Last week’s announcement of Far Cry 5 wasn’t itself a surprise. Over the past 13 years, the series has evolved from a playground of first-person shooter mayhem to something far more distinctive: A collection of deep, difficult, often political games that served as meditations on violence as much as enactments of violence itself. They’ve gone from a tropical island to an African warzone, to an even more dangerous tropical island, to an imaginary version of Tibet—and in doing so, have sold more than 20 million copies, making a new installment a formality. What is a surprise is the new game’s focus. While the series has long concerned itself with terror and instability, now it’s planning to do so with a homegrown brand of extremism.
When it arrives next February, Far Cry 5 will unfold in a small town in Montana, where a religious cult tinged with American survivalism has emerged. (Think the Bundys, though no shortage of legalese will doubtless back away from that comparison.) You’ll play a young police officer, a man or a woman, depending on your decision, and you’ll be tasked with (ugh) taking this slice of America back.
That’s a promising premise—but if the past is any indication, Far Cry is going to blow it.
From its first game, the Far Cry series has been thick with action and life—the wildlife hunts, your enemies have their own concerns, and combat starts raging fires that transform the space around you. But more interestingly, the franchise lingers in that instability: it’s earnestly interested in violence and colonialism as forces in the world, and is at least moderately aware of its own complicity in those forces. Its villains are arms dealers and conquerors, and you are a destroyer pitted against destroyers.
That mission, coupled with an insistence on far-flung locales and societies, has produced mixed results. Far Cry 2 was the best title of the bunch, but it couldn’t shake an Orientialist attitude toward its African setting. The later games leaned into the fun factor, which made their critiques feel absurdly half-hearted. It has been, at times, a contradictory disaster of a franchise.
Now, instead of exoticizing a foreign nation for a Western audience, the franchise going right to the heartland. This is Far Cry at its most deliberately provocative—the closest it’s gotten to touching on issues it might actually have something worth saying about. It touches on the slow rise of reactionary conservativism in the United States, along with the survivalist and prepper cultures that have been growing in the margins since at least the 1990s. Combine that with the choice to have you play as a police officer in a small American town, and you’re looking at a premise that’s already incredibly politicized from the mainstream American perspective. Yet, the series’ history shows no indication that its writers or developers know how to handle the games’ political overtones, no matter how earnestly they engage with them.
But, to be honest with you, I don’t really care. That’s the thing about Far Cry: Even at its messiest, it’s always remained interesting. The games attempt ambitious things, and when they fail, there’s something fascinating about the way the pieces fall apart. In the gaps of design logic and bad writing, you can see illuminating frictions. You can learn things about the way colonialism works and doesn’t—not from the games themselves, but by watching how each subsequent game fails to respond to the criticisms levied at its predecessor. There’s magic in the dashed ambitions of high-budget productions; you can practically see the incompatible ideas spattered on the walls like giant inkblots.
Far Cry 5, when it launches, probably won’t be good—at least in the sense of being a coherent game that executives its best ideas competently, let alone doing justice to its subject matter. But it will be fun, and it will interesting. Montana’s got a big, big sky—there’s room for all kinds of stuff under there.