LEIPZIG, Germany--Considering that Ubisoft acquired the rights to Crytek's Far Cry and subsequently pumped out a slew of middling console ports and quasi-sequels, we were inclined to write off the original island hop's first true sequel, Far Cry 2, as another quick cash-in. Boy, were we wrong. A core technology team at Ubi's acclaimed Montreal studio has been working on the game in secret for over two years now, and even though it's still weeks away from even entering alpha stage, the hands-off demo of this PC-only title that we saw today at Games Convention went so far beyond the design of the original Far Cry that we don't even know where to begin talking about it.
We'll start with the storyline, which doesn't seem to be connected to the first game at all. This time around, you'll choose one of around a dozen mercenaries and undertake a mission to assassinate an arms trafficker known only as the Jackal. This arrogant scumdog is supplying two African warlords with the weapons that are keeping their conflict raging--and tearing their beleaguered nation apart in the process. As the game opens, you'll awaken in your hotel room stricken with malaria, with the Jackal sitting across the room and saying words to the effect that you're so pathetically incapable, he won't even bother to shoot you. But he'll leave a pistol by your bedside before he leaves, just in case your sickness gets too bad. Your goal will be to use that gun--or any other destructive means you can employ--to take out the Jackal, and what you do between that opening scene and the eventual completion of your mission will be up to you.
Put simply, Far Cry 2 is the closest game we've seen yet to a true "open world," and that's not just because you can roam around the entire game without ever seeing a loading screen. The only plot and environmental elements that are set in stone--the story's "superstructure," as creative director Clint Hocking puts it--are those described in the previous paragraph. Everything else is mutable, based on your actions, allegiances, and chosen missions, and ultimately the cascading effects of all those choices you make. Both warlords have a command hierarchy of captains and lieutenants, and if you happen to kill one of those underlings, the guys below him will move up to fill the role. You can even take out one of those warlords, and his number-two guy will simply become the new warlord. But it will be up to you whether you take missions from or against those two factions, ally yourself with them, try to take them down, or play them both against the middle. The game will even populate its world with the other selectable characters you didn't choose, and they'll act as agents who are also working in Africa, whom you can befriend and count on in a tight spot. We'll give more info on that later.
The organic nature of Far Cry 2's world doesn't stop at its residents; practically everything we saw during the demo was dynamic and realistic, thanks to the new engine Ubi Montreal has built from the ground up for the game. The game simulates full weather patterns and air currents, so when you see clouds in the sky, they aren't there because an artist painted them on the skybox--they're there because the atmospheric conditions were right for clouds to form. The same goes for falling rain and howling wind, the latter of which will realistically blow tree branches, grass, smoke from fires, and dust from the ground in the same direction it's moving. Those trees can be broken apart, and that grass can be flattened by a passing jeep--and they can both catch fire from any incendiary source, by the way. Heck, we saw a grassy field catch fire from an exploded fuel canister, and the fire actually began to spread in a particular direction simply because the wind was blowing it that way. Hopefully this cyclical example gives an impression of the sorts of dynamic systems at work in Far Cry 2.
As for our demo itself, we saw a brief section of the game where the player had taken a mission requiring him to attack and destroy a fuel depot. This began in a dense, oppressive jungle like those from the original Far Cry, but Hocking commented that the demo began in this area only to show that there will be jungles like those of the first game. The player then moved out into the open to show us a vast, open savannah, the likes of which will apparently make up most of the game's world. That world will apparently be huge; the player raised a paper map (much like a treasure map) and a functional compass to his perspective, and we were told that map showed about one kilometer of terrain, and that this represents just under one percent of the gameworld's total size. Again, you'll be able to roam around that entire world while it streams from the hard drive, without ever seeing a loading screen.
When the player approached a mercenary camp and spied on it with the sniper rifle's scope, we saw a number of guards milling around. One was eating a meal in a hut, two were patrolling around the premises, and so on. Hocking commented that none of these actions are in any way prescripted. That guy won't always be eating in that hut--sometimes he'll be out on patrol, or he might be up in a guard tower, or any number of other actions. The bottom line is, if the game works as designed, you'll never find the exact same situation in the same place twice. In every mission, you'll have to hit the ground running and decide what to do on the fly.
The player engaged the mercs in a firefight after getting too close to their encampment, and jumped into one of their jeeps to make a quick getaway. But of course, the AI characters will know how to use all the equipment in the game too, and they piled into a truck (with a mounted machinegun in the back) to give chase. Again, Hocking said this behavior wasn't at all scripted; instead, the AI had identified the truck as the best means of pursuing and attacking the player, and their route wasn't at all set, either. The truck attempted to ram the player's jeep a couple of times and took some shots at it, but they were defeated when they happened to hit a bump the wrong way and flipped their vehicle. (Hocking seemed genuinely surprised this had happened.) Your vehicles in the game won't burst into cartoon-like explosions at the slightest provocation, but they can certainly be damaged, and will break down after too much abuse.
Next up, the player paid a visit to his pal Marty, a fellow mercenary who had established a small camp on top of a hill near the fuel depot we were seeking. We got the impression Marty may have been one of the other selectable players from the beginning of the game. In this case, he was simply a friendly merc who was only friendly, according to Hocking, because the player had saved his life in a previous mission, and that had flagged him as an ally. You could just as easily make an enemy out of Marty by making different choices, though, or you could shoot him dead right there on the spot. The game is really about giving you carte blanch to do whatever you want, whenever you want, and no plot point will depend on the life or death of a character as low on the totem as old Marty.
Anyway, the player moved on down to the fuel depot and got ready to jump into combat with the enemies there. There are around 30 weapons in the game, and the player in this case had a modern American assault rifle and an RPG-7 at his disposal. Weapons will each have reliability ratings, and while that assault rifle is extremely accurate at range, for example, it's not reliable in the harsh conditions presented in Africa. An AK-47, by comparison, isn't very precise, but it will take a huge beating and keep on firing. Hocking wanted to further demonstrate the realism of Far Cry 2's weapons by showing off the RPG-7, the rockets of which don't engage until the projectile has already launch a few feet. So in the demo, the player pointed the weapon at the ground, fired, and literally bounced the grenade off the ground before it ignited in midair and went flying off at a weird angle.
Notice how we keep getting sidetracked? There was more to talk about in our 25-minute demo than we've seen in some entire games. The player finally moved on to assault the fuel depot, where he engaged a in frenetic fight with a number of guards there. After he took a few bullets, we got to find out more about the game's health system. Like most shooters these days, you'll regenerate from light damage after a short time, rather than relying on a finite health meter. But take too much damage and you'll have to apply first aid to yourself based on the nature of your injury. There will be a single first-aid hotkey that will contextually activate the right interaction, such as beating flames off of your sleeve or slapping a bandage on a large cut. We thought it was a little over-the-top when the player managed to dig a slug out of his thigh with a knife during the thick of a firefight, but the team is obviously still early in the design phase, so this is all subject to change.
Finally, the firefight heated up to a point that the player simply couldn't handle all the crossfire at once. But just before he died, we were stoked to see a familiar face--Marty appeared next to us and started hosing down the enemies with machine-gun fire. Once that was done, he helped the player up and bodily escorted him to safety, also assisting with the first aid. Like everything else in Far Cry 2, this wasn't programmed to happen. Instead, the player had "activated" Marty by speaking to him moments before attacking the fuel depot, which had put him on alert that the player was active in the area. According to Hocking, Marty was then attracted to the sound of battle and saw that the player was in dire straits and needed help. Obviously, it's going to be highly beneficial for you to make powerful friends in this game.
So what kind of rig will you need to run this beast? The demo we saw was running on what was described as a high-end dual-core system with a GeForce 8800, which is admittedly a beefy PC, but also one that you can actually buy at retail right now. The final specs next spring, however, will be more modest; a fast single-core CPU and a high-end DirectX 9 card will purportedly do the job. The team is weighing the value of adding DirectX 10 features; it's likely those with DX10 support will enjoy a combination of improved performance and some slight visual upgrades. Far Cry 2 is definitely a beautiful game, what with the trees and grass individually swaying in the breeze, tons of particle effects accompanying the weather patterns, and shadows that even lay across that grass in a believable way. But it's not the graphics that has us most exited, but rather the internal stuff going on under the hood: weather, physics, and AI simulations. The demo was finally capped when the player jumped onto a hang glider after his rescue, soaring over the savannah and watching a herd of gazelles scatter below as he swooped low over them.
We try not to give ourselves over to hyperbole around here, so we'll just say that Clint Hocking is either a really skilled huckster, or he's working on a radically innovative first-person shooter that's going to set the PC world completely ablaze. For now, Ubi Montreal is focusing entirely on the PC version of the game, as Hocking says Ubi wants to reestablish itself as a premiere PC developer (though you can bet your sweet derrieres you'll see some version of this game on consoles eventually). We're trying to reserve unbridled excitement for the time being, until the game has gotten a lot closer to completion and we can vet the many ambitious mechanics for ourselves. But between the interesting gameplay Hocking told us about, and the extremely impressive demo we saw firsthand, we think Far Cry 2 is going to give other developers an awful lot to think about--and emulate--when it ships early next year.