When it was released back in 2004, the original Far Cry was ground breaking in many respects.
It marked the debut of the CryEngine, a purpose-built graphical engine designed to push the limits of the available hardware by offering staggeringly deep draw distances, extensive pixel shader use and (eventually) support for Shader Model 3.0. Due to the setting of a lush tropical island, most people will remember Far Cry for the level of complexity provided to the water and vegetation effects. Although the storyline was dark and complex, it generally took a back seat to the eye candy.
Four years on, and the plan hasn't changed much. Ubisoft Montreal took over development of the sequel, but despite the lack of involvement from CryTek, Far Cry 2 will probably be remembered for pushing the graphical envelope just as much as the original did - owing greatly to its (again) purpose-built "Dunia" graphics engine, which has been four years in development. This time however it's not the dime-a-dozen "tropical island setting with underground bunkers" theme you'll be investing a significant portion of your pre-holiday time with, it's a land that offers virtually limitless scope to entertain and enthrall, and one which has barely been approached by game makers before - Africa.
A lot of the specifics are still under wraps, however from what we've seen today there's no doubt that the new graphics engine is a stunning achievement. Our character, one of eight selectable avatars in the game (a nice twist: those you reject become NPCs in their own right) had been dropped into marshland in an unnamed sector of the fifty-square-kilometre game map. Upon reaching the shoreline, we located a hut and received a mission from an enigmatic NPC speaking in a thick Northern Irish brogue. The mission simply required us to blow up a pipeline - something Ubisoft covered at E3 this year - however we were able to see a bit more of the combat mechanism shortly afterwards.
As previously mentioned, the map is enormous - fifty square kilometres is enough to keep you wandering for a very long time indeed, so in order to speed things up there are various vehicles scattered around, most of which appear to be in a pretty poor state of repair. Upon acquiring a small, battered hatchback, we drove the short distance to the pipeline along dusty, grass-lined paths scattered with industrial junk, presumably from various failed engineering projects designed to move more African wealth offshore.
Upon reaching the pipeline and destroying it with TNT, the enemy charged with protecting it emerged from a nearby settlement and put us under some fairly sustained gunfire. We had been advised that the auto-targeting system had been disabled for the preview code we were playing, but even using iron sights our return fire was accurate and deadly. Switching between a light machine gun, pistol and machete we managed to dispatch several of the realistically modelled African bandits and escape downriver in a boat to safety, periodically using a syringe to inject some kind of drug that restored our health. (If you get dangerously close to death, you also have the option of digging the bullets out of your body with a knife, to restore some vitality.)
We could have approached this mission in several different ways. In the hut where we received the mission, which acts as a save point, you have the ability to set an alarm on your watch before taking a nap - which skips time forward resulting in a corresponding change in the day/night cycle. So if you prefer stealth, you could set your alarm for midnight and do the mission in moonlight; or if you prefer to be able to see what you're shooting at, do it after lunch instead.
Although we couldn't confirm the actual length of the day/night cycle, Ubisoft did confirm to us that it's generally shorter than has been done in the past. The ambient weather effects, sunlight and clouds have been modelled with such unbelievable attention to detail it's hard to believe someone didn't just point a camera at the sky and hit record.
The environment around you is nothing short of remarkable. Prior to entering the demonstration I'd tried to think of any previous FPS titles that contained anything but a passing reference to Africa, and besides the odd WW2 shooter showing dusty battles with Rommel, had come up blank. It's staggering that nobody has done this before. Perhaps the task was too daunting or nobody wanted to do any on-the-ground research, but in any case Ubisoft has hit the nail on the head first time with Far Cry 2. Not only do you get to shoot down individual branches from trees, you can cause percussive damage with grenades that make plants and grass sway realistically outwards from the epicentre, and just like the original Far Cry, the water detail is some of the very best you'll find on any console title, period.
There's one major addition though that, whilst not unique, has been given such a huge level of attention by the developers that it's affected the game at its very core. Fire. Not only can you cause significant damage to an enemy encampment by lobbing in a few grenades, you can also smoke out your foe by lighting a few fires around the camp and sitting back to watch the fun. You might want to consider sitting a long way back however, as in Far Cry 2 fires are hardly what you'd describe as localised. The flame front can and will spread rapidly, igniting other clumps of dry grass and whatever structure happens to be in the way, and in an environment such as Africa there are a fair number of dry objects to ignite.
It really is as if the developers want you to have fun with their new effects; you can pick up a flame-thrower and use its great destructive potential on the environment as well as the enemy, or even both at the same time. Ditto with the rocket launcher. Watch out using the same weapon for too long though, as they will wear out, first causing them to jam, then eventually explode in your hands.
Some African animals also appear from time to time, although you can't kill them - the wrath of the SPCA is rightfully feared.
It appears that the lack of CryTek's assistance hasn't caused any detrimental effects on this title, indeed quite the opposite - there's more than enough to keep any FPS fan satisfied here, and although we only saw a small portion of the truly immense world, we enjoyed our stay, and can't wait to see the finished result in late October.