Now a flagship Ubisoft title, the Far Cry series has often been criticised for becoming overly formulaic.
The games have recently settled into a groove of fight-the-power resistance: equip yourself with increasingly dangerous weaponry in an extensive fight to clear a map of icons and reclaim foreign land.
Despite this shared quality, moving between the five main games in the Far Cry series inflicts a kind of whiplash.
Narratively and tonally each Far Cry is distinct, and sometimes even at odds. The games shift wildly, from the camp to the deathly serious, as different developers have attempted to pin-down a consistent identity. In support of these stories is a location; an environment that attempts to reinforce the rest of the game. It is often this element which is most memorable.
From the very beginning, Far Cry has been defined by its open spaces. Its grand maps are a constant amongst more general tonal confusion. Most interestingly is how these environments have evolved over time, and what each fictional place says about their respective title.
Crytek released the original Far Cry in 2004 — and it felt like a wild prototype. Unlike other shooters of the age it offered wide outdoor spaces; “sandboxes” that you could poke around and muck about in. It was a game partly opposed to the first-person shooter’s usual narrow corridors (Doom 3) and boxed-in areas that felt more like levels than places (Half-Life 2).
For all Far Cry’s freshness, its wide scope came in micro doses. The game devolves rapidly, with bright open areas dissolving into more conventional interiors in a matter of hours. Despite this, the first few areas left an impression. An enemy outpost that you can scout and approach from almost any angle, long dirt tracks, big vistas, clear water and cliffs you can hang glide off of — it was these moments that became baked into the series’ DNA.
Whilst the original game’s sunny archipelago set a foundation for what was to come in terms of world design, other attributes were jettisoned. Far Cry was a relic when it came to narrative — a cheesy action-flick that didn’t feel the need to say much other than to create an excuse to let its ridiculous hero and his Hawaiian shirt cause a ruckus.
Heart of Darkness
Years later, Ubisoft looked to capitalise on the desire for open-worlds by taking up the mantle (Crytek moved on to create Crysis). Whilst the original’s sun-lit isles were straight out of a holiday brochure (and appropriately frivolous) Far Cry’s sequel was a far darker prospect. Comfortably nestled amidst a generation of brown and desaturated looking shooters (Gears of War, Modern Warfare etc.), Far Cry 2 was the first proper open-world game in the series. The environment it offered up was contrastingly bleak — a fictional Central African state made up of deserts, jungles and savannas, and embroiled in civil war, corruption and illegal arms.
Looking back Far Cry 2 is a clear outlier — a prototype inspired by the playfulness of the original, but developed at a point where Ubisoft was mechanically experimenting as well as distancing itself from the series’ pulpy origins. The sequel was wildly successful in that its gritty and hostile environment reflected a deeply nihilistic narrative. The world felt frustratingly indifferent to the player, and in many cases valued creating a believable simulation of blood and fire over any sense of player agency.
The third game in the series reestablished the tropic fantasy of the original with increased technicality. A true open-world with an abundance of harvestable wildlife and an entire map worth of sparkling icons, activities and collectibles. It was a colourful departure from Far Cry 2, but one that introduced many elements that would become rote over time.
Far Cry 3’s paradise cemented the series’ touristic approach. Troubled African state was swapped out for mysterious/exotic Pacific island. Its vivid environment made good on the “sandbox” promise — a shallow play area to have fun in but never to dig deep. It was a spectacular holiday destination that dazzled players with to-do-lists and disposable entertainment — like a trip to Magaluf only with more cultural insensitivity.
In many ways Far Cry 3 played it safe in its environment. A return to the familiar, but also a tweaking of the formula to be more appetising. A more controversial legacy can be found in its attempt to deconstruct and destabilise the player’s action, making it now seem more crass than pulp.
With Far Cry 5 Ubisoft created a more adventurous setting, as well as attempting to heal old wounds with a more sensible story. The fictional nation of Kyrat is set amongst the Himalayas, although the mountain range itself plays a disappointingly peripheral role.
The majority of this playground is set on the plateau, with hills, cliffs and forests punctuated by Buddhist and Hindu inspired monasteries and pagodas. In many ways, it’s an architectural mish-mash, but it brings a virtual degree of history and culture to what has previously been rather plain and naturalistic environments.
On top of the rainbow-cloth of Kyrat’s prayer flags is the psychedelic dreamworld of Shangri-La, with its blood-tinged autumnal palette. This is Ubisoft attempting to inject some colour into the world, as well as spicing up a rather straight-laced rebels versus dictator plot. Shangri-La is much needed when you consider what was removed from Far Cry 3 to make it more palpable — a giddy and carnivalesque attitude which involved an American frat-boy and a bag of racist tropes.
In its latest installment, Ubisoft returns “home” to the U.S. state of Montana. Of course, it’s not really home — Ubi are Canadian (and C4rytek German), and yet it seems undeniable that from the get-go the series has felt “American”; had a particular American viewpoint deeply soaked in colonialism and cultural appropriation. Does the fifth game in the series address this problematic legacy?
Environmentally Far Cry 5 is diverse, with great mountainous and forested regions, as well as rural farmland and agricultural industry. It has no need for a crutch like Shangri-La to lighten the mood, as built-up areas and modern architecture is more prevalent than in earlier games. The zaniness isn’t lost either, but comes from a mixture of psychotropic plant life (called “Bliss”) and narrative threads that revolve around a cult — a plot which could’ve been pulled straight from a Louis Theroux documentary.
Ubisoft may well feel safe amongst the landscapes of Hope County, Montana. Certainly, there’s little to criticise in this proficient rendition of so-called “big sky country”. On the other hand, even here at home the game struggles to reconcile its fractious history. Far Cry 5 certainly seems more complex than the 2004 original, but despite making good on the promise of a vast open world, elsewhere the series still struggles for an identity and a voice.