One Final Breath
Ports from PC to console, or vice versa, are a tricky business. Just ask the thousands of disappointed Half-Life fans who bought the watered down console version of what was perhaps the most influential game to ever grace the first-person shooter genre. Few games make the transition with any sort of dignity. Doom, Deus Ex, Quake, the Unreal series, all excellent examples of games which fell mercilessly at the hands of what seems to be an unavoidable video gaming curse. Ports going the other way rarely make the grade either -- just look at the Halo port from Xbox to PC, and that game was actually supposed to be a PC original before Bill Gates stuck his big nose in and forced Bungie to retool it for his whimsical hobby project.
Part of the blame for this has to lie with laziness. With a brand name guaranteeing high sales figures, many of these titles are ported with a sort of "this'll do" attitude, after being farmed out to a company who had nothing to do with creating the original in the first place. In these respects Far Cry: Instincts is a little different: most of the Xbox game was actually handled by the original Far Cry team Crytek, with a little help from the Montreal based Ubisoft team. And also, with regards to the way in which this game was approached, it is anything but lazy since, instead of presenting a weak, diluted version of the original, Ubisoft have managed to give us what is really an entire new game.
Playing as Jack Carver, you are left stranded on an island paradise, your lucrative tourism business ruined after your passenger decided to steal your Jet Ski and drive carelessly into what seems to be a Apocalypse Now-style war zone. After having his boat viciously destroyed the player, as Carver, is left to fend for himself with only a vague, mysterious guide who sporadically communicates with you via radio.
What is instantly intelligible when playing this new game is that Far Cry: Instincts has been created with the Xbox's limitations in mind, and that the game plays to the machine's strengths, as opposed to being bogged down by its weaknesses. Since the Xbox is at the end of its lifespan, and the original Far Cry was created with high-end PCs in mind, the Xbox version has been recreated -- stripped down in a way that retains the Far Cry experience quite well. For example, while the huge open ended environments of the original have been curtailed to an extent, the game never really feels linear, and there are a number of options with which to play; you can go in all guns blazing, or use the thick jungle as your friend while quietly stalking your foe before plunging a knife into his back.
The control system is pretty much the console FPS standard, but I found the aiming in Far Cry: Instincts to be completely frustrating at times. Some sort of auto aim is required to make the less precise console control system more forgiving, but in Far Cry no real skill is required to aim and often what you feel is a direct hit will completely miss. In short, aiming seems really inconsistent and imprecise, and this has a real bearing on the game dynamic. Especially whilst using the pistol, I found myself lining up a perfect head shot, only to throw my pad down in rage, screaming, "There's no justice," as the bullet whizzed past my enemy's ears. In many ways it undermines the stealth aspect of the game. It's often too risky to silently line up a deadly, silenced head shot, because when the auto aim deems it unworthy, ten bad guys will surround you in the aftermath and make mincemeat of you.
Control of the game's vehicles is also flawed. Instead of Halo's seamless movement into the third-person when you enter vehicles, Far Cry retains the first-person view throughout, regardless of which vehicle you are driving. This adds an element of immediacy to the proceedings, but also makes it very difficult to actually see where you are going. Also movement of these vehicles is controlled by only one analogue stick, making it difficult to turn, and nigh impossible to do the three point turn required if you mistakenly take the wrong path. But these vehicular interludes break up the gameplay and add variety to the traditional FPS action that Instincts provides, and clumsily executed as it may be, it's still a welcome addition.
In fact Far Cry is full of these welcome additions, making it quite a refreshing experience. Elevating it above the regular slew of Xbox first-person shooters, players can make use of Feral abilities: including superhuman strength (for close range melee attacks), increased speed and sensory skills, and even the ability to see the scent trail left by enemies. Some of these additions are variants of what we have seen in other games (the feral eye sight works similarly to night vision goggles), but the scent trail idea is completely original and well implemented.
It's also completely refreshing to play a FPS in an open, organic environment, and this applies itself to actual gameplay, making the location change more than merely cosmetic. As opposed to the regular tense, claustrophobic reaction based gameplay seen in most FPS titles, the open-ended maps involve the gamer in a more cerebral way, giving the player choice over how to approach the game. While this jungle isn't anywhere near as interactive as the one seen in Metal Gear Sold 3, the large environment does create for the gamer a sense of freedom -- which is interesting given the genre's penchant for instant gaming gratification.
Far Cry: Instincts is really an example of how PC to console ports should be done. Given the restrictions of the Xbox, compared to the high-end PCs the original was running on, the developers have put in a heroic effort -- effectively reengineering the game to suit the platform. Despite some control issues, Instincts maintains an original gaming experience within the constraints of a tired genre and for this alone Ubisoft and Crytek should be applauded. As the Xbox lifespan slowly grinds to a halt within the shadow of the impending Xbox 360 launch, Far Cry: Instincts is a final hurrah for a console pushed to its limit with this release.
11 November 2005