We managed to get up close and personal with art director Christian Bedard and his new baby Far Cry: Instincts for Xbox. The recently released Far Cry is a top class PC first-person shooter miles ahead of what you could hope to see running on Xbox. Yet, seeing Instincts doing its thing on Xbox, even at this early code stage, is a real treat.
Two facts underscore that this isn't a quickly knocked-out Far Cry mark II. For one, it's not a straight port (memory constraints wouldn't allow for that, anyway). Secondly, Ubi Soft have introduced a totally new major gameplay mechanic.
Christian wasn't pulling any punches with regard to Xbox trying to run the original Far Cry code. He told us straight with no apology or PR fluffing that the machine simply didn't have anywhere near the memory capacity needed. Very obvious, yes, but refreshingly frank.
So Ubi Soft went back to the drawing board and designed a new game engine from the ground up. The game's scenario does remain the same overall (although there are changes and adaptations) but there are plenty of gameplay improvements and additions, most notably the introduction of special abilities for main man Jack Carver.
Jack finds himself injected with a mutagen early on in the game, the result being that he gains special abilities, three of which are more fleet of foot, improved vision and being able to hold his breath longer. The immediate benefits of these improvements to human physiology are very obvious to all who have ever played a first-person shooter and especially to those who have played around in the tropical islands of Far Cry. Jack won't receive all the abilities at once in the game but will acquire them at specific points. Not only do the new abilities expand your options in the normal run of the game, it enables Ubi Soft to introduce new threat scenarios that will require the use of such abilities.
Christian considers the playing experience to be superior in Instincts to the original. Obviously, Ubi Soft have had time to see where improvements in gameplay could be made but still, the statement comes across as having that whiff of PR flannel. However, when you're aware of the many new and tweaked additions to the game, you start to believe that indeed, the Xbox title might just tip the PC gem.
So what's new in the way of obligatory extras? There are three new vehicles on top of the types in the original game, which are a Jet ski, ATV (quad bike) and a hovercraft. We saw the Jet ski in action and it looked good fun, riding with one hand while shooting with the other. The one new weapon we know is a definite is the harpoon.
The not-so-obvious additions are much cooler than the extras noted above. For one, we love the idea of setting traps and now you can. You can call up a trap-select menu that displays four different types. When you have the necessary materials (which you find scattered around the islands), the now deployable traps are highlighted. Christian revealed that they were hoping to put six different types of traps in the game but, as it stands, four is the number to expect. The two types that we know of are a snake pit and a branch trip (presumably of the old rope-around-the-ankle-upside-down-yank snare variety).
Although not in the build we viewed, one of the simplest, yet coolest, additions is the flip posture. Simply put, Jack can now lie on his back and look upward. We're sure, like us, many gamers have wanted such an option when playing first-person shooters, yet to our knowledge this has never been done. Of course, having the flip posture for its own sake is pointless but in Instincts there are occasions where it will be genuinely advantageous. Crawling under the stilted beach huts comes to mind. Imagine getting on your back, shuffling along under a hut with weapons ready, just waiting for some hapless enemy to walk over that crack in the floor. This move is also available under water and, if anything, is even better as you slowly drift under wooden buildings pinging away at the guards.
Which brings us to a change in the sea physics - certain areas will now have a current, meaning underwater areas can have specific approaches determined by current. Drifting under buildings using the flip posture becomes an interesting combination of new elements and we're sure you can envisage the many other applications that will be possible.
As the Xbox has nowhere near the memory capacity that is needed to run the original game, you may be wondering where Ubi Soft have made the cuts. In the main, it's the huge expansive environment of Far Cry that has come under the developer's knife.
While there will be just as many trees present in any given area, Instincts won't have the variety of trees witnessed in the original. The deepest cut, however, is the number of islands, having been reduced from the original 22 to just four. That's not as bad as it sounds, as they're four very big islands built especially for Instincts. They all have a distinctive style of their own, starting with the familiar tropical paradise, moving into a slightly darker version of that paradisiacal habitat, on to a swamp island at night (remember the improved vision special ability? Ah...), to finally arrive on an island dominated by a volcano. And, yes, you do get to explore the volcano's fiery interior.
Something we felt about Far Cry, and Christian agreed, is that the outside environment was much more impressive and enjoyable than the corridor sections. So we were quite chuffed to find out that Instincts will be around 70% outside environment and 30% in corridors- a real plus over Far Cry's 50/50 approach, in our view.
We're not foolish or naive enough to cast comment on the final game as there's much to be done and finalised. What we can say at this stage is that the game's potential is huge. We don't feel we're sticking our necks out by saying it will be a good game. It's just how good that remains to be seen. By the end of the 2004 when the game's released, we'll have an answer for you.