1GHz P3 or Athlon
64MB 3D card
4GB hard drive space
2GHz P4 or Athlon XP 2000+
128MB DirectX 9.0 3D card
Even games with the best of intentions come and go, if they fall short in a couple key areas, to be eventually shuffled off to the graveyard of industry footnotes. A new graphical innovation here, a good sense of humor there, but something just doesn't gel. With Far Cry, however, you can see so many places where things could have gone wrong, but didn't. The AI could easily have been blindly aggressive or stone deaf. The load times could have been constant and distracting. In almost all major areas, Far Cry manages to walk the tightrope of game design over a chasm of Things Gone Wrong. I've always wondered why no one apparently tried to license the AI of the Marines in Half-Life, because after that, I was always a little bit disappointed with the FPSs that came after. And finally someone has answered the call and the creatures here are actually smart.
It's not all wine and roses, though. It's important to keep in mind that this game is meant to push your rig to its limit. My home system is a 2.4GHz P4 with 512MB of RAM and a 9700 Pro, and while this has been more than enough for 99% of the games I've played on, with all the details cranked up, it's not the case here. I need the full power of the Alienware rig at work, a 3.0GHz P4 with a gigabyte of RAM and a 9800 Pro. The deciding factor seems to be the extra RAM and CPU horsepower, as I can run everything on Very High on this machine, but the home rig has to do Medium and High on most options. However, the many graphical options provide plenty of flexibility. You can't ratchet down view distance, but you can tone down things like dynamic lighting, water effects, and shadows. The game will only load once for each of the enormous areas, and it takes about a minute, but reloading from a save game after dying only takes a few seconds. The system with a gigabyte of RAM did both operations noticeably quicker.
With that said, Far Cry can be an incredibly beautiful game. From the 1-kilometer view distance, to the almost-overflowing foliage, lighting and more, this game is a bullet point list of things you'd want a game to be able to do. I'm very pleased to say, though, that it's more than just a glorified tech demo. It creates a continuous strategic and tactical challenge while wowing my eyeballs with next-generation bells and whistles. There is some clipping--it seems to be unavoidable in a 3D engine--and textures at a distance scale down noticeably even with everything maxed out. Also, you'll sometimes see long-range targets fade in as you get close to them. Lastly, lowering some of the graphical settings for the environment can produce foliage popping, where a bush will start out as a flat, basic texture, then sort of spring into a full-fledged, high-detail image as you get close to it. However, the smallest (and most numerous) foliage objects would fade into view as you may have seen in PlanetSide, which is much more transparent for the player.
Sound isn't too shabby either--especially when playing with headphones, where the ambient music really comes to the fore to develop mood. You can turn music off, but you'd be missing out. It adapts to the action, and each area has a subtly different theme. Some of it is standard action movie fare, but there's also plenty of effective ambient spookiness to go around. However, the later cutscenes in the game had dialogue that seemed a second or two off from the on-screen action.
Weapons receive the same careful treatment and are nicely balanced. The M4 can switch to single shot semi-automatic mode to pick off guys at medium range, but the sniper rifle is of course far superior. However, rifle ammo is precious throughout the game, so you won't be able to wander around and cap people like some distant hand of God. The genetically altered creatures are generally pretty tough, which will make you want to use the fully-automatic shotgun, which packs a satisfying punch against all targets except for the biggest of enemies. You'll also get a nice variety of grenades at your disposal, with frag, flash, and smoke grenades all offering unique tactical advantages. Since the enemies have to actually see you in order to shoot at you, the last two grenades are great for getting out of a tight spot. None of the AI ever magically knows right where you are, which is pretty refreshing. Instead, they rely on where they last saw you and the position where they last heard gunfire. You can use the silenced submachine gun so that they never even hear you fire unless they're right on top of you.
It's too bad that the enemies don't seem to react as well indoors as they do outdoors. When outside, they can and will flank you, call for backup, and flush you out with grenades. Indoors, though, most of that doesn't apply. When there's an alternate route to the room you're entering, they will do an end-run around you and attack you from behind. But when you're facing the chokepoint, they tend to just open the door and walk right through it on the default difficulty. It's easy to get behind something, lean out, and wait for them to file in. They also don't run away from grenades unless they're in a large room (so they won't, for example, retreat into another corridor or rush you to avoid the blast radius). I replayed part of the game on Challenging, the fourth-hardest of the five difficulty levels, and the main difference was that they aimed better and did more damage. There didn't seem to be more mercenaries and whatnot running around, or fewer health packs or ammo. Unfortunately, though, playing the game on a higher difficulty to get more challenging fights indoors means dealing with some potentially vicious skills when wandering around in the open.
Yet even when the enemies are at their dumbest, you'll still be hard-pressed to get from one end of the area to the other in one piece, because they cooperate to pin you down, evade fairly effectively, and don't make their positions obvious. It's easy to overlook one guy who'll make your life hell as you're walking away smugly to the next spot. But instead of this being necessarily frustrating, it creates a satisfying tension of never being completely sure that you're safe at any given time. When alerted to your presence, they won't take the same tactic every time--they react dynamically. They wander about a little randomly, within their patrol routes, scan different areas, smoke cigarettes, shoot the breeze, tie their shoes. I think I even saw one of them sneeze. Everybody has a set of routines that flesh them out, rather than being generic obstacles. And when you choose the difficulty level at the beginning of the game, you can check a box that will do auto-adjusting AI as with Max Payne 2, so they won't kick your butt too hard or roll over and play dead.
What is frustrating is the save game system, which I'm sure you'll be hearing a lot about. Far-Cry uses auto-saves that kick in when you cross certain thresholds on the map, whether it's right before you enter a certain door or right before you make your way down the slope to an encampment. There are a few situations where the game will save after you've completed an objective, but it's almost all geographical. My problem was two-fold: One, there just didn't seem to be enough of these thresholds. Two, combining this system with an open-ended environment means that you just might be getting drilled by enemy fire right as the game helpfully bookmarks your progress. If you're the type who likes to clear out an area before you move on, you risk dying right before the next save. If you find yourself taking a more cat-and-mouse direction, you just might have enemies trailing behind you as the save slot kicks in. And since some of the thresholds cross dangerous terrain covered by people armed with rocket launchers and sniper rifles, it's often a double-edged sword of a reward, like a pot of gold sitting in the middle of a minefield.
So while Far Cry is ostensibly a shooter, the save game design necessitates a pace closer to Splinter Cell: gradual, careful, measured, and sometimes repetitive. Thankfully, though, most of the truly painful obstacles can be overcome simply by running your ass off, or just driving brutally through the roadblock and hopping off before somebody toasts your ride. However, this reveals a (to me, at least) intriguing feature of the AI: They won't keep on following you if you get far away enough. While this looks like a flaw or a blind spot at first glance, it occurred to me that these men are soldiers who have orders to patrol and stick to specific areas. It wouldn't make much sense for there to be this snowballing effect of an eventual horde of mindless hero magnets. "Let the guys ahead handle him," they seem to be thinking. "I gotta cover this area."
In addition to calling for backup and flanking, they'll also sound an alarm, if one is nearby. When hurt, a guy won't just run away--he'll run away and try to get help. In an indoor fight, this will mean enemies coming from an adjacent room or two, which isn't so bad, relatively. But if you screw up and somebody sounds the alarm at an encampment, everyone within hearing distance will descend upon you. There weren't fewer people in the indoor sections, but strangely, not as many people would come. This was another thing that made those areas that much easier.
However, when you're dealing with the scientific creations hungering for a little manflesh, the dynamic is much different. I don't want to give too much away, though, so I'll just say that they present some unique challenges that will force you to use a different set of tactics, one of which sometimes includes making a run for it. You'll also want to keep a lot more distance with these guys.
I should also mention something about vehicles. You can press F1 to switch to third-person perspective, but often the foliage requires switching between perspectives in order to see where you're going. You control it with the WASD keys, but the mouse-operated camera feels sluggish, even on a high-end system. On the ground, things were pretty smooth, although I would recommend moving the Use key, as it's right next to the "throw grenade" key. There's nothing like throwing a grenade at yourself while standing in an elevator, or blowing up a car you're standing right next to, especially if it means re-treading through the last twenty minutes of gameplay as a result.
Anyway, moving back into non-spoiler territory, let me delve into how an open-ended outdoor style has been implemented. In a word, CryTek has done a fantastic job of avoiding artificial path restriction. In the jungle, you'll never walk into an invisible wall, and almost never be hemmed in by impassible slopes that force you to take one path and one path only. There are almost always at least two distinct ways you can approach any position on the island, often times more than that. You can sneak and crawl through a little valley full of obscuring underbrush and trees, or you can often find a high point to survey the land and pick off a few people with the sniper rifle or M4 on semi-automatic mode. They will be alerted to where you are as soon as you squeeze off a round (unless you're using the silenced submachine gun), but you're free to quickly back off and come around from another direction. Or you can confuse them with a grenade, or with your infinite supply of rocks.
You'll probably eventually notice that the environment is generally indestructible. You can break glass, blow up gas canisters that will send nearby objects and people flying (great physics sytem, by the way), and even cause some small buildings to collapse. And there are a few sections where massive environmental damage is built into the story, but it's not the rule. Trees don't fall over, foliage doesn't get shredded to bits, and corrugated aluminum walls don't get punctured with bullets or destroyed by explosives. I can use the "sprint" key to run up and down a ladder but it doesn't drain my stamina, nor can I jump off (except by walking off the side). The stamina bar is also tied to the breath in my lungs, so if I go underwater with the bar empty, I'll immediately start taking damage. I can't use CryVision (a combo of light enhancement and infrared goggles), binoculars or a weapon while in the water (except for the machete). I can't use anything while on a ladder, but I can while driving an inflatable boat. I get lots of missing sound effects unless I set my Windows sound card acceleration to "Basic" and disable EAX 2.0 in the game. You can fall from any height into water and take no damage, as long as it's not standing water, but you can't even slide down a slope without taking some damage.
But the thing is, I didn't really care about all of these apparent flaws, because I was too busy trying to survive, whether it was as a Sam Fisher-style assassin or as a Schwarzenegger commando. The action is careful, gradual, and measured, if sometimes repetitive due to the sparse save game slots. And Far Cry managed to have a hard-to-describe magic about it. You'll feel "It" when you're crawling through the Regulator and edging down a dim corridor looking for any signs of movement in the shadows. You'll feel it when an entire underground facility begins to flood and you have to save someone before all the air rushes out. You'll feel it when you're standing in a watchtower on a high hill overlooking a brutal battle. And you'll feel it when you hear the enemy somewhere beyond the next hill or corner, but you don't know how many or exactly what mix it will be. While the actual plot was a pretty thin and the dialogue a little cheesy, there were still a ton of great moments and scenes.
Another cool thing I should mention is how escort missions are handled. It wasn't perfectly implemented here, but CryTek still did an excellent job of avoiding situations where you were desperately trying to prevent the person from dying. Instead, the person would mostly hang back, and when you were desperately trying to keep them alive, it was actually part of the story and was pretty thrilling. If I had a gripe here, it would be not being able to tell them to wait in one spot, or not fire until I fire--that kind of thing. Still, it was a fairly small section of the game, and a lot of cool things happen at that point that I don't want to spoil.
Multiplayer consists of capture the flag, deathmatch, and team deathmatch, and things run pretty smoothly without the CPU calculating enemy AI. Unfortunately, there's no auto-join for the team-based matches--you have to choose which team you want, and there's no auto balancing of teams, either. Also, stamina seemed to drain a whole lot quicker, making it good only for darting once across a road and barely enough to clear the blast radius of a grenade. Headshots are pretty lethal, even for the pistol, which balances things out a bit. The levels are all well-designed, with an organic flow that makes them feel like realistic, adventurous locations. Plus, all weapons with scopes will glint in the light as they aim at you, making it very difficult for someone to just hide in the bushes and snipe. However, UT 2004, with its Onslaught and Assault modes, has taken the punch out of standard FPS multiplayer game types. I think the long-term appeal for this game is in full-on mods more than potentially cool maps. What's cool is that you can load a mod from within the game, in the style of Half-Life, rather than ending up with a folder or desktop full of shortcuts.
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