Producer LP Pharand on Far Cry 2
Easily one of a packed festive season's most widely anticipated releases, Far Cry 2 could mark the emergence of a major new franchise. Publisher Ubisoft certainly think so, having acquired the rights to the franchise from original creator Crytek - and putting and their Montreal studio to work for more than three years on a sequel-with-a-difference. New setting, new story, open-world gameplay... only the ever-popular hang-glider seems to have survived unscathed. We sat down in Montreal with Louis-Pierre Pharand, producer, to find out more.
Far Cry 2's been in the works for me than three years now, have you been involved the whole time?
Not all the time. I joined Ubi just over three years ago, and that was to work on Far Cry which was just underway.
Did Ubisoft always want to make a sequel to Far Cry?
Yes! Yes, of course. That's why they acquired the rights to the brand. The original game was created by Crytek, but, Ubisoft were the publisher, and when they shipped the original, Ubi bought all the rights. There were a few console versions, and Instincts hadn't shipped when we began work on Far Cry 2. We got a mandate to ensure we were working on a true sequel to the original that kind of renewed the brand. There were some things that as a company and as a team that we didn't like about the original, stuff worked well, we looked at what worked and what didn't. We thought, how can we make this better. We actually did a lot of focus testing with Far Cry fans. We got a lot of data. Then we found consumers saw the same things we did. They didn't like the sci-fi stuff, they liked the earlier mercenary battling. The idea that came out was that people liked a realistic experience. Fighting mercenaries; that sense of an open-world. I mean, the first game didn't have that, but they liked the sense of it. They want kick-ass AI. They didn't really care about which character they played it - Jack Carver wasn't that exciting - so we took all this, the core features and elements, and we said we've got a mandate to renew the brand, then we're going to start with a blank page with a few bullet points, and we're going to stay within the guidelines. The type of story; a systemic narrative design. A sustainable plot, that integrates the challenges...
Was the decision taken early on to forgo the Polynesian setting in favour of the African Savannah?
Yes... that was... three and half years ago. We considered keeping the tropical setting at the start, but then we knew that there was this game called Crysis that was going to come out. And there was Boiling Point... then there's the FC console titles, and then you look at TV shows like Lost, Survivor... other products using the tropical environment.
Far Cry gamers want an exotic environment, but it isn't exotic or exciting if you see it multiple times every week... it doesn't give you that feeling. So we opted to look at different setting. Africa rose to the top pretty early on and that's why it was chosen. Its a perfect setting... so, we're not in a city environment. We wanted to keep some jungle. Choosing Africa allowed us to keep the jungle. They've got everything there. The Savannah is the iconic image of Far Cry 2.
Natural beauty is very important I guess?
Yes, that's a key part of the brand we wanted to keep. That's why you can live, and play it, in Far Cry 2.
The story doesn't bare any resemblance to the original game..?
Not at all. We were stuck in a situation wanting to be as realistic as possible, and that story wasn't realistic at all - for the last two-thirds. It was more The Island of Dr. Mourau. We wanted to move away from that - be factual - and tackle a subject that hasn't been tackled before. What's actually great about it is that fans and journalists are saying we're taking on a subject that is engaging, that even newspapers and the media are steering away from. Its real, its factual, we want to talk about it. The challenge is to make it good. Believable. In doing that we're moving away from WWII shooters... we're looking for the next level. Some people might say we're taking advantage of the situation, but you know, let's talk about it and see if we take advantage. There are people against this kind of thing. We just believe videogames can be a media... just like movies, the same as TV series', books, whatever... for that you need excellent story-telling. That's what we're working to ensure.
Is the story key to justifying your use of the premise, then? We assume you couldn't set this somewhere like Rwanda...
We don't need to justify it... we didn't want to play politics. If you talk about Rwanda or Somalia... but then Black Hawk Down was an excellent movie. People said it was too patriotic, others thought it was a debacle... it dealt with political issues. For us it would be impossible to make a systemic story like that. Its too complicated. A major pain. There are too many choices... its a spider-web. Its not our duty. In many movies you don't know where they story happens, it doesn't matter. A specific country might have made things more complicated; that's not what we set out to do. It happens everywhere in Africa; in the world, factions trying to control land. They're playing politics. We're dealing with serious issues, but we're not playing politics.
Who do you play in the game?
We've got nine playable characters. You choose one of your preference. You get biographies and background information at the start of the game. We worked hard to make sure they're credible characters. We work with a consultant - he did documentaries about mercenaries in Africa - we made it as real as possible. Then we created a set of characters. Nine are available, one is playable. There's even female mercenaries; we didn't believe they existed but apparently they do. The other eight characters you'll meet in the game. They'll give you side missions, help you out if you're in trouble, sometimes you'll end up fighting them. You need to create relationships - they'll push you to make decisions - you're going to have to pay for decisions; the benefits or the negatives. There are implications.
With so many characters involved; and an open-world in which they roam... how do you approach from an AI perspective?
There's two things. There's the behavioral AI, and the combat AI. Two different things. Any mercenary you encounter - outside the world's two cities. Anyone is an enemy. You have affiliations. Its not like when you do a job for one side you have a flag above your head. You're a badass, everyone wants your skin. You're a bad person in a bad place. So, everyone is an enemy.
When you encounter AI, there will be combat behaviour. Town is different, you can push buttons but they might retaliate; they'll tell you to 'f*** off'; that interaction on the spot will clearly indicate basically what's going on. As your reputation grows, people will have a different reaction to you. It adds an RPG element which is pretty interesting.
Most of our AI efforts have been on these two parts of development.
What can you tell us about the parallels that can be drawn with Heart of Darkness / Apocalypse Now?
Pat would give you a better answer... but we went with the Jackal character - your target - the man selling weapons to both sides. He's been implicated in many battles around Africa. He's playing god, stirring up conflict by providing weapons. He's banking all the money... trying to control everything. When you start the game, that's the man you're going to kill. That kind of has the similarity with Heart of Darkness. You're after Kurtz... journeying down a river in search of a madman. Which is very much the same as FC2. That's the short version. There's more detail of course. The other inspiration is your need to work with two rival factions to reach your target, that's where we took insight from Yojimbo - a 60s Japanese movie. A Fistful of Dollars with Clint Eastwood is similar. Chicago gangs. What's going on is that you work for two factions - unlocking more content - decisions are always gameplay related; but it feels realistic - you're a gun for hire, this is how it works. We spoke to our specialist in mercenaries Malcom Clark. There are sometimes mercenaries who start out as friends, and end up opposing each other. This is how deep things can go.