"Looks aren't everything". These supposedly comforting words are usually reserved for the geeky teenage loner on a downer. The quiet one with the dodgy hair and the wonky teeth that has trouble looking anyone in the eye without burning up with embarrassment that anyone's even looking in their direction. But try telling yourself that looks aren't everything when you fire up Far Cry. Try not to feel a ripple of excitement run through you when the Cry engine starts showing off how much better a PC game can look than anything else now.
Far Cry is the new girl in class. A real head turner, and destined to break hearts. But for all her perfectly sculpted form, the air of class, grace and stunning elegance, the bitchier element have the knives out for this wannabe. They reckon she's nothing more than a common bimbo, prancing around in fancy threads and thrusting her charms in people's faces just to get the attention she craves. Who does this airhead think she is swanning around here like she owns the place? But this seething resentment won't stop the boys from salivating over this dream new arrival. They want her bad, and she knows it, and she's going to flaunt her charms all she can to get what she wants.
She's got her eye on you. Yes you. Keeps making deliberately fleeting eye contact, and before you know it she's made a beeline for you in a quiet moment. Your friends warned you that she was only interested in your money, but you couldn't resist the opportunity to have a quick fumble. It all happened so quickly. After blowing your savings on upgrading your (PC) wardrobe and taking her out to fancy places she decided to install herself. It was a memorable night, and it felt good to share your time with her. Inevitably, though, she stayed the night and the next morning you awoke with a start to see what she looked like in the morning. Without her make up on, she looked... plain. Without all that slap on and her hair all messed up, the truth was her mystique was gone... She looked a bit like everyone else.
That's Far Cry all over - an absolute temptress for the eye candy whore in you, which can't resist drooling at the charms of the latest PC newcomer. But strip away those fancy high-end effects and live in the GeForce4 real world and it's something of a different story. It's really hard though, when you see a game as unquestionably gorgeous and ambitious as Far Cry, to retain a sense of perspective about whether it's actually any good.
Covering the Cry engine on its own merits, it's quite clear that this German collective have conjured a great piece of tech to finally challenge the US stalwarts for raw power. Its ability to display seemingly endless views without breaking sweat is possibly its most impressive feature, and even scaled down to its lowest detail settings it simply refuses to compromise. Being a tropical island-based shooter, the game is forced to render literally unfathomable amounts of foliage and unlike most games, it never cheats to do so, never restricting what you can see, or fogging it. Even pop up isn't an issue - sure, minor elements do pop into the existing detail to flesh things out as you get closer, but there are none of the standard bugbears in the Cry engine. It's a thing of great beauty, and to turn out this standard of tech in the time they did is an awesome achievement.
To have and to have not
But it really is a case of the have and the have nots when it comes to these massively scalable visuals. Although Far Cry was perfectly capable of rendering the world in high detail on a GF4, it had an annoying tendency to pause the scene every so often as if it needed to catch up. Playing on low detail was eventually the only solution, and in many ways left the game naked, and easier to appreciate the game on its own merits, rather than simply wandering around admiring the stunning bump mapping, the delicious lighting, the particle effects and the myriad of impressive visual touches that literally pour out of this product. For the Radeon 9800 and GeForceFX crew, this is without doubt going to be the game you've been waiting for.
The mere mortals without 400 quid to spend on high end upgrades can still console themselves with a solid game that does at least try to break away from the tired FPS mould, with its more realistic AI, regular use of vehicles, and its non-directive gameplay that refuses to put up the barriers to the gameworld that most titles in this genre do. You can literally play every level the way you want to, meaning you can approach from pretty much anywhere you choose, For example, you're thrown into the Pier level on a speedboat, and although you'll probably just make a beeline for the enemies hanging around the shore, you're quite within your rights to cruise off elsewhere, avoid confrontation and find a quiet spot - maybe jumping out of your craft to swim to the shore so as to not attract attention and working your way through the undergrowth on your belly if you see fit. But if your instinct is to wade through clutches of baddies like you do in every other FPS ever, then you'll be well catered for by this cunning system.
Crytek has even gone to the extent of providing entire sub-sections that you can choose to avoid if you wish, in some cases entire underground areas that you might otherwise miss, meaning that you're given an incentive to try things differently and experiment with different approaches - about as far as you can get from the on rails experience of, say, Call Of Duty, and it's general replay value is a great deal higher as a result.
Saving the save game
What's more, Far Cry is no quick save fest, and instead employs a generally sympathetic checkpoint system [although, argh, a quick save patch is planned -Ed]. Checkpoints can be a little hit and miss. The consistency of when it deigns to grant you one is a bit questionable - sometimes two or more pop up in quick succession, followed by a long gap while you survive a brutal onslaught. On balance, though, it's a well-implemented system that feels like a huge improvement over merely allowing you to stab F5 every time you feel in danger. It makes you more skilful, more careful, and more importantly ups the tension of the battle and makes it a better, longer lasting experience for it.
Quite how long it lasts you in the single-player mode will largely depend on which of the many skill levels you opt for, and there ought to be something that suits every possible taste - no one could accuse the game of being too easy, but it's certainly not stupidly hard at any point either, and seems to have got the balance almost spot on.
The much-vaunted AI is something that might cause a few arguments, though. It's true that if one person sees or hears you, they will call for back up, and enemies from various points on the map do all get hauled into action. It appears that every map has its stock of grunts pre-placed in set positions, so they don't just spawn when you appear, like most FPS enemies would. They chat among themselves in little clusters, with mobile speedboat, chopper-based and various land-based vehicles often roaming around looking for action. It doesn't quite feel like a living breathing world yet, but it's definitely a big improvement to know that these enemies aren't just being created on the fly. Kill them all and they don't come back (actually vanishing after a while, annoyingly), so if that's what you feel like doing, then you're guaranteed a good fight in each of the 20 levels.
However, many involve planting bombs and nicking security passes, and if you're clever enough this can be achieved without causing a massive scrap on the way. That said, the game does tend to shoehorn you into sections where it is literally impossible to avoid enemy activity, like the moment you climb out onto the deck of the boat and a dirty great chopper emerges to rake your muscle-bound torso with hot lead. It's still linear, basically, but tries to create the illusion of freedom by not making you follow a predetermined path first. It's a good compromise, because otherwise the game would risk being an unfocussed mess.
All through playing Far Cry, though, it was impossible to escape the fact that, despite the stunning views, multiple routes and cleverer-than-usual AI, it still largely conforms to the rigid FPS rules that have been established for over a decade. Find the bits to blow up/the keycard/the person and blast your way through anyone in you way - for all its technological glory it's easy to find yourself feeling like you're playing just another FPS, albeit an astonishingly pretty one. To the veteran, you might be best advised to give the two demos a try as they serve as a decent enough flavour of what to expect.
What is inescapably unforgivable about Far Cry, though, are its voiceovers. When will developers realise that populating their game worlds with pathetically over the top grunts that come out with one cringeworthy utterance after another isn't going to endear the average gamer to their product? Anyone who remembers games like Sin or Soldier Of Fortune will know what we mean when we say that it's as though the voices were recorded by a group of generic Americans who sound both cheesy and unconvincing in their aggression. No one in this day and age of multi-million dollar game development should have to put up with "I'm going to open up a can of Whoop-ass on ya!" and various other similarly eye-rolling incidents of tired machismo. This might appeal to a certain section of young Americans (maybe its core audience, who knows?), but for the rest of the world it's a huge turn off and simply dumbs the game down. It's particularly disappointing coming from Ubi, having managed some excellent efforts in recent months from the likes of Prince Of Persia, XIII and Beyond Good & Evil to name but three. It's as if all Far Cry wants to be is a sub-Arnie run and gun, but all evidence to the contrary screams that the game is worth so much more than that. It doesn't ruin it, but the terrible voices do absolutely nothing to keep you interested in the storyline.
Tears of a clown
With a solid multiplayer element (spoken about at greater length in our preview) bolted on that offers some excellent maps, a decent number of modes and a busy community, there's every chance that Far Cry will be able to hold its own in what is rapidly turning into the busiest year for FPS fans in recent memory. Whether we'll still be talking about the single-player element once Half Life 2, Doom III and maybe even S.T.A.L.K.E.R hit the shelves remains to be seen - and the multiplayer is a rather unknown quantity at present - but for the time being it's an exceptionally solid addition to the genre with some great technology offering great potential for the mod community and further Cry engine-based games (a Vietnam one would work brilliantly with this tech, for example, although does the world really need 17 Vietnam games this year?).
In the final analysis, it just maybe lacks the creative edge and imagination that would have catapulted it into classic territory. We just didn't really care about what we were fighting our way through, and frankly a game has to do more than provide solid action these days to win our hearts. The story isn't that engaging, the characterisation is poor, and Ubi with its recent stunning line up should know more than anyone else about going that extra mile to make its games stand out from the mire. As it does stand, Far Cry is a beautiful looking game, but in this case looks aren't everything.