As you approach the cult compound in the opening minutes of the blockbuster open-world shooter Far Cry 5, the sheriff suggests "Sometimes it's best to leave well enough alone." Sure enough, before you arrest him and kick off the events of the campaign, the leader of The Project at Eden's Gate offers you the chance to walk away. The notion of backing down from a risky venture is one Ubisoft probably should have considered before they made a game about fighting Nazi white supremacists without ever addressing Nazis or white supremacy.
Joseph Seed and his acolytes are fond of loaded iconography. The symbol for the cult looks like a combination of the Christian cross, a compass and Germany's Iron Cross. In Montana's Hope County, it's about as common to hear a hymn as it is to see a bible verse etched on the side of a cabin. Far Cry 5 slathers these violent, Christian extremists with thick American imagery and also manages to say absolutely nothing about them. The commitment to avoiding political commentary with all these factors in play kind of impressive.
I was amazed to hear Grace Armstrong, one of several selectable sidekicks, sum up the game's major problem in an offhand line: "At the end of the day, Eden's Gate is just another drug cartel." And so, Far Cry 5 is just another Far Cry. That's not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to the part where you play the game, but the toothless narrative hook does dull the edges.
When you're finally let loose to roam the map, Far Cry 5 can be thrilling. Like Zelda: Breath of the Wild, following a brief introductory zone you're welcome to explore any of the game's areas, tackling missions and outposts and other objectives as you see fit. Between enemy AI, local animals and bonkers vehicle physics, the variables simmering beneath the surface of the world often collide and react in hilarious and memorable ways. Whatever algorithm controls the "Wild-Shit-o-Meter" is cranked up so high that it can be tough to enjoy the smaller, quieter moments, though. Sometimes you'll just have to watch a wolf on fire chase a drug zombie down a mountainside while a helicopter explodes in the sky before going back to fishing.
One of the best additions is the Guns for Hire system, which offers an array of AI-controlled buddies that will saddle up with you at a moment's notice. I'm particularly fond of Cheeseburger, a giant bear that basically min-maxed into Strength, Charisma and Murder. In addition to those sidekicks, Far Cry 5 is also playable in co-op from beginning to end, which is fantastic for those not lonely enough to make up DnD stats for an imaginary bear.
If Far Cry 5's Hope County is like Breath of the Wild's Hyrule, then Joseph Seed's lieutenants are basically the Divine Beasts. Over the course of my playthrough, I grew to dread my encounters with the Seed siblings. With only a couple exceptions, most of these face-to-face meetings played out in the same droll fashion. First comes a long cutscene, which consists of a character delivering an empty monologue to you about sinners, or culling the herd, or culling the sinners. They never get too specific with who the "sinners" are, or who they're actually talking about when they say they want to separate the strong from the weak. The heralds of Eden's Gate just swish their arms, motioning to a vague direction off to the side: "It's that part of America."
Following the sermon comes a corridor shooting segment which, while maybe distinctive visually, takes away the combat's trademark spontaneity. Even worse, these sections almost always rob you of your crucial sidekicks. While the lieutenant missions offer the densest amount of story content, I found myself rushing through them to get back to the context-free anarchy of the open world.
But often, the story doesn't offer you the luxury of ignoring it. Completing missions adds points to the Resistance Meter of a given area, and once the meter hits a certain level, the lieutenant sends out capture squads. You might be in a helicopter on your way to light up an outpost, or tracking down clues to puzzle out the path into one of the many loot-laden bunkers. The Fun Police don't care. The Fun Police want to drop you off for a lengthy sermon from one of the game's many pretentious beardos. The Divine Beasts were Zelda's weakest element, but at least they didn't teleport Link into the worst part of the game without an OK from the player. "Did you think you were free?" sneers one of the Seeds. Given the structure of previous games, yes, I don't believe that was an unreasonable assumption to have.
If the narrative or its characters were at all compelling, this might be a small quibble. But even the oblivious dudebro heroics of Far Cry 3 are preferable to the vacant struggle against Eden's Gate. The concept of "Red Dawn, but America is invaded by its own demons" should be riveting and eye-opening, but it's not even as satisfying and schlocky as the Patrick Swayze movie. Past the interview-style snippets that accent the opening cutscene, nobody in Far Cry 5 acknowledges that they're fighting their worst selves. When you liberate an outpost, you can tell the good guys are taking over because they're all clad in American flag-themed gear. These are the "real" Americans, not, you know, the cultist Americans.
Ubisoft can't claim ignorance either, as there are just enough small tidbits and sidemissions that show that someone on the dev team is aware of the current climate (one mission involves a politician asking you to "suppress votes" by killing cultists, all in the name of Making Montana Great Again).
This is all capped off by an ending so contemptuous and mean-spirited that it put me off from going back and cleaning up some of the objectives I wanted to clear out post-game. The climax seems tailored to provoke conversation, but it just made me resent the time I'd spent in Hope County.
At least Far Cry Arcade has potential on the long tail of this game, offering a powerful level editor that will undoubtedly prove worthwhile to those with the determination to master its overwhelming systems.
Far Cry 5 is at war with itself. On one side we have the joyful chaos of the open world, a well-realized Montana with just enough improvements to give it a leg up over its predecessor. On the other side, the tone-deaf narrative takes every chance it gets to kill the buzz by walking up close to your face to aggressively shout white noise. How much enjoyment you get out of the game will depend heavily on your tolerance for the latter. You're best off bringing a friend, even if that friend is a bloodthirsty bear.