Ubisoft have earned themselves something of a reputation for leaning heavily on established open-world design tenets and proven successes. It’s there in the way ideas that emerge in one series then go on to permeate the company’s portfolio. Most infamously, this includes climbing towers, or at least activating them, to reveal more of the world map. And the now stultifying spread of side missions and collectables that feel more like a punishment than fun distraction.
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In reacting to players’ fatigue, Ubisoft’s network of studios risks sidling into yet another design cul-de-sac. Far Cry 5 and Assassin’s Creed Origins have both dropped their respective series’ minimaps, and in exchange Origins has an eagle while Far Cry 5 gains a dog, both of which seem suspiciously close to meat-based versions of Ghost Recon Wildlands’ enemy-tagging drone . At least it will take a little while for us to play enough of these colossal games to notice the new order. Or so we hope.
Even having said all of this, after spending a little time with the game we’re quietly optimistic that Far Cry 5 really will feel different to its forebears and internally-produced peers. That we won’t be climbing towers in order to shower ourselves in side-quests is a great start, but the shift to a genuinely open-world structure is the biggest change for the series.
While Far Cry has always welcomed explorers, now there’s a dizzying sense of possibility as you set out in whichever direction you fancy, free from the hectoring persuasion of NPCs, and watch how the pieces fall into place.
“I think we’ve always been pushing for big, expansive open worlds, but the narratives have always been fairly linear, right?” creative director and executive producer Dan Hay tells us. “Yes, we have the open worlds, but with the story it’s ‘do this, do that, go here, meet this person’. We looked at the way the outposts work in Far Cry 3 and 4; you had the freedom to be able to take it from any angle. The surprise when it kicks off and goes a way you didn’t imagine…
“We just thought, ‘Why can’t we just do that with the entire game? Why can’t we make it so you can go in any direction, meet any character, partake in any story, and play it completely differently [to your friends]? It’s up to you how you author it.”
For the demo, we’re given a choice of allies: sniper Grace Armstrong, pilot Nick Rye, or Boomer the dog. We’re hemmed in by the demo zone’s relatively restrictive borders, and are nudged towards the small town of Falls End, but there’s still plenty of opportunity to explore. Even so, the temptation of stalking members of The Project At Eden’s Gate cult proves to enticing.
On our first attempt we take Grace and position her at the top of a water tower, then work our way from building to building, silently taking down enemies before getting Grace to take out an awkwardly positioned enemy.
The noise of her rifle alerts everyone, and the situation devolves into a firefight during which an oil tanker explodes and we manage to run some people over in a big rig. Far Cry 5’s guns – and, indeed, vehicles – feel weighty and powerful, and the cult’s AI does a passable impression of an organised force.
On our second run we go in search of Nick Rye and find the poor chap fighting off cult members at his airfield. Once his harassers are repelled (by which we mean: all dead), Nick generously offers us the use of his plane.
He tasks us with a bombing mission during which we target the cult’s infrastructure, and then end up in a dogfight with one of their own pilots. Though simplified, flying the plane is satisfying and intuitive, and the ability to look around – and leave the camera in position – makes air combat an enjoyable distraction, too.
Finally, we tackle the mission with Boomer by our side, who proves to be a remarkably useful companion. He can tag or maul enemies, watches our back during combat, and will even relieve enemies of their weapons before returning them to us. Grace, Nick, and Boomer are just three examples of the available guns and fangs for hire, but already offer vastly different ways to play.
“We had this idea of the ‘anecdote factory’, where you get freedom and opportunity to go out into the world and basically make it blossom,” Hay explains. “But we really wanted you to be able to take it with you. We give you Boomer, we give you Nick, we give you Grace. We give you this idea that you can take folks with you and cause all kinds of trouble with them, but when you do, you play them the way you want to play them.
“If you feel like you want to go in and go stealth, you take Grace. She’ll watch your back, and she’s very efficient at being able to protect you. If you want more to plan out your route and think about what you want to do, you take Boomer, and you send him in – he’s a dog so no-one pays attention to him, and he’ll just go in and highlight everybody. At the last minute you go, ‘Okay Boomer, take one out’. If there are a bunch of guys clustering together, or if you see a specific target that needs to go away, you call Nick and he takes care of it.”
The oddly aggressive-sounding anecdote factory isn’t only reliant on your band of hired help. The world is populated by all manner of characters, flora, and fauna, and which direction you choose to schlep from the outset will have a profound impact on your experience.
Every player will have an initial encounter with cult leader Joseph Seed at the beginning of the game – setting in motion an acceleration of the cult’s plans – but thereafter, you’re free to explore the world at your leisure.
“If you decide to go South, meet [landlord] Mary May and liberate Fall’s End, you’re going to meet Nick, you might meet pastor Jerome – there’s a bunch of different characters you’re going to meet down there, and you’re going to come to me after ten hours of gameplay and go, ‘This is the experience that I’ve had’, but I wouldn’t recognise any of that because I went North.
“I met an entirely different group of people. There were different animals up there, it was a different situation up there, and we could just switch. We could go to another region [and do the same]. It’s you authoring your own story.”
We’ve only seen a tiny slice of the game, but there’s a real sense that Ubisoft is building on the emergent situations which made, say, attacking outposts so much fun in Far Cry 3, threading that gameplay into the wider world rather than localising it. And while Montana may be a little closer to home than some of the series’ recent excursions, it looks to have lost none of its adventurous spirit.
“Every single time we give you a place to explore, we want it to be about hunting and wilderness,” Hay says. “When we started to think about Montana, some folks were like, ‘Montana? That’s next door’. But it’s a frontier. It’s wild. We went to Montana, and went hunting and fishing, [and we want to create] a sense of what we experienced there.
“I was playing the game recently, and I was running around and had Boomer for hire. I’m just about to go attack this cult space, and all of a sudden I hear this growling from behind, and it’s this huge bear about to attack me. Boomer barks at it, and the bear pulls back. So now I’m less afraid of these things because I’ve got Boomer with me.
“All of a sudden I’m pushing back at the wildlife, and the organic nature of the world feels cool. When I’m walking around the world by myself I really feel like a little kid trapped in the woods, but when I have my dog, I’m suddenly a tough guy hunting bears.”
We’ll have to wait until February next year to find out if Ubisoft have succeeded in imbuing the world with such dynamism. But if Hay and his team can make every encounter as unpredictable and exciting as the bear attack he describes, then Far Cry 5 has every chance of feeling as revolutionary as Far Cry 2 did.