Somewhere in Hope County, Montana, there's a bear called Cheeseburger. We're telling you this because it's important. Cheeseburger, you see, is a freedom fighting bear working with its human friends to take down a religious cult fronted by a family of mean (presumably bear-hating) zealots called the Seeds. Cheeseburger hates this doomsday cult - Peggies, as they're called by the locals - and through thick and thin it'll be by your side, fighting the good fight, pausing from all the mauling only to take down the odd tasty meat sandwich treat.
Cheeseburger is also a symbol of what Far Cry has become as we approach the release of the fifth numbered iteration in the series (not counting previous spin-offs such as Primal). It's a servant to two masters, a game trying to keep everyone happy by mixing together mature themes and absurd elements. On the one hand, it offers a wealth of systems that overlap and feed into each other, creating an expressive sandbox experience, while on the other it drags the player across a huge map filled with activities that all feed into a powerful overarching narrative. It's turbo-charged explosions and animal companions, but it's set in an oppressive world filled with the bodies of dead civilians, strung up in public to demonstrate the price of the dissent. It's hilarious co-op anarchy, a gritty single-player adventure, and it's even things we're not allowed to tell you about just yet. You could argue that it's trying to be a jack of all trades, but if that's the case and as the old saying goes, does it risk being a master of none?
We're going to dodge the question by saying that it's too early to say with any certainty. We sat down with Far Cry 5 for nearly four hours in Paris earlier this week, playing through the opening of the game alone, before exploring one section of the open world in co-op with a colleague. Based on this admittedly small slice of the game, we're definitely looking forward to playing it through when it launches later this month, although we have to say that there's also a bit of concern that lingers after our hands-on session. But we'll get to that later.
The most encouraging thing we have to report is the setting: it's brilliant. If you were to believe some of the characters in-game you'd think it was the end of the world as we know it, but we're totally fine with that if the apocalypse is this much fun. In Far Cry 2 we explored Africa, in 3 we were back in paradise, and in 4 we were climbing mountains in the Himalayas. Along the way we've dabbled in neon sci-fi and stone age squabbles, but you could argue that while the villains have become increasingly outlandish, the worlds we've wrestled from their control have, in contrast, become less interesting - polished to the extent that they'd started to feel a little sterile. In Far Cry 5 this new world is, thanks to its location, strikingly relevant, and its chief villains carry more threat as a result. There are no pink suits here - just scars, tattoos, blood, and death.
The opening is a cinematic treat, with you and a team of fellow law enforcement officers heading into the compound owned and operated by Joseph Seed and his following, the Project at Eden's Gate. It's an intimidating start that introduces us to all of the major players, with Joseph and his siblings surrounded by their heavily armed and equally menacing disciples. We flew in by helicopter before walking a gauntlet of piercing stares into a church where the arrest takes place. We'll not spoil what happens thereafter, but needless to say it doesn't go well, and before long the US Marshall and local officers are scattered to the winds and the player - this time a customisable man or woman and not a pre-rolled character - is rescued by a survivalist called Dutch. It's in the relative safety of Dutch's home/bunker that we start our mission in earnest, that being to establish a resistance and take the fight to Seed and his flock.
So far, so good. Ubisoft has demonstrated time and time again that it can deliver high-quality open world adventures and Far Cry 5 looks set to continue this tradition. That said, a fair observation you can make about the publisher's major releases is that there is a lot of cross-pollination when it comes to features and mechanics. Assassin's Creed bleeds into Watch Dogs which in turn lends ideas to Ghost Recon. While being unique in their own right, these games also feel distinctly Ubisoft, and Far Cry 5 is no different. The publisher has a number of extremely capable studios working together in tandem to build these complicated worlds and fill them with distractions for players to discover, but there's always the sense that even tonally different games set in different times and places can, at certain moments, feel overly familiar.
In Far Cry 5, particularly in the co-op mode and when playing with for-hire NPC characters, we felt the influence of Ghost Recon: Wildlands, and there's a strong emphasis on coordinating small squads in combat. While we didn't get the chance to take Cheeseburger out for lunch, and Boomer wasn't there to play fetch (the devs hinted at another named animal companion too), we did get to rescue one guy called Dan Smith from certain death, who then joined us as an AI companion for part of our adventure. You can direct AI buddies around and have them target specific enemies (which might be exploitable for savvy players who take advantage of the fact that AI characters are unbelievably stealthy), or just let them tag along and follow you into battle, it's up to you. You can have a couple of NPC characters tagging along, or you can bring a friend along for the ride, but either way it feels like a greater emphasis has been placed on cooperative combat this time around.
Regardless of who's got your back, much of the Far Cry formula is retained, as we were jumping out of cars and onto quad bikes, piloting choppers, and sliding down zip lines. There's a bow (we'd have gone on strike if there wasn't one - Far Cry does the best bows) and melee attacks for stealthy players, not to mention an assortment of louder weapons to suit all situations. One interesting observation is that, when attacked by an animal out in the wild, your weapon is put away and needs to be re-drawn. We're not sure whether that's by design or a bug, however. On the subject of animals, once again we'll be hunting all creatures great and small, but we have to admit that we were surprised by the sheer number of wild animals in the game, to the point where we must have killed what felt like a dozen or so bears, as well as wolves and even the odd wolverine. These beasts were attacking the local population with alarming frequency, and it felt a little forced (it was a demo, maybe it was and numbers will be lower come the final game). We'll also be skinning said wildlife to craft gear, so we were told, and using their flesh as tactical bait to lure other wildlife into certain situations. Interacting with nature, albeit outrageously, is a Far Cry staple, but it felt like Ubisoft had dialled it up to 11 and we're interested to see how it feels in the full game if that remains the case.
Another thing that seems intact is the sandbox gameplay the series is best known for. Emergent anarchy has always made an appearance in Far Cry, and 5 is no different in this respect. We were promised more new toys to play with, and given the range of weapons we had at our disposal during the hands-on, it seems as though this traditional gameplay pillar is still standing strong. During one sequence we piled into a battle on a bridge with various enemy soldiers, and as more and more turned up, so did the danger levels, and our co-op buddy bit a bullet in the ensuing gun battle. We almost followed suit and had to dive off the bridge and swim to safety, patching ourselves up before flanking the remaining soldiers to conclude the battle. During another sequence, this time alone, we stealthily crept into an outpost, putting arrows in patrolling guards before disarming the alarms and going loud to finish off the stragglers. Whether you like bullets or arrows, blades or grenades, Far Cry 5 seems to have you covered.
After being rescued by Dutch we were given a brief look at the customisation options open to us before we were sent off to start the resistance, our ultimate goal being to reclaim the local area and then the whole region/valley from the Seed family. There are four main ways players can do this: rescue civilians, take down outposts, destroy cult property, and complete missions for Dutch and his friends. The idea is that you're constantly building your strength, working with the locals already fighting back against the cult. The map is split into three distinct regions, and like Wildlands each one is controlled by an underboss. New to Far Cry, instead of following the linear path of a story, players now need to attract the attention of the local bosses by aggressively introducing themselves to the local cultist forces. Once you've filled a meter you'll have pissed one of them off to the extent that they'll come looking for you, although we're interested to see what kind of activities provoke the biggest reactions from them and whether Ubisoft can make getting their attention feel organic and natural instead of a grind to reach a particular threshold.
While there has still been an element of structural overhaul, Far Cry 5 felt reassuringly familiar with larger than life bosses and a mix of action-packed set pieces and stealthy, tactical outpost battles. Throw in wild animals that live in a busy world built on emergent gameplay and player freedom, and you've got all of the ingredients that make the series what it is. Worryingly, though, a couple of issues that we've seen in earlier builds seem to persist, and most notably hit detection seemed a little inconsistent. We heard of a number of minor issues experienced by other players at the same event, but nothing we can verify or that affected us directly, but it seems as though there are a few bugs to fix over the next month. It would be a shame if it launched undercooked, especially when from a technical perspective there is plenty to praise; as you can see from the gameplay attached, it looks a visual treat, and the world itself seems huge and full of things to discover.
Once again it looks like Ubisoft has laid on a veritable feast for players, and we're genuinely excited to play it again in a few weeks. Much of our excitement stems from the return of the gameplay we know and enjoy, as much as the reinvigorated narrative element that's getting a much-needed overhaul following 4 and Primal. Still, the tone needs to be pitched just right, because they've picked a setting and theme with potential punch, and it'd be a shame if all that menacing gravitas got eaten up by a burger-eating brown bear. The Far Cry series has always done a good job of balancing action and stealth, blending severity with hypnotic madness, and we're hoping that Far Cry 5 can continue this balancing act. Come March 27 we'll find out whether Ubisoft has succeeded.
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