So anyway, as we get firmly into all this "LOOKING FORWARD" stuff for 2006, it's interesting to see how everyone's handling the transition to Xbox 360.
EA: Xbox games with new graphics and new features.
Activision: PC FPS ports. Very sharp-looking. One of them doesn't suck.
Ubisoft: New game, and an upgraded version of the old one. Oh, and let's have the new one on the old Xbox too, because, let's face it, half of you can't buy the 360 yet anyway.
Ubisoft Montreal's Bertrand Helias talks about "Next Chapter" (working title, oh-so-surprisingly, and due out on both Xbox and 360) as "an extension", which obviously implies "expansion pack", and that wouldn't be an utterly unfair description. But "extension" is probably better, because the most significant structural change is going to excite people more than "six new levels": it's much more freeform, and similar to the PC original in this sense.
"We will have six maps in single-player and eight in multiplayer, but the maps are quite big. Any player that played the PC version liked the openness of the environment, and we've tried to emulate that," says Helias. Obviously some sections are linear out of necessity, but in general you take your own approach. At one point in the first level you're faced with three big islands, and you can choose to travel to them in any order and approach objectives in any manner you see fit. One bit involves setting fire to a plantation swarming with enemies; you might go and pop some bullets in explosive barrels, but if you've picked up some pipebombs - one of the game's new weapons - and like sneaking around, you can deposit them at the base of each of four tower structures and then pull the trigger for all at once. Then you might take out enemies by hoisting a mortar off a tripod and prancing around with it, or whip out a sniper rifle, or go after them with your feral abilities.
"Most of it will be outside," too. "I think we have just a couple of sections inside. It's tropical and mountainous, and the setting is a little more Asiatic than Far Cry Instincts, which is borne out in the architecture."
But hang on, some of you are saying: feral abilities? That'll be those of you that didn't play Instincts. Well, main man Jack Carver was injected with a substance that turned him into a part-time animal, with the ability to slash enemies up into the air, see what he smells, and move like Theo Walcott.
But hang on, some of you are saying: Theo Walcott? Okay that was football. I'll stop that. Think, "A FAST MAN".
In Next Chapter, players kick off in the role of Jack several years after Instincts, his feral abilities intact. Now he's working for a band of pirates local to a chain of islands, and the game begins as Jack and a young lady (she's just called "femme fatale" for now) arrive at a pier for a meeting between a government official and the local pirate cap'n. They're going to sign some sort of contract to do with turning blind eyes. Obviously this goes wrong. Some rebels turn up and kill both the official and the pirate; fortunately you burst in before they can gut the girl, but you're still accused of the murders anyway, so you start off pursued by both pirates and government heavies.
To begin with, young missy will feed you places to rendezvous further inland, but soon you're reunited with CIA spook Doyle. He'll sort out your problem with the local ruffians, but he puts you to work on another task: taking out the rebel leader, who shares your feral abilities.
Indeed, so do a few of the locals. This is explained in the back-story, which is told through load screen text (a neat way to give Instincts fans some justification without boring the newcomers). Basically, "Dr Krieger was trying to synthesise the skills of the feral warriors in a chemical solution, and create a quick way to inject people with them." That's what happened to you. The feral warriors you come up against in the game will fight spectacularly, we're told - one of the new abilities you gain allows you to climb trees and attack from the air, and we're promised tree-to-tree fights too, although that's still being polished and we're not allowed to see. Boo. So where did this lot of mutant heavies come from then? The clue is the way the game handles the adrenaline fuel for your feral stuff: distinctive flowers dotted around these islands, which you pick up. Aha. Drugs then. It's always bleedin' drugs.
Even the ones who aren't stoned put up a fight though, thanks to our old pal improved AI. Ubisoft's still balancing the difficulty levels, but we're shown how your enemies seek cover, try to surround you, and are a bit more accurate. If you go up to them expecting to pop them at close-range, they'll probably take you out in a couple of shots. So how are they scripted? "They will try to adapt to their surroundings. We worked first of all on trying to have them seek cover. When you have a group of AI, they will communicate. If you have three guys, for instance, spread out in a triangle, and you take out the one ahead of you, one of the guys on the side will move to his position to avoid a crossfire as you advance. When you have four, maybe two will stay ahead of you and two will try and work their way around either side of you. And of course the further you get into the game, the smarter they become."
The PC game was always held aloft for the strength of its AI. In fact, one of the criticisms levelled at Instincts was that the AI wasn't up to snuff by comparison. So what's been the approach with the AI overall? "It's something we tried to change, because PC gamers are quite different from console gamers. I think on PC you have more hardcore gamers, and Far Cry was really hard." Something to do with the control system on the PC? "Maybe, yeah. We tried to find a compromise, to make the AI a little bit smarter, but not too clever or otherwise it would be too frustrating for our audience. Some people say Instincts was about the right level, some people say that it was too easy, but it's two different groups.
"Of course we have been inspired by the PC version. We worked hard on the AI for Instincts; we tried to find a good solution, a compromise between technical constraints and good gameplay. But we knew what we wanted to improve and we've tried to improve it. We want you to be much more cautious this time."
Careful gamers who size up situations will be rewarded in other ways too. The original Instincts included a system of traps, which allowed you to set up snares and roll boulders down hills and things. It was optional, but led to some entertaining moments. With the renewed freeform approach, taking this route is more attractive. There's the usual mixture of tumbling logs downhill, snares and whatnot, but there'll be a greater role for the environment too. In one area, Helias shot out a stanchion on a sentry tower and it landed on a couple of hapless enemies' heads. Cool.
It's fundamentally a similar game then, an expansion of sorts, but it's also temptingly different. There are of course a few other additions to the Xbox 1 version, and of course everything applies to the 360 version. "We just worked a lot on the AI, and we have some new vehicles - all of which are very strong for multiplayer. One of the trucks can even hold eight people - so in a game of eight versus eight, you can drive the whole team around."
Speaking of multiplayer, we're wondering how it went down last time. "Very good actually. We released a small patch with some weapon adjustments, which is already done [in Next Chapter], and we've changed some options to let the players be a little more hardcore; have just predators, and generally more options," says Helias. This time there's a new game mode, called Seek And Secure. "You have two teams, and each has to reach a point and secure it for a couple of minutes to gain a point. Something like Domination in Unreal Tournament."
And so we turn to the Xbox 360 version of the original Instincts, which uses the same technology we'll see at work in the 360 Next Chapter (keep up at the back). The Xbox Next Chapter has looked good up to this point - slightly jagged on the utterly monstrous Samsung LCD TV some poor sap's hauled into the hotel room we're in, but still incredibly detailed for an Xbox game, full of life and with the same warm, sun-soaked atmosphere of Instincts. Switching to the 360 version is like putting on your glasses in the morning: it brings the world into sharp focus. At 720p, you can appreciate the outline of every leaf, every blade of grass. Arguably this is a bit of a problem - it can look a bit plastic - but it's very dense and persuasive, and Helias says the team's still working on the shaders.
You can see right the way off into the distance too, peering across canyons. Foliage becomes a bit simpler as you look further ahead, but there's still time. "We're still working on the vegetation to make it more interesting visually," says Helias, noticing our gaze. The overall image is fantastic though, and reminiscent of the PC version. Plus, it's all at 60 frames per second, even now. The water, in particular, is fantastic, and as you crawl up the opening beach level with the tide the sand looks wet. "We really worked on the water to make it as realistic as we could. The game is better in terms of detail even than the PC, I think. On the water, we have an oceanographic algorithm for waves; we think it's the most realistic it can be right now." As he speaks, waves lap up against the side of the boat - the boat's wake is quite simple at the moment and it doesn't bob particularly, but this will likely change.
"We changed the engine to use the three cores, and we use them around 90 per cent of the time, which is how we are able to reach the 60 frames per second. We are still working on the shaders though, we've redone every filter in the game to make them really work on HDTV." So has it just been a question of reworking the art assets? "Most of the time, yes, but the game's not only that. We have taken the improvements in AI from Next Chapter, and we have reworked levels in Instincts to accommodate the new AI, and situations will be different. We reworked all the action sequences. The reason we did this is because we want even people who played Far Cry Instincts on Xbox to be able to play it again and find more challenge.
"For example, in this canyon on the boat you were quite alone, but we have added other boats, and they will chase after you. Later enemies throw explosive barrels into your path." To good effect too - for the purposes of our demo Helias is in God mode, but the boat isn't, and it explodes as he tries to evade enemies without taking them on.
So then, not just a new instalment, expansion, extension - whatever - but anybody who had Instincts and buys this on 360 is really getting something of a remix too - "around 20 hours of gameplay total across both single-player games" Helias estimates, "and 24 maps for multiplayer, and the map editor". All user-created content will be exchanged in-game, too.
What's it like working on Xbox 360 then? "It's difficult, particularly when you are using the three cores; we have broken a lot of stuff in the process of getting it like this!" Helias chuckles. Perhaps so, but there'll be plenty of people who appreciate the effort. Transitioning to new hardware is a thorny issue - rarely more so than it has been with Xbox to Xbox 360 - but in Instincts Predator and Next Chapter, Ubisoft's hit on a nice solution. Hopefully the games will live up to it.
Far Cry Instincts Predator (Xbox 360) and Far Cry Instincts: Next Chapter (working title, Xbox) are both due out this spring.