So Far Cry 5 has just come out and it marks the sixth entry into the series if you’re willing to count Primal, and seven depending on how you feel about Blood Dragon. So far, the franchise has slowly, over time, honed in onto a simple winning formula which is pretty much Ubisoft’s schtick at the moment. Reviews are flooding in and confirming what most of us already suspected about the just released open world shooter – it’s good, more of the same, but still pretty good. Which was pretty much what people said about Far Cry Primal and Far Cry 4 and almost all the Assassin Creed games that released after Black Flag.
Nothing unusual so far.
But let’s go way way way back and actually hone in on a part of Far Cry’s history that is genuinely pretty interesting, and easy to forget about nowadays.
To this day it remains common for developers and publishers to split. A lot of the time you get the pretty uncomfortable scenario where someone spends years creating something only for them to then break away from their publisher due to legal troubles and end up leaving their intellectual property behind. Some corporate bigwig will then usually find a way to wring some last bit of cash out of their ownership and a lot of the time it ends up being bad. The makers of Call of Duty left to found Titanfall. Valve only just managed to save Half Life from Vivendi and Sierra. Prey recently had a sequel that didn’t have a God damned thing to do with the original game. And Dying Light is pretty obviously a sequel to Dead Island in all but name.
Overall, copyright and IP ownership is complex, although a lot of the time it comes down to this: if a developer wants their freedom, they’ll usually have to give up the very franchise that made them successful.
After Far Cry that’s just what happened to Crytek. It’s rare to hear these guys mentioned in the same breath as Far Cry now but they were the original creators of the franchise. They birthed it into this world with the seriously weird Far Cry which had stealth, violence, beautiful tropical environments and very-out-of-place mutants. Also, the game had the difficulty curve of a 1000m free fall, but that’s a conversation for another time. What matters is that we remember way back, and how things looked for just a moment.
Crytek didn’t want to work with Ubisoft so they begrudgingly handed over their franchise to their former overlords. Years later they emerged with Crysis. The hardware chewing graphical powerhouse that was, at its core, a sequel to the original Far Cry. It took a key ingredient of Far Cry which was the “action bubble” and increased the bubble size while offering you more toys and more mechanics to use in that sphere of destruction. Essentially, it was a linear game with levels big enough for some moderate free roaming. Add to that the ridiculous fusion of a gritty militaristic stealth shooter that suddenly turns into sci-fi B-movie cheesefest half way through and it’s easy to see how, side by side, Crysis and Far Cry were basically blood-brothers.
Meanwhile Ubisoft took the Far Cry name and stripped it of everything that was quintessentially Far Cry for the sequel. Only two key ingredients remained: exotic locale and player freedom. If you loved Far Cry 1 and played its sequel without any knowledge of what had happened, you’d have been pretty damned confused. The engine, gameplay, plot, themes and more had all been changed. The only thing Far Cry 2 shared with Far Cry 1 was a hot setting, sniping and stealth.
And while Crytek had taken the action bubble and tried to iterate on it with clever new designs Ubisoft had completely abandoned that angle and just turned Far Cry 2 into a sandbox with guns.
They got it dead-right, weirdly enough.
Normally, what we’re used to is the original developer going on to great success while the publisher-funded franchise zombie dies in ignominy. Just ask EA about Mass Effect, Command and Conquer, Dungeon Keeper and pretty much every other intellectual property they’ve buried through incompetence. Why? We’re told it’s because the guys in the suits don’t *get* the creative process, and that they just want to use a mass conveyor belt to churn out a by-the-numbers product.
So why is Far Cry the juggernaut while Crytek have suffered setback after setback?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved Crysis, and I actually enjoyed Crysis 2 and *whispers* I even played Crysis 3 start to finish and thought it was a good game. But where did Crytek go wrong? They’ve recently had to cancel projects, cut staff, and they’ve been surrounded by rumours of financial meltdown for quite a while. I hope to God they do well because I enjoy their games and I think they deserve a place in the industry, but it was only a few years back there were claims that they had failed to pay their staff on time. That’s a pretty dire situation for any company to be in.
Well, the obvious answer is Far Cry had Ubisoft behind it, but I’d like to consider what Crytek did wrong. I think there’s a lesson in there. And I think at the heart of Crytek’s mistakes was this:
The action bubble.
It was an awkward idea. When Far Cry came out open world games existed but there hadn’t been a bridge built between immersive graphical FPSes and third-person sandbox games. Now being open world isn’t even a genre, not really, it’s just a way to describe how the game gets you from mission to mission most of the time. But Far Cry tried to bridge massive open environments with demanding graphics so it made sense for it to carve out a middle ground where you balanced player freedom against excessive processing demands.
But by the time Far Cry 2 and Crysis were arriving that limitation no longer made sense. Why have a place in-between the corridor shooter and the sandbox when you could just hop into the sandbox?
Far Cry 2 made the logical leap. It burst the bubble and gave you a big space to explore. Crysis meanwhile knuckled down on the worst parts of Far Cry – the stupid tonal clash between intense stealth gameplay and a B-movie plot, and the action bubble. Everyone went mad over the damn mutants in Far Cry so why did they think aliens would fix the problem?
In contrast Ubisoft’s competing product actually honed down on what Far Cry 1 great. Intense gun battles, stealth, and sh*t loads of player freedom.
When Crysis 2 and Far Cry 3 came around the division between these two franchises became colossal. Crysis 2, for some inexplicable reason, made some really poor design choices. It was a graphical downgrade from its predecessor, it was even more linear, and it ditched the tropical paradise for quite possibly the most overused game-setting in history. Crytek have since admitted this was a mistake and they tried to reverse some of these issues for Crysis 3 but it wasn’t enough to fix the lost momentum.
And then by the time Crysis 3 came out I found myself asking,
“Why is this franchise still not open world?”
Well now Far Cry 5 is coming out and dominating headlines. Meanwhile Crytek’s latest game Hunt: Showdown is having some uncomfortably lukewarm reviews.
It’s easy to forget that over ten years ago, with Crysis and Far Cry 2 having just been announced, this outcome would not have been the one most predicted. All too often we are told a story of the creative artist being beaten and limited by his corporate overseers. But if anything what we see here is an example of the artist being a little too precious with their own product, and not being willing to face up to the shortcomings of their design choices in previous instalments. The sad part of this story is that Crysis 2’s failings demonstrate some attempt to change direction and regain lost momentum. It’s just it moved in the wrong direction; the equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire to put it out. Crytek made the game more linear, and my making it a graphical downgrade they took away Crysis’ greatest asset which was its GPU murdering reputation.
In some ways Crysis is a lesson to creatives in every industry:
You don’t always know what’s best. And if you aren’t in tune with why your popular product is popular, then you are far more likely to f*ck it all up than you are to keep on being successful.