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(Pocket-lint) - Gamers can have mixed feelings about franchises – once they become an annual event, they often lose much of their appeal, as the effects of rushed development become obvious, or they begin to become indistinguishable from last year’s iteration. But as the enthusiastic reception for Far Cry 5 proves, Ubisoft’s open-world shooter franchise suffers from no such problems. 

Where Far Cry 5 sits in the general ranking of Far Cry games is a matter that can be debated ad infitum, but surely nobody would deny that it’s right up there. It’s meaty, very high-tech, thought-provoking in certain respects and, thanks to Far Cry Arcade, has way more legs beyond its single-player storyline than its predecessors. It may not have been hailed as a stone-cold classic like Far Cry 3 was, but we reckon it’s a bit of a slow-burner, and as DLC is added and Far Cry Arcade evolves, its reputation can only be enhanced.

Ubisoft deserves credit for resisting the temptation to churn out a new Far Cry game each year, instead nurturing the franchise by getting each game in the series right before putting it out – much like Rockstar Games and its sister company 2K Games are doing with Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption and Borderlands. So let’s have a look at how the Far Cry franchise got to where it is today.

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Far Cry (2004)

On paper, Far Cry’s beginnings seem surprisingly inauspicious. It was created by Crytek, a developer which had – and still has -- a sideline in engine technology in the form of CryEngine. For 1999’s E3 Show, Crytek created a CryEngine demo called X-Isle, which Ubisoft saw and decided it wanted to publish, once Crytek had worked it up into a full  game. Thus Far Cry was born – from nothing more illustrious than a tech demo.

Despite that, it did very well – in 2004, it felt like the most high-tech first-person shooter around. Far Cry had some of the series’ trademark elements, including a lush, tropical open world (although there were some linear indoor sequences). Clever use of the environment was a key gameplay mechanic.

Far Cry’s protagonist, Jack Carver, was a bit bog-standard compared with subsequent games – an ex-special forces soldier, he was on a quest to rescue a journalist he had been escorting before their boat was blown up by mercenaries. Far Cry had a multiplayer element along conventional FPS lines, consisting of Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Assault.

Far Cry shifted 730,000 copies in its first four months on release, putting it firmly in cult-game territory. Ubisoft remixed it in a more linear form as Far Cry: Instincts for the Xbox PlayStation 2 and GameCube. 

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Far Cry 2 (2008)

Meanwhile, Crytek had been seduced by Electronic Arts and begun development on Crysis. At which point, Far Cry might have remained an obscurity, except that Ubisoft believed in it. So it bought the rights from Crytek and started developing its own take on the franchise, at its Montreal studio. Hence Far Cry 2 can be considered to be the first version of Far Cry as we now know it.

In some aspects, it was the most experimental Far Cry game – for example, it let you choose between nine playable characters, all of whom were mercenaries. Set in an unnamed, war-torn African republic (Crysis, released a year earlier, had a tropical setting like Far Cry, so Ubisoft wanted some differentiation), it was way more open-world and sandbox-style than Far Cry, and had a day-night cycle plus vegetation that burned in a realistic manner – then a revolutionary feature, which often proved a key gameplay element.

Far Cry 2 also saw the arrival of animals in the franchise, although they couldn’t be hunted, but rather could be employed as a means of distracting enemies. Another somewhat out-there feature of Far Cry 2 was that its weapons degraded with use – not the game’s favourite aspect among fans, as there’s nothing more annoying than a jamming weapon in a first-person shooter. It did at least have a comprehensive multiplayer element, and came with a map editor.

Far Cry 2 set new standards for realism and freedom in first-person shooters, and was an indisputable hit, shifting over 3 million copies. Pretty much every aspect of the game received general praise, except for its storyline, which was pretty generic. Nevertheless, Far Cry 2 was the game that put Far Cry on the map as a burgeoning franchise.

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Far Cry 3 (2012)

Far Cry 3 was the game that drove the franchise to stellar heights, however. Clearly stung by criticism of Far Cry 2’s storyline, Ubisoft Montreal put a lot of effort into Far Cry 3’s tale of Jason Brody, on holiday in a tropical island with his bratty mates, who are kidnapped by the psychopathic Vaas. Brody is an ordinary guy, but evolves into a marijuana field-burning tough-guy, and Far Cry 3 includes some of the best hallucinogen-induced sequences ever seen in a game. Unlike Far Cry 2, the game’s characters were anything but generic, and even now, its writing has been bettered by few mainstream games.

Its open world was cutting-edge for the time, too, with a map about ten times the size of Far Cry 2’s one. And Far Cry 3 introduced familiar franchise tropes like skill trees, hunting animals for crafting materials and climbing and hacking radio towers to de-fog the map. 

Sure, Far Cry 3’s multiplayer felt like an afterthought. But it was acclaimed as perhaps the best single-player open-world shooter ever, won a hatful of awards and ended up selling over 10 million copies. It left gamers the world over gagging for more Far Cry games.

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Far Cry 4 (2014)

So expectations were sky-high when Far Cry 4 came out, just two years after Far Cry 3. Too high, it turned out – Far Cry 4 was to an extent a victim of Far Cry 3’s sheer brilliance, which it didn’t quite match. Looking at it with the benefit of hindsight, though, it feels like a much better game than it was given credit for being when it arrived.

The main criticism Far Cry 4 received was that it was too similar to its immediate predecessor – always a potential pitfall for a franchise. But given that Far Cry 3 had been acclaimed as one of the best games ever, such criticism seemed a tad churlish.

Far Cry 4 takes place in the fictional Himalayan country of Kyrat, and its huge, detailed and breathtakingly beautiful open world is very much its finest aspect. You play Ajay Ghale, returning from America to scatter his mother’s ashes, who gets caught up in a plot to overthrow the autocratic (and psychopathic in a similar way to Vaas) Pagan Min.

Bell towers substitute for the familiar radio towers, and Far Cry 4 features a wingsuit, which is dead handy given the vertical elevation of much of the open world. There are dream sequences in a mystical land called Shangri-La, including a boss-fight with a giant serpent.

It’s true that Far Cry 4’s gameplay is pretty similar to that of Far Cry 3, but is that such an imposition when Far Cry 3’s gameplay was praised to the skies? Perhaps Far Cry 4 would have benefited from coming out a year later, by which time everyone would have forgotten what it was like to play Far Cry 3. And Far Cry 4’s multiplayer is much less cursory and more compelling than that of Far Cry 3, consisting of two distinct elements. The best of which is Guns For Hire, a two-player co-op mode which exists separately from the single-player story and features a set of bespoke missions. There’s also an asymmetric PvP mode called Battles of Kyrat.

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Far Cry 4 also contains multiple endings, which depend on your actions as the game climaxes, and specifically which of the Golden Path insurgent leaders you side with. Curiously, it also contains an Easter egg which lets Ajay perform his mission to honour his mother’s ashes right at the start of the game.

Far Cry 4 is one of those games which is easy to dismiss – it was characterised as disappointing when it came out. But it still managed to sell over 7 million copies, and if you missed it at the time, it’s well worth checking out now. It also received some decent DLC after launch.

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Far Cry 5 (2018)

Far Cry 5 has had a pretty solid reception – bar some peculiarly 21st century whining about how it is “tonally inconsistent”, which is both plain wrong and irrelevant (the tonal inconsistency police would find something to complain about in pretty much any of the 21st century’s best games). In many ways, it is by far the most ambitious Far Cry game yet. It certainly has the most unexpected setting of any game in the series: the fictional Hope County in sleepy, rural Montana, which has been completely oppressed by a deranged religious cult called Eden’s Gate.

Playing an unnamed Deputy Sheriff, you must essentially cobble together and lead a resistance movement among those who haven’t been coerced into joining Eden’s Gate, liberating three areas under the yoke of three cult ringleaders – Jacob and John, brothers of cult leader Joseph Seed, plus Faith, a cultist afforded Seed family member status. When you take them out – and each area has an epic end-game – you get a crack at Joseph Seed himself.

Far Cry 5 is the most open-world, sandbox-like game in the series, and the ability to select specialists (who might pilot a plane or helicopter, have sniping skills or even be a semi-domesticated cougar) to help you as you rage across the game-world like a one-man army is reminiscent  of Far Cry 2.

Another way in which Far Cry 5 breaks franchise convention lies in the way in which one of its main story elements is delivered: you’re periodically captured by the Seeds and subjected to various indignities (which include mini-game sequences) before escaping. Those episodes provide plenty of Far Cry’s trademark hallucinogenic dream sequences. But the game’s real storyline lies in your interactions with the Hope County inhabitants who join you in your fight against Eden’s Gate.

Even when you finish Far Cry 5’s main story, there is loads to do thanks to Far Cry Arcade, the franchise’s cleverly conceived equivalent of Grand Theft Auto Online, which remixes areas from the game-world into self-contained levels with specific objectives, and provides a sandbox editor in which any player can use the game’s assets to create their own content. Far Cry Arcade will mutate and evolve, and will ensure that you’ll keep coming back to the game – whose gameplay is gloriously addictive.

Far Cry 5 leaves you with the impression of a franchise which has reached full maturity – and has been allowed to get there in an organic, rather than forced manner. If you drifted away from Far Cry when Far Cry 4 was pronounced too similar to its predecessor, now is the time to get back into it: you’ll be impressed by the progress that Far Cry 5 represents.

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Far Cry: non-core variations and curiosities

Another sign of the way in which Ubisoft has nurtured Far Cry in a much more natural way than we have come to expect for burgeoning videogames franchises is the number of Far Cry curiosities and anomalies that exist outside of the core Far Cry timeline.

The tradition of creating slightly weird riffs on the Far Cry universe can be traced back to the franchise’s very earliest days, when Ubisoft was keen to port Crytek’s first game onto the consoles of the time.  In 2004, Ubisoft remade the original Far Cry as Far Cry Instincts, for the original Xbox. That even fuelled a sequel, 2006’s Far Cry Instincts: Evolution (also for the Xbox), which had much more continuity with the original game’s storyline than Far Cry 2 did. And since Microsoft’s Xbox 360 had arrived by then, Far Cry Instincts: Evolution shipped on the same day as Far Cry Instincts: Predator, which brought both Instincts and Instincts: Evolution to Microsoft’s then-new console.

But it was 2013’s Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon which really established the franchise’s tradition for taking unexpected turns into territory off the beaten track. Blood Dragon was a standalone expansion for Far Cry 3 (so it didn’t require the original game), and it was totally bonkers.

Essentially, the whole game was a loving homage to all things 1980s, with all sorts of references to 80s films and cartoons. You played a cyborg super-soldier called Rex “Power” Colt. Blood Dragon is worth tracking down for its retro-futuristic vibe (which bred some unmistakable visuals) alone.

Far Cry went down another thoroughly agreeable blind alley in 2016, in the form of Far Cry Primal. Primal took the by-then-established open-world Far Cry formula back as far in time as possible: to prehistoric times.

In Far Cry Primal, you played Takkar, a hunter who would rise to tribal leadership and unite the game’s various tribes. While you started with melee weapons, some ingenious (if not necessarily realistic) prehistoric weaponry emerged during the gameplay, such as grenades full of bees. In Far Cry Primal, you could tame animals which would fight alongside you – a feature that Ubisoft nicked from itself for Assassin’s Creed: Origins.

Story-wise, Far Cry Primal was pretty non-existent, but if you like the open world aspect of Far Cry games, you should definitely check it out.

Writing by Steve Boxer. Originally published on 2 May 2018.