Far Cry 5, the latest in the open-world, first-person-shooter franchise, is at its most compelling—and most promising—before the game even begins.
Its title screen depicts a nationalist Last Supper. A man in yellow-tinted aviators sits in the center, arms spread like Jesus’s in da Vinci’s painting, but he stares directly at you. The (white, male) disciples surround him, and an American flag sits beneath a book before him. Guns litter the ground, and a shirtless man is hunched over, the word “Sinner” scrawled into his back.
You’re greeted with a message: “This game takes place in a modern universe and is inspired by reality.”
Welcome to America, it says.
The Far Cry series has long been telling stories of Americans abroad—Africa, the Pacific Islands, the Himalayas—so transplanting its take on the open-world genre to the fictional Hope County in the actual state of Montana feels deliberately provocative. Likewise, that title screen seems designed to provoke controversy. And why not? But the nationalism ends there—from the bad guys, at least.
You’re a silent protagonist: a sheriff’s deputy. In the opening minutes, you accompany three others to arrest The Father, the leader of a religious cult known as Project at Eden’s Gate. You watch a vertical video in preparation, taken in secret by a cameraman who is caught and punished by having his eyes pressed into his skull. That’s all the motivation you need. Your helicopter touches down, and you walk straight into hell.
Quickly, you see something strange about the congregation. It’s not the cult imagery or the threatening hollers from dozens of The Father’s followers—it’s their demographics. I don’t know much about Montana, but I do know that it’s really white; according to the 2016 Census, 89.2 percent white.
So why does Hope County appear to have more non-white people than the real Montana? It’s disingenuous and a deliberately missed opportunity to tell a story that takes place in a “modern universe…inspired by reality.” The Project at Eden’s Gate, as the cult is known, feels bland—passé even. The figureheads each play into a different stereotype—the televangelist, the drug-pusher, the militant—but only the latter speaks to the current moment, and even that isn’t properly explored. What role does a Christian-adjacent religious cult play in the chaos of 2018? I’m not entirely sure, and Far Cry 5 doesn’t seem to know either.
The PEG is anti-government as a matter of course, but it’s defiantly apolitical. The Father whips up his group into a frenzy telling them that you and your cohort have come to take their guns, their freedom, and their faith. For just a moment, you give the game credit for making a statement. You think this because you haven’t yet met the man who will be your radio companion for the rest of your adventure. His name is Dutch, and he is the kind of American that a large swath of the country is actually concerned about: an armed-to-the-teeth, bunker-dwelling paranoiac. He’s a man who goes to court and shouts, “The government’s stealing our resources out from under us! It’s up to us to defend our individual rights and liberties!” His son sends a letter asking him to stop it with the homeschooling talk.
Hours later, you run into a man who wields a flamethrower and brags about his own anti-government actions. He baits cultists with disco music and cleanses them with fire; he is on your side and you fight with him. Not too long after that, a would-be state Senate candidate rails against, and I quote, “Obama-loving libtards,” a phrase that may have felt edgy when it was written. Your only given reason for helping this man is that he didn’t shoot you for walking onto his property, even though “it is [his] right.” You have missions to do for each of them, ranging mostly from the dumb-but-fun to the straight-up-boring. They have personalities—generally showcased in the form of long-winded monologues that cannot be skipped. Many of them are gross, and not in a gory way but a “Wow, what an awful person” way.
What’s really the cult, and who are really the cultists? Far Cry 5 may not be asking that, but it does make you consider it. There’s nothing behind the dead eyes of the hundreds or thousands of so-called PEGgies that you mow down. Some of them are literally zombie-like, their minds so infected with a drug called Bliss that they’re just shambling husks—and the rest may as well be for all the humanity they show. All of them are bullet fodder; you’re not there to liberate but to exterminate.
Far Cry 5 could have grappled with this, of course. It could have taken a page from the 2012 military shooter Spec Ops: The Line, which used American enemies in part to push the player to question their role and motivations. It doesn’t. The promise of its title screen and the potential of its moral quandary are ignored, and instead we get purely superficial provocations. The corpses that litter the outposts are disturbing, of course. Sometimes they’re burned, others nailed up, but even that is a missed opportunity to play up the sickness of the cult. Its supposed villains are caricatures of evil but say nothing in the process.
Still, having such an open world means the story is only a piece of the puzzle. The quality of these games is measured not by the beats of a predefined narrative but by the unique moments of a player-driven experience. They’re the moments when you do or see something awesome and want to text your friend about it, because even if they play the game they won’t see what you just saw. Being another entry into a well-regarded franchise, Far Cry 5’s fundamental mechanics are solid. Ever since Far Cry 2 inspired players to delete their saves after a single death and start the experience over again, the series has been lauded for its ability to build emergent experiences.
The game world must feel alive, then, and sometimes it does: when a cougar attacks a cult member of its own volition or the fire of a Molotov cocktail spreads through the tall grass. America is not, however, found in the recitation of supposed rights. It’s in the open field with a baseball diamond—an arching fence just behind home plate, like the one found in most towns across the country. But the moment is fleeting, and the diamond is empty.