Far Cry 2 Hands-on Preview

"I can't even be showing you this. You're totally out of the demo area. But the world is there."

Is it ever. Lead artist Alex Amancio is taking us off the beaten path near the end of my look at Far Cry 2. I see thatched roof huts, brightly colored graffiti sprayed across the walls. Sun-soaked stones line the clear river behind me, a jagged cliff to my front. Far below is a yellow grassland that stretches on for miles. A few convincing water buffalo stand grazing off in the distance, a shot right out of No Country.

Variety is the key to understanding what Far Cry 2 is about. It's a full menu of a game, a long list of cool features, interesting twists, and surprising detail.

That detail seems to permeate every facet of the game's design. Every area is richly textured and wholly different from the last. Every enemy has a totally unique appearance. Every weapon degrades and ages over time.

It is fitting that a shooter based on presenting the player with options has spawned two very different sequels. With an open world of 50 square kilometers, a branching mission-based plot powered by a GTA-like cellphone, and an engine built for cross-platform performance, Ubisoft's Far Cry sequel is a wholly different take on the concept than we saw with Crytek's Crysis.

And while I definitely enjoyed Crysis for what it was, Far Cry 2 is shaping up to have far more gameplay potential. Registered users can use the HD Stream.

My time with the PC version started in the middle of a jungle, but by the end, I had seen river canyons, swamps, savannas, dusty camps and tribal villages. Technically speaking, Far Cry 2's modeling is perhaps a little less staggering than Crysis'. Artistically speaking, it's like comparing one painting to ten paintings.

"We basically built the engine from the ground up to be able to create this open world," said Amancio, speaking at a rapid clip, clearly excited about his game. "It's a 50 square kilometer open world game. It's streaming, so no loading. Everything is dynamic. The plants that you're seeing, the animations, they're not animated--this is really procedural. If there was to be a storm, and the wind would kick up, you'd have branches breaking off--the trees would react."

Like Crysis, you can shoot the branches off of trees. Like Crysis, you can choose to attack enemy camps using a stealth or straightforward approach. Like Crysis, you can drive vehicles, and pick up enemy weapons, and shoot people.

But that's where the similarities end. Unlike Crysis, this game is about anything but linear progression, island environments, and aliens.

Amancio tells me that the team at Ubisoft decided early on to go for a more realistic, grounded world than that found in the original game. "As soon as the mutants came out [in Far Cry], it sort of lost its interest," he said. "Because it was really stealth, Rambo type game, then all of a sudden you had to empty four clips into this pink thing that's charging you."

To that end, Far Cry 2 is set in Africa, deep inside a country that has been ripped apart by civil war. Your long-term goal is to find and kill the Jackal, an elusive arms dealer that has holed up in the area.

"It's this collapsed country with these two factions that are fighting eachother," explains Amancio. "[The Jackal] is allowing this conflict to continue. So you have to find this guy to kill him. But to get to him you have to sort of befriend both factions, play them against each other and gain information as you get closer and closer to this guy."

On the way to locating the Jackal, the player will be tasked with completing a number of optional missions, each slowly progressing the story no matter the branch that is chosen.

"The story is non-linear," said Amancio. "And it's not like those types of games where they say, 'Oh, we have a non-linear story,' and it's like, 'A or B--which way do you want to go, left or right?' Our game is sort of a pattern of different events, and everything reshapes itself depending on what you do."

The first thing I did in the demo was receive a phone call from Frank, an Irish ally holed up inside a nearby safehouse. Your character carries a cellphone on him, and missions can be accepted or amended via the device. Parallels to Grand Theft Auto are impossible to ignore.

After reaching the safehouse, I let Frank give me his spiel with a press of the "E" key. There are no dialogue trees in Far Cry 2--when Frank offers a job, I could either hit "E" again, or simply walk away.

These safehouses act as their name describes, allowing you a moment to take a breather. It is here that you can use the stopwatch to accelerate time, turning it to night or day depending on your current preference. Darkness provides for greater stealth, but you'll have a better view of the enemy during the day.

Other allies that you have rescued during the course of the game will hang out inside, offering you missions or help. You can choose to play as any of the nine allies, even Frank himself, and the remaining group will simply populate the game--like Warren, a tough-guy who sat in the corner.

Elaborated Amancio: "I could go [into the safehouse] and shoot my buddy in the head, and what did he have to say to me? I'll never know. But the game will evolve, it will sort of adapt to that.. If you play it twice, you can have a totally different experience."

Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_ Frank offers me a mission to take out a water pipeline which a rebel faction is exploiting, selling fresh water in exchange for arms. After detonating the pipeline, Frank expects the rebels to call for reinforcements. While I'm keeping them busy, he will attack another rebel camp, one headed up by a local warlord that crossed Frank in the past.

Outside the safehouse was a jeep, providing for convenient transport to the target. Driving in the direction of the pipeline, I occasionally glanced down at the steering wheel, where my tattered map was sprawled over the horn. These maps, very slick in design, are key to navigation in the large world of Far Cry 2.

"We have basically world maps, 25x25 kilometers," explains Amancio. "We have sector maps which are 1x1 kilometers, we call them local maps. And then we have detail maps, which are basically [for these] areas."

After reaching the outskirts of the camp, I pulled out a pair of primitive binoculars. Using these, I could see mark targets with a touch of the trigger. Marking one sniper put the location of every sniper in the area on the map, and likewise with vehicles and other enemy types. Unlike the larger maps, the smaller local maps are highly detailed, showing the outline of the water pipeline and other buildings. In conjunction with enemy markers, the map allows you to carefully plan your attack.

My ensuing assault didn't live up to expectations. After triggering the attention of a nearby enemy, I was soon in an all-out firefight. Quickly finding myself outnumbered, I hit the ground hard, mortally wounded. It was then that Warren, the ally from the safehouse, emerged from the jungle, spraying bullets at the surrounding enemies.

Dragging me to safety, Warren injected me with a syringe, then handed me a gun to keep the pace of the game going. Nice service, but you can't relax yet--Warren will stick around to fight with you, and if he dies, he's gone for good.

Syringes of morphine act as the game's health units. You can carry up to three at a time, with extras being picked up in medkits found around buildings. Along with self-injections, the character can also perform a little impromptu surgery, digging a pair of rusty pliers right into a wound and extracting bullets.

After getting back on my feet, it was time to get serious. Sneaking up behind a wall, I popped off a few shots with a silenced pistol, dropping a nearby guard. Picking up his AK-47, I noticed that it was significantly aged, rusty and degraded. Amancio noted that this is actually a dynamic feature--even enemy guns will break down based on time and use, becoming older and more prone to jamming.

Enemies are purely dynamic, never spawned. Instead, they simply exist in the world, sometimes called in from other areas by signal flares. Amancio recalled one instance in testing where, after reinforcements were sent to finish him off, he had five enemy trucks on his tail, a record for testing. Needless to say, he died soon after.

The battle reaching a fever pitch, more than a few corpses began to litter the ground. At this, Amancio took the opportunity to point out that the enemies will always be totally randomized in appearance.

"If you notice, all enemies are different," he said. "You'll see this on console [too]. I wanted to create a system where every enemy would be different, but I had a hard time justifying the development of this. But since we have multipalyer, and we needed to create something for variety in multiplayer, we were able to use the same system."

It's a great feature, something we've been waiting to see in a game for a long time. Unfortunately, I didn't have long to admire the fashion show. It was time to return fire.

During my demo, I fired off pistols, machineguns, shotguns, RPGs, and a laser-guided rocket launcher right out of Half-Life. I can't say that many of these guns were particularly notable, but the focus on iron-sight aiming was very apparent. Firing from the hip, or firing out of a sighted aim, was wild and terribly ineffective.

Probably the most interesting of the weapons was the flamethrower, which can quickly create a torrent of realistically-spreading fire. The wind governs the spread of the flames, as does the material lit--dry grass will catch fire more effecitvely than wet jungle foliage. Unsurprisingly, Amancio mentioned that oil puddles are particularly useful.

The enemy AI was a bit buggy in this early build of the game, so it was difficult to get a sense of the ebb and flow of combat, except to say that the typical Far Cry stealth vs. soldier dichotomy is very much intact. Full-on firefights were incredibly chaotic, with enemies flanking and taking cover behind trees. Incoming RPG fire was notably terrifying, both in its abruptness and its damage. On the stealth side of things, the wonderful machete weapon allowed me to sneak up behind an enemy and slit his throat in a quiet, gruesome kill.

In fact, hacking and slashing with the machete can be so sick that it can actually begin to affect the player's mental health. Amacio told me that if you choose to kill your enemies in sadistic fashion, chopping away at their corpses, you may become temporarily mad, actually losing control of the character as he goes on a rampage. This unbalanced behavior can also impact how other people treat you in the game world.

"The more immoral stuff you do, the less people will be willing to help you, and they're gonna stop giving you malaria medication. So you yeah, you're gonna have a reputation where people are gonna see you coming in and they're like, 'It's that nutcase who kills people with machetes!' But if you don't do all those atrocities, yes, people will not be as afraid of you, and you will be stronger physically."

Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_ The world of Far Cry 2 is comprised of varied elements, right down to the races of your enemies--which at first seems a little strange given the setting. When asked why there were white and Asian enemies in the middle of Africa, Amancio explained that this fictional country has seen an influx of foreign mercenaries due to the promise of blood diamonds.

"Once the government collapsed and they realized there were no big diamond mines, these mercs basically declared bankruptcies, so these guys are stuck there," he added. "They don't want to leave because they have too much invested in it. So that's why there's a big diversity, there's white guys, black guys, Asian guys. It's a big variety of people."

When further questioned as to whether this was simply a cute way of getting around having only black people as foes, Amancio stressed that Ubisoft's game is simply using Africa as a setting, and is meant to be apolitical in nature.

"Our game is really not about any of the--it's not political, it's not about any of the problems that are taking place in the African continent. Our game is about a self journey, about trust and betrayal and a journey into the heart of darkness. You have to go and find this man, this merchant of death, but to get to him, the things you have to do, you're sort of becoming him. It's an analysis of morality. So thats the subject, that's the goal of the game. Not anything political, or anything racial or whatever. We really didn't want to draw attention to that, because that's not the issue at all--it never was."

Even the zebras and other animals--very impressively animated, by the way--are politically correct.

"You can [kill animals]. We don't offer any reward, because we don't want to encourage people to kill wildlife. We stayed away from any species that was even remotely considered endangered. We really didn't want to go there."

Eventually I managed to focus on my mission long enough to place an explosive charge on the water pipe, completing the quest and triggering a confirmation call from Frank.

The demo ended with a look at the glider. Yes, gliding is back, with even more travel potential considering the open, expansive nature of the game. Soaring over the detailed landscapes below, it seemed like there was no way the console version could hold up to the level of detail I was seeing on the PC--but a glance across the room proved otherwise.

After watching the Xbox 360 version for a good while, I had a hard time finding major differences between the two, other than some occasional pop-in on the console. Luckily Amancio, lead artist that he was, had some insight into that particular facet of design.

"There are resolution issues--the PC always runs at a higher resolution, higher textures. Lighting calculations are also more precise on the PC. We have real-time radiosity--this stump here is being illuminated by these rocks here. There's actually light bouncing going on."

Even still, textures and geometry on the 360 looked incredibly close to the PC version. This is because the game was created with relatively lower-resolution textures in mind, the focus being on artistic detail over pure texture size. Leaves were streaked with individual veins, and wood textures had a convincing grain to them.

As for the multiplayer component, Amancio noted that it will have plenty of modes, with a class-based component likely to play a part. He also went into detail on the game's expansive multiplayer map editor, which will also be included on the console version along with a map rating system a la LittleBigPlanet. Users can download maps straight to their console hard drives.

"It will also ship with a level editor. And the level editor, I can tell you, it's probably going to be the most powerful level editor of this generation. One thing Instincts did really well is that it shipped a really cool level editor on console. Our level editor is in that vein, but next level. It's really powerful. We basically give you the same tools that we have to create this game. So I think the maximum map size is half a square kilometer, which is huge.

"We're also planning on doing something where maps are rated, so that way you don't have to sift through 500 maps and say, 'Is this map good?'

Three years ago, who would have thought a non-Crytek developed Far Cry sequel would have been anything but a quick cash-in? Now the reality is that, after almost an hour of taking in Far Cry 2, I still don't feel like I've seen even a fraction of the big picture. The way the developers talk, Far Cry 2 could be a truly epic game, with an ever-changing story, true freedom of progression, and a wide range of activities to keep you busy.

And though you won't be physically pushing aside ferns, or blowing every hut into tiny little pieces, the sheer diversity of art on display is just as impressive. Moving from an idyllic river setting to a barren desert in the span of a few minutes, watching the breeze whip at a patch of grass, you see that Ubisoft is very much crafting a living, breathing world in Far Cry 2, rather than a simple collection of levels.

It's a little bit S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a little bit Grand Theft Far Cry, and very intriguing. Time will tell whether the potential has been fully tapped.

Far Cry 2 is set for release on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 later this year.