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Far Cry

Beautiful and original, could this unimposing shooter be just what the genre needs?

If there is one thing the games industry is not short of these days, it is first-person shooters – they are as ubiquitous now as platform games were in the 16-bit era. If Doom and its successors began this explosion of FPS titles, then Half-Life consolidated it, and it’s this title, along with Halo, that have had the greatest influence on the development of Crytek’s Far Cry.

Set around fifteen years in the future, Far Cry revolves around a boat skipper who finds his life suddenly endangered when abusive military types invade his home archipelago. He takes this rather badly, as one might, and sets off from island to island to see what exactly is ‘going down’. The game uses this simple yet adequate premise as the excuse it needed to embark on some nice tactical group combat.

Far Cry is being developed using Crytek’s proprietary CryEngine, and all the indications are that it’s up there with the best of them. It uses similar technology features as Id’s forthcoming Doom III engine, particularly the use of a technique known as polybumping. This involves generating character models at high levels of detail, around 250,000 polygons, and then converting this model to a far less costly 1500 polygons per character, with no or very little loss of detail. All the usual bags of tricks are also present, including some impressive rag-doll physics and accurate vehicle movement modelling. Impressive as these features sound, such techno-jargon is common propaganda emanating from all kinds of developers these days. Crytek have wisely decided, therefore, to concentrate the greater part of their publicity on a more rounded view of the game, with particular reference to the game play itself.

What sets Far Cry apart, even at this stage of its development, is the design ethos under which Far Cry is being produced. The key point of this mantra is the avoidance of over-scripting as a design tool – that is, resisting the temptation to have all the game’s significant moments planned and executed in code, never changing with each replay. Rather, Crytek have sought to build a robust and powerful set of game tools and systems that allow them to simply set the parameters of a situation, and let the AI do the rest.

The influence of this decision has been both pervasive and positive. Essentially, the team aim to provide the player with a ‘sandbox’ to play in – the rules of the world are known and defined, but their application is left up to you. As such, the environments demonstrate a great degree of freedom. Expansive beaches and unrestricted island locales seem to be the order of the day – and doesn’t it make a nice change from the tree-textured corridor forests we’re normally subjected to? The terrain will also be deformable, and apparently will be to a much greater degree than Red Faction ever managed. The fact that the team make so little of this feature speaks volumes about their approach; to them, deformable terrain should be included not because it makes a nice gimmick or feature, but because in the real world a rocket launcher should be able to blow a huge hole in the ground.

This view carries on through to other game features. Rag doll physics were deemed to be very important to the game as a whole because they convey a greater sense of combat realism than any amount of crass blood or gore. This does not mean, however, that Crytek are intent on realism for its own sake – indeed several deliberately unrealistic design decisions have been taken for game play reasons. These include the usual suspects found in most FPS shooters – an unrealistically tough protagonist, and slightly forgiving vehicle and sniper rifle physics. If it isn’t broke...

Far Cry could potentially feature some of the best game AI yet seen in a first person shooter. What separates enemy AI in Far Cry from other FPS games is twofold – the enemies are not scripted but are driven by internal AI, so that subsequent games may produce entirely different enemy actions, and that this internal AI includes the awareness of other agents in the game world. There are a number of games with non-scripted AI, so that in itself is not entirely remarkable. There are far fewer games, however, that have enemy AI capable of recognizing and interpreting other objects and agents in the game world. This means that enemies in Far Cry will truly be able to attack and defend cooperatively. This is an impressive advance, especially considering that other games with advanced AI, such as Halo, merely simulated group behaviour with clever single agent AI. The result of all this is that Far Cry should go some way to providing truly immersive combat, with enemies attacking and retreating dynamically as the battle ebbs and flows.

The AI will be prevalent throughout the game, obviously, but will perhaps be best demonstrated during one of the many set pieces spread throughout the game. Perhaps ‘set pieces’ is the wrong phrase, as scripting will be minimal. Crytek themselves use the term 'action bubbles'. These are intended to comprise the kernel around which the rest of the game is built, and will each involve about five minutes of intense combat. The idea sprang from the realisation that most gamers remember certain action sequences from their favourite shooters – the lengthy periods of crawling through pipes or traversing bland looking corridors fade from memory. Crytek therefore decided to simply maximise the number of memorable moments, and hang them together with expansive environments and quality AI driven combat. The developers are aiming for ten or so action bubbles per level, and with 14 levels in total, Far Cry certainly offers more bang per buck than the average shooter.

Far Cry is one of those games that seem destined to make a mark, and the level of quality at even this pre-alpha stage is laudable. The developers are showing excellent creativity of thought – some of their ideas about the reinvigoration of the FPS genre are incredibly simple, yet apparently complex enough that no one has bothered to try until now. If Crytek can carry out their technical claims – and the quality of the engine suggests they have the talent to do so – then the design paradigm they have chosen will almost certainly result in something special. Roll on 2004...