Remind us to laugh heartily in the faces of any first-person developer foolish enough to make confident release date predictions in future. Last year was vintage for that kind of malarkey, with the likes of Breed, Doom III, Half-Life 2, Condition Zero (not to mention, cough, DNF, otherwise known as Did Not Finish) all falling by the wayside for various tenuous reasons, but still I found myself nodding enthusiastically when back at ECTS in August, Crytek's Frank Yerli assured me that Far Cry was "very nearly finished", and that a late November release date was a formality. But just like every first-person shooter ever created, our faith was misplaced and it got pulled back to its current slot of a late March release.
Seeing as the one level demo has recently been released, as well as the commencement of a multiplayer beta test, we thought it was about time we cautiously revised our interest in this German-built FPS - if only to establish whether our PC is still up to the task.
Jack and Val's summer vacation
Having been shown two fully-functioning levels at ECTS, this was another chance for Crytek to come good on their promises that its Caribbean island-based FPS could stand alongside this year's most-anticipated PC titles. But before we go into that, let's refresh your memory as to why we're here.
You're Jack Mariner, a freelance mariner who finds himself fighting for his life after taking a freelance reporter, Valerie, to an apparently unspoiled paradise island. But just as he's about to drop her off, he's greeted by a hail of gunfire from a bunch of angry militia who are not particularly well versed in the art of welcoming guests. Stranded on the island with nothing but a gun, the game eventually sees you unravelling a madman's plot, thus giving you an excuse to shoot everything that moves, and Crytek an excuse to show off its not inconsiderable skills at rendering lush foliage.
With this in mind, it's therefore a bit of a puzzle to kick off this one level demo ('Fort') in a motor powered inflatable dingy. At what point in the proceedings this demo occurs isn't clear, but the purpose of the level is to take out the militia's communications facility, which basically involves blowing up a satellite dish and legging it off the base.
Tears of joy
As we've observed in the past, the Cry engine is something to behold, boasting some of the most technically impressive views ever attempted - and all possible without utterly crippling your system. Being set on a tropical island has given Crytek the room to show off incredibly lush foliage, detailed bump mapping, the shiniest water imaginable as well as the obligatory superb lighting and particle effects. It risks looking samey very quickly, and admittedly the novelty value does wear off surprisingly quickly, but with several underground sections to explore, there's scope for some detailed indoor environments to break up the jungle fever.
Even on a GeForce 4 Ti4600 powered system everything ran with supreme smoothness. The game's auto detect system insisted on putting everything on Medium, but even whacking everything up to Very High didn't cause the PC any problems, and made a big difference in the general detail level - especially the paths, which went from being a bland smudge to crisply detailed in the process. For graphics whores, Far Cry is most certainly something that will cause a lot of excitement - although we'd have to voice concern that the enemies all seem to have the same appearance and have an overly generic look to them from what we've seen so far.
As far as the gameplay is concerned, you start off armed only with a pistol and a machete, and it's clear that you have to tread a little carefully if you want to live more than a few seconds. Should you blunder onto the shore, you'll almost certainly be raked with lead and forced back to the start. After several false starts (and no manual save on the demo), I eventually made it past the first bunch of grunts, grabbed their Assault Rifles and Sub-Machine Guns and from there on it was a fairly straightforward trudge towards the beach, pausing to try out the newly acquired Sniper Rifle before tacking the steep slopes of the island.
For crying out loud
Fairly quickly it's apparent that the game hinges around throwing enemies at you in manageable clusters of fours and fives. You're given a window of opportunity to strike the first blow almost every time, allowing you to take out a couple before the rest are alerted and come hurtling after you. The AI is supposedly 'advanced in adaptive group tactics', but in reality this appears to mean that they run at you shouting insults, lobbing grenades and generally behaving like a gung-ho mob who wouldn't know duck and cover from a Chinese takeaway. Hrm.
Sure, they respond to sight and sound and alert each other, but on the default medium difficulty level they generally make life very easy for you, always rushing into your line of fire with lemming-esque obedience. Having played the likes of Vietcong: Fist Alpha recently it seems almost embarrassingly easy and dumbed down by comparison. Not only that, their behaviour in the demo seems more than a little odd, with some enemies becoming semi-stuck behind boxes. We assumed they were taking cover, but it's not as if they're leaning around corners and returning fire - most of the time they just stand there waiting to be shot. Add to that the fact that the game checkpoint saves for you about 12 times during the demo, and it's not exactly giving the impression of a game that will hold up veterans of the genre for very long.
Doffing its cap to Halo, Far Cry has adopted a limited arsenal system, although in this case you appear to be limited to four weapons as opposed to merely two. Along with the weapons we mentioned previously, we were also given a brief chance to take aim with a tasty rocket launcher in order to take out a plane and a couple of determined choppers. Various gun emplacements are also mounted in key positions, but I never actually had any reason to use one, sadly. On the whole all the weapons look, feel and sound suitably chunky - perhaps not the most imaginative selection ever attempted, but we'll reserve judgement until we get our hands on the finished article.
Multiplayer wise, Far Cry has bags of potential with such an industrious engine. Depending on the map design, there's huge scope for the kind of tense jungle combat that Vietcong excelled at - albeit with a far superior ability to render dense foliage. Although we dabbled in the three map beta test last month, there wasn't enough activity to get a proper session going, and the server didn't seem to be up to the job at the time. Apart from the standard deathmatch slugfest, there was a domination mode involving the capture of checkpoints (in this case aerial masts), but the most interesting (and least populated) was the team-based defend/attack mode which consisted of a class-based system where one of your members builds up a wall around a mast that you must defend at all costs. Unfortunately this descended into farce with about three a side, but the potential is definitely there, especially given the number of vehicles supported in the game.
Perhaps the overriding concern from everyone who has played the demo is "yes it's pretty, but it feels like A.N.OTHER shooter", and it's hard to come up with a counter to that argument based on this rather straightforward and downright unimaginative demo, which does little to show off the vehicle mechanics, the potential of the physics (apart from a few opportunities to blow up barrels and watch them bounce around a bit), or how strong the narrative is.
But rather like Ubi's other recent FPS, XIII, taken out of context it's possible to come to hasty conclusions about its overall worth based on the demo. If Far Cry can create anywhere near as compelling an atmosphere as XIII then it may well be able to win over the doubters, but as things stand, all we've really been shown here is a pretty game engine and some fairly rudimentary AI routines - not exactly what we were hoping for to be brutally honest, but we haven't given up on the game yet and will be the first to sing its praises if the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.