Wednesday, April 11, 2018

REVIEW - Far Cry 5

Far Cry 5 is an open-world first-person shooter set in a secluded, fictional valley in modern day Montana.  A doomsday cult with vaguely Christian trappings has seized the county, cut off all communication with the outside world and turned it into a warzone, and it's up to you to kick bad guy butt and liberate the citizenry of Hope County.  The structure is largely identical to every other Far Cry game you've played - wander around a reasonably well-rendered rural landscape accepting missions, clear out enemy forts, kill everyone with a red triangle above their head, complete story and side missions, hunt wildlife with a bow or rocket launcher, depending on your mood, clear three huge swaths of real estate and their governing bosses and engage in kind-of-pointless side activities like fishing or extreme wingsuit races.

As the umpteenth entry in the Far Cry franchise, 5 retains all the familiar comforts of its predecessors.  Its AI is easy to understand, its gunplay is reasonably comfortable (though I had to crank the sensitivity up a lot on PS4), its stealth takedowns are super-satisfying and its graphics are rather lovely without really approaching gold standard open-world entries like Horizon: Zero Dawn or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.   Ever since 3 sanded down the grittier experience of 2, the Far Cry titles have offered reliable, predictably good times – and 5 is no different – but with 5 one gets the sense that we’ve arrived at the point where the formula has officially become a bit long in the tooth.  It’s just a touch less inspired than the games that preceded it.

It’s not that the moment-to-moment gameplay is bad – far from it!  This is a game that allows you to pick up a bow or a hunting shotgun or a huge light machine gun, safe in the knowledge that each offers a route to success that’ll be a lot of fun to execute in very different ways.  I have long adored games that pleasurably combine stealth and high-action gameplay (Galak-Z, The Last of Us, Horizon: Zero Dawn), and Far Cry remains a solid, enjoyable example. 

And let’s not forget, rare is the successful single-player open-world first-person action experience.   Seriously, count it out – there’s Dying Light/Dead Island from Techland, Far Cry from Ubisoft and… that’s it, we’re done counting.  Get outta’ here, Fallout and Elder Scrolls, your action is perfunctory at best! 

There’s something precious about what’s on offer here, and the combination of its easy-going systems and its aesthetic beauty – despite familiarity - remains effective.  Sneaking your way through a patch of wild grasses as you creep up on a placid, grazing deer on a mountain slope at sunset is absorbing and beautiful.  When an arrow hits home in Far Cry 5, it does so with a hugely satisfying thupp, and arcing one through a dude’s eye from 80 yards always feels terribly badass.  Tossing explosives at oncoming vehicles and mowing down small armies with a giant machine gun is still, somehow, an immersive thrill, and slapping a scope and silencer on such a vicious weapon gives one the same guilty buzz as cheating at cards.  It’s not fair, but it’s pretty damn fun. 

I’ve been sneakily sabotaging alarms and stealthily clearing Far Cry outposts for years, now, and I still get the sense of accomplishment when that last silent arrow slams home, time slows and the victory splash shows up, just like I did in 2012.  Far Cry 5 is fun. 

There's planes.  Also helicopters.  You can fly 'em!

The story of the cult leader, his lieutenants, the valley and you is rather crappy, all things considered.  Narrative has never been Far Cry’s strong suit, but 5 makes every other entry in the series look pretty rosy, by comparison.  There’s little of the crazed vitality that Vaas brought to Far Cry 3, none of the charisma of Pagan Min from 4, and I found myself pining for the gorgeous, expressive, lively in-engine cutscenes and performances of Far Cry Primal when suffering through 5’s consistent assault of boring, poorly-directed and often safely-acted verbage. 

I cannot remember the last game I skipped this many cutscenes in.  I tried to get into it.  I tried to let this lieutenant say their piece, but oh my God their hyper-hypocritical pseudo-religious stupidity is impossible to bear.  Each takes themselves completely seriously, and their exhausting monologues are entirely flat, uninteresting plods of words that seem to become more and more meaningless, empty and bereft of self-awareness as they progress.   It’s hard to engage with their ridiculous, self-serving notions of morality when you’re only subjected to their bent perspective and no one in the room turns around and suggests “you know you’re just lazily justifying torture, kidnapping, imprisonment and mass murder because you’re wackadoo crazy, right?”  I was so desperate for the voiced heroes of Far Crys past to sarcastically pin these idiots to the wall with their flaming hypocrisy that I ended up talking to my screen.  “You’re sure I’m the one with the sin of pride?  Really?  You don’t think it could maybe be the guy who’s convinced a bunch of morons that God talks only to him?  Yeah.  Yeah – nice man bun, by the way.”

This guy's a douche. 

It’s very dour.  Everything the bad guys pull in Hope County, Montana is horrifying, and one becomes a bit dulled to the sickness after a while.  Doing the side mission to score Jess Black was kind of emotionally torturous, as she goes into really, really gross detail about the guy we need to kill, and what he’s done.  You don’t need to tell me all this horrible stuff, Jess.  Bad guy, we kill, I get it – you’re honestly just depressing me, now. 

Supporting characters – your allies – are less boring than the game’s leads, but only mildly so.  They have a modicum of flavor and brash American personality to them, but one also quickly determines that no matter who you’re talking to or what they’re saying, the result is you will travel from Here to There, kill and/or collect something while There, and then possibly return to Here – which is expected, accepted and not offensive in and of itself – but they’ll take as long as humanly possible to explain their reason for it to the point that, again, I just started skipping them.   Your nine available AI companions are a different story – each is endearing in their own way, and swapping them out for each other leads to different observations and interactions – though if you put two together, you’ll have heard everything they have to say to each other within an hour.

I don’t want to get into the ending – we’ve likely already spoiled it on the podcast – but I’ll say I was profoundly disappointed with it to the point of disgust, and it kind of made me hate the game for more reasons than I already had. 

Hope County doesn't have rhinos, but seeing a moose charge a truck is pretty groovy.

Beyond the story, the reasons to hate it seem like unimportant, nitpicky things - but there's enough of 'em to warrant discussion.  It annoys me to no end that the button to loot a corpse or item is the same button you’ll use to pick up a weapon, and when there’s a weapon next to a corpse (every enemy drops their weapon when they die), the system always prefers to pick up their crappy weapon and drop my extensively customized bow or machine gun instead. 

Why?  How often do Ubisoft really think we’re going to want to give up our precious custom weapons for the vanilla items enemies drop? 

While the ambient soundtrack is seriously excellent, the radio stations are some of the poorest I’ve experienced in gaming, with one controlled by the cult and offering modern gospel or folk-rock takes on their weird songs.  The others are very mixed-bag playlists, with some all-time classics (Keep Your Hands to Yourself by the Georgia Satellites!) next to songs that you’ve probably never heard before, and haven’t been licensed by other games because they’re not good music

Why are companions unavailable for a full ten minutes if they die in combat (or more? It feels like more)?  didn’t blow up that big rig and send Cheeseburger to the great McDonald’s in the sky, but I’ll sure suffer for it! 

How come I can – in the height of ridiculous customization – slap a silencer and a scope on a LMG heavy weapon or a shotgun, but not a .44 revolver?  That seems terribly arbitrary, and dissatisfying.

The weapon selection feels a bit anemic and samey when compared to other numbered Far Cry entries – a bit of a shock following Primal, which somehow managed to make a tiny selection of clubs, spears and bows feel hugely rewarding.  Why are some classic, iconic American weapons represented here (lever-action shotgun, lever-action .45 rifle) but not others?  Far Cry: Blood Dragon understood that some weapons are real-world fantasy items that we want to play with – Jesse Ventura’s minigun from Predator (or Arnie’s from T2), for example – but Far Cry 5, while being set in the most gun-crazy country in the world, has pretty much the same assortment of weapons you remember from and 4.  A lost opportunity, there, to mine joy from the setting. 

What happened to the fantastic vehicle takedowns from 4 that let you leap from your car onto your enemy’s, rip open the door and kick them out of the cab of their truck?  Was it just too awesome to live?  ‘Cause it was awesomeand it ain’t here. 

Why on Earth does this game have a system for microtransactions?  There are around two dozen weapons and vehicles available to buy that have identical stats to vanilla versions, but they’re called “prestige” items because they have… a different paint job.  And you can buy them with a different currency that you can pay real money for! 

Ugh, Ubisoft. 

What sick world is this where common dog and noted very good boy Boomer can’t sit in the passenger seat of a car?

Ubisoft?  Ugh

Boomer and his ilk – nine AI companions that you can recruit, with up to two running around with you at any given time – are 5’s most pleasant addition to the Far Cry formula.  A riff on and refinement of the wealth of animal companions you could seduce in Primal, they are both your best in-game buds and a reflection of your combat style – your spec, if you will, beyond where you spend your perk points.  One’s got an attack chopper, another’s got a fighting seaplane.  If you’ve got eyes on a particularly rough-looking enemy fort, you can call in double aerial support to pretty spectacular effect.  If you prefer shock and awe, you can bring a dude with a rocket launcher and little common sense, and one with a flamethrower.  As a sneaky-stealthy type, I stuck almost-exclusively to Peaches the (literal) cougar and traumatized archer Jess Black – both of whom are pretty good at keeping a low profile – but no matter how you roll, you’ll find Far Cry 5 offers an AI buddy that lets you do your thing even better. 

The other major change is the complete lack of an XP bar, and the fact that your skill trees are less trees than a collection of individual shrubs you can select at almost any time. If you want to save up enough perk points to go straight for heavy weapons mastery or takedowns or faster sneaking, you’re free to.  It’s liberating, but somehow less satisfying than working your way up a skill tree towards that one all-important skill you’re dying to have. No longer bound to simply leveling up, you earn perk points by completing simple challenges (kill X enemies with Y), missions, and discovering perk point magazines in prepper stashes that are tantalizingly common across the map. 

The prepper stashes are awesome. 

Each one is a bit different from the next – a puzzle or a bit of combat or some rather intense platforming that may have you swinging gleefully beneath a bridge to reach a hidden nest of items – but each invariably ends with a pile of cash money and three precious perk point magazines.  When you get bored of missions and just want to earn that next important perk, mainlining prepper stashes is a sure path to joy.  They’re quick, satisfying and ever-so-rewarding. 

Jess Black - awesome, but depressing.  Notable quotable: "Our shit is tight."

And it’s the gameplay itself that’s rewarding and enjoyable in Far Cry 5.  It is for the most part much the same as the gameplay you loved in Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 and Blood Dragon and Primal, but a good thing is somehow still good, even after so much repetition.  Going for a hike through some woods that look so much like the woods I wandered through as a kid is seductive, beautiful and absorbing. 

It’s a shame that access to Far Cry’s lovely immersion and tactical joy is so-regularly interrupted by 5’s stifling, depressing, tone-deaf attempts at narrative – and made a bit rougher by a selection of strange design choices – but a good-looking, fun, capable open-world first-person shooter is still a rare breed.  It’s so pleasant, in fact, that after its rage-inducing ending, I actually wanted to start up a fresh game – just so I could wander through some farmland, hunting deer with a simple bow and no perks again. 

‘Cause that’s fun.  That’s a good time. 

I started the game up, and realized I couldn’t skip its long opening cutscene, so I went for a cigarette.  When I came back, the game was waiting for me to press forward on the analog stick, to slowly walk my avatar through the opening sequence (which doesn’t hold a candle to Far Cry 3’s adrenaline-fueled beginning).  I could access all that stuff I enjoyed, if only I would engage in Far Cry 5’s story for a few minutes. 

I thought about it for a second, and uninstalled it.  Once was enough. 

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