Writing about Xbox ports of PC games is hard. Well, it's not hard to do, but it is hard to start. Those of you who've played the PC version are always going to be skimming for the new bits, and the rest of you are going to want a full appraisal. Striking a balance is very difficult.
Which is probably... [a light bulb appears over his head] how Ubisoft felt about doing a console version of Far Cry! Hurrah! Crisis averted.
Seriously, it must be tricky. After all, Far Cry, released on the PC to much acclaim last year, is generally remembered by those who brushed against it as a vast and gorgeous first-person shooter that offered a degree of choice in how you approached things, forcing you to consider your options in the face of enemies who not only wanted you dead but actually had the ability to kill you rather expertly. The console version, Far Cry Instincts, is due out this September - ages after its PC forebear - and despite its Xbox exclusivity it's unlikely to look as good. Which, given that most people will probably just pick a path and stick to it, leaves the clever enemies. Now, we might be thinking of another big black console where the FPS genre led the way with a rip-roaring sci-fi epic, but we seem to recall it already has a couple of games full of clever enemies. We can't remember what they're called, but a few people bought them. Something about cooking...
But this is Ubisoft Montreal, a team renowned for being a bit good, and the team which started it all was Crytek Studios - also a bit good. So we shouldn't be too surprised to learn that between them they've managed to create something that has the potential to excite Xbox owners and raise the odd PC-man's eyebrow. And, almost as if the Gods of Multimedia are nodding in approval, it's just in time to seize on the popularity of TV show Lost. Idyllic tropical island setting. Scary things in the jungle. It's not an exact match, but plenty of us do want to explore a jungle right about now.
So let's do it. With big guns. Far Cry Instincts puts you in the boots of tour operator Jack Carver, who turns up at an island and soon discovers it's not very friendly - and, interestingly, discovers it in a different way to PC players, underlining the addition of several new areas to the Xbox version. With Jack's boat destroyed and a strange man whispering stuff in his ear about mercenaries and whatnot, he sets off to try and escape. Working his way from butterfly knife up through all manner of guns and launchers, and pinching various vehicles along the way, he wages a one-man-war on the indignant-but-not-indigenous population. And they're wise to his antics - approaching an outpost, he needs to be mindful of men in watchtowers, troops gathering next to weapons tents (who can also be eavesdropped upon with his special binoculars-with-amps-in), groups patrolling the jungle around him, and far worse things that make their presence known later on. Once his presence is felt, they'll use their nasty-man skills to circle him, working as a group, taking cover, calling reinforcements, and not simply letting him mow them down.
The actual combat is savage and exciting, and you tend to have to think it through beforehand. Sneaking up on enemies beforehand and knifing them is exhilarating because there isn't much chance of getting away unscathed if you foul it up, and ducking in and out of the jungle to take pot-shots is tense and rewarding - a bit like playing knock-and-run when you were 15 and had just discovered what beer did to your sense of inhibition. What's more, the Xbox version gives you new options. You can now dual-wield guns (a wonderful thing), there are new vehicles to seize control of, and there are new ways to take people down in the jungle.
First of all, traps. Traps are a good move. Remember the trip-mines in Duke Nukem 3D, or Half-Life? You can set up things like that to thin out the numbers in patrol groups, luring them in by making a bit of a racket so they'll head in your direction. And although the game is largely free-form in how you approach combat, a bit of investigation often reveals some manner of scripted surprise - like a couple of logs you can roll down a hill toward a cluster of gormless gun-toters.
Second, feral abilities. At some point, somebody sticks a needle in you and things start to get a bit twisted. Your muscles start to bulge, and you find you have a whole inner beast to unleash. At first, you find you can move faster to hunt down your prey - good news if you've a vast area of jungle to cross. But things soon get more interesting, as you develop a sort of smell-o-vision to complement your already Alien-esque movement, and you discover that you can take on the role of that sinister shadow in amongst the trees. Often you can see them when they can't see you. We like the look of that.
Speaking of looks (and it was inevitable), there's every sign that, contrary to our expectations, Ubisoft's various minions have managed to build a convincing Far Cry facsimile onto Xbox. The levels of detail will probably still pale next to our massive PC's best efforts (particularly as the European version will obviously lose out on the progressive scan front, unlike its American counterpart), but the foliage remains highly detailed, the water highly reflective, and the explosions extremely emphatic. Enemies move convincingly, and the engine manages to transmit the sense of muggy warmth that the PC version did rather well - and isn't afraid to waste some of its available processing power on subtler effects, like the way water takes a couple of seconds to drain from your eyes whenever you clamber out of a river or the ocean.
We still have some concerns about the controls (but then we always worry about FPS controls on dual analogue sticks, and it's a topic we'll discuss properly in the review) and the level-of-detail effect that makes it rather hard to look convincingly into the distance, but the frame-rate seems to be quite solid, and the general impression we have is that Far Cry is coming to Xbox - and it's mapped out a sensible path.
If you disagree, you can always avail yourself of one of its other new features. With multiplayer on Xbox Live, split-screen and LAN (which is what we've tried), and a few fairly original gameplay modes (including one that pits a single souped-up predator with all his feral abilities against a group who don't respawn once he's downed them), Ubisoft is hoping Far Cry will help keep its name in the top ten most popular online games alongside some of its Tom Clancy numbers. (6 3, Cell 3, etc). To help facilitate this, it's gone a similar route to the otherwise-misguided Pariah and included a simple map editor.
And we do mean simple. Using the triggers to call upon various blocks, you just slap down pre-fabricated chunks of land, items and bits of foliage and then hit a button to jump in and run around. When you're done, you can upload it to your friends via Xbox Live. (Incidentally, that's exactly the sort of thing Microsoft built its Xbox 360 "Live Marketplace" feature to support.)
Xbox ports of PC games don't always build on what's come before. Which is fair enough in some respects, as a lot of Xbox owners presumably don't have top-end PCs. But it's always nice to see. Far Cry Instincts will be nice to see, partly because it's built on what it was already doing, and partly because what came before was already worth experiencing. Join us again next month to see if Ubi's Instincts are correct.
Far Cry Instincts is due out on Xbox this September.