Written by: Stoo

Date posted: April 30, 2010

Unfortunately I got lots of scenery shots like this and not so many of actual shootouts in progress.

So where to for our gaming adventure today? A drab urban setting? Warehouses and corridors in an office block, perhaps? Of course, some great games have been set in such locations. Fear was all about corridors, and Half Life 2 somehow turned decaying drabness into something incredibly atmospheric. On the other hand a lot of drab games are just that, limited and dull.

So instead let’s consider something totally different like, ooh, the perfect tropical island. Still lagoons under azure skies, gentle surf lapping at pristine shores, and abundant green hills and forest. The kind of place you might want to go to relax on a beach, or something more adventurous like hang gliding or hiking. Well, okay we’re here to play a shooter today, not a fish-em-up or rock climbing simulator. Still, even when dodging a hail of bullets from angry mercenaries we can enjoy the scenery, right? (and it does have a hang glider)

So welcome to Far Cry, the game that drops you in paradise, sticks an M4 rifle in your hand, points you towards a distant objective and says “go have fun, ps mind the snipers”.

Now some of you might think this is a bit recent for a “retro” site, but our policy on what’s considered old has always been relative to the present day, not a fixed date. So now we’re considering 2004 fair game for coverage. Which means a little while ago I did Invisible War and Half Life 2 will be along at some point. What’s more in an ultimate tribute to doing stuff in the wrong order, odds are good we’ll review Doom 3 before we ever get around to the original.

Just to reassure you retro-heads, this is all in good time and we don’t want an unbalancing tilt towards mid-00s stuff. Our dedication to older stuff remains and that’s why the last shooter I did was Rise of the Triad. I have to admit though there is something inherently satisfying about taking a game considered to have top-end graphics half a decade ago, throwing it on a mid-range modern PC and turning the bells and whistles up to eleven.

So let’s dive in. The game began life as a tech demo, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the graphics are a key part of the appeal. It really does look amazing, and a great sign of how far we’ve come from the hard polygonal landscapes of old. It’s properly natural looking with hills, rivers, valleys and canyons, and also well detailed. So the depiction of that tropical archipelago is quite convincing. Beaches feel like they’re inviting you to sit and take a cool drink under the blazing sun. Forested interiors are cooler and lush, thick with undergrowth that really helps with the organic feel. One particularly memorable landmark was the rusting hulk of an old aircraft carrier, reds and browns against the luxurious greens and blues.

This is me finding a good spot to snipe on a mercenary camp.

Importantly though, the game isn’t just restricted to walled of sections of paradise. Rather, it’s churning out all this lusciousness over some pretty big areas, whole damn mile-across islands. See a hill rising in the distance? Probably not just a backdrop. In half an hour or so you’ll might emerge from the woods on and find yourself on top of it, blinking in the brilliant sunlight. Then plunging into forests beyond, and crossing narrow straights onto another island you saw from that hilltop.

Okay so the detail falls off a bit at long range. And there are games out today that are both prettier and bigger. Like its own sequel or Armoured Assault. But sod it, I was thrilled to be able to run around this amazing tropical wilderness. And again, you can do it on a PC considered fairly modest by modern standards.

Anyway, over those maps you have quite a lot of freedom in your movement. Well I suppose I should be clear first: it’s not an open-ended sandbox game and you can’t roam the islands completely without restriction. Objectives are always in a fixed order and the terrain will in broad terms control your movement via impassable hills and cliffs. (and if you try to be clever and go round the back of an island by boat, you get shot up by unstoppable helicopters)

However you rarely feel boxed in. You still have plenty of space to move around in, wide tracts of land and forest. So you can opt to explore off the beaten path, finding slower, more circuitous but potentially safer routes. Or you might find an altogether different road. Or just a little island that doesn’t really go anywhere but looks pretty and maybe you’ll get a good view from there of the way ahead. Also you can choose your direction of final approach on key objectives, find a good piece of high ground to set yourself up on etc.

Along with this you have quite a degree of flexibility when tackling the bad guys. So if say you need to take out a mercenary base on the shore several options are presented. You could do strafing runs with a machine-gun armed speedboat. Alternatively, land on a small island nearby and try sniping some of them. Or land some way along the shore, sneak along through the undergrowth and surprise them with a sudden close assault. Or just cock it all up, and run flapping uselessly into the forest with a bunch of angry mercs after you. Until you sneak back, steal their jeep and run them over. Take that!

To begin with it’s all quite grounded in reality. So it’s probably appropriate that, given you’re one guy against an army, stealth plays a major part. You can get away with Rambo-ing it a bit on easier settings, but on hard you can die pretty damn fast. Instead, you have to be careful and crafty. A few things need to be learned to get far – for one enemies can spot you way off in the distance, about as far as the game’s drawing distance for character models in fact. But maybe that’s realistic, and you are wearing a bright red Hawaiian shirt.

So to be smart use cover, which is great for masking your position. Actually sometimes almost too good – a few times I had guards blundering around yelling WHERE IS HE in my general location without thinking to shoot up the undergrowth when they obviously had a rough idea. Then they went down to highly ignominious crotch-shots from 5 feet away. Still these stealth mechanics are part of what make the combat great, pushing you to use the terrain to your advantage, look for hiding places and stay off open roads. Also to add tension, cover like that can of course hide the enemies too. So I had some real nailbiting encounters diving from ferns to tree stumps, spraying bullets around and hoping i hit something as I heard their shouts. Just make sure you always keep an ear out for footsteps.

There are a couple of tools in the engine to help you plan your movements. A gauge on screen tells you how aware enemies are of your presences – it’s a bit weird as it pops up even when you have no idea where they are, so it’s hard to understand how you’d have any information on their awareness. Still the thing suddenly shooting into the red provides some OH SHIT moments of hitting the ground or mad panicked sprints.

Tell me that doesn’t look amazing.

Also, and this is key, anything you see through your binoculars is “tagged” and from there on appears as a dot on your radar map. This encourages you to carefully scout out new locations before moving in. As an extra bonus the binoculars act as sound amplifiers, letting you listen in on conversations. These aren’t always tactically useful but are sometimes pretty hilarious, with guards grumbling about bad food or pondering the ethics of being a hired goon.

As for weapons, there’s a decent selection of modern-day weaponry. I don’t know if they’re super-accurately modeled to the standard of military-realism nuts; but they seemed pretty convincing to me with varying accuracy, zoom modes and so on. Also you can only carry four at any one time. You have a couple of submachineguns, and for assault rifles there’s yer basic M4 then some weird blocky-looking modern ones. Of course there’s a sniper rifle, made more accurate (ie the random swinging about of the scope view is reduced) when you lie prone, and you can even hold your breath for a few seconds of maximum steadiness. Then for close quarters there’s the awesome semi-auto jackhammer shotgun for all your crotch-shot needs (Well, headshots are actually better.)

Something to consider when getting shot up yourself – no quicksave here. Rather, you’re limited to preset checkpoints. For the most part I didn’t mind too much; you could say we’re spoiled by limitless quicksaves these days, and its good for your mistakes to have some actual consequences beyond replaying the last 23 seconds. On the other hand, it can be annoying when fifteen minutes slow, steady progress is overturned by one cockup, resulting in urges to put your fist through the screen. Fortunately checkpoints usually aren’t obnoxiously far apart.

Anyway about a third of the way in, it an extra factor is wheeled out – hideous genetically engineered mutants that wouldn’t look too far out of place in Doom. These might inspire some mixed feelings in you, especially if you’re the sort who rolls their eyes when things go scifi. I actually quite like the new dimension brought to play, for the most part.

The monkey-mutant-things for example are fast, leap and can kill you from full health and armour in about three hits. So there’s buckets of tension when you hear them snarling out of sight, and some great bursts of utterly panicked action – furious backpeddling, spraying bullets and yelping like a small girl. They’re not unbalancing though, dying readily enough if you keep your cool or catch them at a distance. Importantly also, the mutants are at war with the mercenaries, a situation you can often take advantage of.

I think it all came together for me, as an example of the game at its best, about halfway through. You have an lengthy section involving making your way across a coastal road at night. Along the way, I had about just every sort of experience that makes Far Cry awesome. It started with a hang glider ride in the still air, across the beautiful moonlit shore. The moment was serene and lovely, a skyline of jagged hills and silver light glinting on the water, and ended with me crashing into a tree. Then being surprised by monkey mutants. I might have used the word “cocksuckers” here.

Having fended them off, I then limped across a merc base being raided by mutants. Picking my way through – one shot away from death – I somehow lived, shotgunned a few people, then grabbed a medkit and fresh armour. Then I stole a jeep and went crashing off through one of several forest paths, joyfully machinegunning things along the way. Until I was ambushed by rocket mutants, reversed in panic, remembered with horror I was on cliff top and lept clear just in time before the jeep plummeted fifty metres.

There’s no “open cold drink and relax on the beach ” function, so just do so in front of your monitor. No-one’s looking, it’s ok.

A while later I had another jeep, was taking the coastal road, realised it was horribly exposed and oh well, another wrecked jeep and me near death again. And swearing some more. Going back to high ground there followed some hilltop action scrambling along quiet slopes and taking down snipers and rocket launchers. Then I saw myself overlooking one final huge pitched battle down below, wondering whether to pick foes off from my lofty vantage point, let the buggers kill each other or go find another jeep.

Then oh shit it was 1am and I’ve been meaning to try and be in the office earlier lately. Oh well. That’s the mark of a great game, completely absorbed in the action. So is it all that much fun? Well it all becomes a bit more ordinary on the indoor maps. Still plenty of excitement as you try and find a defensible position and hold off mercs storming through a doorway. I just tended to find myself hoping I’d be out in the open again soon, that’s when Far Cry shines as something more original. As long as I’m indoors I could be playing something like FEAR.

That’s just a fall from awesome to decent, though. Only a few maps near the end really annoyed me. You’re crowded into enclosed spaces with elite mercs and rocket mutants. Wham, bam, dead. They had me pulling my hair out enough on Normal, I don’t want to imagine what they might be like on higher settings. It’s not just a matter of difficulty, it’s abandonment of the mechanics that makes the rest of Far Cry so appealing. Just twitch reflexes and rocket dodging.

Also though, I didn’t care about the story or the characters presented. You own hero is alright in a hammy voiced action hero kind of way, and I salute him for defiantly wearing that shirt through the whole affair. Otherwise though: mad scientist breeding mutant army, supposedly attractive female sidekick, bleh. I had no reason to really care what happened to her. Alyx in Half Life 2 that year had a thousand times the charm and, gamers everywhere felt masses of affection for her, and she didn’t need a bikini scene. So there’s very little emotional investment in the plot.

So I’m stopping a little short of full marks today. Otherwise though, this has been a great experience. Few other games up to that point had offered that combination of variety and gorgeous scenery, and there were many memorable moments that will stick with me. It still looks good, it offers an utterly immersive package of combat, sneaking and exploring, and it’s a breath of salt-tinged fresh air if you want a change from corridor shooters. So definitely give it a try.