‘Far Cry 5’ Review: All Games Are Illusions, But This Is Nothing More
The first playable moments of Far Cry 5 are a chase—but you’re the one being pursued. You’re a nameless, silent police deputy fleeing from radical doomsday cultists who intend to gun you down. Feet pounding through the woods of rural Montana, you run, bullets whizzing past your head as you barely manage to escape.
As I did this, I noticed something peculiar. While the intensity of the music and the scene’s framing never changed, eventually my character stopped taking damage, and the semicircles on the screen indicating enemy attention faded. I stopped running. Nothing happened. I waited for my health to recharge, and I walked, calmly and serenely, away from a threat that didn’t exist. The danger, it turned out, was just an illusion.
Videogames are rife with trickery. It’s a known truism of game design that if the player doesn’t need to see it, it probably doesn’t exist. Buildings in the background don’t have roofs; the floor only extends to the final reachable hallway; there’s no grass, green or otherwise, on the other side of the fence. What matters is only what’s visible. The rest is a magic trick, all smoke and mirrors.
But Far Cry 5 is a game full of more trickery than most. It’s built on malignant illusions that are meant to confound you, but serve only to rob the game of both drama and substance. In every game, the experience only holds up as far as you can see it. In Far Cry 5, the experience doesn’t even hold up that far.
Far Cry 5, like its predecessors, is a game about fighting across wide outdoor spaces, reclaiming a lush and beautiful place through a series of pitched gunfights. It’s battle tourism. But unlike earlier games, which took place in the types of scenery that Americans exoticize through ignorance—anonymous islands in the Pacific, war-torn countries in Sub-Saharan Africa—the fifth entry in Ubisoft’s open-world series exoticizes Americans’ own backyard. In rural Montana, a fictional county of good ol’ boys and girls has been overrun by a fictional doomsday cult called the Project at Eden’s Gate. (Anti-cultists have acronymized the group, calling its members “Peggies.”) Your charge is to fight to liberate the American frontier from the murderous cult, and your compatriots are the people Far Cry 5 imagines populate rural Montana: eccentric hunters, doomsday preppers, and gun-toting preachers.
In a 2016 Mother Jones expose on America’s self-organized border militias, what reporter Shane Bauer found was a hotbed of paranoia—lonely men with guns and grudges wandering the Rio Grande River Valley looking for things that didn’t exist. Their encounters are mostly with enemies that clearly don’t exist. The people they do find, and who they insist are enemies that need monitoring, are likely not drug smugglers or criminals. Just poor migrants. Innocent people looking for a better life. Families. To operate in this paramilitary world is to surround yourself with illusions.
In Far Cry 5, these phantom-hunters are your squadmates. The safest places are bunkers stocked with illegal weapons. Militiamen fight alongside you against the cult. Your most sympathetic allies are shellshocked veterans who dearly need good psychological care. The least sympathetic are gun-toting maniacs. Ignoring that the culture of doomsday prepping is largely motivated in real life by xenophobia and a paranoid fear of gun control, that its champions are not folk heroes but men like the Bundys, this game has built a world where these preppers and pretend soldiers are heroes.
To do this, the game hangs everything on the militant violence of its cult. It doesn’t matter that in real life cults are rarely outwardly violent, nor that they usually find ways to slot themselves into their communities in ways that appear constructive. In this world, the Peggies are unreal, even monstrous enemies, fueled by violence-inducing mind-control drugs and the flimsy propaganda of their mildly charismatic leader (a David Koresh lookalike named Joseph Seed) to go to war in the countryside. They’re the embodiment of the paranoid illusions of real-world militiamen and preppers.
But just like the chase at the beginning of the game, the Project at Eden’s Gate is an illusion that falls apart under thirty seconds of sustained attention. This cult has no coherent doctrine, and its structure doesn’t resemble real-world cults in the slightest. You never see people at worship, or play. There aren’t any children. During the rhythms of play, the player will likely discover several barracks, wood cabins full of bunk beds and personal effects. But no one, even in the dead of night, will ever be sleeping.
Some of these breaches of reality are normal in videogames, and can be acceptable under the right circumstances, but here they combine with the game’s muddled, half-made-up politics and anthropology to construct the sense of a game entirely beholden to its own tricks but without the skill to properly hide them. And Far Cry 5 does all of this, wildly contorting its setting and its play, in the interest of hollowing out a real-world place and a real-world set of sociopolitical circumstances until it resembles a playground. All is done in the name of good fun.
Running, sneaking, and shooting against the backdrop of rural Americana is, occasionally, fun. But it’s never good. The flimsiness of the game’s illusions, instead of providing freedom for the player, simply rob the game’s violence of substance. From a distance, you would be forgiven for thinking that Far Cry 5, a game that advertised itself with charged imagery of patriotism and white supremacy run amok, would have something to say. Instead, it has nothing to say and offers the player little of interest to do. The only mildly compelling part of the game is its ending, and by then it’s far too late to redeem the prior 20 hours spent wandering around a hall of mirrors.
I’m no enemy of violence in games, but I do insist that violence be made to matter in games. There is not a single gunfight in Far Cry 5 that does anything to convince the player to care. All this game offers is an opportunity to stand alongside people most of us would find abhorrent in real life and shoot digital guns at unconvincing ghosts. Far Cry 5 is an amateur magic trick. And players deserve better.