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.