After years playing at guerilla warfare in foreign countries, Far Cry now brings the terror home to the U.S. of A. In Far Cry 5, the despot of the day is Joseph Seed, a hyper-evangelical doomsday preacher who, with his apostolic family, has completely taken over an entire chunk of Montana and enslaved most of its populace using a mix of hallucinogens and old-time religion. You play as a deputy federal marshal—gender and skin color customizable at the game’s outset—who gets sent in with a small fire team to Seed’s compound with a warrant for his arrest. In Far Cry 5’s most unnerving sequence, the arrest goes awry, eventually leaving your deputy broken, bleeding, and half mad scrambling through the backwoods for help, with his or her entire team killed or taken captive by the cult—and with no backup coming.
This would be a uniquely effective setup for a Triple-A title if that game, Outlast 2, didn’t already exist. For all of that game’s faults—chief among them its poorly designed enemies, propensity to lean on shock value, and spiteful cynicism about even the idea of someone choosing to pray to a god at all—it took full narrative advantage of the justified fear of a certain brand of American zealotry. It had the courage to have a conviction, to allow itself to feel disgust, dread, even pity toward its cult. It allowed its protagonist to have his own relationship with faith and internalize the effects of that faith.
Outlast 2 wasn’t subtle, but its approach to exploring the worst aspects of religious fanaticism is far more appropriate to the game’s material than Far Cry’s cartoonish approach to, well, pretty much everything. With the exception of the surprisingly thoughtful Far Cry Primal, all of the Far Cry games have been outlandish to varying degrees. It’s not an accident that the series’s best entry—the gleefully ridiculous Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon—drops the pretense of realism altogether. Far Cry 5 has no convictions. It lacks the courage to say anything about its proximity to very real problems, at a time when “they’re just characters in a video game” has never been further from the truth.
With this entry, the Far Cry series has suddenly decided to crib story ideas from real American nightmares: the Ammon Bundy standoff, Jonestown, the Heaven’s Gate cult, Waco, the Westboro Baptist Church. It indulges a certain level of ejaculatory N.R.A. fantasy about a day when the Second Amendment saves the world, when all those guns hoarded by frightened men, all those survivalist bunkers, all that cynical preparation for the collapse of society proves useful. A regular supply item in this game is called a Prepper Pack. Major secrets are hidden in bunkers filled with canned food and ammo. These little hat tips toward the gun-toting survivalist sect might’ve been worthy of an eye roll had the game come out, say, prior to 2016. But at this particular moment in American life, those tips of the hat feel downright sinister.
Once the game takes your unnamed deputy marshal off rails, you wake up in a bunker run by a gravelly vet named Dutch who gives you the lowdown on how Montana’s good citizens are resisting the cult, and there are zero scenarios that don’t amount to “I know a guy who has a lot of guns, and if you help kill all the cultists on his property, he might give you some.” The fine details might vary—maybe the cult took over a fertilizer company to make drugs, maybe it cut some phone lines, maybe its members decided to occupy a small town or a trailer park—but there’s nary a problem to be solved that doesn’t involve gunning down any long-haired Jesus freak in a white outfit you come across. Beating one mission means the people you liberated have another mission for you, usually involving procuring more weapons. You earn Resistance Points for every mission, and as you free more of the county from the yoke of the cult, you can eventually earn enough points in that area to take down the Seed relative in charge of that area in a big, dramatic showdown.
In fairness, and Blood Dragon and Far Cry Primal notwithstanding, this isn’t any different from the way every Far Cry game operates; this game’s only real tweak to the formula is that you’re not flitting back and forth between rival factions vying for supremacy. You’re also not constantly climbing radio towers for long stretches, which is a tiny blessing. Divorce it from its narrative and Far Cry 5’s biggest overall problem is just how little mechanical innovation separates the game from Far Cry 4. Once the entire county opens up for exploration, you set about finding a weapon set and vehicle you’re comfortable and effective with, and once you do, you can steamroll through the rest of the game with it. At that point, you are your own cavalry. Co-op becomes redundant, as do the NPC partners you gain. Even the novelty of having animal companions is a step backward from the previous titles. Having your own bear friend around to maul enemies is kind of old hat when you’ve spent a previous game riding an elephant or saber-toothed tiger into battle.
In context, though, Far Cry operating as if it’s business as usual is the series at its most oblivious. Far Cry 5 takes place in a Montana with no indigenous population, but there’s black people on every corner, which is more hilariously implausible than owning a pet bear. And whether intentionally or not, the game gives glory to a brand of grassroots militia fetishism that, just days before the its release, millions of Americans marched in the streets to oppose. It posits that people would need to be brainwashed to follow men like Joseph Seed, blind to how deep Christian fanaticism already runs, and how many would follow such a man if he only said the word “please.”