It was bizarre enough that both Valve and id were pipped to the post at getting what then qualified as a ‘next generation’ PC game out of the gate. Stranger still that it was by a first-time German developer which hammered together its baby in three years. But the really weird thing about Far Cry’s rude interruption of that two-horse race was that it was in many ways a braver, more ambitious and better-rounded shooter than its competitors’. It used its technology – still capable of producing striking vistas today – to render vast open spaces. And it was smarter about what to do with them than almost any of its predecessors.
The point of having a larger playing area is to facilitate freedom of approach, and the degree to which Far Cry achieved that was dramatic in itself. But freedom of approach is an empty proposition if circling these enormous areas is a chore. Far Cry’s genius was in setting most outdoor levels on an island or mini-archipelago, and making sure you had an outboard motor with which to skirt it. Skimming the glassy Micronesian ocean in a rubber dinghy – stopping only to lie on its surface and snipe the skipper of a better-armed speedboat – was a game in itself. One of Far Cry’s greatest pleasures was wholly uneventful: the simple satisfaction of scribing a trail of expanding spume to an unwatched bay, wading to shore and delving into the jungle ahead.
Far Cry was fastidious about ensuring that your choice of approach was well-informed. Your binoculars gave you more than magnification – every hostile spied through their lenses was highlighted, tagged on your radar, their conversations amplified for your amusement, and even their state of mind monitored by a mood-ring-coloured dot. A quick sweep gave you near-total situational awareness, which enabled a degree of planning that would be pointless in even hardcore tactical shooters. This was Far Cry’s talent throughout: to offer an elegant and unexpected solution to a problem that the rest of the genre didn’t yet realise it had.
Improbably, Crytek even managed to cram a competent stealth game into its already feature-flabby debut, adding an engaging sneaking element to a formula that already nailed vehicles in a way
only Halo could really rival, tactical recon simply and smartly, and open areas with more or less unprecedented aplomb. And far from straining under the weight of those undertakings, it juggled them deftly, feeding each into the next. The vehicles demanded wide-open spaces, the spaces called for superior scouting capabilities, and those took the guesswork out of subterfuge. You found yourself crawling blindly through the brush, relying on your instruments to determine whether the green dots drifting past you were about to turn red with alarm. If they were, there was still time to deploy gaming’s greatest grenade type yet: a rock. Short of shouting “Hey, look over there!”, stealth tactics don’t get much more low-fi than that.
Concealment wasn’t always necessary. Long-range tactics dispensed with, area scoped, speedboat secured, the best way to tackle a beach full of mercenaries was usually to crash into it full pelt, rockets blazing. The thoughtful and methodical build-up to the action paid off spectacularly: separated, you and your trusty boat sailed silently through the tropical air, crashing down behind any mounted guns and most of the troops. If you dashed to a boulder or building fast enough, you could get one last advantage out of your hard-earned boat: by blowing it up. The petrol tank detonates with unlikely force, usually slaying several hidden mercs caught in the absurd blast radius. As tough as the combat frequently was, there was always a way to slip by the main threat and let it come to you.
This was when the weapons came in, and again Far Cry’s first-timer take on an age-old issue was exemplary. This was proper heavy ordnance: the Jackhammer spat metal shot with singular force and frequency, and the standard M4 produced the cacophony of a lawnmower backfiring – no less abrasive or loud. Even the pounding smack of the Falcon pistol – a magnum, naturally – remained potent and satisfying to the sticky end. The abundant grenades killed virtually anything instantaneously – yourself included – and took chunks out of the ground for emphasis. But Far Cry’s signature weapon was the unbranded Sniper Rifle, simply because its effective range was on another order of magnitude to its namesake in other games. Its rippled lens could penetrate even through the draw-distance haze, letting its smoke-trailed rounds brain goons too remote to see with the naked eye. Never mind the practicality of holding anything that steady – the gross unfairness of picking off near-sighted prey from afar was too gratifying to fault.
From the most unlikely source, Far Cry staggered on to the scene unfashionably early, and immediately started making everything else look bad. Crytek can’t have been popular among its fellow developers that year, but its debut earned it the affection – and incredulity – of a generation of gamers.