PAX 07: Far Cry 2 Impressions and Interview

Ubisoft Montreal gave its first public showing of the pre-alpha build for its first-person-shooter Far Cry 2, currently in development for PC only, at PAX 07. Taking over development of the series from the Crytek, creator of the original Far Cry on PC, Ubisoft Montreal will now have to compete with the German developer when Crytek's Crysis launches in November. That's a massively daunting shadow to be working under, but based on the looks of this early build, Ubisoft Montreal is taking the challenge on full-bore.

"My job today is to take your preconceptions of what Far Cry 2 was supposed to be, and pretty much burn those to cinders," said Far Cry 2 creative director Clint Hocking at the event. Hocking, whose past roles include creative director for Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and lead designer for the original Splinter Cell, made it clear what would return in the sequel: exotic locales, open-endedness, realism, and immersive gameplay. Unlike in Ubisoft's own Far Cry Instincts reimaginings, there won't be mutant powers or anything else that couldn't roughly realistically happen. And rather than placing gamers in the lush island environment of the original Far Cry (and now Crysis), Far Cry 2 will take players to a 50-square-kilometer African landscape.

This doesn't mean there won't be jungles, but the jungles will be joined by savannas and deserts, with wildlife and weather patterns appropriate to the area. Using a proprietary engine, environmental elements like trees and clouds will be generated procedurally, ensuring distinct looks for these objects in-game. All areas will load dynamically, and everything in the world is destructible down to the pixel, according to Hocking. He demonstrated by using a sniper rifle to shoot off the branches of a distant tree, one by one.

Complementing this expansive, interactive environment will be what Hocking described as open-world gameplay--exploring the harsh habitats of Africa at your leisure while building relationships with other characters and taking on sidequests. You begin the game in a central African hospital dying of malaria. Where you go from there depends on your choices, Hocking said. I've heard developers make this promise before, so we'll see if it's as dynamic as he claims.

Hocking placed a lot of emphasis on the game's atmospheric effects, saying the in-game weather will have realistic effects on the environment. The game will also manipulate these weather effects based on in-game actions, though he swore it wouldn't be as cheesy as a sudden rainstorm breaking as you approach your best friend, bleeding out his life on the African savanna.

As far as combat goes, I saw plenty of shanty-smashing with a stolen jeep, grassland-torching with a flamethrower, and ammo pile detonations with a rocket launcher. Hocking demonstrated the enemy AI with an unscripted car chase after stealing a vehicle and driving off. Nearby enemies hopped in their jeep to pursue, only to be run off the road by our demonstrator. Later, Hocking showed that the level of damage to the jeep not only affects its appearance, but its performance as well, with a shot-up junker slowly dragging along a dirt path.

I caught up with Hocking after the event for a private demo session with the game at much higher resolution than was shown during the public demo. Seeing Far Cry 2 in this setting, its gorgeous environments were easily comparable to those of Crysis. God-rays through trees, motion blur during quick turns, incredible water effects, and crumpled grass behind a vehicle's path were all impressive. I followed this session up with an interview, bleeding the creative director dry of his Far Cry 2 knowledge.

Shack: Give me a sense of how much more open-ended the game is in reference to the first Far Cry, and the specific gameplay elements that contribute to this.

Clint Hocking: Like in the original Far Cry, and like in a lot of modern shooters if you want, it's really important that we have a high level of freedom of gameplay. Like freedom to attack a camp the way you want. Freedom to say, "I want to attack these guys with a mortar and a knife," or "I want to ram in with my vehicle," or "I want to snipe them one at a time." That's one kind of freedom in gameplay that was definitely in the first Far Cry and, for the most part, very well done. And that was really important for us to keep that, and that's why we did.

In addition to that, or more as an expansion to that, we really wanted to have freedom to explore, or freedom to not just take each area in a line in the way you want but to take all the areas, and even all the missions, and even all the story, and even explore the whole world in the way that you want.

So we've enabled that as well in the sense that it's not just like, "Okay, now you can go anywhere you want." We've created a story that procedurally assembles itself in front of the player, so the kind of missions you get sent on are being chosen out of a library of possible missions for their dramatic intensity, for their variety--all for different reasons.

The way I get involved with different characters-- the buddies and the warlords and their captains and lieutenants--it's not predetermined by the writers or by myself except in terms of the domain of rules that covers it. For us, if we just open up the world, then suddenly it's meaningless unless we find a way to make the consequences carry forward, so that's what we had to do to make an open world.

Shack: Following Crytek's Far Cry, Ubisoft Montreal handled Far Cry: Instincts and its followups on consoles. You weren't on that team, but what feedback did you get from that team in its involvement with the franchise that shaped the development of Far Cry 2?

Clint Hocking: Me and the core team on this project--there was about eight of us when we first started, and Far Cry: Instincts was just starting production. Obviously we know those guys. They're all friends of ours. We talked to them. We know what worked and didn't work. In a sense we had a mandate to reinvent the brand and do what we felt needed to be done.

It was really up to us whether we wanted to consider the console games as part of that or not. We decided not to, not because we didn't want to--like I said, none of them had even shipped yet. We didn't know if they were good. We didn't necessarily know what was going to happen. So it was like, okay, if you want us to reinvent it, we'll go Far Cry PC, Far Cry 2 PC, and the console games are the console games.

Go on to page 2 for the scoop on Far Cry 2's new game engine, details on the non-linear campaign, and info on building relationships with NPCs, or skip to page 3 to see what Hocking has to say about Far Cry 2 mod support, Crysis, and BioShock.


Shack: You're using a new engine for Far Cry 2 that you've labeled the Dunia engine. What does this engine allow you to do that you couldn't with the CryENGINE from the first Far Cry?

Clint Hocking: Dunia's a really powerful engine. If we had said, "Yeah, we don't have time to make that tool for making jungles," we just cut 75% of the content of our game. Because artists do not have time to place bushes and plants and rocks and ferns and trees to fill 50 square kilometers. It's impossible.

"Games aren't content. Games are about systems and being able to have the flexibility to not be handcuffed by the weight of your content."
So we needed to come up with the tools that would allow us to do what would take days or hours in literally microseconds. And that lets us iterate, and that lets us do what you need to do to make a great game, which is get the thing playable as fast as possible and test it and get feedback on it.

Games aren't content. Games are about systems and being able to have the flexibility to not be handcuffed by the weight of your content--it's critical for any game. But it gets more critical as we move into the HD era with super high-res, super high quality assets.

You can't be in a situation where someone says, "Yeah, we're not happy with this, and we don't have two months to rebuild it." If you spent two months working on it, there's a problem already.

You have to be able to iterate, the same way you could iterate a 250-polygon character back in 1998 on Unreal, you have to be able to iterate a 200,000-polygon character. It's that simple. If you're not doing that, you're dead.

Shack: It seems like the weather plays a pretty important role in the game. What's the range of the weather effects?

Clint Hocking: The intensity of the storm is a slider, in fact it's multiple sliders. There's sliders for wind, there's sliders for cloud cover, there's sliders for all of these things. And we're currently working on refining the rules for all of that.

So you could have a wind storm without cloud cover. You could have thick clouds without any wind. You could have clouds and low intensity rain with a little bit of wind or lots of rain. All of these things will be all dynamic. And of course really bad weather will be really windy, really rainy, really cloudy and potentially lightning.

We don't have lightning and rain in yet, but hopefully we will. And the design on how these different sliders are connected and where the sort of random is and when we take control of them for dramatic purposes is still being shaped.

Shack: Since the campaign seems to be for the most part non-linear, how long do you anticipate an average single player campaign being?

Clint Hocking: If you want to just beeline it through the main plot and not pay attention to anything extraneous, you can finish the game in probably 12 hours.

If you play what I would call an average experience where you're exploring a little bit, doing a little bit of side missions, mostly focusing on the main plot, but going off to the side to get that extra weapon or something--then we're talking about probably a 30 hour experience. I think the average player is going to have about 30 hours of gameplay if they finish the game or at least get very close to the end.

Shack: You referred to a "main plot," but earlier you were saying the consequences of your actions determine the direction of the game. So do your choices actually change how the main story develops?

Clint Hocking: There is a main plot, and there are three acts in that main plot. But who's involved in the climaxes of those acts is really completely variable. The best way for me to say it is like at the end of act one of Star Wars: A New Hope. Luke leaves Tatooine with Obi-Wan because Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are dead, and there's nothing left for him on Tatooine.

At the end of act one of our game, Luke will still leave Tatooine--you will still leave Tatooine with Obi- Wan. And Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru will still be dead. However, they might have been killed by Stormtroopers, they might have been killed by Sand People, they might have been killed by Han and Chewie, they might have been killed by Darth Vader, depending on what you did and how you did it.

Han and Chewie might have been there protecting them and been killed as well. The main event that is the impetus for the next event has to happen, and will happen. But how it happens is determined by the player's actions.

Shack: You mentioned building relationships with characters and extensive character interaction. How does that work other than either killing your friend or allowing him to live, saving him from enemies or letting him die? Can you communicate with other characters?

Clint Hocking: We don't let the avatar talk. To give you kind of an overview, I choose my avatar from a collection of what we call "buddies." The one I choose, obviously, doesn't appear in the game because I'm him. The other ones get populated into the game kind of randomly but not completely randomly.

And I can find them in the game world or be sent to get them in the game world. And always when I find them, they are in some kind of bad spot. In a sense I'm rescuing them when I find them.

I can kill them if I choose, but why would you go do a mission to kill someone? Then you unlock them and they start hanging out in the place that's kind of your base. There's a place where you can go that's kind of your safe place, where your crates for weapons and stuff are stored-- your hideout.

It's their hideout too--the hideout of the freelance mercenaries. And you can go and talk to them, and they'll start talking to each other, based on their own affinity for each other and whoever happens to be there.

You can sit down with them and they'll tell you a little bit of their story, and you can skip it or keep pressing the button for more and more information. They'll offer you side missions, so you can do missions for them. Literally the more you talk to them, the more you do missions for them, the more they rescue you, the more they accumulate value in terms of your friendship.

We call it a history rating. The guy with the strongest history rating elevates to become your favorite buddy. We start to track what happens to him, and he becomes more involved in the plot in certain ways. So in a sense it's partly like the more you prod for them to be your buddy, the more likely they will be to become your buddy.

Go to the last page for information on mod community support, Hocking's thoughts on Crysis, and how Far Cry 2 is similar to BioShock (but actually more like Fallout 2).


Shack: The original Far Cry had a pretty dedicated mod community. How do you plan to support the mod community with the Far Cry 2?

Clint Hocking: Obviously we're going to have multiplayer, but we're not really talking too much about multiplayer. But we're also going to have a map editor. One of the really great things about the Far Cry console games is that they had a really usable map editor. It wasn't super powerful in the way the Crytek engine was or the way our Dunia engine is. It wasn't full featured like that. But it was really usable and it allowed people to create very good maps very quickly.

"We learned a ton from the original Far Cry and it would be stupid to say we can't learn a lot from Crysis as well."
So we're going to have a map editor that's sort of a version two, upgrading all of the functionality in that and integrating a lot of fan requests. And then we'll have a much more robust community support platform to sort the wheat from the chaff. One of the things that was problematic in the Far Cry console games was [players saying] "I made a test map with a ladder and a box. Does it work?" And then you load it up, and you call it Skull Map, and 1500 people download it for 15 minutes--and it's an empty map with a ladder and a box. So we'll prevent that.

Shack: Are there plans at the moment to bring the game to consoles or just PC?

Clint Hocking: That's a business decision for Ubisoft. My team and the guys I'm working with have a mandate to make a PC title. So that's up to Ubisoft if they want to go down that path.

Shack: What do you think of Crytek's Crysis?

Clint Hocking: I can't wait to play it. It looks really cool. They made really different decisions from us. I think it's really hard to compare the games, but the reality is, if not an open world, they have a non-linear world in the way that the original Far Cry did.

We learned a ton from the original Far Cry and it would be stupid to say we can't learn a lot from Crysis as well. We have an advantage in the sense that they ship in November and we'll have all played it by Christmas and we'll be able to come back and evaluate it and see if there's anything more we can do.

Shack: Did you look at the directions they were going and purposefully try to do things differently?

Clint Hocking: I think a lot of our stuff was really determined before they were even announced, honestly. When we first started to put together our European press tour, we sat down and said, "Okay, what are the core messages we want to get out?" And we came up with a list of seven core values.

We were looking at them, and we went, "Holy fuck." And we went back and dug out the old documentations from our first three days of brainstorming, and one of the first things we did was come up with huge lists of analysis of the core values of Far Cry.

We picked out the ones we thought were the most important, and we rated them in order of importance. Six of the seven core values we had decided to communicate among that press were six of the top eight from that list from day three. Those were really what we decided on day one what we wanted to do.

It took us a couple of months to come up with Africa. That was the hardest part for us. How do you make a game that's exotic and you've never been there before? The tropical island is so perfect.

And the reality is, once you've been there in all these other games and all this other media, it's lost that characteristic. It's not exotic anymore. It might be cool, it might be fun, it might be awesome, it might be beautiful, but it's not exotic.

You feel like you know your way around. You're comfortable there now, which is not what we want. We want you to be a little bit uncomfortable and nervous and afraid. When we came up with Africa, that was when we knew we were really transforming everything, and that's when pieces just fell into place like Tetris.

Shack: I noticed on the Far Cry 2 developers blog it lists your favorite game as System Shock 2. Have you played BioShock yet?

Clint Hocking: [Laughs] No, because I went to Leipzig the day before BioShock hit the shelves, and I purposefully didn't download the demo because I knew I would play the demo and then have to wait like three weeks before I'd get a chance to play it.

I would play System Shock 2 again just like that, in a heartbeat. It's such a great game. And I'm really really really excited to play BioShock. I was hesitant when I saw it at E3 a year and a half ago because I wasn't sure they would be able to make what's a really esoteric art direction and really esoteric themes accessible, but I'm sure the game is just selling like crazy, and the really high reviews can't possibly hurt. Good for them. I can't wait to play it.

Shack: Could you draw any comparisons between BioShock and Far Cry 2 as far as making moral choices that have an effect on the gameplay?

Clint Hocking: Oh yeah, absolutely. Our game is jam-packed with that, for sure. Just by simple merit of the fact that a lot of the characters' lives in the game are literally and materially in your hands, and your life is in their hands. You build relationships with them actively.

I think in terms of how you build relationships with characters and how that all works--I'm just playing it now for the first time--I think Fallout 2 is a better example. Because these characters are characters that might be in your game, they might not be in your game, they might join your group, they might not join your group, they might live, they might die--it's up to you. It's not like that in System Shock.

Shack: Is there an expected release window for the game?

Clint Hocking: First quarter of 2008.

Shack: Thanks for the interview.

Clint Hocking: My pleasure.