Far Cry 2
Three-and-a-half years in the making, many would have been forgiven for writing off the Far Cry series at the point many moons ago where Ubisoft and IP creators Crytek parted company. The publisher kept the brand, however, and while the German wizards went off to EA to make Crysis, Ubisoft quietly took the franchise away and began work on a proper sequel.
Console releases in the shape of the Far Cry Instincts games followed fairly quickly, but these were mere stepping-stones on the road to Far Cry 2 - the full renaissance of the original exotic-landscape FPS Ubisoft Montreal had been working on almost from the word go.
Commendably, instead of just going with more Polynesian-blasting, the game's Canadian developers instead went back to what lies at the core of the Far Cry concept: exotic locales, gritty action and storyline. So, gone are the crystal blue waters and beaches, and in is the vast and intimidating African Savannah (although Ubi do make a point of including some lush, thick jungle too). Likewise, the publisher wasn't too taken with the fantastical sci-fi elements which were ushered in through the latter-half of the original Far Cry (and neither were focus group testers, we hear), so realistic, tough, mercenary-battles will be at the heart of the new-look Far Cry.
Gone are space beings and other weirdness, instead, Ubisoft will use a realistic setting, combined with a thought-provokingly realistic story, to deliver us a Far Cry experience that is all about politically-motivated combat in a failed African state. The developers also felt that one of the key elements that made the original such a surprise hit was the sense of space; of openness; so the creators of this sequel have taken this approach to its logical conclusion, creating a true 'open world' in the GTA 'sandbox' sense of the word. For the first time in a first-person shooter, enemies will come at you from all sides - a full-360 degrees, we're told.
Of course, this isn't an island, so instead we're offered a vast slice of central Africa: Jungles, shanty towns, open grasslands, roads, mountains, et al. A full 50 square-kilometres to experience and explore is on offer, and yes, there is a hang-glider. Realism is far more important in Far Cry 2 than its PC-only predecessor, and as such Ubisoft Montreal have worked hard to offer up an interface that's every bit as dusty and sun-scorched as the world beyond. Your in-game map, for example, is crucial for navigating between way-points in the landscape, but instead of offering something obviously HUD-like, we're given a crumpled parchment-like map, complete with faded edges, which the character holds in-game; even while driving. Likewise guns look battered and rusty, and if not maintained then they can actually explode, injuring you.
This new emphasis on realism also carries over to the game's vehicles. No moon-buggies or pristine modes of transport here. Instead we're offered battered saloons and dent-strewn jeeps, that will over-heat and get gradually beaten-up as you move around the Savannah. A nice touch is the way in which you can use a wrench to quickly 'mend' an over-heating vehicle. The overriding feeling in the game is one of jeopardy, players acutely aware that they are never safe, while relationships - even with the game's eight 'buddies' - can't be trusted or relied upon. At the game's outset you'll have nine believable mercenaries to choose from, complete with back-stories. The other eight will form the aforementioned buddy compliment.
The premise looks likely to fit in well with the game's story, then, which takes its cues from Conrad's Heart of Darkness, or Apocalypse Now, if you prefer. You arrive in this strange and forbidding land as an assassin; a hired-gun sent to this unnamed, godforsaken state to murder an Arms dealer - the mysterious Jackal - who is at the heart of the country's myriad problems. Playing the game's Kurtz role, the Jackal will reveal his thoughts on the world via BioShock-esque tape recordings, which you'll discover as you explore the country. These psychological snapshots will further the plot, as well as giving the player entry into the world of Rubin - the imprisoned journalist who first interviewed the Jackal.
The tape-recordings, like everything you do in this open world, are of course optional, Ubisoft Montreal keen to offer players the chance to move through the game in a way of their choosing. As such, you'll be able to shift allegiances between the game's factions - making and breaking friendships with other realistic mercenary characters, in a brutal and immoral steam-roll towards your final objective.
Playing the game, the first thing that struck me (was possibly a mortar), is how difficult Far Cry 2 is. The enemy is intelligent and relentless, and the way in which foes use the landscape to avoid your own assaults - and eventually attack you - occasionally unnerving. Likewise, the way vehicles become essential given the size of the world is also most impressive. If you storm through a factional checkpoint, you won't necessarily be able to escape (although you might); foes giving rapid chase in their own vehicles, firing from hand-held weaponry and vehicle-mountain guns. Truly, this is a game that relies on AI - possibly more than any before it.
A real day-night cycle certainly shows off the game's delightful visuals in, if you'll pardon the pun, a good light, with unpredictable weather adding yet more intrigue to the mix. Weather will not only effect the game's striking visuals, but also the gameplay, as winds help fires spread realistically, while rain can off course put a literal dampener on your festival of flames. Fire is in fact a useful gameplay device, as, fortunately, dry Savannah grasses combust marvelously. This means you can trap foes with well-placed fires, or even surround them before letting the inferno do your work for you. Again, the emphasis here is on realism, and you'll need to be careful to ensure your own plans aren't unravelled by unpredictable fires. Clearly, nature, the elements, and the environment as a whole are at the heart of Far Cry 2.
The combat is great fun, while the sense of freedom is a brilliantly palpable. The combat too is looking good, although I'll reserve judgement on this for final code - which will hopefully see the game's many elements coming together in a harmonious symphony of FPS joy. With the game's fundamentals well and truly dealt with following a punishing few hours with the singleplayer side of things - we were also treated to some multiplayer fun.
The multiplayer side of things is perhaps best typified by looking at the Map Editor, a piece of software that could be just as good as anything the real level designers used to craft the game world. Literally anything is possible, with ease, even using console controllers - Ubisoft revealing that they worked hard to empower creative types - rather than deliver something for hardcore tech-heads. The game's makers believe they have crafted a unique interface, and certainly what's on offer seems very intuitive - player's able to save and share their creations online.
The focus here is of course on community building, although you'll only be able to share your maps with players on the same format. All the real assets used to build the game are available to play with, while you can even define the weather and the time of day. Ubisoft Montreal are clearly trying to engender the sort of long-lasting appeal that presently surrounds the likes of Call of Duty 4.
With this in mind we're offered standard deathmatch and team deathmatch multiplayer modes, complete with more confined maps that help channel the action. Combat here is fast and frenetic, and the early code I competed on wasn't without its imperfections; a spot of 'jumpiness' we're hopeful can be ironed out before release. Like the seminal CoD 4, players will rise through ranks while they play, and on this front Ubi look to speed-up proceedings, letting players rank over the course of matches, rather than the weeks it takes to gain status in Infinity Ward's opus.
The weapons work pleasingly well in multiplayer, as do the the vehicles, while a topical psin has been put on things with the addition of a Capture the Diamond-style mode, which sees teams battling for control of conflict gems. I had particular fun with a sniper rifle in one of these contests.
Another way Ubisoft hope to encourage players into a long-term relationship with their game (beyond the 20-30 hours we're told it'll take to get through the main story), is by adding more 'honest' difficulty levels. While even easy isn't easy, we're promised that higher difficulty levels won't be swamped with super-human enemies; rather, foes will use better tactics, more flanking, use of the environment, etc.
With our time in Far Cry 2 almost at an end, we're certainly intrigued to see how the whole experience pans out - and are more than a little encouraged by the ambition Ubisoft have demonstrated, trying to create a genre-defining FPS game that won't play like anything else before it. We'll bring you more on this next month, as the game nears shelves.