Ubisoft showed off SoulCalibur 4, Brothers In Arms Hell's Highway, Tom Clancy's HAWX and Tom Clancy's EndWar at Ubidays in Paris last week. A line-up full of promising quality. But beating all of that was Far Cry 2, my Ubidays game of the show.
Why? Because it's about as next-gen a game as I've ever seen. It's open world, it's destructible, it's gorgeous, it's even got animal AI. In short, it's a gamer's paradise. And going by how overcrowded the Far Cry 2 booth was at Ubidays, I wasn't the only one excited about getting some hands on time with the hotly anticipated FPS.
Now that Far Cry has a new home following Ubisoft Montreal's capture of the Far Cry helm from Crysis developer Crytek, it's begun filling it with swanky new furniture. The lush jungle setting of the first game has been dumped in favour of a central African Savannah setting. I saw this first hand at Ubidays and when I did something the game's creative director Clint Hawking said at the big Ubidays presentation the day before sprang to mind: "The time for running through dark corridors is coming to an end," he said. "Players are starting to want more meaningful experiences."
If by meaningful he means just bloody beautiful, then he's nailed it on the head with this game. Far Cry 2 is one of the most impressive games I've seen due out this year. The environment is stunning, rekindling memories of those pictures smug friends put up on Facebook once they get back from safari. It's a desert but that doesn't mean the landscape is a boring dusty orange. There are pockets of lush vegetation everywhere. Wind blows dynamically, swaying trees in real time. Zebra casually chew on pockets of grass. There are gorgeous water effects at play in streams and rivers that cut through the lay of the land. Hills, canyons and cliffs show off stunning vistas and impressive draw distances. It's a 50km by 50km open world game and there won't be a loading screen in sight. Ubisoft Montreal's decision to take us to the centre of Africa looks like it's spectacularly paid off.
I'm impressed. But then I played Far Cry 2 on a PC that no doubt burnt half of the game's budget just to assemble. Fear not - it won't need a PC from the future to play it. At Ubidays game designer Patrick Redding told me that the team is aiming for more manageable system specs than Crytek's graphics card destroying FPS. And, perhaps inevitably, Far Cry 2 doesn't look like it's going to reach Crysis' visual heights. But it's not far off.
Jack Carver's bit the dust. Players will now pick one from 12 predetermined mercenaries as their "avatar", as Patrick put it. Your objective this time around is to hunt down and kill a mysterious arms dealer called The Jackal, who's reignited a Central African war by supplying both sides with weapons. But Far Cry 2 isn't just about you against The Jackal. With a reporter called Ruben as your guide, you'll find yourself playing the two warring factions off against each other, killing warlords and their endless stream of henchmen and interacting with the mercenaries you didn't choose as you slowly but surely hunt your nemesis down.
"The Jackal is really the reason why the player has to deal with all these people," Patrick says. "The player's hunting the Jackal because he's an arms dealer who's supplied both sides of this conflict with weapons. At the very beginning of the game you meet him. You're sick with malaria and he's there in your hotel room ransacking your stuff. He says 'I know you're here to kill me and you're not going to succeed, you're too feeble and weak to be able to do anything'. He's not saying it in a lording it over you way, it's more like 'listen buddy, one guy to another, maybe you should get on a plane and go home'. It's almost a patronising feeling. When he walks out the door he says 'listen, I've got to go restart a war. If you know what's good for you you'll stay out of my way'. It's almost a courtesy call."
And so the stage is set. And here's where the open world bit ties in. Far Cry 2 won't tell you how to track The Jackal down. It's up to you to work out how to do that by following clues, working with the factions, finding bits of information and using Ruben as best you can. "The player needs to make up his own mind as to exactly how he is going to deal with this guy."
One of the core features of Far Cry 2 is building up relationships with your fellow mercenaries. This is twinned to the game's Buddy system. By talking to the mercenaries, something we had the opportunity to do very early in our demo, you'll be able to build up your history rating with them, Far Cry 2's internal measure of how well you're getting on with the game's various NPCs. Get friendly enough and they'll become your buddy.
Who cares, you might ask? I'm a double hard mercenary, not some shoulder to cry on when my buddy's girlfriend leaves him for that trendy bloke from Shoreditch. Well this is why you'll care. When you die your buddy will come along, revive you, hand you a pistol and drag you to safety. They basically act as a fail safe. Problem is, if they then get killed that's it, they're gone from the rest of the game forever. No more buddy. Bet you want a shoulder to cry on now don't you?
Buddies won't keep bailing you out every time you bite the dust though. Get saved once and you'll have to go back to the base where you got chummy with them in the first place and reset it. During our play test our buddy proved a decent shot, but was somewhat kamikaze. It's a nice feature, but we're anxious to see if Ubisoft Montreal implements more interesting ways the Buddy system impacts on the game world, other than simply reviving you and dishing out quests. Here's hoping the dynamic of the story is genuinely affected by your varying relationships with the game's mercenaries.
If Far Cry 2 makes you think twice about computer controlled characters, it makes you think thrice about killing its bad guys. With the monocular, players can zoom in and scout camps, adding troops, vehicles and health stations automatically to the real time map with simple clicks of the mouse. It's intended to make the game more considered, with more emphasis on working out effective death dealing strategies rather than storming in like a nut case.
In our demo we scouted a camp for about 10 minutes, trying to add as much intel to our map as possible. In the end though, we simply strapped some explosives to a car, drove through the gates (taking a couple of unfortunate bad guys out along the way), jumped out, ran away and pressed the boom button. Cue pretty explosions and burning flesh. Lovely. This won't work every time of course. On harder difficulty levels scouting and a more stealthy approach will be a necessity. And that's cool with us.
Some things change, some things stay the same. "As a group we looked at the hang-glider and said 'you know I'm not sure how practical it is to have a hang glider in a war zone'," Patrick says. "But it's a signature element of the Far Cry brand and when you're in an open Savannah type environment it does offer us a good tool for showing the player what these environments are like and seeing a little bit of our draw distance, giving him a chance to look at wildlife and everything else."
More practical vehicles are cars, trucks and speed boats, all of which will help you get about the huge Far Cry 2 map. And expect some impressive weaponry, too, including the hut splintering grenade launcher and the devastating flame thrower, which I'm most interested in. You'll be able to set fire to enemy huts for example, and watch the direction of the wind send the flames through a camp, which we reckon sounds darn cool. More weird than cool is the dynamic weather system which subtly changes depending on how well you're doing. Head shot your way through 20 guys without suffering a scratch and the sun will shine in appreciation. Mess things up and you might end up causing a storm. It sounds like pretty cool tech, but we're not sure it makes much sense in a game that focuses so much on realism.
And if that's not enough to whet your FPS appetite, Far Cry 2 support up to16-player online multiplayer, with CoD4 style rewards and experience. Ubisoft Montreal isn't talking much about multiplayer right now, so expect some more juicy details in the near future.
Far Cry 2 is scheduled for release this autumn, which isn't that far away really. In fact, since it's a multi platform title, ie it's coming out on Xbox 360, PS3 as well as PC, it's going up against some pretty high profile shooters, including Resistance 2 and Gears of War 2, as well as the similarly open world PC-only FPS S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, and, ironically, the recently announced Crysis Warhead. From what I saw of the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of Far Cry 2, Sony and Microsoft's sterling exclusives are going to have a run for their money in the best looking console game ever!1! stakes. Having got my monocular out and spied on the future, I can see Ubisoft's game sneaking up on the blind side and making a very loud noise come Christmas time.
Far Cry 2 is scheduled for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC this Autumn.