Anyone who either writes or reads game criticism on the regular probably can’t help but be aware of the prominent debate in recent years about appraisal of games as a product versus appraisal of games as art, and which of these is of primary importance. As if specifically designed to highlight the tricky nature of the whole issue, here’s Far Cry 5. It’s a title that gives us a gorgeously-rendered open world; stuffs it full of fun things to do, see, and shoot; and then delivers a compound bow shot to the knee of all that with a focus-grouped, punch-pulling and confused story that doesn’t even seem sure of what it’s trying to say (unless it’s perhaps “look, we’re all as bad as each other, really.”) It’s just lucky the game also offers the option of commanding a bear to attack a mortar position.

Far Cry 5 sees you take the role of a rookie sheriff’s deputy who finds their customisable-but-mute self travelling to (the fictional) rural Hope County in Montana by helicopter. You’re headed there with three other cops and a US Marshal to try and arrest Joseph Seed (aka The Father), the charismatic leader of a vaguely Christian-ish cult called The Project at Eden’s Gate. Unfortunately, because Joseph has a huge, loyal army of thoroughly brainwashed and heavily-armed followers, things go very wrong in the tense opening sequence, and in the wash-up, you are loose in Hope County, unable to reach the outside world for help (despite the ready availability of flyable aircaft). What you can do is aid the local resistance to the cult, rescue your fellow law enforcement officers, bring down Joseph’s three lieutenants, and eventually confront the David Koresh-like madman himself.

Far Cry 5 review

Far Cry 5 ups levels of player freedom from the get-go. There’s no need to unlock any regions, and following a brief bit of what could be labelled Tutorial Island, you can light out in any direction. It’s up to you how you want to go about liberating Hope County, and there are lots of ways to do it. Story missions offer main plotline-related tasks, while a tonne of side missions are tied to NPC personalities and locations. There’s also cult outposts to take back from what the locals call the “peggies”; hostages to be freed; and cult property like shrines, wolf radicalisation facilities (yes, really), and roaming trucks to destroy.

Having done away with that classic Ubisoft device of climbing up something high to fill up your map with icons, the game instead focuses on making things more exploratory, with points of interest revealed by talking to people, stumbling across them in the world, or picking up the odd tourist-style paper map. It’s a set-up that encourages random wandering, making the most of the emergent gameplay strengths the series has become known for.

Ubisoft’s Montana is well worth a wander, too. It’s rustic, sunny, and dead-gorgeous. Country cabins, businesses and the survival bunkers of “preppers” are dotted around between the pine forests, fields, river canyons and alpine outcrops, and it’s a genuine pleasure just to make your away around it in the gently waving grasses to see what you can find. You’ll need to have your wits about you though, as the series’ signature grumpy wildlife – which this time around includes creatures such as bears, cougars and the deadly turkey – lurks in the undergrowth.

Far Cry 5 review
Trying to drive from point A to point B on a road in particular can often result in a long parade of death and burning metal

Hunting is merely a source of income, which means there’s no need to cobble specific animal bits into some sort of belt bag. If you need some motivation for a bit of animal blasting though – or fishing, in here as a fun wee mini-game – hunting challenges can provide some extra perk points, which are used to upgrade your deputy with a wide range of new skills. These range from handy traversal options like a parachute and grappling hook, to weapon proficiencies and vehicle repair. You can also gather up botanicals to create buffs in the form of homeopathic remedies, although in terms of gameplay functionality, it’s very easy to forget those are even there.

Sadly for your chances of a tranquil camping holiday, the cult is all over the place, and you’ll need to deal with them. Help is at hand from resistance fighters, who you can sign up to be your combat buddies who revive you in battle. Theer are also nine special companion NPCs, each of whom offers their own advantage or special weapon. Nick provides you with air support from above in his heavily beweaponed float plane, while Peaches is a goddamned mountain lion.

The companion characters have a lot more personality and effectiveness than the generic resistance fighters, and it’s hard to imagine anyone bothering with the grunts after a few companions are unlocked – “has a gun” just can’t compete with “is a grizzly bear”. Some of your companions have a tendency to blow your cover when you’re attempting a stealthy approach though (see: “is a grizzly bear”), so you need to tailor your mini-squad depending on what you’re up to.

As always, you’ve got a wide range of ways to go in quiet or loud. Sneaky takedowns are possible with an array of weapons including a shovel and slingshot, while automatic rifles, dynamite, and an RPG are less subtle alternatives. New weapons unlock at shops as you progress through the regions, but even early-game weapons put you in pretty good stead, so it’s just a matter of discovering your own arsenal preferences. A number of “prestige” weapons are available for real money, but as they appear to simply be unique skins for standard weapons, and can still be purchased with a not-unreasonable amount of in-game currency, they represent the least odious type of microtransaction.

The deputy has ample opportunities to make use of all these toys. Story missions most frequently call on you to empty out a cult base somewhere – sometimes by stealth, which is assisted by what could be termed fairly forgiving AI – but in that fun Far Cry way, battles can erupt from anywhere. Trying to drive from point A to point B on a road in particular can often result in a long parade of death and burning metal. The cult is also up to their cultish business by river and air, and messing up dinghies from a helicopter gunship or standing in a field and trying to snipe the pilot of the plane that’s strafing you never really gets old. The game’s story also occasionally drops you into corridor shooter-style sections for some more intense gunplay.

the effect is a bit like interrupting your Saints Row IV session every so often with a bit of Outlast 2

Messing up the cultist’s day in any of the ways the game offers will add to the strength of the resistance in each sub-region, filling a progress bar. Fill a bar entirely, and you’re ready for a showdown with one of Joseph’s lieutenants. Before that though, you’ll hit story checkpoints. Telling a story in a world as open as this presents some logistical difficulties, and Far Cry 5’s solve is to occasionally have The Father’s lieutenants interrupt whatever you are doing to unavoidably kidnap you and bring you in for some monologuing, occasionally followed by a crucial mission. It functions as a crude story delivery device well enough, but serves to make the meta-narrative nonsensical: the cult goes back to trying to kill you in-between every kidnapping, having had you securely tied to a chair five minutes earlier.

In fact, it’s a shame the story never really improves on the first 10 minutes or so, which are gripping, and suggest a direction for the game which never really eventuates. Far Cry 5 generated a lot of coverage pre-release with the prospects of an American setting and baddies who were white dudes from (culturally) nearby. It was intriguing timing given US politics of recent times, and the game seemed like it might be set to make a statement of some kind.

Far Cry 5 review
Far Cry 5 review
Far Cry 5 review

But in the end, there’s certainly no clear position on anything to be found in the setting or story, which works hard to equivocate and stay on politically-bland ground. The cult are equal-opportunity employers, their religion is far enough away from anything real that it’s non-offensive, and the good-guy resistance basically consists of the NRA’s core membership, seemingly proving the principle that the only way to stop a cult member with a gun is a slightly more personable redneck with a gun. It feels a bit chicken.

The game also never seems sure of what tone it wants to go for. Out in the open world, it’s fun, silly Far Cry, where an NPC fisherman’s ramble about the philosophy of the sport is interrupted by him suddenly being mauled to death by a wolverine. You can recreate the stunts of the legendary Clutch Nixon (1941-1977), who once flew an aeroplane through a ravine despite being “so drunk that to the day he died, he never regained full conscious control of his bladder”.

Some gentle and often quite funny rib-poking of American culture and environmental comedy are the order of the day, and that feeling is only doubled-down on in co-op, which may see you swinging off the bottom of your friend’s helicopter lobbing dynamite at elk, because why not? (One drag on the fun here: only the host player’s story progression is retained after a session, which is kind of sucky.)

When you’re forcibly dragged out of that playground by yet another kidnapping, you’ll find The Father and his cronies busy torturing, psychologically destroying people, and recounting their baby-murdering stories. The characters are well performed, but the effect is a bit like interrupting your Saints Row IV session every so often with a bit of Outlast 2, and it’s jarring to say the least.

The various flavours of eschatological apocalypticism practiced by Joseph’s lieutenants also end up beaching the game somewhere between fantasy and realism, with a weird drug subplot bringing what are effectively zombies and magical elements to the game, and with The Manchurian Candidate brain programming hijinks also afoot, expect to spend much game time hallucinating. And then… the ending. Debate will rage, but for me, it didn’t work big time, and in terms of story at least, makes you wonder why you bothered playing.

Far Cry 5 review
the story never really improves on the first 10 minutes or so, which are gripping

Oh well. You can always leap into Far Cry Arcade. Accessed via either the menu or actual arcade machines themselves in the game world, it’s a nifty little side project that lets you loose on more run-and-gun style levels created both by Ubisoft and members of the public using the robust editor, which is chock-full of assets from their other games. As with anything with user-submitted levels, it can be a bit onerous wading through the chaff to find the good stuff, but there are some goodies in there, even if the currently available game modes don’t offer much variety.

Far Cry 5 has so much going for it – an excellent, gorgeously presented open world that’s terrific to explore and battle in, its undiminished capacity to generate “...and then he was attacked by a skunk!” stories, fun companions, and the bitchin’ Clutch Nixon theme music. But it’s all kneecapped by a story that ends up making the game tonally inconsistent, refuses to take a coherent stance on anything much at all, and ends up as rather brutally nihilistic.

If you’re not fussed about the quality of the story in your gaming, I definitely recommend it. If you are fussed I recommend it anyway, but perhaps be prepared to rue the fact that while it’s a great game, the “art” side of the equation stops it from being an all-timer.