Turning Far Cry into a tightly scripted, linear console game made a lot of sense. The Xbox was never going to be able to cope with the free-roaming environments that made the PC original such a hugely admired game, but most people agreed that Ubisoft's Montreal studio excelled themselves in providing what was easily one of the best shooters to have ever graced the platform.
As Tom noted in his review back in October, there's a lot to admire about the game, alongside some less important irritations that you quickly learn to live with. The ability to approach any given combat scenario from a manner of your choosing gives the game a fresh appeal that distinguishes it from the generic FPS herd. One minute you're stalking your prey, crouching under rickety huts, rolling onto your back and plugging silenced pistol shots in their temples via a gap in the broken floorboards, the next you're wading through the long grass and knifing them in the back or ripping them a new one with your Feral melee attack. Sometimes you might prefer to take out a whole bunch by setting up tree traps and laying down mines and attracting your hapless foe into a nest of explosive ragdoll death. Other times you might resort to more traditional FPS means: up-close machine-gun battles or distant sharp-shooting - the game doesn't favour any particular approach, but the nice thing is that there are always more options available to you than most games give you.
Don't push me
Typically for Ubisoft, the storyline, characterisations and acting is all a bit of a let down and your enemies are as generically mutated as any you've seen before. Fortunately, what happens to Jack Carver on your journey through the game helps keep things fresh and interesting. As we touched on, Carver starts developing 'Feral' abilities (thanks to an injection administered when he gets captured) which give him the edge in his one-man quest to be a modern-day Rambo-meets-Predator. After a couple of levels of fairly underwhelming jungle slog against a hugely aggressive band of trigger-happy mercenaries these Feral abilities start to flesh out your otherwise underpowered arsenal (where entire clips have to be unloaded into the bizarrely thick-skinned enemies to take them down). Kicking off with a flesh-ripping, corpse-flinging Feral Punch you start to gain the upper hand, with the ability to score an instant death melee attack - at the risk of being shot to pieces in the approach.
Beyond that, you gradually gain the ability to run like the wind, leap enormous distances, track your prey with a Predator-esque scent-detection system (where a trail leads you to their location), as well as a sight-enhancing night vision-style ability to make it much easier to see where the numerous goons are lurking. Once you're fully equipped the game becomes an enormous amount of fun in just about every scenario it throws at you, and never shirks from challenging you while rarely straying into the realms of impossibility. Sometimes you might simply enjoy the carnage - other times you'll be grateful of an opportunity to commandeer a land or water vehicle and flee the scene. The latter sequences, in particular, are often handled with almost Hollywood-esque intensity, resembling the manic chase sequences of big budget movies, right down to the scripted flinging of boulders in your path and the smoke trail of an RPG as it narrowly scorches past you. You'll be impressed with the seamless scale of it all, and how well the levels are constructed - not to mention how bloody vast some of them appear to be.
Other times you might pine for the freedom of the 2004 PC original and object to being funnelled down yet another contrived jungle corridors with banks too steep to climb. On a platform as old as the Xbox you don't mind, but on the 360 was it really the best idea to step back to the limitations of Instincts? Why couldn't we have had the PC version and Instincts in one tidy package? It's not as if the 360 would have even broken a sweat, and it would have been an excellent contrast of two great games taking very different approaches. As it stands, Instincts steadfastly stamps down on any route experimentation you might have wanted to engage in, and when you consider what might have been, that's a shame.
Evolution not revolution
But fortunately Ubisoft has at least beefed up the content in other areas and not simply gone down the route of simply releasing the same game in high def. The major addition of note is the all-new Evolution single-player campaign, a six-level long, six-hour episode which focuses on an entirely different set of island-based baddies that need taking down. The story, again, isn't an especially interesting or important part of the proceedings, but this time you're trying to help out a young lady called Kade, while also assisting Doyle along the way. Naturally you have to endure a fair dose of double-crossing before you get to squish the nefarious final boss, but the formula is much the same as Instincts.
The major difference in this 'bonus' episode (or 'extension' as Ubisoft likes to call it) is that you start the game with all the feral powers by default, meaning a lot of the early portion of Evolution involves plenty of merc-swatting as you plough your way through the massed enemies, and giving you a new flower to pick up to restore your feral adrenaline stocks. The opening level, too, even tries to give the impression of increased freedom by allowing you to tackle the three parts of the mission in whichever order you decide. In truth, all the game does is place each task on a different island, but it's progress of sorts. Beyond that, Evolution settles back into a more familiar linear routine, but does - on occasion - give the player the chance to carve a less linear path, with wider paths making it feel much more like the original Far Cry in general. It's certainly not as freeform as Ubi suggested it would be, but it's a step in the right direction at least.
Inevitably your powers expand too, with the new ability to climb up specific surfaces (like trees and rock faces) coming into play during the second half (especially the first - initially tedious - part of the gigantic final level). Not only that, but you also have to dodge enemies with roughly the same feral (jumping) abilities as you, allowing for some to leap tree to tree and attack from the air. These feral warriors also come equipped with blow darts which temporarily rob you of all your feral powers, but luckily you can do the same to them, leading to a quite comical game of cat and mouse with a blow pipe - or you could just carry on firing lead into their face, which is what we tended to resort to in the end. Oh, and let's not forget the pipe bombs, which you can lay down four at a time and lure enemies into their path or set up destructive chain reactions (notably on the opening level where you can destroy all four towers in the plantation field all at once). Sadly, though, they seem a pretty rare commodity, so your opportunities to use them are limited to say the least.
It's questionable, though, whether the enemy AI really has been improved in any way. We played Instincts and Evolution back to back (at normal 'Hunter' difficulty), and it was practically indistinguishable. In fact, during some sections (like the fifth level in the forest canopy) the enemies do all sort of odd things, like jumping dementedly to their doom (and not just now and then, either). If you didn't know better you'd simply swear that all the enemies are programmed to do is charge at you en masse or gather in silly little clusters if they can't reach you.
You know, we really want to buy into the claims that they adapt to the environment and all take up covering positions, but we can honestly say it didn't happen very often. In fact, some sections blatantly respawn enemies until you have the presence of mind to flee the scene. For example, one section in a shantytown has you trapped in a small hut building with the only escape route through the busted roof. If that doesn't occur to you, you can spend an infinite amount of time stationed inside while enemies jump through windows that you, yourself, cannot escape from. Daft. Admittedly this is a fairly peculiar instance that doesn't represent an otherwise solid combat experience, but it's by no means an isolated incident either.
As nice as it is to enjoy some generally high quality extra content alongside an already much-admired game, it doesn't make up for the fact that the visual quality is so far below what we've come to expect on the 360. To all intents and purposes, this is basically the Xbox version running in a higher resolution, complete with low-polygon character models and tired, flat-textured objects and buildings. If anything, the limitations of the visuals are shown up even more because of the sharper resolution, and what looked perfectly acceptable (and impressive) on a standard TV back in October can often look bland, flat and ugly on a big HDTV. It's not all bad, though, thanks to some decent water effects and a good foliage system which helps disguise many of the game's more unforgivable sins. The use of extra lighting and particle effects also helps improve matters, but you'll never quite be able to forget how bad the character models look - they really stand out like a sore thumb, and it's all compounded further by perfunctory physics and ragdoll techniques that look terribly dated nowadays.
Multiplayer wise, there's a brand new (old) mode called Seek and Secure, which plays like a standard domination match where one team has to occupy a specific area of the map for a few minutes to win the match. Like the other modes included it's nothing exactly revolutionary, but with 24 well-designed maps in total, and support for 16 players you can't complain. The rest, as you probably know, is of the standard deathmatch/capture the flag variety, and amounts to a nice extra bonus but not something that's going to drag too many 360 Live subscribers away from GRAW or Halo 2. Indeed, checking the servers several weeks after release suggests it's a bit on the quiet side. We're not hugely surprised by that. That said, with a decent amount of customisation options and the ability to upload your own multiplayer maps (designed with the incredibly slick and intuitive map editor) there's bags of potential.
The question of whether Far Cry Instincts Predator is worth buying is one that depends on whether you bought the Xbox original, how much of a fan of shooters you are and how cheap you can track this down for (because, as it stands, you can pick up last year's original version for just Ł9.99). Doubly annoying is the fact that you actually have to play through the entire Instincts campaign before you can even unlock the Evolution levels, so any existing fans might be better off buying the standalone Far Cry Instincts Evolution on Xbox and swallow the minor technical step down.
Although it might seem overpriced right now, there's little doubt is that the whole Far Cry Instincts Predator package is well worth renting and playing through if you're a shooter fan. It offers a refreshingly open-ended combat experience that feels distinctly different from most of the games crowding out the genre and is consistently varied and enjoyable enough to keep you going for 20 hours. Technically it's a bit of a let-down, but even that can't detract from the quality of the gameplay, which is what counts.