Oh my friends, we have become weak. Feeble little twigs, snapping at the mildest first-person breeze. Let me tell you about a time when we were made of sturdier stuff, way back in the distant fogs of 2004.
This may sound a bit silly, but I feel like Far Cry has gone a bit forgotten. Sure, yes, absolutely, they make one every other year. But I mean this Far Cry, the very first one. People who want to look cool and pretend the entire game wasn't one enormous clown car of broken AI like to say how Far Cry 2 was the best game in the series.
Everyone else likes to bemoan the terribad writing of all the variously problematic sequels that have poured forth from the Ubisoft's Incredibly Complicated And Detailed Sausage Factory ever since. And I feel like the first gets a bit missed. So let's talk about Far Cry Brackets 2004.
There is of course one big difference between FC1 and all those that followed: this was the only one made by Crytek. While Ubi marketed Far Cry 2 as a direct sequel, it barely had a thing to do with the original, not least in comparison to the real sequel, Crysis. But I don't think there's any argument to be made that FC1 wasn't seminal. Far too seminal. Semeny. It's big open islands covered in drivable cars and boats and hang-gliders, with its enemy encampments with alarms and reinforcements and guards in tall towers - without Far Cry you've no Just Cause, probably no Assassin's Creed, and on and on and on. It was one of those big turning point games, and boy did it help get itself a lot of attention by looking so damned pretty.
Far Cry was the last game I remember inviting people to my home to see. "You've got to come over and see this! You won't believe it!" And people would visit my flat above the Spar and oooh and coo at the luscious vistas, the green forests against the blue sea and sky, alive with parrots and feral hogs. It was the last time I can remember thinking, "I can't believe my computer can do this!"
Those moments are pretty much gone now. We may be impressed by how realistically a cloth flutters, or notice that the reflections in the water ripple in extraordinary ways, but it feels small, specific, and most of all, incremental. Even Crysis, which was a game everyone bought a new graphics card to be able to play, felt like an iteration on Far Cry, rather than a monumental moment. And this is all a very good thing! Because now I find myself telling other people to check out graphics that are artful, that do something novel, or create beauty through design rather than technical prowess. We got there. Games look ridiculously incredible now. That's a given. So everyone has to be interesting within that to stand out.
But in 2004, we were nowhere near, and Far Cry was jolly exciting to see running. I showed off one particular moment so many times back then that I was confused to discover today that it's not the start of the game. It's the level set at the top of the mountain, with the hang-glider waiting to take you down to the river. Of course you could run down the long path down the hill. Or scramble through the undergrowth and risk big drops. But obviously you hang-glide, and then fight a helicopter as you do so, before landing near a boat to murder its inhabitants. It was spectacular! It still is a bit!
The start of the game is of course the arrival of Jack Growl, professional idiot and gun holder, who hur-dur-durs his way around the collection of islands upon which he finds himself stranded. He's in a bunker, it's dark and dingy, and people want to shoot at him. But then he emerges into the light, and the game deserves the forced gloat of the moment. "Ha ha! This isn't a brown shooter like all the other brown shooters! It's blue and green! Surprise!" So Jack Knife begins his epic quest to kill absolutely everything that moves.
And oh good gracious it's hard. It's really really hard! I'd completely forgotten. I set it to standard difficulty, and boldly strode out to shoot at the targets, but the bastard targets kept shooting back first. FPS games used to do that! They used to be all kinds of difficult, demanding you replay and replay a sequence until you damned well got it right. No recoverable health here, you soft younglings. You stumbled on, scraps of health, desperately hoping for a medkit, and they're few and far between in the jungle. And bullets do a very odd thing in this game: they kill you when you're hit by them. I know this sounds horribly unfair, but Far Cry had this odd notion that being shot in the head by a volley of machine gun fire would have you be not-alive pretty much right away.
Now, let's not get too carried away by pretending everything was better in the olden days. Because absolutely not, Far Cry is a colossal mess when it comes to enemy AI. The island is clearly not just an experimental ground for gruesome mutant beasts, but also for telepathic humans with unfailing aims across any distances. Enemies can see you the moment you enter their vast imaginary circle, no matter how far away you are, where they're looking, or how well hidden you are. And then they tell everyone else where you are with their ESP, and they all start firing perfectly toward you.
There's a sequence about a third of the way in where you're simultaneously attacked by a mortar-launching boat, a rocket-launching soldier on a speedboat, and two helicopters. You're about a mile from the coast, high up a mountain, in a ruined fortress, utterly invisible to all of them. And they fire their volleys of one-hit-kill ammunition at you with unwavering precision. It's ridiculous.
Oh, and yes, mutant beasts. If anything, it feels more antithetical to the initial impressions of the game now than it did then. Far Cry, for so long, is a game about hunting men (and only men) in an island paradise. And that made perfect sense. It felt then, and it still feels now, completely barmy to have it twist on its heels just before the midpoint and introduce a bunch of may-as-well-be-aliens. Big blobby mutant beasties, roaring and jumping all over, utterly incongruous to the whole feel of the place.
Thinking about the entire series, blob-monsters feel like something that could only exist in one of those B-game Far Cries, like Primal or Blood Dragon. Putting them in a main FC game now would feel like jumping the shark. It's most strange to remember the whole thing began with them right there. And, as I thought then I still think now: it would have been a better game without them.
Still, it has the advantage that nothing the game does can feel more stupid than Jack Grimace. He's so badly written, and so much more badly voiced, that it comes across like a spoof. Fortunately the interruptions are short, leaving its atrocious plot mostly in the background.
Far Cry is at its best when you're sneaking through the jungle, picking off psychic soldiers one by one while managing the attentions of their compatriots, retrying a scene again and again until you get it right, thanks to the checkpoint system. Dingy corridors of jumping monsters feels like such a wrong turn to take. I like the foreshadowing for them, the posters on the walls in army tents, the mentions of experiments. And I like the Half-Life-ish way they're introduced, dragging soldiers through vents, fleeting past in the distance. But when they're finally there, I guess I get a bit bored of the game. It loses my interest. That was true in 2004, and remains true now.
What's certainly changed since then is my familiarity with difficult shooters. I've become soft. Gosh it was a shock to the system, retraining myself to fear every bullet, feel every wound. There's a lot to say for that, and I'd love to see a modern Far Cry embrace this, become less arcadey a bit more threatening. Just with far better AI.
Can I still play Far Cry?
You can, and pretty much out of the digital box if you want to. There are however a collection of patches that can be added to either the GOG or Steam versions to have it take advantage of 64-bit architectures, then another to tweak the game's code to work with that and improve the textures. There's also an unofficial 1.41 patch that undoes some of the widely considered mistakes in the official 1.4 Ubi patch, and the Silent Patch which will fix water reflection issues in post Windows Vista, get vsync working, and also get things working properly in ultrawide resolutions.
Should I still play Far Cry?
It's an interesting one. It's nice to play a more structured pre-open world game, that still has a large amount of freedom about how you go about things. But I really think it loses itself halfway. That first half is a fascinating reminder of how much tougher mainstream games used to be, but the terrible AI makes me think it remains an important moment in gaming, but not necessarily one to cling onto today.