Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be hunting down the most interesting details about the Far Cry series. With regard to sources, GameSpot‘s The History of Far Cry, Curse Entertainment‘s History of Far Cry: Controversy, Sociopaths and Success, and the ever-reliable Noah Caldwell-Gervais’ A Thorough Look at Far Cry were extremely helpful.
Please note that the final two paragraphs of the section on Far Cry 5 discuss the game’s ending. Due to its role contextualizing what comes before, it is an unavoidable element of any critical assessment of that game. If you have not finished playing Far Cry 5 and intend to experience it with no knowledge of the conclusion, you may want to bookmark this article and revisit it after completing the game.
The Far Cry series is unlike most of the franchises we’ve covered so far in Franchise Festival, as it changed developers fairly early in its fourteen-year history. The engine and original title were developed by a small European studio founded in 1999 by two Turkish-German brothers, Cevat and Avni Yerli. While the studio was at work on a first-person shooter called Engalus, it debuted its X-Isle: Dinosaur Island tech demo and met with representatives from Nvidia, the graphics card manufacturer, at E3 1999.
This led to a brief but lucrative partnership in which X-Isle was packaged on discs accompanying Nvidia graphics cards to benchmark their quality. The tech demo was quite revolutionary for the time, as it was able to generate an island full of dinosaurs moving on scripted paths and foliage rendered at a much greater distance from the viewer’s perspective than players had seen before.
Though the studio’s Engalus would eventually be cancelled, X-Isle was successful enough to attract attention from Ubisoft, the rapidly expanding French game publisher. Ubisoft had become a publicly traded company in 1996 and had opened offices in Annecy, Shanghai, Montreal, and Milan during the late ’90s. The company had licensing deals with EA, Sierra and MicroProse to distribute those studios’ games in France, but was clearly looking to become a publisher of its own unique content by the following decade. By 2000, Ubisoft had made a deal with Crytek ensuring that Crytek would develop its tech demo into a fully realized PC game.
Far Cry (2004)
Far Cry was released on Windows PC in 2004, five years after the brothers Yerli had taken E3 by storm. In that time, certain fundamental features of X-Isle had remained foundational to the final game while others were jettisoned in favor of a more player-friendly product. In particular, the dinosaurs were eliminated entirely. In their place were human antagonists and mutants derived from disturbing experiments carried out by the laboratory beneath the game’s island setting.
That setting, in fact, was very similar to the one which had appeared in X-Isle. The player takes on the role of an American ex-Special Forces operative named Jack Carver who investigates rumors of bizarre genetic experiments occurring on a tropical island. The player is quickly stranded and must make use of the environment, weapons, and vehicles to survive. The Micronesian island setting is quite similar to 1999’s tech demo, but it had been significantly expanded and remained at the top of its field in 2004. Players had never before encountered jungles as lush at those in Far Cry.
At the same time, the gameplay had taken on very familiar mechanics. Its visual design was superb, but the minute-to-minute gameplay was a fairly rudimentary first-person shooter. The player simply needs to explore the island, shoot enemies, and make his or her way to a laboratory run by the sinister Dr. Krieger. Fleshing out the details around basic shooter mechanics, however, are interesting environmental interactions. Enemies are typically clustered around bases, and the wide-open environment offers a plethora of unique ways to approach and defeat the player’s foes. He or she could simply go in, guns blazing, or could slowly pick off enemies from a distance one-by-one. The jungle and the landscape’s verticality offers multiple routes of ingress and egress to any given confrontation.
Unfortunately, not all of the game elements positive. Environments vary between indoor and outdoor locales, and development resources clearly emphasized the outdoor areas. Indoor environments are blandly designed and feature dime-a-dozen corridor FPS mechanics like those encountered in contemporary console shooters. Enemies, meanwhile, are frustratingly omniscient with regard to the player’s location. Stealth is suggested as a method to avoid open confrontation and ambush, but enemies are frequently able to pinpoint the player’s location and respond with laser accuracy even when he or she is hiding in dense foliage. The title’s protagonist, too, came under criticism by players who felt that Carver was unlikable and in no way distinct from the leading characters of other early 2000s FPS games.
Far Cry 2 (2008)
It would take four years for another Far Cry game to be released, though it would simultaneously be published on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 hardware. In the interim, a handful of console spinoffs had been produced and the IP was sold to Ubisoft outright; Crytek would go on to form a partnership with EA and develop the technologically superlative Crysis series. Ubisoft sought to build on what players had enjoyed in Far Cry while abandoning what they disliked. The result was the most divisive entry in the series’ history.
The setting is shifted from Micronesia to a fictional war-torn nation in Central Africa. The player takes the role of a silent protagonist chosen from among a handful of options at the game’s start. Much more emphasis is given to the antagonist, an arms dealer named The Jackal who is fueling the nation’s civil war by importing and distributing guns to both sides. The player character has been hired to infiltrate the country and assassinate The Jackal, which would ideally lead to a cessation of hostilities.
Of course, the game’s narrative does not proceed so smoothly. A straightforward plot might have been successful earlier in the decade, but players had begun to seek more cerebral, twisty experiences in their FPS stories by the end of the 2000s. To that end, the player character contracts malaria early in Far Cry 2 and spends much of his time battling the disease while effectively becoming The Jackal by making money from sidequests undertaken with both of the country’s warring factions. Cutscenes featuring the charismatic antagonist emphasize the fact that the player, over the course of his or her adventure, is no better than the target he or she intended to kill.
The focus on The Jackal, while not noteworthy at first glance, is actually a significant step in the franchise’s evolution. The previous title’s Dr. Krieger was something of a non-entity, and while much of Far Cry 2′s development of its antagonist occurs through much-maligned audio logs, The Jackal’s charisma and a strong vocal performance by Dwayne Hill go along way towards establishing him as a memorable foe along the lines of Heart of Darkness‘ Kurtz. By the end of the game’s narrative, much of what the player thought he or she knew about this enemy has been revealed to be inaccurate.
In updating the series’ underlying engine from the CryEngine to Dunia, Ubisoft also made major alterations to how the player interacts with the environment. Rather than being oriented strictly around gunplay or vehicle navigation, a handful of new systems make the game much more challenging. The first is the player’s malaria, a constant presence throughout the single player campaign; this does not only cause issues during scripted plot sequences, but must also be kept under control through the intermittent self-administering of antibiotics lest the player become debilitated or die. The second new system is the role that fire plays in the dry African landscape – the player can set fires to distract or confine enemy soldiers, but fires can rapidly spread out of control and consume significant swaths of savanna.
The third system is perhaps the most controversial – weaponry and vehicles found throughout the open-world environments are frequently in varying states of disrepair. Guns jam or break down entirely, and cars frequently run out of gasoline or experience engine failure. This contributes to an emergent narrative in which the player cannot reliably expect all variables to proceed as they have in earlier encounters or for other players. This was a source of significant criticism at the time of the title’s release, but has been considered a major innovation for the medium when viewed through the lens of hindsight.
The narrative’s cynicism, the challenging gameplay systems, and the game’s war-torn, drought-stricken setting contribute to a bleak tone that was rather unique in a landscape of otherwise increasingly scripted, highly militaristic first-person shooters. It would go on to be highly influential, particularly in the systems-oriented games that only began to achieve mainstream success with 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but would retain only a cult following after the Far Cry series made significant changes in following entries.
Far Cry 3 (2012)
Another four-year gap separated Far Cry 2 from its successor. Again, the series underwent a major revision between the two adjacent entries. In particular, most of the challenging inconsistent systems were abandoned in favor of a more reliable set of action-oriented gameplay mechanics. In the interim, Ubisoft also released several entries in its similarly open-world Assassin’s Creed franchise, codifying certain elements that would carry over to Far Cry 3.
Most notably, scouting the land through climbing towers became a key part of exploration. High structures dot the landscape and the player is able to ascend these to receive waypoints and intel on nearby enemy encampments. This makes the scouting aspect of the title, which had been carried out in a scattered, piecemeal fashion in Far Cry and Far Cry 2, much more streamlined and less time-intensive. Animals were introduced to the series for the first time as well, as tigers, bears and more could at times be enemies or at times be lured into functioning as a distraction or third faction in battles with pirates.
Those pirates and the ease with which the player can decimate their ranks through gunplay, explosions or animal attacks point to another major evolution in the series: a return to an isolated Pacific island with mechanics focused on efficient skirmishes rather than gritty, clumsy battles. The pirates are led by a captain, Vaas, who is the primary focus of the title’s promotional material. Indeed, Far Cry 3 represents the moment when Ubisoft began to focus the series’ narratives and ads entirely around charismatic antagonists.
While Vaas was universally beloved as a deeply sinister foe, the narrative was otherwise a point of controversy. Gone is the choice of protagonist featured in Far Cry 2, and in its place is the pre-determined role of Jason Brody. This lead character is a young American man who, along with his friends, is captured by pirates while enjoying a vacation in the fictional Rook Islands. Over the course of his adventure, he gains supernatural powers from a local tribe (manifested mechanically through abilities that can be upgraded on a menu-based skill tree) and brutally slaughters numerous island inhabitants who, admittedly, are themselves trying to kill him and his friends.
The end result is a disturbingly colonialist narrative that would not have been out of place in the early 20th Century, heavily foregrounding the “white savior” trope that had thankfully gone out of fashion by the 2010s. Other elements came under fire as well – the game prominently features the sexual abuse of a female character to motivate Brody’s bloody revenge narrative – and the title’s lead author was even confronted about these issues by online PC-game publication RockPaperShotgun in a 2012 interview. Ostensibly, the writers sought to justify the problematic script by describing it as satire.
The lessons of Far Cry 3 were clearly learned by the development team. No future game – so far – has featured a similarly colonialist narrative. With regard to its mechanics, on the other hand, Far Cry 3 was the point at which Ubisoft established a core set of gameplay elements which would inform all later games in the series. There would never again be a bizarre jump, as from the straight FPS gunplay and mutant-infested landscape of Far Cry to the gritty exploration of civil strife and arms dealers in Far Cry 2, or from the intentionally clumsy gunplay of Far Cry 2 to the well-honed power fantasy of Far Cry 3.
Far Cry 4 (2014)
Far Cry 4 was published on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC in 2014 Only two years separated the releases of Far Cry 3 and its sequel, rather than the four-year intervals that had characterized earlier entries. Unsurprisingly, the two games are much more similar in appearance and mechanics than fans had expected. While this brought some criticism about the limited degree to which the series had evolved, the reception to Far Cry 4 was generally positive.
Virtually nothing changed in the gameplay. The only major developments are the ability to ride airborne vehicles and the ability to ride elephants. In fact, both of those gameplay features point to the reason that the setting moved from the comparatively wide, flat regions of Far Cry, Far Cry 2, and Far Cry 3 to the extraordinarily vertical Himalayas. Far Cry 4 is set in the fictional Kyrat, a country visually similar to Nepal and in the process of a civil war between revolutionaries and monarchists at the game’s outset. Surprisingly, the primary reason that Ubisoft opted for this region was its vertical landscape and the presence of elephants.
With regard to narrative, the development team took earlier controversies to heart and opted to improve upon the studio’s previous game. The protaganist in Far Cry 4 is a Kyrati-American who has returned to his parents’ homeland to scatter his mother’s ashes after her death. A karma system has been introduced, punishing the player for wanton destruction outside the bounds of the central conflict and rewarding the player for helping local communities. The script itself underwent a significant revision after members of the development team visited Nepal; Ubisoft had originally developed the setting based on an antiquated perspective of the region, and all of this work was scrapped in an effort to avoid the Western colonialism that had characterized the preceding title.
At the same time, the developers doubled down on what had been successful in Far Cry 3. The antagonist is again a highly charismatic figure leading a group of armed enemies. This time, the player’s nemesis is Pagan Min, a self-appointed king of Kyrat seeking to take over the country through a bloody conflict based on Nepal’s real-world decade-long Maoist insurgency (1996 – 2006). Min is voiced by the ubiquitous Troy Baker, who had recently cemented his reputation among game enthusiasts by voicing lead character Joel in 2013’s The Last of Us.
In addition to its emphasis on a charismatic antagonist, Far Cry 4 also maintained a handful of other elements favored by players in Far Cry 3. Vehicular combat is expanded, as the player can drive while shooting on land, sea and air. Animals are again a major feature, as elephants can be ridden or wreak havoc in enemy strongholds and wild carnivores (including tigers, bears and honey badgers) are a danger to both the player character and his foes. Companion AI humans are included, as they had been in both preceding games, giving players a helping hand when the combat gets too challenging. Finally, the game offers numerous endings based on the player’s decisions throughout the narrative. Aligning with specific factions leads to different conclusions, and the player even has the opportunity to decide how to handle the bloodthirsty Pagan Min in the story’s final hours. Humorously, a bonus ending is available early in the game if the player opts to adhere to Min’s request while visiting his estate and not leave his mansion during a scripted dinner sequence – this eschews the game’s central conflict entirely.
Several new modes and DLC were introduced as well. Multiplayer cooperative gameplay was made available to Far Cry players for the first time. Two downloadable campaigns were available for purchase in the year following the base game, and the second introduced the mythological yeti creature to the franchise.
Far Cry 5 (2018)
Ubisoft again took criticism to heart, opting to wait four years before publishing another entry in the main Far Cry series rather than come under fire for not innovating enough between numbered installments as it had upon the release of Far Cry 4. The studio also opted to set the next game much closer to Western players’ homes rather than introduce another story featuring a Western protagonist in an exotic foreign locale. Of course, the setting this time was controversial for a different set of reasons.
Far Cry 5 was released on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 platforms in 2018 after a lengthy promotional campaign highlighting the fact that the game would center on a religious cult in rural Montana. This proved divisive, as American conservatives suspected that their ideology would come under fire by a major video game studio that had previously only turned its attention towards regions with which they were unfamiliar. The game itself did nothing of the sort.
With regard to the plot, the player takes the role of a deputy investigating Eden’s Gate, a cult that has overthrown the government and taken over a sprawling fictional county in Montana. The cult is led by a charismatic leader named Joseph Seed and seems to be something of a hybrid entity, taking on the appearance of 21st Century radical Evangelical groups and the iconography of 20th Century white supremacists while espousing a generic ideology focused on Seed’s belief that the world will soon come to an end. The player character becomes trapped in the county, which is patrolled by land and air vehicles piloted by the heavily armed cult militia. The game’s primary goal is liberating the local populace from their erstwhile oppressors by assassinating each of Seed’s lieutenants.
Mechanically, Far Cry 5 does little to iterate on its predecessors. The moment-to-moment gameplay still centers on defeating enemy encampments through a combination of gunplay, stealth, vehicular combat and animal attacks. Rather than emphasizing the unpredictability of wild animals, Far Cry 5 actually offers the player a handful of loyal animal companions (including a grizzly bear named Cheeseburger!). In one of its only significant innovations, Far Cry 5 features a character creator for the first time in the series’ history; this has no mechanical impacts on the game and few cosmetic impacts, since the game is experienced in a first-person perspective, but was still lauded by fans and critics.
Interestingly, the game presents an entirely new bonus mode which draws in visual assets from preceding Far Cry games alongside environments pulled from Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed: Unity. This postmodern playground is called Far Cry Arcade, and actually manages to more effectively convey what Far Cry has been designed to be since its third entry – a violent, chaotic playground of emergent systems-based gameplay. In shedding its narrative trappings, Ubisoft found a way to avoid the ludo-narrative dissonance that characterizes the third and fifth entries of the series.
Major Spoilers for Far Cry 5‘s Ending Below
Sadly, the narrative of the campaign is difficult to regard as anything other than a failure. After steadfastly avoiding any direct references to the culture from which it draws its setting, ideology and iconography, Far Cry 5 commits fully to nihilism in its ending sequences. One early bonus ending allows the player to simply walk away from his or her duty, leaving the cult in control of Hope County. Another involves leaving the cult at the end of the campaign rather than finally arresting Joseph Seed – this leads to the player slaughtering his companions while leaving the compound, triggered by a song he’d been hypnotized to react to during his time as a prisoner of Eden’s Gate.
Finally, the game’s primary ending features the arrest of Joseph Seed being interrupted by a nuclear exchange that incinerates the surrounding environment and, presumably, much of North America; the player survives, pulled into a bunker by the cult leader. In the end, Far Cry 5 argues that Eden’s Gate was right: the world was indeed headed for collapse and the only appropriate reaction to it was disengagement and self-interest. In its attempt to avoid aligning with any side in the fraught political environment of modern America, Ubisoft stumbled into making a profoundly conservative statement.
While Far Cry has never inspired any genuine spinoffs, a handful of console adaptations and downloadable content, along with one major title released between the core series’ fourth and fifth entries, qualify under a broad understanding of the term.
After the success of Far Cry (2004) on the PC platform, Ubisoft was eager to get versions published on the major console hardware of the time. Unfortunately, there was no way to adapt the game’s large-scale open-world environment to the comparatively restricted environment of the medium’s sixth generation without making significant alterations. The first two of these Far Cry console adaptations were released on Xbox in 2005 and 2006. Far Cry Instincts (2005) retained most of the visual assets of the PC game, along with its protagonist Jack Carver, but is a linear shooter in which the player proceeds through isolated stages comprised of geographically limited spaces; though the protagonist and setting are the same as the PC game from which it’s derived, the narrative is distinct. Far Cry Instinct: Evolution (2006) is visually and mechanically identical, simply continuing the unique story of Far Cry Instincts.
These games primarily innovated on their foundation through the addition of a few surprising mechanics and modes. Feral abilities have been added to the campaign, offering the player enhancements like increased strength, night vision and fast movement. Multiplayer was also included, permitting players to engage in couch player-versus-player deathmatches characteristic of the era. An impressive map editor was included alongside the multiplayer component, which let players develop their own levels and share them with friends.
Far Cry Instincts was in simultaneous development for the PlayStation 2 in 2004, but that port was abandoned. A couple of other surprising ports were produced, however. Far Cry Vengeance (2006) is a remake of Far Cry Instincts: Evolution for the Nintendo Wii; the map editor is not included, but motion controls and a handful of bonus levels have been added to the game. Paradise Lost (2007), on the other hand, is an on-rails arcade shooter based on Far Cry Instincts; up to two players cooperate to take on four levels in any order, followed by a fifth and final stage.
In the following decade, Ubisoft published one of the most successful spinoffs in the series’ history when it released Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (2013) on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC platforms. This was mechanically similar to Far Cry 3, but was a radical aesthetic departure from preceding titles in the franchise. While it retains a large, open-world, the visual design, narrative and voice elements are inspired by over-the-top 1980s action cinema. Michael Biehn, of Terminator, voices the bombastic player character, and numerous references to specific ’80s films appear throughout the sprightly ten-hour campaign.
Likely inspired by the success of placing Far Cry mechanics in a surprising and unexpected setting, Ubisoft released Far Cry: Primal in 2016 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC platforms. The game is set in 10,000 BC, as players take on the role of a tribal warrior. Guns and vehicles – series’ staples at this point – are abandoned in favor of melee combat, bow-hunting and animal taming. The latter feature functions as something of a bridge between the chaotic use of wild animals in Far Cry 4 (2014) and the animal companions of Far Cry 5 (2018).
Despite the sense of mechanical stagnation that had inspired complaints about the fourth and fifth entries in the series, Far Cry: Primal conclusively demonstrates that the underlying Far Cry formula has more versatility than detractors had occasionally claimed. Whether future entries in the core series innovate or stagnate, fans can look forward to exciting spinoffs in the years ahead.
How about you? What is your favorite Far Cry game? How about your favorite vehicle, weapon or animal featured in the series short-but-extensive history? Where would you like to see the next game set? Let’s discuss below!