Reviewed: April 22, 2004
Released: March 23, 2004
There are very few “defining moments” in gaming history but this year we are privileged to witness the latest. Far Cry is a landmark achievement in FPS game design, enhancing a genre that most had dismissed as thoroughly explored. Born from the creative minds of German design studio, Crytek, if Far Cry looks familiar you may have seen an earlier tech demo called X-Isle that was floating around back in 1999 that only hinted at the game we see five years later.
Far Cry is all about scale. It’s a huge game that takes place in huge environments, and unlike any game that has come before it you have unprecedented freedom to explore the rich world the designers have created. With the exception of a few border patrol choppers, Crytek’s motto, “if you can see it – you can go there” is fully realized, and the world of Far Cry is truly vast. You can effectively finish the game and only see about 60% of the environments. And while that other 40% might only offer a hidden trail, a shelled-out tank, a crashed Japanese Zero, or some other hidden prize, this extra scope allows for multiple tactics and the freedom to plan elaborate strategies.
Such scale comes at a substantial price. Unless your computer is new or recently upgraded you will likely be adding something to your PC to play this game, either memory, a faster CPU, or even a new video card. Pay heed to those system requirements and recommendations. While Far Cry is fully scaleable and will run on modest systems, the hardware to play this game at maximum resolution and full detail has yet to be invented, although the new GeForce 6 is rumored to come pretty darn close.
You play as Jack Carver, a stereotypical buff ex-military guy who is now a freelance mariner giving him an excuse to wear a red Hawaiian shirt. His most recent assignment is to take the voluptuous female reporter, Valerie to a remote chain of islands. Upon their arrival an RPG takes out Jack’s boat, Valerie escapes on a Jet Ski, and all hell breaks loose. It’s all told in a dizzying MTV-montage of blurred images that strobe the screen complete with tense action music.
Gameplay doesn’t really evolve from the traditional FPS formula, but what does present one of the games’ biggest challenges is the advanced reactionary AI. Enemies in Far Cry are not scripted to respond in any particular fashion, which can lead to some unpredictable encounters. There were times when I could have sworn I was playing against real people. You can tailor the difficulty by choosing from four skill modes and there is even an auto-balancing feature that dynamically adjusts the enemy AI based on how well you are doing.
Enemy AI is based on visual awareness, which can be a tricky issue. Your ability to stay concealed is not entirely based on the amount of graphical scenery you might be using for cover. So while you “think” you are hidden, the enemy might have a clear line of sight on your position. This is where the visibility indicator comes in handy. This meter gives you instant feedback on just how visible you are regardless of any grass or bushes.
Once an enemy spots (or hears) you they go into an alert mode. They will casually investigate and if they confirm your location they will summon reinforcements, take cover, and even execute advanced tactics like flanking your position. I’ve seen the AI do some pretty remarkable stuff like having one guy pin me down with sniper fire while others sneak around behind me. On one occasion I was shooting at two guys in a boat. One guy jumped out and waded ashore then started circling around to my location while the guy in the boat tried to distract me with machinegun fire.
Later in the game when you start meeting up with the mutants you get to exploit some interesting AI dynamics by getting the mercs to fight the mutants, allowing you to slip by unnoticed or at least trim down their numbers. Some of these clashes are really fun to just sit back and watch unfold, and thanks to the variable AI they never unfold the same way twice.
Far Cry is a lengthy game, comprised of several chapters or missions. The game uses an auto-save system that works surprisingly well. I’m sure there will be certain people complaining they can’t quicksave every 30 seconds but personally, I found the checkpoint system more than adequate. The game saved in intelligent places, normally before a significant encounter, so if I did die I was able to easily try again, hopefully with a better tactic. Even more impressive is that all of these checkpoints are logged so even now, after finishing the game I can go back to any mission and restart from one of several checkpoints.
The gameplay seems to be evenly balanced between lengthy portions of stealth and exploration broken up with massive set-piece battles or action elements. One scene has you hang gliding from a cliff just as a chopper flies in from the horizon and a gunboat skims in below. Later, there is a very exciting action scene where you are racing down a river blasting gunboats and enemy soldiers along the shoreline and another where Valerie drives a jeep while you man the turret.
Speaking of vehicles, the boat is just one of several craft you get to pilot in Far Cry. You have the unarmed inflatable raft and then the more powerful speedboats with machines guns and secondary fire rocket launchers. You also have buggies and the more durable Hummer, both with machine guns and rocket launchers. You can drive from the first or third person view with a tap of the F1 key, and while driving with the WADS cluster isn’t the most intuitive system, you really need that mouse for turret control so you can drive in one direction and fire in another.
There is an excellent selection of weapons and while you can still carry far more weapons than humanly possible, the game does limit your overall carrying capacity and forces you to make some hard decision later in the game. If you want that sexy sniper rifle you might have to lose the rocket launcher or shotgun. Ammo, body armor, and health kits are found in ample amounts, at least on the normal skill setting. There is usually a cache of items before every major encounter and if you are diligent in picking up the leftovers from the fallen enemy you shouldn’t have a problem.
Far Cry uses the increasingly popular “aim-down-the barrel” view mode. This allows you to zoom in slightly and give you much more precise control over your targeting. It doesn’t allow for fast movements and it does slow you down when walking around. Another nifty trick is the Hold Breath function that steadies your aim when sniping and zooms in just a bit more. Breathing is also a factor for swimming underwater and for Sprinting. Sprinting is faster than a normal run but you can only sprint until you run out of air and you cannot fire a weapon while sprinting.
Kudos to the designers for implementing a dedicated grenade key in this game. This allows you to toss a pineapple without having to cycle through weapons which is crucial in the timing of throwing a flashbang and mowing down the blinded soldiers with your M4. Just make sure to look away or you might get blinded yourself. My only critique with the grenade system is that there is no power meter, so you really can’t judge the distance of your throws.
Missions are laid out with a series of objectives and more are added as you check them off. Your radar is continually updated with new waypoints so you always know the general direction you need to go, but the massive level design allows you to plot your own path to the target. A classic example is in one level where you must destroy a giant satellite dish. You start in a boat and you can choose to land at the nearby beach and make your way through a dangerous sequence of merc encounters or you can head to either side of the peninsula. One side has a winding path leading up to a jungle where you can take over a gun turret and mow down the helpless mercs below. Shortly after that you have two paths leading to the top of the mountain. You can take the trail or go inside a dark tunnel complex and take the elevator. Both paths have their own set of guards and unique challenges.
Simply stated, Far Cry is the best looking game ever made for the PC to date assuming you have the gear to run it. At maximum detail you have a draw distance of nearly a kilometer and are able to see trees, shrubs, rocks, tall grass, and with a high-tech set of binoculars, enemy mercs or mutant, sometimes both. If you crank up the level of detail the world becomes densely populated with an overabundance of foliage, insects, and other subtle details.
The inverse is also true and anything less than maximum environmental detail will present some minor “popping” of grass and the occasional shrub. There is no abnormal fogging, but somehow most distant objects will gradually fade into view and it all looks perfectly normal. Objects scale remarkably well. That boat might only be six pixels on the horizon but if you view it through a scope or as it slowly approaches it becomes much more complex and detailed.
Since the entire game takes place on a string of islands there is an abundance of water and I guarantee you have never seen water that looks this good. Real-time reflections are mirrored and distorted on a surface that ripples realistically with the wind and a gentle white surf washes up on the beach. Naturally, water is one of the big CPU hogs and the first place you should go if you need to enhance your framerate.
One of the best visual features is the real-time dynamic lighting that uses environmental fixtures as realistic light sources casting shadows in real-time. This presents a gaming first where you can shoot a light fixture and as it wobbles or swings the light rays and shadows start to dance on the ceiling and walls. In the heat of battle this effect can get really intense.
While most of Far Cry is played outdoors there are more than a few indoor levels that range from high-tech laboratories to military camps, and even an abandoned aircraft carrier. The textures used for these levels are as close to photo-realistic as it gets. You can actually see rusted metal pipes, wooden crates, textured metal plating, rough cement walls, and polished metal surfaces.
Characters are highly detailed with stunning textures. You can actually see the fabric in Jack’s shirts or the wrinkles in Valerie’s shorts. The enemy mercs all sport realistic gear, ammo bandoliers, and accurately modeled weapons. Even the various crafts like the boats, choppers, jeeps, and even the forklift are all quite convincing.
Environmental effects are totally realistic. There is a sinister fog in the tree house level and heat vapors that rise from the lava pits distorts your vision. CryVision is a unique hybrid of thermal and night vision that allows you to not only see in the dark, but also reveals a certain type of cloaked enemy.
There is an interesting mix of game-engine movies and pre-rendered CG movies. They all look fantastic but surprisingly enough, with such a high-quality engine the game movies actually look a bit better than the CG ones. Even so, the movies are a nice reward between chapters.
Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Far Cry is that every scene in the game is worthy of a screenshot and most of the exterior images could easily be mistaken for actual postcards. The skies are breathtaking, and combined with realistic naturally formed islands, stunning water, and rich detailed foliage, it doesn’t get any more real than this without plane tickets to some tropical paradise.
The soundtrack to Far Cry doesn’t really stand out as being totally epic but there is great use of dynamic music cues. These can be used to your unfair advantage to “know” in advance when the enemy has been alerted to your presence. If you are creeping through the tall grass and the jungle drums start beating you know somebody has spotted you even before the radar blip turns yellow or red.
Voice acting is nicely done. Jack is your typical wisecracking commando forced into a situation he doesn’t want to be in. Once he is teamed up with Valerie there is some witty repartee as the two work side-by-side through a few levels. Your binoculars have a handy audio sensor that allows you to eavesdrop on conversations from unrealistic distances, even as far as from another island. Some of these conversations are quite funny, often dealing with situations specific to the game and some even mentioning “that guy in the red shirt”.
Environmental effects really bring the world of Far Cry to life. You can hear the grass bend back as you crawl toward your objective, you can hear insects buzzing around, you can hear waterfalls crashing over cliffs, or the alarming sound of an incoming chopper. Weapons’ fire is totally realistic, obviously sampled from their real-life counterparts and there is nothing as frightening as the growls of those mutants.
All of this wonderful sound is presented in a crisp Dolby Digital mix for those with the hardware to experience it. EAX is also fully supported, and if you have a 7.1 surround system you are in for a totally immersive experience.
My first pass through Far Cry on the normal difficulty mode took me just over 30 hours. While there were a few encounters that took multiple retries the game really is that long, and there were even a few “false endings” where I expected the credits to role and was presented with yet another chapter. The lack of a quicksave probably extends the game a little by forcing you to replay some sections, but with the open-ended levels and reactionary AI, each time you play is significantly different so you really shouldn’t mind.
You can’t have an FPS game these days without including some type of multiplayer content. While most gamers will be struggling to get this game to look and perform well in the solo campaign, those with highly advanced systems can head online for traditional CTF, deathmatch, and team deathmatch modes. One thing I noticed is that once the CPU no longer has to control 10-20 mercs the game actually plays a bit faster in the multiplayer games.
The multiplayer modes of Far Cry are reasonably fun but I’d venture to guess that most gamers looking for an online experience are going to be sticking with the more “organized” games like UT2004 and Call of Duty. What will give Far Cry some extended life, both on and offline is the Sandbox editor that allows just about anyone with the time and desire to create game mods just as good as the original game. A Jurassic Park mod can’t be far off.
This is going to be a huge year for FPS games. We already have UT2004 and Painkiller and with Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 poised for attack not to mentioned countless other games based on those new engines, FPS lovers are going to be in heaven.
For now, Far Cry is a surprising delicacy, a taste of things to come. The Far Cry engine is simply stunning with enough forward thinking technology to keep it viable in the game industry for years to come. They haven’t even tapped the AMD 64-bit or Pixel Shader 3.0 parts of the code yet, and once the mod community gets up to speed with the Sandbox editor I can only imagine the mods that will be headed our way.
If you have the system to handle it, Far Cry is a landmark achievement in groundbreaking technology that will not only allow you to show off your expensive new hardware, but let you have one helluva time doing so. It’s a definite must-have title for any fan of the FPS genre, or anyone looking for a tropical vacation on an island complete with mad scientist, highly trained mercs, and hostile mutants. Enjoy.