For nearly a decade, Far Cry was one of the most interesting game franchises to follow. While every Far Cry game is a first-person shooter, each entry felt more like an episode of an anthology series than a true sequel. The original Far Cry was a fairly traditional shooter, while its sequel bucked countless trends. Then Ubisoft flipped the script entirely with the third game, heavily featuring RPG elements and turning the main character into a bratty kid.

Each game had its own unique strengths and weaknesses, but Ubisoft always kept fans on their toes. Then Far Cry 4 came along, and fatigue began to set in for some players. Far Cry 4 introduced a new setting and new characters, but the game itself was nearly identical to Far Cry 3. And then it all came crashing down with Far Cry Primal, which sent players back to the Stone Age, but used the exact same map that had been featured in Far Cry 4.

At this point, the franchise seemed to be headed down the same path that many popular franchises head down once they become rote and overfamiliar. The series needed a shake-up — no more mysterious islands and nondescript protagonists. So what better way to mix things up than by traveling to the heartland of America?

Last week, I had a chance to get my hands on Far Cry 5 for the first time. At first glance, it’s indistinguishable from its forerunners — a big open world, outposts overrun with enemy combatants, and a penchant for explosive, over-the-top firefights. But once you sit down with the sequel for a few minutes, you begin to see just how much Ubisoft was able to change without tearing at the fabric of what makes Far Cry so great.

Perhaps the most substantial change from Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 to Far Cry 5 is the game’s structure. While the third and fourth entries in the series were open world shooters, the campaign itself was relatively linear. If you wanted to advance the story, you needed to do the game’s missions in order. That’s not the case in Far Cry 5. Once you fight your way off of Dutch’s Island (which serves as a tutorial of sorts), you are free to go anywhere you want in Hope County, Montana. The entire map is at your disposal, with dozens of points of interest to check out.

Speaking of the story, Far Cry 5 follows a doomsday cult called Eden’s Gate which has taken over a fictional county in Montana. You play a sheriff’s deputy who has come to arrest Joseph Seed, their leader. Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan, and it’s your job to pick up the pieces and help the denizens of Hope County fight back against Joseph and his siblings — Jacob, John, and Faith — each of whom control a region of the county.

In my demo, I explored the Whitetail Mountains region, where Jacob Seed rules with an iron fist. Another significant change in Far Cry 5 is the addition of the Guns for Hire system, which lets you pick and choose from various NPCs you meet around Hope County to join your squad and help your complete quests. They each have their own back stories and their own personalities, giving the game a little extra flavor and adding context to encounters.

The most fun I’ve ever had playing Far Cry has been when I’ve played with friends, so it’s nice to see Ubisoft turn the entire game into a cooperative experience, even if you don’t have anyone else to play with. But if you do have another friend with Far Cry 5, you can jump in and out of each other’s games at any time. Unlike Far Cry 4 (which had limited co-op) and Far Cry Primal (which abandoned co-op altogether), you can play through the entirety of Far Cry 5 with a friend. This was definitely my most coveted feature for the game, so I’m thrilled that it’s been added back in.

With nearly three hours to play, I split my time fairly evenly between completing quests and just exploring the open world. The great thing about Far Cry 5 is that no matter how you choose to play, you always feel like you’re making progress, especially since there are no barriers keeping you from moving the story forward.

Each region has a Resistance Meter, and as you gain Resistance Points by destroying the cult’s property, completing quests or taking back outposts, the meter will begin to fill up. The more the meter fills, the more dangerous the region becomes, and the harder the Seed siblings fight back. Once you’ve done enough damage, the story begins to come to you — after taking back one outpost, I began to hear some chatter over the radio, and the next thing I knew, I had been knocked out. I woke up in a bunker with a couple of other prisoners, and there was Jacob Seed himself standing in front of me. What followed was easily the strangest sequence in my time with the game.

Another semi-substantial change is the removal of towers, which have become something of a trope in open world games in recent years. You will no longer have to climb a tower when entering a new region in order to fill that region in on your map. Information is dispersed more organically in Far Cry 5, as you will actually have to talk to people to gather intel about the area. After I saved a group of captives from the cult, they told me about someone else who needed help. That quest then appeared on my map, and I was given the choice to start tracking it immediately.

As addicting as filling in the map of an open world game can be, the flow of Far Cry 5 feels much more natural than previous entries. Rather than ticking off arbitrary boxes, you’re learning more about the world by actually interacting with it. Plus, the NPCs of Hope County are far more interesting than climbable inanimate objects.

There are a ton of other additions and modifications to the Far Cry formula, from the new melee weapons to the shop to the ability to customize your character, but I’ll be diving deeper into those in my full review later this month. I need to spend more time with the game to see how all of the new systems work together over the course of a few dozen hours, but I walked away from my first taste of the sequel with an even better impression than I was expecting.

Far Cry 5 will be out on PS4, Xbox One and PC on March 27th, 2018.

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