Far Cry turned 15 a few days ago, and for its anniversary I pose one question: what if Far Cry had not been what it was? Indulge me for a moment: I know that Far Cry was a first-person shooter. But I like to imagine all games as if they could be my favorite game series. Allow me to step back for a moment to fifteen years ago.
When I first played Far Cry, I was a young gamer whose mind was occupied with thoughts of Doom 3 and Half-Life 2. Far Cry came out of nowhere. Critics loved it. A powerhouse PC title, it took some of Doom 3’s intrigue away with its shiny surfaces and impressive lighting. I had a new high-end rig and felt like the coolest kid on the block. I cranked Far Cry’s settings to High, Very High—Ultra High! It was awesome. And it was, no doubt, a first-person shooter.
I took it as such and questioned naught, marveling at the island setting and the weapon models. I admit, I didn’t like shooting human NPCs as much as the demons I was yearning for at the time (Doom 3 hype), but I got into it. Far Cry was one of those “realistic” FPS games. Nowadays I laugh at the idea that any FPS can realistically emulate physical combat. But at that time I thought stamina bars, vehicles, and limits on the weapons you could hold kind of took the fun out of FPS action, thus making it “realistic.” I shook my fist in the air and yearned for the old days. But I still played Far Cry, and enjoyed it, for what it was.
Over the years things change. I have changed. My obsession with Thief has only increased. I see other games through its light. Whenever I replay Far Cry, I now think beyond the capacity of my preteen mind. I ask questions—I’m not content to just marvel at this FPS with pretty visuals. I want to pry at it and wonder: “You know, what if this was more like Thief?”
My thesis is that any story setting be it in a game, a book, a movie, or a what-have-you can be made more effective when put through the Thief design machine. Any fictional world lives and enraptures its participants, us gamers, so much more richly if it is seen through the first-person perspective and experienced from the side, detached. Why? Simple: you soak everything in more and there is more to soak in. So indulge me as I apply my Thief eye to the original Far Cry.
The Potential for StealthOnce you step out into the tropical air of the island, there is some amount of player choice. The design encourages you to approach situations from different angles. You can take out the game’s mercenaries from far distances or choose to sneak by them. You can also confront them up close, though this strategy is the weakest.
If you choose to sneak, there is a meter—wonderfully named the “Stealth-O-Meter”—for tracking enemies' alertness. As Doyle warns you, mercenaries will call in for backup if they spot you, so staying crouched down in the foliage has its advantages. The ability to fall into a prone position is even better for sneaking, though it requires patience. You would think from all this that a stealthy approach is encouraged. I use the prone-position key like I do the "creep" key in Thief II. I’ve even begun the game with the challenge of ghosting it.
However, you cannot play Far Cry as a stealth game. Combat is unavoidable in just about every scenario, especially late in the game when the mutants join the fray. You virtually have no choice but to engage enemies in combat at some point. Further, using weapons and firing upon enemies feels like the way the game wants you to play it. Stealthy approaches to any situation feel at odds with its flow. I feel as if I am getting away with something when I play a sneak, as if I am cheating the very nature of the game. Plus, the only quiet weapon you have is the machete, and there is not even one non-lethal option.
Combat can exist in first-person immersive stealth. It is an option in Thief and more current, similar games like Dishonored. But combat isn't the engine that drives them. It is one of several ways by which to interact with their gameworld. In Far Cry, it's the only substantive way to interact with the world.
Additionally, confronting enemies feels natural. In Thief or Dishonored it does not: you feel bad for attacking enemies. In Far Cry, I almost feel bad for not attacking them. I do not mean this to slight Far Cry—it was designed as a first-person shooter. However, as I glean onto the potential it had to be an immersive stealth experience, I am disappointed by its dedicated FPS design. The disappointment is greater since there is a nonviable stealth option present.
Rich Audio PresenceFar Cry has top-tier audio. No game could ever top the Thief series's audio, but my Thief-fan senses pick up some similarities here. There is plenty of detail: you’ll hear different birds crying, bugs flitting about, mercenaries talking with one another, and, during combat, bullet shells dropping to the ground. You have the option to toss rocks to distract the guards. Footsteps and other noises you make will draw their attention. After investigating, mercenaries will blame the noises on birds—“must have been birds!” (Imagine a Thief guard saying that.)
The mercenaries engage in humorous conversations. As a big fan of funny guards in Thief, I am overjoyed when I hear similar characters in other games. There’s no Benny equivalent in Far Cry, but I don’t think those exist. Nonetheless, these mercenaries gripe about conditions on the island, wish for more excitement, and use trash-talk lines like “I’m gonna fix his little red wagon!” Yes, one of the mercenaries thinks that is a solid trash talk line. (His companion is quick to call him out on it.)
In addition to these detailed noises, the audio ambiance makes enthralling tropical island soundscapes. Drums, flutes, and other instruments you’d associate with the tropics will phase in and out. It’s all mellow and very immersive in effect—Far Cry is like the immersive tropical island game. Interior areas, shut out from the scenic tropics, have moody beats to complement their dingier atmosphere.
The ambiance the sound design creates could have well complemented a moody first-person stealth title. Like the potential to play stealthily, the audio design teases me, making me think this game could be more than the straight first-person shooter it keeps falling back to.
Unrealized NarrativeThere is at least one narrative device in Far Cry that reminds me of my other favorite first-person series, System Shock. At the beginning, the player-character Jack Carver wakes up in an unfamiliar environment with little recollection of what has just happened. You are soon then led on by a disembodied voice. It is of a scientist on the island, named Doyle, speaking to you through a radio. He relays advice on how to navigate the threats on the tropical island you are recently marooned upon. He is like System Shock 2's Dr. Polito. With a brief spoiler warning, I will also note that, like Polito, Doyle is not who he seems to be. It turns out that he had been using you for his own ends.
I wish I could continue listing narrative devices that mimic Shock or Thief and so on, but I'm afraid I cannot. Far Cry needed more meat to its narrative design. There are some narrative pieces around, like magazines and posters, but you can't interact with any of them. There are no journals to read or audiologs to listen to. Considering the weighty role these play in establishing a living gameworld in games like Thief or Shock, their absence is noticeable juxtaposed to Far Cry's otherwise immersive atmosphere.
Items like log entries add story richness to game-spaces. Letter exchanges between mercenaries on the island's conditions or research journals by scientists on the experiments being conducted would have given more meaning to the story. Even Far Cry's B-movie level story, essentially about a Bond villain making an army of mutants, can be made palpable with the right narrative devices.
That's the power of great game design: drab stories can be made enthralling. How much conflict might have existed between the mad Dr. Krieger and his subordinates? How many stories were on the island, of people missing their families, or of horror at the unethical science taking place? A game built on immersion and narrative could have brought all that out. As is, such narrative potential sits beneath Far Cry's surface.
A Note on the Save SystemUpon release, Far Cry operated on checkpoints. A save-anywhere ability complements stealth approaches and player immersion. Checkpoints frustrate them. You can use a quick-save console command, but the saving and loading process is still clumsy. Restarting at a checkpoint over and over while trying to play stealthily, you will likely give up and engage enemies in combat.
The options to quick save and quick load complement atmospheric, immersive games. Restarting from one checkpoint again and again may suit a platformer that is driven by difficult gameplay, but in a first-person immersive game it becomes a hindrance to the game's purpose. The same could be said for a game that encourages players to approach situations from different angles. As Far Cry is such a game, it should have had a save system rather than checkpoints. Once again, I am let down by something the game should have but doesn't, and I remain teased by what could have been.
Elusive Tropical ImmersionIn short, I may be attempting the impossible when imagining Far Cry as a primarily immersive first-person stealth game like Thief. Even trying to play it stealthily I feel as if I am meddling in realms I cannot comprehend. Let an FPS title be what it is, I have to tell myself. But I can’t. I live with the conviction that Thief missions and any first-person experience with like-design is the best way to experience a fictional world. Whenever I revisit Far Cry, I pick up on tiny suggestions that it could have been a stealthy and immersive game.
If you spend any amount of time soaking in its lush island atmosphere, taking in the buzzing bugs, tweeting birds, lapping waves, and swaying palm trees, you will likely think so, too. A beautiful tropical island is an apt setting for sneaking around and soaking in story and atmosphere. Whenever I gaze at Far Cry's environment, I wish I could interact with it more substantively.
Though the sequel and later titles would build on the original's potential for immersion and fleshed-out gameplay options, the first Far Cry remains in the middle ground. It's a straight first-person shooter filled with teases of something greater—teases and no more.