Over the last few months, Far Cry 2 has had its first snippets of information, screen shots and even a pretty solid-looking engine video released, but it seems not to have generated very much hype. Indeed, it took me a hefty amount of exposure in magazines, news sites and blog posts for me to even notice it at all. This is most likely the fault of Crysis. Big, shiny and explosive, it was developed by Crytek (the original Far Cry's development team), and seemed like a whole new beginning for the team after their departure from Ubisoft over to the industrial giant known as EA.
"Madden '08 paid for this magic robot suit, and dammit,
I'm going to use it!"
But as usually seems to happen, appearances were deceiving. Not many people actually bought Crysis, perhaps because it was PC-only, or perhaps because of its phenomenal system requirements. Those who did play it were entertained, but largely because they could throw trees into men's faces. Reviews and player feedback largely seemed to revolve around the fact that you were on the same damn pretty island fighting the same damn gung-ho mercenaries, only this time with a lego gun that you could make into other guns, and instead of boring genetic experiment monsters, you were fighting boring alien monsters after the game's halfway point.
Crysis came and went, and seemed to be technically impressive, but still not The Future. It was only after this point that I spotted a screenshot of Far Cry 2 in PC Gamer. It was an in-game shot of a man holding up both a compass and a map. Not a hyper-tech global-positioning map-PDA, no. A piece of raggedy yellow paper. The background was of an African desert, with some nice trees in it, some mountains in the distance and a shack somewhere in there. "Ooh," I thought. "That's cool." A map and a shack grabbed me much more than cybernetic muscles or a lego gun, just because they were different. Same old story - 'cool' beats 'technologically impressive' every time.
Further investigation led me to discover the aforementioned gameplay video from last year's E3, which contains both the map and some shacks:
Looks pretty standard for a shooter, right? Here's the house you can blow up, here's the flamethrower and - hey, hang on, you can set fire to the grass? Cool.
And it keeps dropping nice little touches like that on you. Foliage swaying and burning in the wake of explosions, and the fact that if you get shot, your hard-as-nails character has to yank the bullet out and heal himself or risk bleeding to death. These are what we really liked about Far Cry - an original setting (doing the same one again doesn't work), the spirit of the Indiana Jones adventurer, and the survivalist sensibilities of plotting assaults and lying prone in the long grass as your quarry meanders around aimlessly. Giant cyborg tree-flinging arms don't quite capture it.
But hey, that's a creative decision. I find this route more appealing, but that speaks more of my own personal tastes than of anything else. Also, yes, don't worry, I am getting to a point here.
But of course, the blog also covers a lot of graphical and technical points about the world within the game engine, and they really do impress. It links to this article which covers a lot of the elements that make the game so pretty, albeit in French, unfortunately for some. Despite the fact that the stuff demonstrated here and in the demo video above has been done before in other games, Ubi's team has combined them and put them in a setting where they can really shine. There are things like the super-fancy lighting engine, which seems somewhat like Satanic programming magic...
off the sand onto the bottom of the car, neat!
PLACE OUT OF COMPUTER MACHINES!
Watch that Far Cry 2 demo again. Pretty, yes, cool, yes, but what does it hint at for the game? Largely that you go to a place with stuff in it and shoot some people. I'm a big old adventure-game-loving fag (to use the parlance of our times), so you'd expect this from me, but it really does begin to grate after you see free-roaming environments like this
and know that all you'll be doing in them is shooting some guys and taking some stuff off them, probably! They've fully realised a believable environment and have the technology to fill it with people, friendly or otherwise, but the actual meat of the gameplay seems to change only slightly from generation to generation.
Okay, yes, this is a little unfair on Far Cry 2. For one thing, nobody really knows how it's going to play yet, and for another, there have already been hints at deeper character interaction and mission structures, in the style of the well-intentioned Boiling Point. Like I say, it's a talented dev team and I'm certainly interested by what they've produced so far, but at the moment they're one in what seems like a million.
Assassin's Creed did its best through eavesdropping, pickpocketing, swordfighting and free-running to produce a streamlined and compelling vision of the 12th Century Holy Land. But despite its achievements in environment and AI, this seems much more like a real place:
While games become prettier and prettier places to be, if there's no reason for a person to invest in them, it's all in vain. This is the philosophy that I hope games like Far Cry 2, Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto 4 will benefit from, and give us more reasons to return to our games.
'Beat' Nick does sometimes feel like he's repeating himself, yes.