In the coming months, Far Cry 3 will be pressing its “insanity” into the faces of gamers everywhere, but first let’s time-machine our way back to 2004, where the first person shooter gauntlet was being thrown down extra hard. Call of Duty’s popularity of the previous year was bleeding over, and was the penultimate World War II shooter showing brilliance in tight scripted events and blood-pumping action set pieces, as well as having a fast-paced, fun multiplayer. While further in the year, all eyes were set for video game demi-gods like Doom 3, Half-Life 2, and Halo 2 to rock the gaming world. Then, hot off the heels of Unreal Tournament 2004 no less, Far Cry released on March 23, the game that did not have a number at the end of its apt title. It blew people away.
First impressions are a big deal, and Far Cry made an immediate impact. The game contained an environment that was rarely seen in first person shooters. Not so much because it was a stunning and colorful jungle, but the sheer size and scope of the levels was mind boggling at the time. The Crytek developed CryEngine was a beautiful beast, allowing extremely long view distances and gorgeous landscapes. The game just looked incredible, and became a good reason to upgrade your measly PC.
The real revelation was that, because the game contained such large areas, it facilitated the level design and gameplay to be more open, letting players really choose how they want to handle a given situation. Running a boat into the middle of a camp may not be the smartest choice but a player could try it out. Or if they wanted to avoid as much fire as possible, they could sneak around the edge of a camp, silently cutting down enemies with a machete. But if they were a good enough shot, a player could post up hundreds of meters away, and snipe every soldier in the camp before strutting through with panache.
It was a level of freedom and experimentation that the singleplayer FPS genre rarely got to see, especially in the more action oriented games of the time, where the direst of choices were hallway one or dead end two. In Far Cry players could try out different strategies and find the one that they worked best for them. And even if their plan didn’t come together perfectly, they could adapt easily to the situation by switching to some other more effective method. Bigger hits like Call of Duty and Doom 3 were on the complete opposite spectrum, funneling players into a more straight forward progression, and while that’s perfectly fine, Far Cry was an absolute welcome change of pace.
Unfortunately, while the technical and gameplay side of Far Cry was top-notch, the plot did not meet the same standard and was easily the most forgettable aspect of the game. You play as generic every-dude Jack Carver, whose vacation getaway boat gets blown up for some seemingly unexplained reason, stranding you on a large island where some nefarious science-fictiony things are going on. Monsters called Trigens are being bred on the island, and surprise, they’re getting out of hand. You must fight your way through hordes of enemies to find the truth and stop the madness. It’s a story that really is just there to keep you going from point A to point B then to C and didn’t do a great deal to hold the player’s attention, especially when the scenery and action were already doing the job.
Still, the games were a hit and they were eventually remade for the consoles (as well as a misguided and wonderfully bad film adaptation), merely expanding on the threadbare story. Far Cry Instincts and the sequel Far Cry Instincts: Evolution, loosely followed the original plot, but added a infected mode where Jack could run around in crazy-filter-vision and melee enemies. I’m sure the explanation for this is sound. Environments were smaller and levels were more streamlined because of the limitations of the consoles, but the main conceit that Jack fought enemies in a wide tropical setting, was still a major component of the framework. The console ports are not the best example of what made Far Cry so interesting and what made it so critically acclaimed, but they did bring bring more awareness to the series.
Skip forward a few years to 2007 and Far Cry 2 is unveiled. It was no longer developed by Crytek, but rather Ubisoft Montreal, and used a heavily modified CryEngine called the Dunia Engine. The game was also now suddenly set in Africa, there was no Jack Carver, and had no science fiction elements at all. You enter into a civil war to stop a gun runner named the Jackal, and it’s as simple as that. And thankfully, no trigens show up in some ham-fisted late game twist. You could ask anyone what Far Cry 2 has to do with the original, all they could probably muster would be that, besides the name, it’s in first person and it’s an open world shooter. But at its core, that is basically the essence of what made the first Far Cry great. Sure they could call it something else, but if you’re going to milk a franchise, they decided to at least do right by it.
Far Cry 2 starts the player out by picking from a collection of different mercenaries from unique backgrounds. The only significant difference the choice really makes it what your arms look like in-game, and the different friends you make in the field. You’re suddenly thrown into the middle of an intense conflict between two warring factions, and on top of that, you’re infected with malaria. Right off the bat, everything’s going poorly for you.
Here is where the grit and realism of Far Cry 2 starts to show its gnarly teeth. The game is more about survival this time around. The African landscape of Far Cry 2 is harsh, and the inhabitants are even worse. Much like the first game, running and gunning is an option, but can be a poor one, and the game will teach you quickly. What Far Cry 2 is in terms of the series, is an evolution on the mechanics and gameplay that showed so much potential in the first iterations including non-linear mission structures and even a basic economy for buying equipment. The world is so much more open and player choice is much more prevalent. Mission locations can have multiple directions to approach from and attacks can range from sneaking in, to blowing up everything around to create a frenzied distraction, or both. Even the time of day or weather can dictate how easily a missions is played out. Sneak around during a rainstorm and enemies probably won’t see you, unless you go with the oh-so-subtle rocket launcher.
Then there is the amount of little gameplay machinations that you are at the whim of at all times. From fixing broken vehicles, to pulling a bullet out of your leg, to saving downed friends with your own precious medical supplies, or even keeping guns repaired and working. There is nothing worse than going into a gunfight and getting a jammed bullet. The designers also developed a unique fire system that could take one spark and grow to an entire field erupting with flames, allowing players to use it as a distraction, barriers or cover. With all of this going on, it is almost more Far Cry than the first game was. More open world, more gameplay freedom, and more mechanics to help or hinder you.
Though, when the game finally came out, it received completely mixed reviews from players and critics. Many heralded its gameplay as brilliant but deeply flawed. A game that had enough minor problems to keep it from being great. It was a culmination of little things like the frequent checkpoints that apparently always needed suicidal enemies to be on guard there. Or guns degrading so quickly that it seemed as if they were made of wax, leaving them to sometimes last just a day. And traveling around the map could be a chore as every mission had to be on the opposite side of the game. But through all of the gripes, the game still has many fans that can look past the annoyances and appreciate the complexity and intrigue that permeates Far Cry 2.
The next iteration, Far Cry 3, has now been developed and is set to release within the next few months. The game, true to form, has nothing to do with the previous entries in the series, at least story-wise. You will play as Jason Brody, who is “just a tourist” (a character who goes from regular joe to tactical killer, excuse my incredulity) who happens to get caught up in some heinous shit. The emphasis on story, or at least characters, seems to be the main selling point. Vaas, the mental antagonist, is even put on the cover of the game. Brody actually speaks in the game, and there are a plethora of side characters. Far Cry 3 could be trying to make up what the second game was thought to be lacking. A fleshed out story.
Still, the game returns to a tropical setting, but does not contain any Trigens as far as I know. But keeping with the Far Cry tradition, it will contain a plethora of gameplay mechanics, including what looks like more emphasis on stealth. There are silent takedowns, knife-throwing, and a first-person based cover system. It’s hard to say at this time exactly how open the areas will be, or how much choice has player has in terms how they want to play. Hopefully the game will evolve on the previous games.
I say all of this because as more information and footage of the game is released, the more I worry. I’ve seen plenty of gameplay videos of Call of Duty-esque running and gunning. Narrow hallways and waves of goons ready to be mowed down from behind wooden planks. Mind, this is all the observation of a paranoid skeptic, but we’ll have to see when the game comes out how close it sticks to the previous two games’ open, free-form experiences.
So the question becomes: What makes a Far Cry game? At this point, I would say it boils down to a number of things that have stayed consistent through, at least, the two major releases in the series. The stunning open world ready for players to explore, and they contain a number of gameplay aspects that require a player to tinker and play around with to find what suits them best. The Far Cry games are rich gaming experiences that veer from the norm and sometimes force players out of their comfort zone. I would hate to make another easy quip about how they are a “far cry” from most modern shooters today, but shit, I just did.