Ubisoft games are addictive. I don’t mean that as a trivial observation, like “Ubisoft games are a steaming pile of horse puckey,” but as an operative principle. Players and critics commonly snark at the company for using the same tropes in game after game, series after series, but it’s as canny a move on Ubisoft’s part as the addition of extra nicotine is to the manufacture of cigarettes (and, to be fair, less harmful to the user). Through trial and error, or perhaps through real-time MRI scans tracing endorphin activity in the brains of beta testers, they’ve discovered tropes that induce pleasure in the gaming cortex, drawing players back for more — tropes that are, not to harp on it too much, addictive.
You can tick these tropes off in bullet points that could pretty much serve as an outline for the company’s next game:
- Someone gets killed (Ghost Recon: Wildlands, Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed: Origins) and/or a community finds itself in the clutches of a malevolent criminal organization (Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, every Far Cry entry, Wildlands, Watch Dogs 2).
- A lone hero (the player) sets out in the company of animal and/or human companions to right the wrong and take down the hierarchical pyramid of bad guys responsible by conquering the regions of the game world that they’re in charge of (every game named above).
- The territory is mapped out by climbing to the top of various towers (every Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs game, Far Cry 3 and 4).
- A drone, bird or dog spots enemies from, usually, an aerial perspective (Wildlands, Watch Dogs, Far Cry Primal, Far Cry 5, Assassin’s Creed: Origin) and tags them with distinctive markers, making them visible through buildings and scenery.
- You engage in reckless, destructive vehicular chases (Wildlands, Watch Dogs, Far Cry 3 on), a trope stolen from Grand Theft Auto.
- Somebody natters at you on a car radio or walkie talkie (Wildlands, Watch Dogs, Far Cry), playing music or occasionally giving you news that’s actually useful, a mechanism that seems primarily designed to keep you from getting bored during those vehicular chases. (Yes, this is also a trope stolen from the Grand Theft Auto games, though Ubisoft doesn’t offer as many channels on the car radio.)
- Cut scenes when some major goal has been achieved to reward you for completing multi-part missions that steal several hours out of your life (Wildlands, Watch Dogs, Far Cry, most Assassin’s Creeds).
- Somebody slips you a drug every now and then so that you can drift your way through fantasy missions that look like the Dark Dimension sequences from Doctor Strange (recent Far Cry games, several Assassin’s Creeds).
- You stumble on arcade games that let you play quick, casual versions of the same game you’re in (Watch Dogs, Far Cry 5).
Repetitive though they may be, I can’t find a single element here that doesn’t give me pleasure (except for the GTA elements, like the nattering car radio and the vehicle chases, which I could happily live without). There’s a sweet satisfaction in the swooping duotone territory reveals produced by Far Cry 4‘s tower climbs and a burst of pleasure every time I see an enemy light up with a red dot when viewed from a drone (or through binoculars or simply by pointing a weapon in their general vicinity). Even the cut scenes are spaced out at intelligently planned intervals rather than used as constant interruptions of the action, as they are in the GTA games.
I miss these tropes when I’m off playing something else, which is why I’ll pick up a new Ubisoft game the moment it hits Steam rather than wait for it to show up on sale. It’s like ending a period of withdrawal with a hit from an old, familiar drug. And it’s why I’ve now been playing Far Cry 5 for five days running. The addiction has kicked in again.
The great thing about Ubisoft games is that, should you inadvertently fall in love with one of them (as I inexplicably fell in love with three of them last year), you’re pretty much in love with all of them. I’m not the first or even thousandth person to observe that Ubisoft reuses the same tropes through game after game, adding just enough variation within a series and between series to keep those tropes from growing old. But most people seem to find this a negative. For me, it’s the reason I keep coming back to their games.
Far Cry 5 has pretty much all the tropes listed above, except for climbing towers to map terrain, a mechanic that’s jokingly dismissed in an early mission when your radio correspondent tells you, “Don’t worry — I won’t have you climbing towers all over the county.” Instead, you have to pick up map fragments lying in old houses to fill in the dark spots on the map screen. Or you can simply explore.
At first Far Cry 5 plays like a retread of the previous two games in the series, which were embarrassingly identical twins. (I preferred Far Cry 4, but maybe that’s just because it’s the one I played first.) You start out, as per formula, by meeting the Big Bad, running afoul of the leader of a doomsday cult that has Hope County, Montana, locked down without communication lines to the outside world. (Presumably you could just hoof it over to the next county down the road, as a lot of the locals have, but you’d get a “Leaving Mission Area” error if you tried and plenty of NPCs have an understandable interest in sticking around to keep their businesses and homesteads intact. Why none of the escapees thinks to tell the authorities to send in the National Guard is never explained. Or maybe the cult has killed all the escapees. They do, after all, seem to be everywhere.)
The cult is called Project Eden’s Gate, but the locals, who hate the cultists with a vengeance that the player is supposed to supply, just call the members Peggies as a deliberately trivializing shorthand. Following the standard Die Hard approach of previous Far Cry games, you start out having to fight the cult alone, then join an occasionally helpful resistance group that expects you to do most of the work. This is where the game opens up and becomes at least a little different from its predecessors. As in earlier games you can hire locals to fight with you — up to two, once you acquire the Leadership perk — but some of these are “specialists,” NPCs both human and animal who bring some useful skills to your game. My favorite, and by now apparently everyone’s favorite, is Cheeseburger, a local circus bear you can befriend with a freshly caught salmon. (And, yes, you have a mission to catch that salmon before you can catch that bear.) Cheeseburger is the best weapon I’ve seen in a video game, even better than the BFG in Doom. I’ve watched him take down entire Peggy compounds without my having to do anything except revive him after he gets shot. (He does the same for me, licking me back to life while I’m holding down the CTRL key to “cling” to my waning existence.)
The missions are generally well designed — my favorite so far has you playing defender against an onslaught of brainwashed cultists at a prison, a seemingly hopeless bloodbath that turns out to have a satisfyingly simple solution — but a few of the main missions are merely annoying, e.g., a tedious Story Mission where I had to rescue some guy named Merle who was trapped on a ridge and needed somebody to keep him alive until the rescue chopper arrived. I must have died 40 times before I realized that all I had to do was hide behind a large rock with Merle and pick off the Peggies as they climbed up the cliff after us. What made my repeated failures so frustrating is that the mission was neither optional nor something you could put off until you were in the mood for it; you had to save Merle before you could go back to the open world of the main game. There are also some annoyingly non-optional hallucinatory missions where the cult leader drugs you with something called Bliss and forces you to make a timed run through a gauntlet of ghostly enemies, ending with a wild leap into what looks like the Outsider’s otherworldly domain in Dishonored. I hate those missions and they recur at what seem to be timed intervals. In fact, Father Joseph has a bothersome habit of playing catch-and-release with the player character, interrupting whatever I’m doing to force me to fight my way back out of one of his compounds to get on with my life, such as it is. Why he just doesn’t kill me after he’s caught me, I haven’t figured out yet, but I wish he’d just let me keep playing the damned game. That, after all, is why I’m here.
As frustrating as these mandatory quests and unasked-for interruptions can be, the open world is worth getting back to. It’s huge and it’s gorgeous, a bit like the Bolivia of Wildlands crossed with the Kyrat of Far Cry 4. There are spectacular mountaintop views that are better than anything in Skryim, even now that Skyrim has been given a nominal retrofit for more up-to-date graphics boards. The facial renderings are as realistic as anything I’ve seen in a computer game, with the sort of sweaty specular patches on NPC brows that only a couple of years ago would have been reserved for pre-rendered cut scenes. Even when tied up and forced to watch talking heads jabbering backstory at you, the game lets you squirm around and view those heads from different angles, so you can tell that the rendering is being done in real time. This may be the first instance where I’ve begun to wonder if there’s anything left for video hardware manufacturers to add, other than speed, that will make games more photorealistic. There’s no uncanny valley here: These virtual puppets look like real people who could have walked out of your television screen, except that they seem a little more real than most characters on TV. The voice acting is little more than adequate, with no real standouts, with the possible exception of a feral female archer who keeps heaping off-the-cuff praise on Cheeseburger. (“Bitchin’ bear!” “I wish I had a bear!”)
As in any open-world game worth the description, Far Cry 5 lets you solve most problems in any way you can get to work. I remember the thrill I got in Watch Dogs when I realized that a car chase I was unable to complete wasn’t even necessary. All I had to do was shoot the car’s tires out before I began chasing it. (Several car chases in Watch Dogs turn out to be avoidable with a little thought.) I felt a similar thrill in Far Cry 5 when I realized that I didn’t have to land my helicopter in the path of a convoy and then chase it in a ground vehicle to destroy its contents. I could just shoot the crap out of it from the helicopter and never so much as touch ground.
The dialog, which is often no more than functional, can occasionally be crisp and witty. (Specialist: “You and me, we’re gonna be like Butch and Sundance!” Specialist’s Wife: “Nick, they both died in the end.” Or: Feral Archer: “You drive like my drunk old man. That’s a compliment.” Or my favorite: “I used to be a deputy like you, but then I took a bullet to the knee.”) What the game lacks is a villain as fascinatingly charismatic as the flamboyantly metrosexual Pagan Min in Far Cry 4. Father Joseph Seed, leader of the cult, is a bad guy just a little too obviously from central casting, too straight-faced and dry to be fun, too ineffectual to be intimidating. His main strength is the bizarre hold that he maintains over what seems like thousands of nameless Montanans who follow him under the influence of drugs, because what clear-headed person would fall under the spell of a guy this boring? It’s certainly not because of his charisma.
The scariest villain in the game may well be Joseph’s sister Faith, a diaphanously dressed flower child who blows Bliss in your face and flirts with you in a field of sparkling grass and butterflies, then floats away on angel wings. She’s scary because, like Pagan Min, she isn’t played as scary. She’s played as innocently seductive, like a drug — and drugs are her specialty.
Before this game came out, I had my Ubisoft addiction on low maintenance by alternating between Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, the latter a game I’d had no interest in until an online acquaintance suggested I try it. Neither of those is as much fun as this game is — Origins takes itself too seriously; Syndicate, though less serious, is more than a little repetitive (though nowhere near as repetitive as the initial game in the AC series, which I’m pretty sure, after 11 years, I’m never going to finish). Far Cry 5 is more fun than either of these games by a Montana mile.
I know I’m supposed to hate this game, to get all snarky about it like this, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I know there’s nothing remotely original in Far Cry 5, but that’s not why I play Ubisoft games. I play them for the same reason a surprisingly vast audience plays retro games, for the comfort of familiar mechanics that I already understand and have developed an affection for. Far Cry 5 takes most of the Ubisoft tropes I’ve enjoyed in their other games, throws them in a blender, and comes up with an Ubisoft smoothie, but damned if it isn’t a great smoothie, one that feeds my addiction as effectively as taking a long drag on a cigarette must feed a smoker’s nicotine craving. Still, even something this entertaining gets wearying after a while and if Father Joe sends me through his drug-induced “cull-the-herd” gauntlet one more time I may put the whole thing aside for a week until it begins to seem fresh again.
It will, though. There’s just too much to love in Far Cry 5 for it to stay boring for long. And I haven’t even met all the human and animal “specialists” yet, though I plan to have that bear on my team no matter who my second specialist is. (Right now it’s pilot Nick Rye, who neatly picks off Peggies from his airplane as I cower behind nearby concrete barriers and watch.) Yeah, it’s silly. Yeah, the interruptions are annoying. Yeah, much of the premise makes no sense. Yeah, I feel a little embarrassed at how much I’m enjoying it. But when that bear goes into action, it’s more fun than any circus act I’ve ever seen. The game is worth playing for that damned bear alone.