With Microsoft's new console due in a few months and their focus firmly shifted to their new hope, many people assumed that the Xbox had seen its best days. Ubisoft appear to have had other ideas, with the release of Far Cry Instincts. The PC original struck fame thanks to its impressive visuals, open environments and smart AI, and this totally original Xbox game is just as impressive in its own right.
If you weren't reading the opening paragraph closely enough, Far Cry Instincts is a brand new game, designed from scratch for the Xbox. While Jack Carver, the original game's main character, returns, and the tropical island setting remains, the story doesn't have any relation to the original game. Instincts' most obvious difference comes from 'Feral' abilities. After an opening couple of hours that play like a traditional - rather explosive - FPS, all hell breaks loose.
After being drugged, captured and experimented on by the island's evildoers, Jack is placed in a steel crate and left wondering what has gone on. Feeling a little strange he smashes through the steel door with his bare hands, and then continues on his one-man mission to get off the island alive. Over the next few hours you'll learn about numerous enhanced abilities that give Jack an advantage over his enemies. These range from increased strength, to special vision that allows him to locate enemies even when they are out of sight.
Combat is incredibly satisfying, with weapons packing a real punch, and they are made even more deadly when dual wielded (the L and R triggers firing different weapons). Every weapon has its use, and enemies react just as you'd want them to - one shot in the head and they go down, while a short burst of fire to the chest will do the same. Some, not so human, enemies take more sustained fire-power, but they still don't feel artificially resistant to gun-fire. Thanks to your new abilities you can also get in close and use your fists. One punch to the chest of an enemy will send him flying and various objects in the environment can be used as weapons - even gun turrets can be ripped out of the floor and used like a normal gun.
And there's even more to the combat. You've got the usual assortment of grenades, un-manned gun turrets, vehicles and their mounted weapons, and even traps; Jack can set up tree branches that violently whip enemies if they get too near. To make this more likely to happen you can throw rocks near the trap, making the enemy search the area and then trigger the trap. It will result in instant death and comes in handy when you want to preserve some ammo - not that this is usually an issue.
Vehicles are used a fair bit, and these sections are usually pretty action-packed and fast paced. Humvees, ATVs, Jet skis and more are used during the game, and once you start screaming down a dirt track or a seemingly tranquil river, you can almost guarantee an onslaught of enemy attack. While enemies will shoot at you, many vehicle sections are semi-scripted, with helicopters firing just wide, causing no damage, but plenty of lovely dramatic explosions. It's all great fun, even if the vehicle control (with throttle, break and steering all on one analogue stick) can be a little tricky at times.
Enemies play a big part in the enjoyment of the game, with their teamwork and general intelligence making for some intense battles. If you're spotted they'll often call out for support and if hurt they'll retreat to try and get to a better position. You could argue that the way they don't ruthlessly hunt you down once spotted, instead going back to their patrol after a while, is a tad unrealistic, but it makes the game less punishing and more enjoyable. Stealth kills also seem rather set-up in some cases, with enemies fixed in one direction, almost oblivious to what is behind them.
Put simply, Far Cry Instincts' visuals are astonishing; there is no game on the Xbox that holds a candle to its beauty. The jungle environments are stunning, with the tropical sun casting shadows realistically through the canapè and onto the sandy surface below, and the whole game is hugely detailed, with an assortment of huts, warehouses, bunkers, bridges and waterfalls, plus plenty of normal mapped enemies. A special mention must also go to the explosions as they look phenomenal. Blowing up a hut that housed a number of enemies and the resulting movie-like explosion is something that never gets tiresome - after a while you'll be blowing up barrels for the effect alone. Games like Halo 2 and Riddick look great, but Far Cry has set a benchmark that is unlikely to be beaten. Sure, next-gen consoles will be able to render even more realistic and convincing jungle settings, but for now, this deadly tropical island paradise will do just fine.
Cutscenes are used sparingly, but they're done well, with solid voice work and impressive in-engine visuals. The in-game audio accompanies the action well, with the music changing to match the current situation, and the weapons all sound deadly in their own right. There really are very few negative things I can say about the game's presentation - there's some texture pop-in as low resolution textures are replaced with more detailed ones, and the odd framerate problem, but they are minor issues. Instincts is a landmark title on the Xbox and a fitting last hurrah before its younger brother takes over.
The single-player campaign isn't a cinematic masterpiece and it doesn't tell a wonderful story, but it doesn't need to. From start to finish it's terrific fun, and well worth taking a look at. The fact that there's some brilliant multiplayer support just ads to the game's appeal. Split-screen is fun, but system link and Xbox Live play is where the most entertainment can be found. There's the usual deathmatch and team deathmatch with support for 16 players, but the 'Predator' mode is the real star of the show.
A team of soldiers must make their way across the island while a predator tries to take them out. This predator has all the abilities that the 'feral' Jack has in the main campaign, and despite being hugely outnumbered, the battles are immense fun. There's a fear brought about when attacked by a predator that is unlike any other I've experienced on Xbox Live. The screams from your online team-mates as a fast moving, hugely powerful killer rips through the middle of your formation are testament to the success of this hugely original game type.
Predator mode alone would have made the Xbox live experience a worthwhile one, but Ubisoft has even included a map maker. Making good maps does take some time, and I can't say I've managed to make anything all that great, but with patience and some talent, some good stuff could be made. Even if you have no skill (like me) you can download maps from other users, possibly giving life to the online mode far beyond that of the typical console FPS. As with most games on Xbox Live these days, users online are nowhere near the numbers playing Halo 2, but there's enough quality here to ensure a few dedicated players stick around for a while.
Ubisoft has pushed the Xbox to its limit with Far Cry Instincts' game engine, and combined that with some thrilling fire-fights and awesome set-pieces. The 'Feral' abilities make the experience unlike any other on the Xbox and some of the online game types are immense fun. Far Cry Instincts deserves to be remembered as one of the very best first-person shooters on the Xbox.