2004 is destined to be a bumper year for the first-person shooter genre. Fittingly for a leap year the titles coming our way are promising all sorts of new angles on the genre, with some amazing graphical advancements accompanied by the next level's in AI and gameplay mechanics. The first runner from the gates is destined to be Far Cry, a title that shares the characteristic with many of these appetising shooters in that it is not a sequel. Coming from virgin development team Crytek and offering the sort of graphics and environments that until a few years ago would have been restricted to pre-rendered titles like the Myst series, Far Cry could be the shot in the arm the genre could do with. Any fan of the FPS must have gawked at the incredible tropical paradise that is the setting for Far Cry, a lush island that you half expect to see popping up on the telly getting the treatment from one of those jammiest of television personalities, the travel presenter. Judging from the preview code that I've been lucky enough to have been playing over the last few days the graphics are not the only thing that will have you drooling with gaming pleasure.
Far Cry's story involves mercenaries, secret islands, mysterious experiments, a damsel in distress and you. I don't know how the game starts-off as the first cut-scene was missing, but the action begins with you having to escape from an underground bunker. This first level gradually teaches you the very simple controls, but thankfully, it doesn't lead you by the hand and if you know what you are doing you can just pile through the corridors and start fighting as soon as you get your first gun. Once I broke out of the bunker I was presented with the splendour that is Far Cry's outdoor scenes. The whole island chain is there for you to see, just egging you on to come and have an a explore. And while I was often free to choose my route along the beaches and through the jungle it's hard to get totally lost as you are gently shepherded in the right direction, either by impassable terrain or the threat of being detected by enemy helicopters. Oh, and the blue flashing indicator on the radar offers some clues as well. You don't want to be out in the open when one of these spots your intrusion, as they will hunt you down ruthlessly. Choppers can also spot you for other enemy soldiers, so your chances of survival greatly diminish if you let one of these sniper carrying engines of death get a bead on you.
You can distract enemies with a well thrown rock but the niftiest item you get to play with are the binoculars. They not only allow you to zoom in to a nutty level but they will target enemy soldiers and keep track of their position for you on the radar. You may think this will give you an unfair advantage but there's always one, or two or three, who were obscured from view and make themselves known to you with the smack of a bullet to the side of the temple. The sound effects are great, with all the ricochets and zinging ordnance making me feel like I was in a Pacific Saving Private Ryan. The enemies will communicate with each other, occasionally giving you an idea as to their current position and intentions, but they also fooled me on a few occasions. Hearing 'I gotta reload' brings a response honed from online gaming to jump out and spray the supposedly harmless sap with lead. Only to find out he was pulling your leg as the sound of high velocity rounds go thudding into your chest. The fire fights I had on my tour were sometimes intense struggles against hordes of baddies that seemed to swarm like killer bees all over my position until I was dead or had been lucky enough to run away. Sometimes on the other hand it will just be you and him, each trying to locate the other while keeping an eye everywhere for the other bastard. The indoor fights were equally tense and varied with a couple of epic warehouse fire fights near the end of the preview being particularly memorable. The AI really is impressive. It's not like playing online as these guys are too co-ordinated to be a human team. Running in all guns blazing is never a realistic option if you are up against more then a couple of mercs, so my fire fights involved a lot more hit and run and pop'n'shoot tactics than I've ever used before. Be prepared to relearn what you thought you knew before.
I came across a lot of different soldier types who react noticeably differently to each other. There are some nasty heavy weapons guys who hold back behind cover and let lose their rockets. Elite guards are the latest incarnation of the HL marines, clenching so. Lots of different fashions were on show, so the chances are looking good that you won't finish the game bemused that you never found the cloning vats that would explain your recent experience of gunning down hundreds of identical looking bad guys. Phew. And humans aren't the only enemies you will scrap to the death with, some of which will scare and bug the hell out of you. The parts I played were never in any danger of turning into the Xen levels of Half-Life, so at this point it looks like Crytek are getting the balance right between the fun of taking on clever human opponents in a pitched battle with the uneasy creeping around in the indoor levels, fearful of every shadow and corner for what may lurk there, you can only guess.
Again I must go back to the graphics. The lighting is highly evocative and in conjunction with the physics engine it provides for some really suspenseful moments. One section forces you to slyly advance your way through a long warehouse, using thermal imaging in an attempt to spot the similarly equipped soldiers before they open up on you. Until that purple frame comes round a crate you have no idea they are there. Unless you have the 5.1 cranked all the way up and listen for their footfalls, that is, wink. Right near the start there was a suspended overhead light which I jumped up and knocked with my head. It started to randomly swing and bounce about on its chains, casting chaotic shadows all down the corridor. The physics engine also not only provides plenty of laughs with its ragdoll effects but it also allows you to approach some sections in a more cerebral manner. Rather than opening fire on some chatting guards I got behind this big cylindrical tank and gave it a shove. Off it went rolling down the slope quickly crushing the two very surprised guards. It would be nice if there was a way to roll your grenades and a melee function would go down pretty well too, but otherwise you are very much free to interact with what you see around you. Different materials also have different properties - I thoroughly enjoyed spraying a bamboo hut with heavy calibre machine gun fire from the back of a humvee, knowing from experience that all the baddies inside were dancing a hot lead polka. Far Cry offers the player lots of ways to achieve their ultimate goal, so some imagination will often lead to pleasing rewards.
My time with the game was all too short. I think the preview contained about a quarter of the full game. It took me a good few hours to get as far as I was allowed, close to the time it takes to complete Max Payne 2. So it's looking likely that Far Cry will be damn good value for money. The level designing software that will ship with the game is reputed to be incredibly powerful, and even if Far Cry itself somehow turns out to be a dud in the final reckoning, the engine alone is worth a reasonable asking price when you imagine what the mod makers will be able to do with it. There was no multiplayer in the preview, but judging from some of the single player levels I've seen it looks like we could be in for a real treat here as well. There are lots of vehicles to commandeer, and I can report that doing so is much fun. They all behave in a believable manner, and the joy of tearing around on a golden beach trying to outgun another buggy while bullets crack into the windscreen and mortars thump into the ground around you is something I am going to relive once I've finished writing this preview.
My experiences with Far Cry have led me to believe that we are all in for a treat when it comes out at the end of this month (March 26th to be precise). It's a shooter through and through, with high body counts and much destruction being the order of the day. Sometimes you will have to sneak about as the odds are just stacked too deeply against you but the enemies are such a thrilling challenge to take on that I always wanted to open up on them as soon as I felt safe enough. Combine this enjoyment with some of the best graphics and physics that we will see for the next year or so and Crytek really look to have a winner on their hands.