When Ubisoft announced last year that it was going to port its hit PC first-person shooter Far Cry to the Xbox, the news generated a lot of skepticism. After all, Far Cry wasn't just one of the best PC shooters of 2004; it was also a technological marvel that pushed PC graphics to the limits. How could it possibly work on the Xbox? Well, it turns out that for starters, developer Ubisoft Montreal threw Far Cry out the window and created a new game from the ground up, one designed to take full advantage of the Xbox's hardware. That's all well and good, but what everyone didn't expect was that Ubisoft Montreal would create a game that's even better than Far Cry, and considering how good Far Cry was, that's saying quite a lot.
Far Cry Instincts is awesome in every sense of the word. This is a big game, with a lengthy single-player story, a full multiplayer suite, and a level editor thrown in for kicks. Graphically, it pushes the Xbox to its limits and delivers some jaw-dropping visuals as it immerses you in lush jungles with sweeping vistas. In fact, it's not often that the scenery plays center stage in an action game, but the jungle, as well as the fear of being alone in the jungle and not knowing if you're the predator or the prey, is essentially what makes Far Cry Instincts work. This is a game that requires you to be stealthy at times, while at others, you leap into action like a hero possessed.
You play as Jack Carver, a retired Navy commando who spends his days hauling rich tourists around the Pacific in his boat. While they explore a mysterious island, the boat is attacked by mercenaries and destroyed. In a twist borrowed from Half-Life, the entire game takes place from Jack's perspective, and since you play Jack in the first-person, you see and experience everything through his eyes. So you'll be hurtled overboard by the explosion, and you awaken onshore. From there, you begin the journey to rescue your sole passenger and get the heck off the island. Of course, that's always much easier said than done, and by the time you're through, you'll have experienced a plot that combines the terrifying moments of Doom, the creepiness of The Island of Dr. Moreau, and the tropical-island chills of Jurassic Park.
From the get-go, it's obvious why Far Cry Instincts isn't like other shooters. If you try and run-and-gun your way through the game, you'll quickly end up dead. Refreshingly, this is a game that rewards discretion rather than valor, especially since you're outnumbered and outgunned from the start. Not to worry, though, because the in-game tutorial will quickly get you up to speed on how to survive in the jungle as well as how to stalk your enemies. And to assist you, there are several cool new features in Far Cry Instincts that weren't in the original Far Cry, such as the ability now to set branch traps and lure enemies to walk into them. Though these branch whips are a bit ungainly in appearance, it's undeniably fun to rig a forest full of them and then have an enemy squad chase you into the woods. There is friendly fire, though, so be careful to not trigger your own trap.
Far Cry Instincts isn't just about skulking around in the jungle, though; combat plays an equal role in the game. Firefights can be a lot of fun in Far Cry Instincts, mainly due to their wild nature. You'll battle a host of tough foes, some human and some not, and even a small firefight can feel like a victory, especially if you can come through it relatively unscathed. While the human foes are fairly standard for the genre, there are some monsters in here that will make you jump out of your seat. The game also does an excellent job of making you dread what's next. You'll often "sense" new foes before you actually encounter them, as you'll see them scamper out the corner of your eye or hear them rustling in the bushes--or, even worse, encounter the devastation they left behind. You have at your disposal an arsenal that's fairly modern-day, in terms of weapons and equipment. There are M4 carbines, assault rifles with grenade launchers, shotguns, rocket launchers, and more. The game uses a weapon mechanic that's not unlike that seen in other Xbox shooters. While you can pick up weapons from fallen foes, you're limited to carrying only three weapon types at a time. Moreover, you can only carry one type of handgun, one main weapon, and one support weapon at a time, so that means you can't load up on machine guns. You can also dual-wield most weapons, which lets you double your rate of fire as well as your ammo consumption. It's a good system, and when you combine it with the melee attacks in the game, you'll find that combat can get pretty hectic. Thankfully, there are plenty of health packs and armor kits strewn throughout the game.
The most interesting weapon at your disposal, however, is yourself. Without spoiling too much (it is, after all, listed on the back of the box), you gain what are called primal abilities, which are essentially animal traits that give you a major advantage in combat. These include superhuman strength, enhanced senses and speed, and more. These abilities can oftentimes turn the battle, because the ability to literally "see" the scent trails left by your opponents or to shred your foes with your claws is a potent one. You are limited in its use, however, because the primal abilities are fueled by adrenaline; but you can restore this by finding the proper power-up or by stalking an opponent as you get "psyched up" for the impending kill.
One of the most awe-inspiring features of Far Cry is the sheer size of the levels. As in Halo, you only encounter loading screens when you start a new level. After that, the rest of the level streams seamlessly. And these are big levels, far bigger than any we can recall from previous games. In fact, some levels admittedly are perhaps a tad too big for their own good--you can feel them start to drag at times. However, we're still duly impressed by their size as well as the variety of environments that you encounter. Starting from a gorgeous, sun-kissed beach, you move into the jungle, where the jungle floor can feel like night, thanks to the thick foliage overhead. You'll delve into huge underground caverns, battle through mysterious facilities, race down rivers, and more.
To help you get around, you can climb in and control a number of vehicles in Far Cry Instincts, including jet skis, Humvees, hang gliders, hovercraft, and all-terrain vehicles. Vehicles aren't really a strong point of Far Cry Instincts, though, as the controls and vehicle physics are a bit touchy in general. The slightest bump can flip a vehicle over, or the wrong twitch can send you slamming into the trees. It doesn't help that you drive from the first-person perspective; while it's cool that in most cases you have one hand on the wheel and another wielding a gun, drive-by action is a bit touchy, since it's so easy to miss or overshoot the target. So, for the most part, vehicles only help you traverse long distances faster.
One thing that you'll also notice is how the pace and the game itself evolve the further you get into it--which is fitting, as this is essentially a game that involves evolution. At the beginning, you'll spend far more time sneaking around than fighting, but after you've got your arsenal and a feel for the weapons, you'll transition into a Rambo-like figure. However, just when it starts to feel like the game is getting a bit too easy, it shifts gears again and introduces a new threat, and you'll encounter a host of brutal opponents.
Like Far Cry on the PC, Far Cry Instincts on the Xbox uses a checkpoint save system. And the checkpoint system is fairly good most of the time. The problem is that the rest of the time, it can be extremely frustrating. There are a number of long sequences in the game in which you find yourself desperately wishing for a save. However, you don't get one, so you're forced to redo those sequences over and over again until you figure out what you're doing wrong. For example, in one stretch, you have to run a brutal river gauntlet on a jet ski while dodging mines on the river and being fired upon by rocket infantry on both riverbanks. In another, you must escort a character through a level, and instead of waiting for you to clear the route, the character constantly keeps moving forward, forcing you to keep pace. At that point, the game is less about skill and more about a frustrating amount of trial and error as you memorize where the enemies will spawn.
With that said, the single-player portion of Far Cry Instincts is still an amazing experience; the game successfully blends countless nail-biting firefights, cool moments, and plenty of tense gameplay. Meanwhile, the production values are absolutely first rate. While the graphics admittedly aren't as sharp as in the PC version, they're still cutting edge for a console. The game's audio is also as good, and the music (a blend of both primal and techno) has a way of kicking in at appropriate moments to ratchet up the tension. The sound effects are just as impressive, especially since you spend a lot of time relying on sound to detect where enemies are in the thick jungle. About our only complaint is that the mixing sounds a bit off, so you can lose track of the dialogue at times, especially when the sounds of gunfire erupt. (Strangely, this was also a problem in the PC version.)
It wouldn't be too hard for Far Cry Instincts's multiplayer to improve on the PC version, as multiplayer was one of the weak spots of the original Far Cry. Thankfully, Far Cry Instincts features a far better multiplayer suite than Far Cry for the PC. For starters, there are the standard deathmatch and team deathmatch modes (titled chaos and team chaos), and you can go at each other with all the weapons and vehicles from the single-player game. You can even set traps, like you do in single-player. There's also a traditional capture-the-flag mode (dubbed steal the sample). The most interesting mode, though, is predator, which pits one player against the rest. That one player, the predator, gets all the feral abilities from the single-player games. This can result in some crazy moments, when the predator literally swoops into the fray.
Far Cry Instincts is also the latest console shooter to come with a built-in level editor, which allows you to create your own multiplayer levels from scratch. While admittedly fairly powerful, you'll need quite a bit of patience in order to create a decent level, because you're limited to using the gamepad to input your commands. Just learning the various menus in the editor and figuring out which button does what can be a dizzying task. Still, multiplayer fans can be a dedicated bunch, so it'll be interesting to see what the community can come up with.
With the Xbox about to be succeeded by the Xbox 360, Far Cry Instincts proves that there's life still left in the system. This was a game that many felt couldn't work on the Xbox due to technical limitations. Yet somehow, Ubisoft Montreal has proved us wrong. Far Cry Instincts is a game that pushes the Xbox to its limits, but it also delivers stunning graphics and excellent gameplay. Quite simply, this is a game that you have to play if you're a first-person shooter fan and you own an Xbox.