Spare a thought for beleaguered developers at this time of year. Getting a major project out on time, on budget and up to scratch typically entails a superhuman commitment to the cause, marriage-wrecking long hours, and a sworn renunciation of selfish luxuries like sleep and personal hygiene.
Were it that simple. Take the Far Cry 2 team over at Ubisoft Montreal. Having busted balls to ready a playable build for UbiDays barely six weeks ago, like many other developers it has had to produce yet another version for E3 next week. And before you can say "why can't we have an extra nine months like you gave that Haze crap?" there's Games Convention in Leipzig to prepare for. It's a rum business.
For a game as complex and as ambitious as Far Cry 2, then, you can hardly blame them for drawing the line at providing a pre-release consumer demo.
"No, no demo," creative director Clint Hocking responds abruptly to our probing. "One reason is, even if we were to give out what you played today - even if we put invisible walls around it and said, here's the demo, you can go anywhere you like inside these walls and play it how you want - that's potentially right there eight-to-ten hours of gameplay. I don't know too many people who are willing to give away a 12-hour game for free."
Surprisingly, however, and notwithstanding the drain on resources, Hocking sees genuine benefits in the gruelling process of choreographing endless new routines for the media circus.
"Without milestones to show the game you get irresponsible and end up with a giant broken code-base and nothing works," he opines. "Sometimes you have to put a lot more polish on than you need to. You have to branch out a build for a couple of weeks and put a couple of guys on it debugging just for that. But it gives you a better view of where you're going to be a month or two from now. It gives us a good idea of the level of quality we're going to have [in the finished article]."
The E3 build we're taking an early peek at here in Ubisoft's massive, 1,600 staff-strong Canadian HQ focuses on the same mission Rob has already waxed lyrically on from Ubidays. Time contraints, no doubt, prevented any wild departures, but that's not to say improvements haven't been made in just a month and a half.
"We were feature-complete this Friday just past," reveals Hocking. "There's now really only one or two guys pushing in last-minute things while everyone else is transitioned over to debugging. Once you push 100 guys onto debugging for a week, things can get stable really fast."
But despite "really positive" feedback from Ubidays - the on-stage demo was certainly a highlight of the press conference - the team has doubled the available ammunition and tightened up the AI, which is now "a lot more mobile, a lot smarter, which makes it a lot harder to deal with them." This is borne out by Hocking's repeated yelps of "S***!" and frantic running for cover as best laid plans go awry during the initial demo.
Regardless of the extra tweaking, we'd usually be inclined to grumble about being airlifted into North America to play what is essentially the same demo we've been acquainted with so recently. But in the case of Far Cry 2, it makes perfect sense.
As you probably know, Far Cry 2 operates under the guiding principle of freedom, its narrative of factional warfare buried in a 50-kilometre-square sandbox for the player to dig up largely as and when he sees fit. Freedom of movement around the world is one thing; but it's in the freedom of expression during combat that the greatest potential lies.
A single play-through by definition offers a single approach, a single perspective. Ubisoft wants us to revel in the multitude; and the way your individual experience pans out will depend on any number of variables, including playing style, time of day, choice of weaponry, and relationship with NPCs and, of course, nerve.
But, since the multitude isn't going anywhere, the first thing we do is go for a relaxing stroll. We've already heard a lot from Ubisoft about what's 'not Far Cry' about the sequel: it's not the same hero; it's not supernatural; it's not the same location. Yet these surface details miss the point. According to Hocking, it's "the same experience you had when you experienced Far Cry for the first time. That's what we wanted to recapture: going somewhere you knew was real but was really foreign and exotic, and you never really expected you would get to go in your real life."
Far Cry 2 transports you to the arid plains of Africa. But, just as the original Far Cry's tropical island was an abstraction rather than any specific palm-treed paradise, so its sequel's vast world is the Platonic ideal of the Dark Continent.
"We're trying to capture the quintessential feeling of Africa. We wanted to have really sandy deserts and dry rock deserts; rolling grasslands that you'd see in the Serengeti, woodlands like you'd see in Tanzania or Namibia; mountain dwellings like you'd see in Dogon villages in Mali; colonial cities; jungles like you'd see in Congo; rivers and lakes like you'd see in Kenya. All of these things actually don't exist in any one country in Africa."
As much as the Ubisoft wishes to invoke the adventurous spirit of the original, however, the cold realities of big business are never far away, as when Hocking takes a pointed swipe at Crysis - the second game from the original developer of Far Cry, Crytek.
"You have to recapture [the magic of Far Cry] or you're not really making a sequel to Far Cry, you're just cashing in on the tropical island," he says. "Players have been to tropical islands in Boiling Point, in Just Cause, in Lost every night on TV, in Crysis and Far Cry on console. All of these games and movies and TV - you see this place and it's not that exciting adventure that it was. Far Cry did it first." Well, they do say sand gets everywhere.
Going walkabout allows us to appreciate the detail that has been lavished on a game world that is, according to Ubisoft's own research, "bigger than Oblivion. It was 40km2 and we're 50km2." It's the new Better Than Halo!
Either way, it's hugely impressive. Trees are fully destructible, cracking and splintering exactly where they are shot; weak branches can be snapped by a strong gale; grass blows according to the direction of the wind. This isn't just game engine willy-waving: an awareness of wind direction can be used to your advantage when predicting the spread of a fire, or using its smoke as cover.
You can even embark upon a mini-safari, attempting your best David Attenborough impression as you stalk a herd of zebra. You can shoot them in the face for kicks, if you wish; or, if you really do have nothing better to do with your life, you can kick back and watch through your minocular as they feed and rest.
"Sometimes it feels good to take a breather from being chased by guys with mounted grenade launchers on the back of their vehicles and look at the world," reckons Hocking. "Yes it's a shooter, yes it's an action game, but there's lots of opportunities to explore, take a look around and appreciate the world for the simulation of it." And of course, there's always the argument that the more in-tune you are with your environment, the more likely you are to exploit it to your advantage.
Eventually we remember there is a game to play (sorry about that!), and trudge over to the safe house - well, shack - where our bestest buddy Frank is waiting with mission instructions. As with the UbiDays demo, we're again tasked with entering an enemy compound and blowing up a pipeline.
The freedom of approach to your mission is underlined by the choice of six different weapon loadouts in the updated E3 build. This something-for-everyone approach caters for the stealthy tranquilliser dart-in-the-ass stalker, and the rampaging Arnie-in-Commando killer alike, theoretically with everyone in-between.
At this point you can change the time of day by pulling out your watch and setting it at the hour you wish to continue. We go for midnight; the game cuts away to a shot just outside the hut and a lovely time-lapse sequence as the sun sets, and night falls.
Since we're massive cowards, going in under cover of darkness suits us just fine. If you favour a more strategic approach to clearing an area, your minocular and map will prove invaluable. Spot a sniper with through the lens, press the relevant button, and all snipers in the immediate area will be added to your map - saving you the bother of having to scout the entire area. This also works for ammo and health supplies and vehicles, giving you vital information with which to plan your attacks.
"In terms of the raw mechanics of the shooter, one of the things we really wanted to capture was the feeling of the need to survive in this world," Hocking tells us. That certainly comes through in our playtest, our attempts to slither in unnoticed lasting all of 30 seconds and a single kill, forcing us to leg it out of the main gate under a hail of fire.
This situation is made substantially worse by our knackered rifle jamming at a critical moment. Decay is at the heart of the game, a "big experiential differentiator" according to Hocking, who wants a "really analogue, muddy, dirt-under-the-fingernails feeling to being in this world." Still, the foliage is great for cowering behind and keeping an eye out for muzzle flashes with which to locate the enemy.
There's no targeting reticule in the demo, which you may enjoy, but we find frustrating, especially at close quarters. Pleasingly, Hocking tells us there'll be on option to switch this on or off in the final game.
As your energy meter depletes, you can replenish it by injecting yourself with a health boost, which is gruesomely satisfying to watch. Stare death in the face and you may be saved by one of your buddies, who rushes in and spirits you away to safety before administering a health boost. But this is only an option if your buddy is still alive: they can be killed by you and the enemy, so friendly fire is a constant risk, although the team has designed the buddy avatars in a way that should distinguish them from random grunts.
But nothing is stopping you from murdering everyone who tries to strike up a conversation, and you're able to wipe out every buddy in the game if you'd rather go it alone. You can still progress, but there will be consequences, including missing a "whole load of content" according to Hocking. Well, since this is only a demo... Bye, Frank!
As mentioned in our earlier preview, PC users can rejoice in having by far the prettiest version; on console while the attention to detail is commendable, it lacks the 'wow' factor of a more straightforward FPS like Call of Duty 4 - although that's doubtless a necessary concession to the sheer horse power required to stream a 50km2 game world. And the frame-rate still needs a fair amount of attention, which Hocking happily acknowledges: "Yes there will be improvements on the console versions, mostly in terms of frame-rate at this point".
Controls are fairly standard, although we have a couple of gripes at this stage: having to press the left stick down to run on the console versions is clumsy, even if we do like sliding into cover with a press of the B button. And using the map in real time while driving doesn't feel as fluid as it could, forcing you to look down and invariably crash into a rogue tree. Practice may well make perfect, but we'll see.
Having enjoyed just a fraction of the complete experience, and in comparing the wildly divergent accounts of gameplay with other journalists at the event, we remain excited by the potential of Far Cry 2. With the briefest taste of the narrative, a sample of the diverse environments, and not a whiff yet of the level editor (included in all three versions, though more limited on console) or the multiplayer (up to 16-players), there's still a great deal to be revealed.
"I think a lot of people over the past few years have really tried to crack the nut of the open world shooter problem," offers Hocking. And on this evidence, Ubisoft Montreal has as good a chance as anyone, so don't go clocking off just yet, guys.
Far Cry 2 is due out on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC later this year.