Poor Ubisoft. They crafted this enormous open-world icon-riddled niche of their own, trod it into the ground while flogging it to death, and then other people came along, borrowed their ideas, and built superior games with them. In the last year, despite decent showings from Far Cry Primal, The Division, Watch Dogs 2, and Wildlands, players and critics were beginning to weary of yet another open map of odd jobs. None was particularly at fault, but we were experiencing perhaps the sense of diminishing returns, and certainly the weariness of fatigue. And then this year we got Zelda: Breath Of The Wild from Nintendo and Horizon Zero Dawn from Sony. Pow. Two platform-pushing monoliths that schooled Ubisoft at their own games.
No one can claim that Ubisoft couldn’t have seen it coming. 2015 had seen The Witcher 3, Arkham Knight, Metal Gear Solid V. It was clear that their open world toes were being trodden on, with other studios often outdoing their own efforts. They had to step up. Of course, development lead times meant that we wouldn’t see this in 2016, and as mentioned above that year saw them put out a solid list of fairly standard examples of their format. But it’s perhaps fair to say they couldn’t have expected the degree to which 2017’s two console-exclusive big hitters would so enormously lift from the open world model used across so many Ubi franchises, nor that these new games would utterly blast even Ubi’s best efforts out of the water.
But that does make life tricky. It’s with some cruel irony that they announce a Far Cry – surely the flagship titles in their map-icon formula – into the fray having been so recently outdone. So what to do?
It’ll take more than money
I think the first thing is that the challenge won’t be solved purely with money. And I’d be willing to bet that would be Ubi’s first instinct. Zelda: BOTW and Horizon Zero Dawn (HZD) are both expensive games made by enormous teams over many years. Figures are vague, as you’d expect. But we know BOTW took over 300 people five years, and Nintendo say it will take an extraordinary 2 million sales to break even. At £60 launch price, that puts it at around £120 million. HZD is slightly more confusing because the developers gave a figure to a Dutch magazine, and it’s clearly far too low. Despite a team of 250, plus another 100 outsourced, and at least four years development, they claim it cost €45m (£39m). Although it’s likely this is minus the advertising budget, and since Sony was using the game to sell PS4s (just as BOTW was used to sell Switches), you can expect the same figure again or more to be tacked on. Which is all to say, these are a couple of £100m games.
Of course, Ubi has to make everything confusing, and not even a hint of budget figures has been released for the previous games. (We’ve asked.) Their games are made in a very peculiar way, with different portions of a single game made by different studios. Take FC4, for instance: those Shangri La dream sequences were made by a completely different team at Ubi Toronto, with completely different creative options, from those at Ubi Montreal making the waking world of the game. They compare this to movie studios, who will have multiple production companies working together to build a film, and overseas filming units with their own local assistant directors and production teams. Which makes guessing at costs even more ridiculously hard, but I strongly suspect the Far Cry series hasn’t nudged those astronomical budgets just yet, and I really don’t think it’d help if this one did.
More money often means more beautiful, more detail, more content, more side quests, and so on. More money can be really good for a large open game. But as the subheading says, it’ll take more than cash, and so we go on.
Remember to be a playground
I think this is probably the most essential thing to let Far Cry 5 be a game that stands out in such a busy open field. Because when you look back at the history of the Far Cry series, that is where it has always shone.
Far Cry, the original Crytek shooter in 2004, has more in common with the Crysis series than it does with where Ubi took the franchise. But despite that, if you look at where the game worked best, it was in those early stages where the player was bestowed with (then) unbelievable freedom to go off fixed paths and explore. To grab a hang-glider and soar wheresoever they may wish. To stumble into enemy soldiers and scramble your way out of the impromptu skirmish, then dash off in a stolen car. Gosh it was great. Right up until the bloody mutants show up. (It’s quite the thing that the notion of reintroducing monstrous mutants to the series at this point would seem outrageous.)
Far Cry 2 is a divisive game, where very wrong people think it was the best of the series [if that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right – Ed], whereas right people recognise that for all its intentions of delivering absolute freedom, it was in fact a clown car of broken AI and repetition [my other car is a clown car – Ed]. But despite that, it too was always at its best when letting the player improvise within its world. As hilariously bad as the AI was, it was brilliant fun to set up a trap on a bridge for the sake of it, rather than because the plot demanded it. (That you’d then get to watch soldiers deliberately driving cars into rivers or shooting each other for no reason was a bonus.)
By Far Cry 3 a lot had changed, and what I think we can identify as modern Ubisoft’s core concepts were put into place. Big open island, lots of bases to capture, animals to skin, and side quests and collectibles to busy you for dozens of hours. And then, uncomfortably squeezed into that, was A STORY. A big stupid ugly really quite racist story of rubbish, but we’ll get onto that in a bit. I wasn’t as down on the action in the story missions as were others – I thought the different approaches broke the flow quite nicely. But even so, there’s no doubt it was best when it was freest.
Far Cry 4 was very much more of the same, slightly better refined, but not altered enough to avoid making the same mistakes. Primal tried to be slightly different, add in tribal business, recruiting characters, and so on, but yet again was only ever brilliant when you were mucking about.
I feel despondently certain that Far Cry 5 will have an over-written overwrought story that incessantly interrupts the entertainment. I feel more certain, in fact, because of the success of Horizon Zero Dawn, which had a bloody enormous story with lovely twists and turns, genuinely interesting characters, and a protagonist who felt real, vibrant and splendidly honest. If Ubisoft have proven anything with Far Cry, it’s that they don’t seem to be capable of that, and the worst thing they could do this time out is try. We don’t need an interrupting story – we just need an excuse to be playing.
Don’t be afraid to ditch a core idea
The situation Ubisoft have found themselves in is one of sticking too arduously to their formula. You know when you pick up one of their open world games you’re most likely to be gathering resources to craft, taking out enemy encampments to take them over as your own, and climbing some awkwardly designed towers. Each of these and so many other repeated factors, are I suppose “proven”. They’ve worked before, so they’ll work again. Except we’re now at the point where others are besting Ubi, and they need to be brave enough to abandon some of their core ideas.
My suggestion would be the enemy encampments. Why? Because they’re often my favourite bits of the previous games, and as well as not wanting to feel as weary with the concept as I already do, I’d love to see what they’d be forced into inventing if they couldn’t depend on them.
Maybe don’t be racist
Not something that usually comes up when considering how to sustain a long-running series, but good grief. I loved Far Cry 3 – I was one of the ones who successfully fought to see it as our Game Of The Year for 2012. It was, despite itself, an amazing festival of stupid fun. And, at the same time, it contained some absolutely embarrassing crap. With some homophobia thrown in. And an extremely badly handled rape plot. And magical Negros. And a colonial mindset. Games are complicated! Something that became even more bewildering after one of the strangest moments in my entire career – interviewing the game’s writer and realising midway through that he was giving excuses instead of answers, that entirely contradicted previous things he’d said. It was weird.
I guess I can better put this as: don’t see Far Cry as the place to make extraordinarily convoluted political points unless you actually know what that point is and why you want to make it. I mean, that’s probably a good rule to apply to everything, ever. So it certainly counts here.
Don’t be Zelda: Breath Of The Wild nor Horizon: Zero Dawn
It must be so tempting. You’ve seen these two very different games interpret the ideas you worked so hard to foster in such exciting and enormously successful ways, and dammit, it’s your right to take them back! But we don’t want Far Cry to be Zelda, and we know Ubisoft Montreal is not the studio to deliver something so delicate and intricate as Horizon. “But what about some boss fights?” NO! No Ubisoft, no. “But maybe we could have mechanical animals from the pas…” Ubisoft! “How about we borrow from…” Be careful now. “…From Shadow of Mordor?”
Oh my goodness yes. Please, finally, someone do that. Someone have the good sense to steal the Nemesis system, for goodness sakes.
Perhaps I’m retro-fitting this rule having seen the the teasers we saw yesterday revealing the Montana location, and suggesting some peculiar goings on. But it could also be defensive in response to them too. Maybe I’m overreacting to my pleasure on learning it’s another big red reset button, no tropical island in sight.
My immediate vibe from the FMV clips was something akin to The Leftovers, my absolute favourite TV programme in a decade. That sort of lonely subdued horror. And then my imagination span away, thinking what Far Cry could do with something Lynchian, unnervingly quiet and subtly wrong. The little vignettes, the bell being struck by the man’s head, the dead body drifting down the river. They make me wonder if it could be a post-virus near-empty world, a last few survivors grappling with a planet where the rules of reality don’t quite work any more.
Of course, I could be being ridiculously optimistic and maybe it’s the more prosaic interpretation of what we see, with the worst possible outcome being – eurgh please no – zombies. It could be, couldn’t it? And then it wouldn’t be weird at all. It’d be bloody The Walking bloody Dead bloody again, wouldn’t it?
Weirdness would be so much more interesting, quiet, peculiar, unsettling just-off-balance reality. There’s the Far Cry 5 I’d love to see. Along with one that reaches above itself, lets itself let go of the remnants of its past, and responds to those games that blew its format out of the water not by trying to outdo them where Ubisoft are historically weakest, but rather where they’re demonstrably strongest. Playgrounds – big, daft, ridiculously free playgrounds.
We’ll find out just how disappointed I’ll be by the crushing reveal in a couple of days time.