Game Name:  Far Cry
Developer:  Crytek
Publisher:  Ubisoft
PC Release Year:  2004
Review Date:  October 31, 2014

Late 2003 into early 2004 was a dark time for PC gamers.  Then, much as they do now, Xbox and PlayStation fanboys gleefully announced that computer gaming’s death was nigh.  While a statement like this screams of ignorance in today’s world of multimillion dollar prize pools for Dota 2 and League of Legends, it was a very real concern in the early aughts.  Before Blizzard lured millions of college students into World of Warcraft, and Valve revolutionized digital distribution with the release of Half Life 2 on Steam, Windows-based gaming was surviving primarily on ports from other systems.  Fortunately, some developers were brave enough to buck this trend, releasing exclusive titles that played to the PC’s strengths.  Crytek’s Far Cry was just such a game, and it was a technological beast.  The expansive and densely forested world was a generation ahead of anything that could be seen on consoles, so its historical importance to the platform cannot be understated.  While it still looks fine today, ten-year-old technology is not enough to justify a modern playthrough on its own.  Sadly, its other features have been emulated and improved upon in the last decade, making the experience a bit obsolete on the current gaming stage.

Part of Far Cry’s problem is that it was forced to straddle two worlds.  Considered by some as the first ‘modern’ shooter, it had to pay homage to earlier titles like Duke Nukem, while simultaneously paving the way for later games like BioShock.  With the benefit of hindsight, modern players can see that this balancing act between style and substance does not always work.  The perfect example is the way in which the characters interact with each other.  Our hero, Jack Carver, is no Gordon Freeman; he has a voice and is more than happy to use it.  Where speech could have furthered the narrative or showcased some type of character development, though, players are instead subjected to stupid comments like, “I’m not touching a nuke!  Not even a tiny one!”  Cinematics are wasted as well, and are frankly a bit sexist when the game’s damsel in distress is showcased showering under a waterfall in a white bikini.  When Valerie’s role changes to that of an actual companion character, who Jack must escort and protect in the later levels of the game, no attempt is made to develop any kind of human emotion between the pair.  She merely fulfills the role of eye candy, in her booty shorts and deep cut top.  Considering our hero’s salty attitude and checkered past, the implications for why he sticks around to save her are crystal clear.  This is a little too lowbrow for my tastes.

Marketing to the dudebro demographic clearly impacted Far Cry’s story as well, since it plays out like a run-of-the-mill action movie.  The superficial exposition is a shame, because when you boil it down to its base elements, it is pretty much a parallel to the tale of Andrew Ryan and Rapture.  In this case, the societally-abused superman is one Dr. Krieger, who happens to be a genius in the field of genetic engineering.  When the U.S. military cuts his funding over a ‘tiny’ little thing like illegal testing on humans, the good doctor uproots his research department and moves it to a small corner of the Pacific Ocean, far away from the rule of law.  Where his funding comes from is never explained, but what follows is the classic tale of a science experiment gone horribly wrong.  Naturally, the animal-human hybrids he creates get free, all hell breaks loose, and the CIA must attempt to shut the operation down.  Ken Levine would later take this type of setup and run with it in BioShock, by making weighty allusions to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged while critiquing the virtues of capitalism.  H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Morough could easily have been the intellectual underpinnings for this title, if Crytek had been willing to tell a cautionary tale about the dangers of modern science.  Instead of a think piece, what players get is a sensory assault.  While it is definitely fun to hide from a patrolling speedboat as James Bond does in Dr. No, or hunt invisible monsters as Dutch does in Predator, the experience never goes beyond that.

Even if it is inconsistent at times, the gameplay in Far Cry is fortunately more fulfilling than the narrative.  It is not just that the shooter mechanics are top notch, but the fact that they are used well within the context of the game’s world.  Around its release, this was the go-to title to benchmark a new computer rig, and for good reason.  Levels are massive, with multiple paths to a given objective and the island’s beautiful foliage providing ample space to hide.  This is the perfect stage for cat-and-mouse games against a host of gun-toting enemies, and that is exactly what Crytek lets gamers experience.  At its best, an assault on a jungle outpost will morph from skulking around the outskirts of the encampment, with a silenced submachine gun, into a full blown firefight when one overly attentive sentry raises the alarm.  From there, two options are available: stand your ground with an assault rifle, which is a dangerous proposition against clever AI that actively attempts to flank positions and advance under covering fire, or retreat back into the undergrowth to continue the attack from a new direction, after picking off a few targets with a sniper rifle.  Thinking tactically is the name of the game, and it is absolutely amazing to have to worry about things like sight lines and cover.

Unfortunately, Far Cry muddles this superb gunplay with survival horror and vehicle elements that do not quite hit the same mark. Great pains were taken to adequately introduce Dr. Krieger’s monsters.  Around the story’s midpoint, players find themselves witness to a string of brutal assaults on scientists and mercenaries, after which the assailants vanish into the shadows before they can be seen.  If this suspenseful buildup had carried over to ultimate reveal, there would not have been an issue.  Many of these creatures, though, lack any type of sophistication; they will merely charge and leap at Jack in a fit of blind rage.  It is hard to be scared of, or enjoy a fight with, something that is so easily vanquished with a few shotgun blasts.  Humvee and river boat combat has the opposite problem, in that it is far more difficult than it should be.  This was a title that was originally designed without a way to actively save progress.  Although player complaints about the passive checkpoint system ultimately caused Crytek to patch this functionality in, it requires opening up the command console and imputing a string of text.  Doing so is easy enough on foot, when there are plenty of places to hide, but near impossible in a vehicle when enemies are in hot pursuit.  As a result, some of the game’s most exhilarating moments devolve into painful periods of trial and error that only end when an invisible finish line is reached.    

Glowing reviews, both at the time of Far Cry’s release and since, set some pretty lofty expectations for my playthrough.  While I can genuinely say I enjoyed moments from the 11 hours it took to trek through all of the abandoned laboratories, beached ships, and ancient Polynesian temples, shooters were not mature enough in 2004 for Crytek to deliver on this game’s amazing premise.  Simply put, it came out too soon to be what it should have been, and respect for its influence on the genre does not change that fact.  Neither does the unique setting or final levels, which are far more entertaining than what came earlier.  FPS super fans will love all of what Far Cry has to offer, but few other gamers will.

Verdict:  Not Recommended