When Far Cry was released on the PC last year it received praise from the critics, but was unfortunately released just before the tsunami of hype generated by Doom 3 and Half Life 2. The title's excellent AI and huge open-ended environments made for an experience that was consistently solid and occasionally bordered on fantastic. When Ubisoft announced that the tropical shooter would be coming to Xbox it only made sense that we were slightly skeptical. How could a game that recently pushed the hardware capabilities of the most powerful gaming rigs run smoothly on Xbox? The answer lies in that instead of attempting a direct port, Ubisoft took Far Cry's mojo and pumped it into an entirely new experience.
Far Cry Instincts has the same art style and feel as the PC game but it adds new environments, original multiplayer modes, a map editor, and a twisted storyline that introduces the awesome feral powers. If you read game reviews only as a buyers guide then my advice is to pick up Far Cry Instincts this instant. The title easily outdoes its peers as one of the best shooters on Xbox and more importantly it brings some original features to the table.
The game still stars Jack Carver, a tough as nails mercenary who mistakenly crosses paths with a government agent and a mad scientist bent on populating the earth with his brand of deformed circus freaks. The game opens as Jack escorts a mysterious journalist to the Jacutan archipelago. She borrows his jet ski for a joy ride and shortly after her disappearance Jack is hosed down by a set of choppers with mounted machine guns. From this point on, it's kill or be killed with the usual assortment of pistols, machine guns, and grenades. The usual FPS feature set is supported with dual wielding, a standard zoom, and a butterfly knife for dicey melee attacks. While this is potentially a generic shooting experience it's supported by a stealth option and the ability to set traps. Later, the game's combat evolves drastically, but we'll stick to the basics for now.
There is no visible stealth meter, but by staying crouched or prone under the cover of foliage players can easily avoid being seen or heard by mercenaries. This loosely defined system works so well because Ubisoft Montreal has managed to put an insane amount of plant life on screen. Trees, grass, and brush are abundant and offer a hiding place at the edge of every clearing. Players are given color coded radar that shows the location of enemies in the area and their alert level.
By sneaking up behind enemies Jack can perform a backstab that quietly puts them down. Alternately, Jack is able to set branch whips that send enemies flying over the horizon. Players have the ability to set an unlimited number of whips. Then, by tossing rocks from the safety of some underbrush players can lead mercs right into their trap. Later players obtain claymore mines which are even more affective and can be used indoors unlike the branches that can only be attached to sturdy trees. Setting traps can be empowering but is hardly necessary past the early stages of the game when Jack is severely outgunned. The feature does add a bit of replay value in the sense that players can treat the game more like Splinter Cell than Max Payne.
One excellent aspect of the Far Cry on the PC was the ability to traverse the island chain by any available means. This freedom of movement has only partially translated to the console version. Environments are still expansive, but players are still forced along a linear path. This is no fault of the developers; it's just not possible to load up an entire island on this generation's hardware. So instead of having infinite lines of approach, there are given a variety of ways to attack each situation. Players are given numerous vehicles and tactical options including the much talked about feral powers that turn Jack into an entirely different beast. Deciding between skulking through the grass and hopping into an ATV for a full frontal assault will significantly change the gameplay experience, so this more than makes up for the loss of environmental freedom.
A second staple of the original Far Cry was the sometimes oppressive difficulty. The mercenaries were intelligent and didn't pull any punches when going for the kill. Instincts maintains a good chunk of the challenge but in a different manner. While the enemies are not as intelligent, they always travel in groups and show signs of teamwork when trying to put Jack in the ground. There are also some unavoidable one-hit kills and hidden snipers that can only be trumped the second time through a level. Be aware that all but the hardcore gamers will experience some instances of repetitive dying, especially towards the end of the game.
The targeting reticule is large and auto-aiming is noticeable when activated. Pulling off a head shot entails aiming somewhere in the vicinity of a target's upper body. The setup perfectly suits Far Cry's style of gameplay and the Xbox controls. Instincts is about tearing through the forest while mowing down everything that moves. This game is all about the adrenaline rush and it delivers every time.
Let's Get Feral
In case you haven't seen the cover art for Far Cry, Jack Carver is eventually imbued with powers that tap into his animal instincts. This begins with a melee attack that has very similar mechanics to the sword lunge in Halo 2. When Jack gets close enough to a character the aiming reticule a claw icon is added to the aiming reticule and players can dash towards their enemy and send them careening through the air. This attack is easily the most satisfying aspect of the game. There's nothing quite like hearing the terrified howl of a mercenary as he hits a tree trunk 20 feet up.
Jack also obtains super speed, night vision, and the ability to see an enemy's scent trail. Besides the melee slash (which replaces Jack's normal melee) all of these powers are handled through the use of a single button. Players can tap Y to activate super speed or hold it down to go into feral vision and smell mode. These powers can be separately or in conjunction to make Jack an unstoppable predator. The beauty of these powers is that in the latter half of the game they are absolutely necessary for survival. What starts as a tropical paradise degenerates into dark swamps, dense forests, ancient ruins, and defunct medical facilities. Launching Jack over huge chasms and taking down platoons with his bare hands is exhilarating. It's also what puts Far Cry near the top of the crowded shooter genre on Xbox.
Thunder in Paradise
I've already mentioned the howls let loose by the mercenaries when Jack sends them for a loop, but everything about the sound in Far Cry is top notch. Besides the excellent weapon effects the enemies engage in some humorous conversations and radios broadcast informative tidbits. Jack Carver is voiced by Stephen Dorff of Blade fame. While he doesn't have a huge number of lines, Dorff adds some campy flavor to an already over the top presentation.
The graphics in Far Cry are impressive considering the hardware. If you've already played the PC game, Instincts isn't jaw dropping but it's still a shoe-in for one of the best looking games on Xbox. The lighting and foliage work together to create an excellent atmosphere that can be both beautiful and menacing. From the first scene there is noticeable pop-in when viewing large environments but the game doesn't suffer from noticeable slowdown even when the action really takes off. Besides the environments the characters are meaty and realistic. The physics are a bit exaggerated, but make nailing an enemy with an explosive or branch trap very satisfying.
The story mode can easily be mastered in the course of a weekend, but an even better and long-lasting experience can be found in the game's multiplayer modes. There's basic deathmatch and team deathmatch modes, called Chaos and Team Chaos, as well as Steal the Sample (basically capture the flag) and the standout Predator mode. Players can access drivable vehicles, mounted machine guns, the game's full arsenal and feral power ups. Just about every aspect of the multiplayer like time limits, kill counts, etc., can be modified, the maps are huge and varied, there's basically nothing wrong here. You can customize your character's appearance and view all your stats from the game's on Xbox Live, it's just really a great experience. Add to all that the unique Predator mode, and this could be a console multiplayer shooter you'll be playing for a long time to come, and even more of a reason to purchase this game than the single player.
Also included is a map creator that may be the best multiplayer environment editor on consoles today. You can read a whole lot more of our detailed impressions here. Players have access to three different environments and three different accessory sets. From here the options spread out to include vehicles, fog, spawn points, cliffs, bushes, trees and countless ways to vary the terrain. Players can re-render the map with shadows at any point and players can drop into their own maps for a sightseeing tour instantly without loading. These maps can then be used in split screen games or uploaded to Live for multiplayer matches.
Far Cry Instincts is a must-play for anyone with a remote interest in shooters. The new feral abilities and completely redesigned single player experience mean that even gamers who played the heck out of the PC version will find value in this title. Graphically, the developers have clearly pushed the Xbox to its limit. Whatever quirks this game exhibits (fairly long load times and sporadic pop-in) are a product of trying to do too much on aging hardware. The map editor, multiplayer, and feral melee attack are reason enough to give this game a try, so stop reading and join the hunt.