"Far Cry 5" and its subject matter have more in common than developer Ubisoft might have intended.
The open-world shooter series' first trip to America pits you against the Project at Eden's Gate, a cult that has assumed rule of a rural Montana county. Your deputy accompanies a U.S. marshall as he, against the advice of the local sheriff, tries to apprehend the cult's leader, Joseph Seed. Seed's man bun, skeletal eyes and pompous self-seriousness would make him an ideal part for Jared Leto, and given how much Ubisoft has marketed the game's story as some timely insight into Donald Trump's America, I wouldn't be surprised if a movie adaptation has been pitched to studios.
However, the story of Seed and Eden's Gate that unfolds over "Far Cry 5's" 25 hours provides no such insight — at least not intentionally. Instead, it's a surface-level riff not on 2018 America, but 1988 America, when the cartoon excess of evangelicalism was still novel and its fire-and-brimstone message still relevant. All Seed and his underboss siblings have to offer is the boilerplate of that day: believe, say "yes," cleanse your sins, etc. Anyone expecting the Seeds to reconcile their faith with ethnonationalism, wealth inequality or an adulterous president will be left waiting.
For better or worse, this placeholder villainy is perfect for "Far Cry." Ubisoft's series has been a big, explosive empty since its third installment blew up in 2012. And the fifth ticks many of the same boxes: There's wild game to hunt, like cougars and wolverines that almost always sneak up on you, but thankfully the game's upgrade system relies less than ever on slaughtering the local fauna and extracting its pelts and organs. There's a vast rural landscape to explore by foot, wheel and wingsuit, but the scenery is a little homogenous, its color palette a little too dominated by straw yellow.
And there are outposts. Once again, they're the best part of "Far Cry," the place where Ubisoft's self-described "anecdote factory" reaches peak efficiency. You can clear out the Eden's Gate followers who occupy them — wielding clubs, rifles, flamethrowers and more — with stealth or bombast. And you'll often find those anecdotes in the space between each approach. Whether it's an animal attack or a fluke detection, it's still exhilarating when the tension of chaining silent takedowns gives way to the frenzy of near-death rampaging as you wonder whether your next enemy is your last.
One of the few new tricks in "Far Cry 5" is the way it heightens that tension. The farms, markets, gas stations and other areas that make up the outposts feature trucks with speakers in their beds, blaring Seed's words over modulated hymnal music. It's creepy as hell. But the tone can swing the other way if you're accompanied by one of the game's guns or fangs for hire, who provide backup and other benefits, like very good dog Boomer's instant marking of enemies. My favorite was Hurk Jr., a Danny McBride type whose goofball bro lines score a genuine chuckle every once in a while.
Another change in "Far Cry 5" is the structure of your deputy's campaign against Eden's Gate. After an introduction to the game's world and mechanics via survivalist stereotype Dutch, all of Hope County opens up to you. Your path to Joseph runs through his siblings — John, Faith and Jacob — and you force confrontations with them by strengthening their area's resistance to them. As you do, you're automatically swept into story missions that find you in the Seeds' captivity. That you keep escaping unbrainwashed doesn't speak highly of their talent for the whole cult thing.
As you parse the words of the Seeds and their oppressed for meaning, Dutch inadvertently sums up Ubisoft's failure to find any. He signs off his radio with "Dutch out" — but the survivalist's voice actor is clearly Canadian, so he really says "Dutch oot." I can't think of a more fitting symbol of the also-Canadian developer's failure to say something about the contemporary American experience. Well, something it means to say: From its militaristic premise to its scattershot mentions of real-world nouns like Barack Obama, there are some cultural readings of "Far Cry 5" to be found.
One would be the reticence of Ubisoft to say anything it worries would alienate players of one political bent or another. That reticence is predicated on a belief, echoed by "Far Cry 5" players and even some critics, that games should be simple, apolitical fun. But depicting a ludicrously armed populace as a good thing, for instance, is political. "Good guys with guns," I think the line goes. So Ubisoft avoiding an overt political statement in a "Far Cry" game is itself a statement on how the politics of mainstream games, pro-gun and otherwise, have become so default as to go uncriticized.
Another reading concerns the game's ending. Without giving it away, I'll just say that Ubisoft may — may — be trying to stress the danger of dismissing those with influence. You may scoff at the beliefs that give them that influence, but whether it's Joseph Seed or the alt-right, that influence gives them power. And that power can be used to hurt people. Like the thrills of its Hope County outposts, this one vaguely redeeming message of "Far Cry 5" springs randomly from chaos. But if that's all that you remember about the game, I guess there is an argument for its relevance.