer to Uncharted than anything else, but what immediately follows is a derailment of both pace and engagement. Why would you want to continue with the plot when there’s just so much to do?
And to its credit, Far Cry 5 is a solidly fun game. It shoots well, it drives well and it’s a genuine joy to run around the world and see what happens, at least when things are happening. The world is also gorgeous – it’s a clever twist on the usual setting for open world games (sad cities, sad deserts, sad mid-fantasy worlds) to go full rural America. From the deep green of the forests to the shimmering blues of the rivers, this is one of the more beautiful games of its generation. If there’s one thing Ubisoft does well, it’s make pretty pictures for you to look at while you wander around collecting hundreds of things for no discernable achievement other than a little trophy notification in the corner of the screen.
By now, open world games are more than just a genre, they’re an infection. Whether you’re playing a GTA-clone, an adventure game or hell, even an RPG like Final Fantasy XV, chances are it’s going to be open world and for whatever reason, they all end up being the same collect-a-thon with slightly different mechanics and different gadgets. These games either have a compelling story that decidedly not compelling gameplay distracts from, or a not-at-all worthwhile story that some super thoughtful and deep gameplay is designed to distract from. Very few games manage to balance the two, and Far Cry 5 is not one of those.
It’s unfair to put the blame for this entirely on Ubisoft, even if they are one of the biggest pioneers and proponents of open world games over the past few years. That is, the kind of the game which gives you a world that you can spend hours in, collecting meaningless things and doing countless repetitive missions – but also the kind of game that doesn’t give you a compelling reason to do any of that stuff. Sometimes developers manage to split the difference between a compelling narrative and an engaging sandbox – Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is a notable success – but most of the time it’s like putting different colours of lipstick on the same pig and hoping it’ll change the bacon.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing! These games can work, and they can be fun, but Far Cry 5 is clearly trying to be something more and something deeper. There’s an attempt at a critique of militant and extremist Christianity – or extremism in any religion – that is unfortunately muddled through cartoonish caricatures of the cult, The Project (which is about as generic a name as you can get). The leader of the cult has the names of the seven deadly sins tattooed over his body, including ‘Lust’ tattooed above his crotch. That’s the kind of cartoonish storytelling we’re dealing with.
This tone has been a staple of the Far Cry series throughout; it’s always feigned at depth while still staying firmly in the realm of silliness. You can argue that by portraying the cult and its ridiculous, stereotypical leaders as the villains the developers are criticising extremist religion, but simply making them villains and getting us to mow them down by the dozens is not exactly deep, throught-through critique. You have to kill things in Mario as well – it doesn’t mean that Mario is critiquing those things.
The cynic in me thinks that it’s just business as usual for the Far Cry series. It’s a gorgeously rendered sandbox that allows you to drive around, shoot up a bunch of things and not think too deeply about any of the implications of that stuff. But it’s clear the series wants to be more at this point. It wants to be deeper, more rigorous, and by the fifth entry Ubisoft should’ve worked out that more of the same is not going to cut it. Some of it is down to the limits of the genre – when you’re forced to spread yourself thin it’s hard to go very deep – and some of it is Ubisoft actually not firing where they’re aiming. It’s hard to find a resolution to that, other than a different approach to the series. And if it’s not completely broken, why the hell would you fix it?
This post, like all our gaming content, comes to your peepers only with the support of Bigpipe Broadband.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.