Appropriately enough, perhaps, Far Cry 5 is a long way from where this series started. The original Far Cry was a beauty, as well as the first technical showcase of Crytek's lushly muscular Cryengine, and was special not least because — at the time — open-world shooters were rare. Nevermind ones set on gorgeous tropical islands with stealth elements and great gunplay. It all went a bit off the rails towards the end, but it was a great game, and following Ubisoft's acquisition of the brand Far Cry 2 was (eventually) the sequel it deserved: brave, and even more original in setting, theme and mechanics.
Problem is that, while many people will tell you to this day that Far Cry 2 is the series' greatest moment, its qualities come from being ornery: it frustrates players by simulating the effects of malaria, gives you guns that frequently jam mid-fight, and is happy to permanently kill off your AI buddies in minor firefights. It had problems that were less intentional, too, like the constant wearying (and 'unrealistic') respawns at guard posts. The upshot being that Far Cry 2 was and is a huge critical success that, commercially, didn't do what Ubisoft wanted.
It might seem I'm taking ages to get to Far Cry 5 but that's because, now we're at Far Cry 3, we're more or less there. Far Cry 3 established a template that has proven very successful for the series, and what it did was basically focus on the opening half of the original game. A beautiful tropical neverland dotted with side-missions and guard posts, a slick and streamlined combat and stealth system, and an emphasis on emergent enemy encounters — no-one would claim Far Cry 3 had industry-leading AI, but its guards are smart enough for fights to be challenging, surprising, and play out different ways. Far Cry 4 basically did the same again in a new setting, and was great fun with it thanks to a new emphasis on co-op, but is the least original main entry in the series thus far.
And so we come to Far Cry 5 and the setting of Hope County, Montana, which sees the series transition from tropical jungles and African haze to Buttfuck, Alabama. This is cousin-screwing hooch-slurping gun-loving Jeebus-worshipping America, a redneck paradise of flagpoles, churches and very heavy ordnance. The player's customisable avatar is a sheriff's deputy, sent in to arrest the preacher king of the hicks, one John Seed, who's in charge of a congregation-cum-militia called Eden's Gate. Needless to say, he's not going to be coming quietly.
I played a demo that tasks you with liberating a small town called Fall's End, but before starting had to choose a 'buddy' (a returning system from Far Cry 2) from three options. These characters can be met throughout the full game and are all residents of Hope County who haven't yet drunk the Kool-Aid, and are keen to help you take down the crazies, alongside which you can also befriend animals. These aren't the real names but my notes refer to the demo choices as Chopper Man, Gun Woman, and Stealth Dog. Obviously I went with man's best friend.
The demo begins with the player character on a high vantage point, from which you can see the town and its half-milling half-patrolling inhabitants. But let's get down to brass tacks here. I turn to look at Stealth Dog, move closer, and a prompt appears: I hold the A button, and pet the dog. Far Cry 5 is a good boy, and passes the first test with flying colours.
As ever the high ground is useful for tagging enemies with your binoculars, and getting a general idea of the environment, before heading down for some wholesome neck-snapping fun. The most noticeable difference between Fall's End and the kind of places you'd assault in Far Cry 3 or 4 is the number of buildings — guard posts in the earlier games usually had one or two buildings, but were mostly open with lots of cover opportunities. This is a small town, and it looks like it, with more than half-a-dozen buildings clustered together, as well as things like cars and fences and gates to hide behind. When you enter these buildings their interiors have different layouts, and each one's windows and doors offer different ways to shoot at or sneak around enemies.
Stealth is helped enormously by the bonanza of building interiors, allowing you to bypass sightlines and do your own spying — for which roofs come in equally handy. The enemies appear more alert, and easily spot you through things like windows, but frankly the protagonist / Stealth Dog combo feels overpowered in a great way: I did get spotted each playthrough, to be fair, but I was also eager to try out all the loud toys.
The magic of Stealth Dog is that it can be used both to distract enemies, nick their guns, and, often enough, just take them out solo. I played this encounter three times total, with the intention of taking different approaches and companions each time, but Stealth Dog turned out to be my favourite largely because he fits right into the player's own style. Most of my Far Cry encounters begin stealthily before innate crapness leads to my getting spotted and a massive gunfight begins. Stealth Dog works beautifully in the first part, particularly because he can be used on enemies that are watching an inconvenient spot or are dangerously near to discovering you, but when it all kicks off he's right in the fray too. More than once I was staring down the barrel of a fundamentalist gun, armed with a baseball bat, and the beautiful doggo appeared from nowhere in a blur of fangs to take down the nutter and let me apply a finishing tap.
The thing is that, while stealth is still there and it's still great, Far Cry 5 feels more like a shooter than ever before. The gun feedback is juddering but easy to control, the protagonist has an absolute arsenal of explodey gadgets, the town is designed for a cover-based shootout, and the other two companions are all about the kinds of action you can't really hide. Chopper Man flies overhead and drops a load of bombs, but there's a chance they won't land where you told him to hit, whereas Gunner Woman will snipe from a distance but this obviously puts the whole place on high alert (and, while I was shivving fools in a church, they somehow took her out).
When you're finally spotted and the fighting breaks out, there's a real moment of transition as the wonderful soundtrack comes in, the enemies begin to group, and suddenly it's all noise and carnage. I mentioned the baseball bat earlier and one of Far Cry 5's new elements is a raft of melee weapons, which let you absolutely dominate interiors — I was using an assault rifle outdoors, picking off enemies, then moving into a nearby building when it was getting too heavy. Any holy rednecks that chanced an entrance ran straight into Mr Bat, met god a bit sooner than they'd expected, and the rest soon got the idea.
On top of this you can just nick their cars and try to Destruction Derby it — and they'll also try to do it to you. On top of the road vehicles there are apparently boats, planes, and a hydroplane equipped with machine guns. I've always loved Far Cry's car interiors, a weird thing to notice I admit, but they're always worn and full of character, even if this next shot looks a little more OTT than that. Hullo Vaas!
For all its familiarity in some respects, this also felt very different to Far Cry 4 which — despite the great co-op element — didn't move on enough from Far Cry 3 for my taste. The stealth feels more dynamic and the combat feels more precise, though neither of those were really the problem with 4, but what gives it the edge is the difference a few buildings make. They're not new to the series in any sense, but Fall's End looks and feels a bit more like a real place than the guard posts ever have before — hopefully the full game won't make 3 & 4's mistake of repeating the layouts too much. They're useful both in stealth and in combat, and break up the open spaces in a much more interesting way than a few waist-high rocks could ever manage.
And they also tie into Far Cry 5's big trump card (sorry). Hillbilly America is a great setting, completely underdone in games — until this year's excellent Resident Evil 7, at least — and there's something innately sinister both in the Deliverance side and the bible-waving flag-fuckers. There is something amazing about being in a firefight and hearing some redneck shouting "bah gawd Jacob!" The art is suggestive of darker places, showing things like prisoners having the name of sins carved into their flesh. Just how far it will go with this theme remains to be seen, though writer Drew Holmes worked on Bioshock Infinite (among many others) and, while the games are wildly different, there's more than a little thematic crossover.
The big problem for recent Far Cry games has been getting the world's theme and narrative right. This might seem a strange thing to say, because no-one's primary reason for playing Far Cry is the story, but the best games frame their open worlds in such a way that you want to discover more, you want to find out what that lunatic's up to, you care about helping the NPCs and pushing everything forwards. I've enjoyed the recent games for what they were, but never found those locations especially memorable beyond their simple beauty. With Far Cry 5 I'm looking forward to visiting this specific place, and seeing what a Canadian developer does with some of the worst aspects of America. Better watch out, Jeebus.