Far Cry 2
Open Worlds Arent the next step in the evolution of the first-person shooter genre. At they should know really, having i piecing together one of the things Jod knows how long now. To them lorses for courses, and Far Cry 2 is sort of horse who prefers a 12,500 chunk of Africa to a course.
That's 50km2 of open world, passing ntly from the sweltering humid day to broad leaves of the jungle. A chance irk could set vast swathes of the dry dscape alight as flames spread and ir the countryside, blown by dynamic tual winds. This is part of a weather item that sees clouds grow and gusts ir through the game's valleys where ttle trees snap with the strain, their nches tumbling into the distance, swept up by the forces of nature.
This certainly sounds like the future Ito us though - a huge natural arena opulated by Al that seemingly doesn't exist for your benefit There's a sense of significance when playing Far Cry 2, a ense that things aren't being tailored to our whims and that you've simply fallen ito this already perfectly functioning rorld. Just what are those Al zebra up when you're not there?
In fact, it's what Al routines get up to when they don't know you're watching" that makes Far Cry 2 such an intriguing open-world adventure. Across 50km2 of African desert, jungle and savannah, over 60 key locations will play host to some of the most well-developed Al grunts in gaming. They'll work together, bark orders, save wounded friends and panic when fired at - they'll also sleep, socialise and patrol while you're not around.
This isn't the first time we've been promised virtual enemies that have a nifty ability to out-think us, so noticing the look of incredulity on my face Ubisoft allow me to pick the brains of their Al creations myself.
And so it happens that I find myself standing on the grassy African plains, a light breeze sending shimmering flaxy ripples across the land. I bring up my map, in the literal sense, holding a paper map in my left hand and a compass in my right, and scope out my objective: to destroy a radio tower a kilometre to the northwest Fearing that running such a distance would cause my legs to snap at the knees and leave me at the mercy of some rowdy zebra, I head to a nearby camp where I'm promised a jeep will be waiting for me. While I procure some wheels, I ask Clint Hocking, Far Cry 2s creative director, whether this rampantly unpredictable and unscripted Al is really worth all the effort.
"We don't view the unpredictability as being a problem for us," explains Hocking. "It would be a problem if we were trying to fall back on the philosophy that we want to be able to control the player's experience. What's cool for us is when you're playing the game and something totally unpredictable or improbable happens. That's where the real moments of excitement are. Sure it's great to have that scripted moment of the dude that slides underneath the truck and gets the perfect fucking sniper position," admits the casually swearing developer. "Other games do that very well, but we don't have the ability to do it and we never wanted the ability.
"We wanted the ability to have interesting collisions of systems that are surprising and fresh," Clint continues, "because if you're trying to fill up a 50km2 world with cool stuff and you're doing it with 10 scripted behaviours, you're going to see those behaviours repeating a lot
Still making my way towards these fabled AIs in my newly acquired jeep, I find myself in a sort of intermediary locale between the savannah and jungle. Behind me the grassland unfolds, interrupted by the occasional tree and dirt mound. In every other direction lies lush, sprawling green foliage. The vehicle can be repaired by your character at any time, lending it a certain permanence in the game world and reducing the chance of stranding yourself - far removed from the disposable vehicles of the original Far Cry. My character's phone rings - it's Frank, one of my buddies (in fact my best buddy, Hocking informs me). Frank wants to engage in a bit of mutual back scratching, proffering an alternative means of destroying the radio tower. He asks me to meet him at his safe house, not far from where I am.
"The way the buddy system works is pretty complicated, explains Hocking, "but basically what happens is you unlock buddies and do side missions for them. Buddies can also rescue you and offer you optional variations on the main missions." That's what Frank has in mind: instead of going straight to the radio tower, he's asking me to instead make a detour to a nearby water pump system. By doing this the adjacent river will flood, drawing the attention of a faction commander away from the radio tower, thereby making that mission a whole lot easier. It's an entirely optional objective, and one which will increase my standing with Frank.
"Every time you work with a buddy," continues Clint, "or he rescues you, or you rescue him, that buddy's history rating' is increased. And as history ratings mount, the buddy with ttie best feting becomes your best buddy. He's the buddy who'll offer you the alternate ways of doing the main missions, while the other buddies are the guy's who'll rescue you."
The buddies' safe houses are places where you can rest and change the time of day (an action accompanied by a dramatic timelapse landscape photography effect), as well as stock up on ammunition, weapons and, once you complete certain missions, vehicles.
These safe houses appear right across the map, ensuring you're never too far from a place to call home for a night Frank is there waiting for me and greets me with a thick Belfast accent as I walk in the door. To his right is Warren, another buddy of mine (so Hocking tells me, with the air of a psychiatrist talking to an amnesiac). These characters are picked randomly from a batch of 14 and depending on who I get different missions will be made available.
In this sense, Far Cry 2 will be a truly open-ended game - offering an incredible number of permutations of the story by randomly casting these guys in your game world. The main character himself is chosen by the player from this cast of characters and then logically subtracted from the world, so while there may be similarities in the kinds of missions being undertaken by any two players, the characters involved in that mission, and the way in which they affect that mission, will almost always be unique.
Whether or not this compromises the narrative direction can't be seen just yet, but Frank's broad, authentic accent is reassuring affirmation of the quality of the voice acting at least.
Reachingthe site of the water pump, I take the time to observe how the Al acts when they're unaware that somebody's peering at them down a sniper scope. They mill about, fulfilling their three base needs. Some are on duty, patrolling routes and guarding areas of interest. Others are resting, sitting down or napping in the shade. And some are talking and socialising. Had I the patience to wait here an hour or so, day would turn to night and the actions of my enemies would change. Their need to rest would reach a sleepy tipping point, causing them to move indoors and find a bed. Those who need to guard will still do so, but they'll remain closer to their base.
Through observing these behaviours and predicting them, you'll gradually learn how to most effectively approach a situation. In this case, I shoot an unsuspecting man in the thigh, sending him cartwheeling to the floor. While a second guard struggles to hoist the wounded man over his shoulder, I take another shot, killing the helpful soul outright and returning his injured mate to the dusty ground. I'm slapped with a genuine pang of hot guilt - somehow I feel the idea of shooting a man who was desperately trying to save his friend came to mind all too easily.
"Having a generalised Al that can fight autonomously is a hard problem," admits Clint, "especially now that the world is so destructible and it's changing the navigation data all the time. But yeah, we've focussed on giving them various behaviours that make them look smart and cooperative. One of the great strengths of the Al in the original Half-Life is that they basically tell you what they're gonna do, like 'Alright! We're gonna stack up and go into this room one by one,' and sure enough they stack up and come in one by one - and the player is impressed."
This is the sort of cooperation that routs me from my sniper position, forcing me to sprint headlong into the base as potshots kick up the dirt around me. Diving behind a fence, I hammer the heal key - triggering a graphic first-person animation in which my character prises a bullet from his forearm using a Bowie knife. When I'm life, my buddy 3 through a hail of gunfire to me, laying down suppressive d carrying me to nearby cover, reable, unscripted bastard.
A Little Help
"When designing the buddies we hired Malcolm Clarke," explains Louis-Pierre Pharand, the game's producer. "Clarke is a cinematographer and scriptwriter who used to do documentaries on African mercenaries in the 70s and '80s. He brainstormed with us for days, talking about people he'd met when filming.
"We wanted to have a great diversity in the avatars, so we've got guys who are 24 and guys who are 54. They come from all ethnicitie's and from all parts of the world. That's something Clarke told us is true of mercenaries: they come from all over. We have pretty dense and robust biographies on each character."
With a cast so varied, it was important for Ubisoft to source voice actors from the appropriate places. "If you're going to have a Sikh character who's been educated in London," says Hocking, "he has to have a pretty specific accent It's really easy to parody it and have him sound like Apu. The last thing you want is the player to be in a really intense character moment where the buddy shows up to rescue him, and have that character say 'thank you, come again'. I mean fuck, it just wrecks it completely to be such a caricature.
"We recorded the warlords' voices in South Africa," adds Pharand, "we didn't just get some guy from Montreal. I think we're one of the first games to do this, but we've got our sound studio in Montreal hooked up with the voice actors in South Africa. We can analyse the peaks of his take and make him repeat some parts - it's as if he's in the booth with us. We wanted the flavour and it shows. I mean, when you go to briefings with these warlords and they're bickering, it just feels so authentic.
Far Cry 2 joyously slings its sloppy bucketfuls of variety about the place, not caring where it lands. In the short time I spent with it, I'd managed to blow up the water pump and head upstream in a motorboat before fighting my way through a town of tribal huts. Perched on the side of a mountain (on top of which is the radio tower), the densely packed buildings offer a new style of combat Rather than the long-distance scouting of the savannah, survival here becomes a matter of close-quarter shotgun proficiency. Using a flamethrower I set light to a rope bridge, which snaps and clatters against the rocky cliff walls, before spreading its fire to a nearby thatched roof and roasting an unlucky tribesman. I ended my African adventure with a hang glider assisted descent from the mountain top - a lofty and gentle ride on the breeze, which terrified the scarpering gazelle far below.
That same wild variety and unpredictable Al makes it hard to know whether the mechanics and systems of Far Cry 2 will eventually tire themselves out As a shooter it feels as robust as Far Cry, often employing'the same tactics of spotting unfriendly faces amongst the trees. In a game like this though, a sense of world-spanning cohesion and direction is one that can't be truly authenticated until you've piled many hours into it Ubisoft are hoping, as Hocking said, that it will be the collision of the game systems - the propagating fires, the dynamic buddy'system, the clever Al, the weather - that keeps every spoonful of this game as fresh as the last.
Having journeyed to their beautiful vision of the African countryside, we've been left with little reason to doubt that Ubisoft have found the way forward for the open-world shooter. Far Cry 2 is a bold step away from convention in terms of its location and its trust in absolute player freedom. Ambitious ideas frolic in its grassy expanses. Solid, visceral combat laps meekly at its watering holes. And zebra fill in the gaps. In my opinion, it would take nothing shortof a monumental cock up to cause Far Cry 2 to be anything less than a contender for game of the year, mark these words. Ubisoft Montreal reckon the game's omnidirectional gameplay ethos might not be the logical progression for the genre, but if you don't find yourself completely won over by the notion of chasing a wide-eyed and mortally confused zebra and gazelle across the Serengeti in a Datsun, you're probably dead on the inside.
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In March 1898 Two ManelessTsavo man-eating lions preyed on workers during the construction of the Ugandan railway. The pair, part of a testosterone-charged sub-species of lion local to the area, killed an estimated B5 people - their efforts later immortalised in the film The Ghost and the Darkness.
In late July of this year five men from Ubisoft Montreal were spending a night under canvas in the same area. "We couldn't see anything - we just heard an elephant scream in panic about 20 feet away from camp," explains a grim-faced Alexandre Amancio, the game's artistic director. "Then we realised why he was screaming. We heard one of these Tsavo lions roar - and it was between the elephant and us. It was about 10 feet away - and the vibration of that lion roar, you just felt that in your bowels... then we heard the 'chk chk' of our two guards cocking their AK47s and we just started running to the land cruiser."
When Ubisoft claim that they will go to any ends to ensure Far Cry 2 looks, feels and sounds like the real Africa, they seem to honestly mean it. Three weeks travelling around Kenya, sleeping with a centimetre of fabric between them and various predators, and getting to know the musky scent of their workmates at a level they never before expected. But why were they packed off to Africa in the first place? What makes the Serengeti fit Far Cry?
"In early conception we talked about that a lot - what does 'exotic' mean?" says Clint Hocking, creative director. ''What does it mean for players?
"What we realised was that it meant somewhere beautiful, somewhere breathtakingly beautiful that required good graphics and art direction, but also somewhere people could never get to gojn real life. Somewhere you know exists, but you never expected to visit as it's so remote or so hard to get to.
So we chose Africa because going back to a jungle island just wasn't going to be exotic any more after people had played the original Far Cry, Just Cause, Boiling Point, they watch Lost every week... it's not exotic any more. You've been there hundreds of times." A good point, backed up by the hundred and first return to paradise with Crysis...
Far Cry 2 then is creating 50km of a fictional country in the heart of Africa - a failed state where the civilian population has fled or is in the process of fleeing, and warmongering leaders battle it out for control. It's certainly a game near the knuckle of current world politics.
"We didn't want to Set Far Cry 2 in a real country for a couple of reasons, one being that we didn't want the player to go to a real country then not have it be a country by the time the game ships, or something crazy like that!" continues Hocking. "A more important reason is that Africa is a huge continent and it has a massive amount of ecological and geological diversity. What was important to us was to capture the whole range of these - we want to have Serengeti-style grassland, savannah plains, central African Congo-style jungle, north African sandy desert; all the different ecosystems you see over the continent."
So it was then that camera operators, sound technicians and artists were despatched to Kenya and parts of Tanzania - stable countries judged to have the most diverse locations on offer. To the Serengeti plain, the Masai Mara to its north with its typical savannah grassland and hundreds upon thousands upon millions of animals. The team touched down on Kenyan soil during the migration of the wildebeest - with three or four million of them on the move - only a fraction of which, unfortunately, will be making their presence known in the final game. Sleeping in tents, staying for two to ' three days in various different parks before moving on - it was hard work, as well as an adventure.
"We were super busy," picks up Alexandre. "We'd wake up at 5am, eat really quickly then hop into the land cruiser and go out on a scouting run. We brought cameras, and took about seven gigs worth of pictures. Our days were spent just rolling on dusty trails, seeing animals and going from place to place taking photos."
With a cameraman dispatched into the skies in a hot air balloon with a hi-def camera getting them all manner of birds-eye shots of the landscape, the aim was to get up close and personal with a slice of raw Africa.
They experienced a near collision with a giraffe which, Alexandre reflects, "was so large that it looked like it was running in slow motion, and at another point an elephant decided to charge their vehicle with little to no warning.
"All these incidents we came across in Africa we're integrating into some of the conversations that the NPCs have, adds Alexandre as an aside. "When you go into a town or meet NPCs in the game world, or when they meet each other and have conversations, some of the dialogue will be stuff that happened to us in Africa.
It was a dangerous business, though, no luxury tourist lodges for the Ubisoft boys. "We managed to ask for special permission because usually you can't travel at night in national parks, and some areas you really can't go off-road, you just have to stick to the main roads. But we had special permission." Really? I asked. Where do you get permission for something like that?
"Er..." comes the artistic director's response, coupled with background whispers and a few giggles. "Erm... we got permission by... well, you see, they do 'special' permits you need to 'purchase' from different people. At the airport, at the park... the driver..."
Oh, that sort of permission... Of course, the team wasn't only after the look of Africa - they went to find out what it sounded like too. In fact, when the game appears in the first quarter of next year, the ambient sounds you'll hear will be those recorded by super soundman Amaury on location: whether it be on the savannah, in the jungle or beneath the twittering dawn chorus. In fact, great efforts were put into capturing the birdsong of different areas at different times of day. The technology used to capture audio mood is quite clever too - known as the art of binaural recording to those in the know.
"It looks like something a doctor would use - like a stethoscope, explains Alexandre. "It's something you put in your ears but it's capturing sound using the shape of your ear. It actually positions sound in 3D. It's impressive - when you put headphones on and listen to it it just feels real. Like you're actually there - in your mind the sound is there in 3D. In fact, if you want to have a listen yourself, it's worth hitting the Far Cry 2 blog as the team plan to upload some of their binaural treats in the near future.
After all their adventures with scary animals with big teeth, though, it is a minor disappointment to discover that the Africa of Far Cry 2 will feature far less of its usual circle of life. There won't be any predators - we're not talking about a game with a STALKER-esque living, breathing ecosystem. All the large animals in the game will be grazing herbivores, featuring star turns from zebras, wildebeest, gazelle, buffalo, impalas, oryx and the like. And, no, I wasn't over sure what an oryx was either, but Wikipedia informs that it's a gazelle with a face that looks a little like a badger.
"The reason we decided to stay away from predators was because our animal Al is a subset of our human Al, explains Hocking when confronted by the lack of big cat diaries. "They really live in the world; in the morning, for example, gazelle will come up from the flatlands into terrain that's hillier to find a watering hole. In these groups of 20 or 30 they'll come in, find a watering hole, drink, move back out into flatter lands where they can see out over the plains and then graze there. They live in the world following these rules. The problem was, if we wanted to put predators into that ecosystem we would have to balance it to make sure the lions didn't eat all the gazelles and then all starve to death."
With so much being put into the Al patterns and routines of the human enemies, the extra work demanded by the kings of the jungle was deemed unnecessary. Gazelle will act as if there are predators around but, as in real life, really, you won't catch a glimpse of them.
After the gallant expedition had returned to Montreal, they had about two weeks to polish the hell out of the game demo that was due to be placed lovingly before the critical eyes of the press, yours truly included, at the annual Leipzig gaming jamboree. It was a frenzied two weeks by any account as every possible nuance of their African experience was poured into the game engine. The shape of the terrain, the types of rocks, the placement of trees, the shape of the hills, the texture of the ground and its colour everything changed to some degree to prompt, even at this early stage, the fullest African experience possible.
With Crysis seemingly content to retread what is essentially the Far Cry template, it's genuinely gratifying to see Ubisoft's Far Cry 2 keeping what made the original so special, yet also trying to innovate wherever possible.
With a true go-anywhere mentality, the fact that this is distinctively a PC game rather than watered down console fare and the all-important presence of a hang-glider, this is a game leading the charge of a new, exciting breed of shooter. And, as we all now know, it's authentic too. But do you know what the biggest change that was heralded by the Ubisoft fact-finding mission? Shit.
"The first thing we noticed when we set foot in the African savannah is that it's filled with shit. says an earnest Alexandre. "There's seriously all shapes and all sizes. We have to include it -it's just the first thing that you notice!"
So there you go. Far Cry 2 - set to be packed with only the most authentic of excrement A gaming first if ever there was one.