Version tested: Xbox
Far Cry Instincts' primal nature demands a dirty little soundbite. I'm going to try and resist that for as long as possible.
Here's some things I don't like to find in console FPS games: Controls that force me to play like Rambo in a neckbrace, strafing my crosshair over targets and reliant on auto-aim because actually pointing the gun is comparatively difficult; enemies who soak up bullets without flinching, while exhibiting all the tactical nous of a blind mouse in a snake pit; really obvious walls that funnel you toward the next explosion or healthpack; contrived special abilities held up like a big sign that says, "people think I'm all about the guns, but they don't know the real me"; gun emplacements; "clever" names for old things - if it's Capture The Flag, it's Capture The Flag. Oh, and seemingly inert objects which make me explode after I've just trawled through a scene stamping out all the obviously threatening bits.
Far Cry Instincts has all of these, and yet I actually really enjoy it. Hell, I enjoy it because of some of that stuff. How does that work then?
One of Instincts' most striking qualities is the sense of being The Thing In The Bushes. One side of that is the game's range of attacking options - you can crawl around undetected, stalking up to people and knifing them in the back; you can set traps like swinging branches and mines; you can click the right-thumb-stick to zoom and pop people in the head at distance; you can toss grenades; you can watch people moving about uncertainly and then pounce on them like a cat. Later on, you can move like an alien and see like a predator - and stalking people actually fuels these abilities. The other side of it is the bush itself. Instincts isn't like its PC cousin, which was very open about how you could approach your very-clever enemies; here your vectors are fewer, and your enemies dimmer. But the density of jungle built up at its edges is convincing. You can't see the lack of a forest... for the trees! And not only are you the thing that's going to go bump, but you're not just hiding in a convenient shadow, you're lurking on ground where it's unsafe for the mercs to venture. They're the ones peering into the unknown and you're the threat.
Sometimes, anyway. Instincts can be a very conventional and straightforward FPS game. Say you approach an area with some buildings. There are enemies milling about, as you can see on your ever-present radar. If you're in view, they react to you and a gunfight ensues. You toss grenades and unload your machineguns into them, or sit back and try and pick them off with a silenced pistols or a sniper rifle. Having cleared up, you harvest the health and ammo packs dropped and strewn, then move on.
But fighting like this is actually much harder and less rewarding than fighting a guerrilla war, as a chap called Doyle suggests over the radio. You don't have all the ammo in the world, and you can't carry 50 weapons at once; just four. The best bits of Instincts are the bits when you crawl painstakingly into a crowded area, sneak under a rickety wooden house, roll onto your back and squeeze a silenced bullet into an enemy from below, and then crawl out from underneath the house into a thicket, set up a couple of mines, move back, toss a rock to tempt a patrol into your explosive little mousetrap, and quickly follow it up by detonating the barrel next to a tent on the far side of the clearing to take out the others. You can forgive the funnels and fickle sentries for this. And then you can hop on a nearby quad bike and motor toward the next area, possibly while being pursued by an angry helicopter, or dodging flaming barrels that are being rolled down a hill toward you.
Other times you can hop in a boat and motor along a river, the undergrowth on either side shimmering along the water's reflective surface. These are some of the most picturesque bits - the use of sunlight and reflections is as captivating as anything in Half-Life 2, and Ubisoft hasn't spared any processing expense on sanding down the edges. Take a dip and your vision blurs, and upon surfacing it'll take a second for the water to drain from your eyes. Where logs are formed into a bridge from bank to bank, they're bound tightly and their ends are overgrown rather than sitting on top of a solid grass-texture. When you decide to turn round in the water and see what lies the other way, the sight of a waterfall frothing and clouded with spray as it strikes the pool at its base is unblemished by the usual technical remainders. It's also a game that believes in the Gordon Freeman rule of unbroken first-person viewing. Sure, there's some troubling pop-up here and there, but it hides the most threatening folds very effectively. People are right to talk about how good Far Cry Instincts looks.
Happily, a new hook cuts into your thumbs every few firefights - whether it's visual (the shift from day to night and beyond is kaleidoscopic in its impact on the aesthetic, and continually refreshing) or mechanical (the growth of your arsenal both in terms of weapons and those alien/predator-esque "feral abilities"; or perhaps a new vehicle to play with). And while this doesn't completely make up for the occasional stupid death, the shoehorning, the rather unadventurous fiction (inevitably, there are scientists and monsters), or the sub-Halo analogue controls, it's adequate compensation for these issues. It's a beautifully completed game world with all manner of brawn to experiment with - and there's a fair old amount to be done before you see the end credits.
Nor is that the end of it. Played with other people (online, split-screen or in the I - don't - believe - anybody - can - really - be - arsed - to - use - it System Link mode), Instincts may be slightly hamstrung next to Halo 2 by the comparative clunkiness of its analog controls and the relative simplicity of its statistical feedback, but the Predator mode, which involves one fully-evolved feral player hunting down a team of humans, can be a source of real amusement. Particularly when it's two in the morning, you're the last fellow alive, nervously peering this way and that, and all of a sudden someone growls over your headset and then streaks into your field of vision faster than you can pull either trigger in defence. The map editor tool, meanwhile, should help the otherwise prosaic deathmatch modes endure. Sculpting playgrounds with your Xbox controller can feel a bit clumsy to begin with, but the menuing is actually quite intuitive once it clicks - and the map editor certainly shouldn't be dismissed as a novelty.
Indeed, Instincts is a game of seeming novelties surprisingly well bound together. Cars, boats, guns, stealth, traps, super-strength, scent-vision - it's crowded, but its density is actually our delight, because while it may not play as strategically or controllably as something like Halo, or as evocatively and inventively as something like Half-Life 2, it's still atmospheric, involving, and empowering. There's plenty you could criticise, but that's not your first instinct.
A soundbite. "The best Xbox FPS since Halo"? Go on then.
8 / 10