First impressions of Ubisoft's dark American twist on its chaotic survival sandbox
You were probably zero percent surprised that Ubisoft announced a new Far Cry – it's about that time, after all – but surely the news that it's set in America came as a bit of a shock, right? The next installment in the series that we so closely associate with far-flung locales and unhinged, foreign antagonists is set in what would seem to be realest stretch of "real" America possible – Hope County, Montana, a fictional rural locale that's all about, to quote Ubisoft, "Freedom, Faith, and Firearms." Instead of a loony pirate lord or a vicious Himalayan monarch, your tormentor in Far Cry 5 is Father Joseph, a messianic cult leader with a sweet, sprawling compound, a fanatical militia, and seemingly vice-like grip on Hope County.
Miguel and Rachel saw Far Cry 5 ahead of today's formal reveal, in case you're curious what two distinct flavors of foreigner think about Ubisoft's brazen take on rural America.
Miguel: So we're in America now. It's significant for Far Cry, a series with a history of taking us to places (and putting us amongst people) we're encouraged to think of as dangerous and exotic: Africa, the Himalayas, whatever island in the Pacific houses Far Cry 3 villain Vaas and his pirate fiefdom. Even prehistoric Pangaea! It's bold, too: a good portion of us probably live within driving distance of a place like Far Cry 5's Hope County, Montana. At the reveal event last week, executive producer Dan Hay put it in context by describing a feeling he has more and more these days: a sense that our culture is in a fragile place, teetering on the edge of fracture, maybe about to go somewhere real bad. It reminds him, he said, of how he felt as a kid witnessing the Cuban Missile Crisis, but in place of nuclear annihilation, the threat is the pervasive, curdling nationalism that gave us Trump, and Brexit, and those wonderful looping gifs of white nationalist Richard Spencer getting punched in the face.
So here we are: Trump County, Montana. Hope County, I mean! Sorry! It's a place of prepper-ism, and crazed millenarian militias – a slice of video game America where the shittiest Infowars nightmare scenarios feel like they could maybe actually happen. Kill the Feds! Crucify fornicators! Let's have a race war! On one hand, it feels completely right for Far Cry, a series that traffics in absurd, lurid caricatures like Vaas (he and Father Joseph would totally get along were it not for, you know, the race thing) – a game that's basically about setting wild animals loose on heavily-armed, secure encampments. But it also feels kind of wrong to fixate the guns-and-God militia stuff, which is really but a symptom of what's killing white working class America, and is way beyond the scope of this take to tackle (though one of your allies in the game had better be a sketchy doctor who sells fake benzo scrips).
Rachel, you also saw the game, and you reacted to something completely different: the implicit horror of the rural American setting. I know one thing: I'd be scared as fuck if I had to travel through real-life militia country, let alone this funhouse mirror of it.
Rachel: Rural America is a familiar hellscape to any horror fan: think Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Children Of The Corn, The Hills Have Eyes. It's basically hillbilly horror, and we've seen it creeping into games this year too with Resident Evil 7 and Outlast 2. It's the idea that, away from prying metropolitan eyes and surveillance, old ideas and ways can thrive and fester, that there are different rules out in the sticks that your fancy city cops can't help you with. Hell, the cops out there are the last people you want to be running to.
What's interesting to me about Far Cry 5 is that actually – for all its horror heritage – this feels like the most realistic setting the series has chosen so far, and certainly the most political. In the past it always played with cultural tourism – temples and tribes and Shangri-La hallucinations – now it's white, religious America that is being presented as the "other," the thing to be feared. I'm fascinated to see how that's going to play out not just in the game but with the intended audience.
I'm down for anything that touches on the idea of preppers, too. I got hooked on the National Geographic Channel's Doomsday Preppers when it was on the UK and that fascination has never really gone away. If anything, it feels more valid than ever: a recent article in The New Yorker revealed that the rich dudes of Silicon Valley are channeling their cash reserves into being ready for the apocalypse. At some point, you have to wonder if it isn't worth packing a go bag. When I was talking to Hay after his presentation, it was clear that at least some of the prepper paranoia had got to him. After his research trip to Montana, he swapped his Prius for an SUV. I really want to feel that sense of impending doom in the game. That matters to me way more than a crazed despot on in a mythical, tropical paradise.
So I'm saying the idea is solid, but I'm not sure how the Far Cry gameplay madness will fit with these bigger ideas.
Miguel: Dan Hay traded up to an SUV after hanging with the preppers? Why? It's stuff like this that makes me wonder whether I am in fact just a dumb sheep, and that these "paranoid" folks got it right. Probably won't have to wait too long to find out. Side note: I'd pay good bitcoin for a Far Cry 5 DLC that takes place in one of those Silicon Valley guys' compounds post-collapse. Dan Hay, call me.
As for whether the project of Far Cry could flourish in Montana's militia country, I think yes, for sure. As people who live in the U.S., I think it's easy for us to dismiss this sort of setting as ordinary, especially when set against the "exotic" places we're accustomed to going in Far Cry. But, like, Google image search "Montana." It's gorgeous! It could totally be a credible and stirring game setting. And, sure, there aren't elephants or leopards in rural Montana, but in the very brief gameplay video Hay showed us, we saw attack dogs and a particularly ornery steer. Given that the game takes place deep in the country, it would stand to reason that we might also see grizzly bears or mountain lions or bison roaming around. Maybe a bald eagle, to peck out Father Joseph's eyes in the ending cutscene?
In my mind, all Far Cry needs to be Far Cry is precisely the sort of anything-goes sandbox alchemy that comes to mind when we think of it, and I believe it could find a fine home in rural America. You'll be able to fly weaponized crop-dusters, which seems right on the money. Imagine the kind of stuff you can do with a tricked-out commercial lawnmower. Do you think Ubisoft got the John Deere license? I smell a missed opportunity.
More importantly, Rachel: are you afraid that the ability to go buckwild in this kind of Far Cry sandbox, with all the absurdity it implies, will make the game inherently less scary?
Rachel: And the bald eagle was named... America.
I think games like Dead Rising have proved that you make your choice between "scary" and "sandbox." I'm really just hoping that Far Cry 5 has the narrative chops to make it seem fun (rather than uncomfortable) when a bull gores militiamen. It's touchy subject matter. Cults come with serious baggage – as any who has image searched the Jonestown massacre will know – and I want to have my corn cake and eat it. I want to rain death from above in a crop-duster and be emotionally affected by the plight of families torn apart by Father John's cult. Is that so much to ask? Probably.
My theory for the ending: the cultists are right, the collapse is coming, and just when it seems like you've "freed" all the people they've stolen from the town, it turns out you've actually doomed them all. End scene, mic drop, roll credits.
Miguel: You've got me 100 percent convinced. I've already got the beard, and I'm OK wearing flannel everyday, like the feral hipsters we saw in the gameplay clip. You think Father John is cool with Latinos joining his cult? I can strategically mask my name, Oscar Isaac-style. Where do I sign up?
As for Far Cry 5 itself, I guess I'm similarly convinced, at least as far as the basic viability of the premise goes. Rural Montana is a totally worthy setting for Far Cry, and I think the head of a millenarian cult is spot on for a villain. What I'm skeptical of is whether the game will be able to muster the gravitas to do what you describe, Rachel: make it so that I take the world and people seriously and still be a fun, whacked-out Far Cry sandbox. Far Cry 5 looks like it's trying to make a comment on big things really going on right now in America, and it would seem to me like a pretty hard thing to do when your medium is an open-world sandbox shooter.
But in the end, who knows, right? Ubisoft is the publisher that brought us de Blob.