Ever since the original Far Cry – and especially since visiting the oppressed peoples of Far Cry 3 to rescue my SoCal bro-dudes – I’ve hoped that one day the series might evolve to be more like Midwinter. I thought this long before a new Midwinter was announced and then was seemingly abandoned (although there’s renewed hope that efforts there will continue), I thought it again when early reports of Far Cry: Primal seemed to tease tribal recruitment along the lines of Lords of Midnight (wishful thinking to blame there I think), and I’ve been thinking about it even more since becoming acquainted with another of Ubisoft’s open world games, Steep.
Released in 1989 for the Atari ST and designed by British coding legend Mike Singleton (who tragically succumbed to cancer in 2012), Midwinter is perhaps the only game still marooned in the 1980s that’s deserving of some kind of remake, reboot, re-imagining, or spiritual or actual successor. It is every inch the equal of Elite in how it has defined the modern open world game, but unlike the Bell/Braben space classic – unlike any game I can think of from that era in fact – Midwinter is in some ways still very much leading the charge.
Its 16-bit polygons may look unsightly and angular, its vehicle handling may be drunk and disorderly and its first-person combat laughably basic to modern sensibilities, but in terms of characters, story and goals and how each feed into one another, Midwinter is ahead of any modern-era open world action game you care to champion. No, your Assassin’s Creeds, Watchdogs and Grand Theft Autos can’t touch it. Perhaps you could make a case for Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system being mildly interesting, or the flimsy factional to-ing and fro-ing of Just Cause 2 being faintly original, but neither are as intricately poised as Singleton’s innovation, one that neatly avoided any need for primary and secondary goals, side quests or all the other forms of nagging busywork that gets stuffed into games these days.
Ubisoft’s imminent Steep doesn’t seem nearly as bloated as most modern open world games. It lets you perch atop its impressive peaks and take in the view, but as a sports game first and foremost it’s no Midwinter, in spite of the snowy backdrop common to both. Like Singleton’s genre-bender (strategy-survival-action-RPG-adventure), Steep is set across a vast mountainous region, across which the player has to quickly master the skills necessary to effect a high speed descent over snow, ice and rock. In Midwinter you could ski, glide, take a cable car or even a snowmobile on your way to recruiting allies to help you defeat General Masters. Steep has mates to find too of course, but only to race against and only with skis and gliders to make use of – albeit more modern variants in the form of snowboards and wingsuits. Still, as the basis for some Midwintery fun, Steep is as good a place to find inspiration as any other.
Far Cry of course has for years featured many of the elements that would make for a promising Midwinter tribute: A vast self-contained region navigable on foot or by vehicle, with dozens of settlements and outposts to liberate and characters to meet. Imagine however that instead of collecting NPC contacts that just handed out scripted missions, you had to be wary of individual allegiances, motivations and prejudices; recruiting others to your cause not just to amass allies for a final climactic battle, but so they can recruit others who dislike you even more than the enemy and who might join the other side if a silver-tongued bad guy got to them first. To me that sounds a lot more interesting that climbing up a load of bloody watchtowers.
In spite of nearly 20 years in this industry I’ve proudly managed to retain a naive child-like wonder when it comes to games development. As such it doesn’t seem a particularly difficult or onerous task to take the most Midwintery aspects of Steep (snow, mountains, etc) and the most Midwintery aspects of Far Cry (Shooting, vehicles, outposts), stick in a few dozen wandering NPCs and a dynamic allegiance system and, voila, mission accomplished. Then again, having limited experience of actual game making, while I don’t doubt that Ubisoft has the resources to chip away at the ultimate open world game, whether it has the inclination to mangle together another franchise is another matter, or indeed whether it can put the required heart and soul into it that Mike Singleton’s legacy belatedly deserves.
All I know is that we need another Midwinter-like game, ideally one that will take Singleton’s ideas forward rather than simply copy them. I’m sure any number of developers and publishers could do a good job in that regard, but it’s hard to imagine a more suitably equipped organisation than Ubisoft right now, especially with Steep about to take off and all the extra time that’s reportedly being lavished on whatever new Far Cry is primed for 2017. Hopefully at some point the designers of both will eventually find the time to be as overawed by Far Cry’s greatest predecessor as they have its numerous stablemates.