- With the original Far Cry developers departed and Far Cry 2's development in new hands, you'd have been forgiven for expecting the sequel to be nothing more than a prettier version of its predecessor - playable and enjoyable but hardly special.
Imagine our shock then, when Far Cry 2 was revealed to not only be one of the most graphically impressive games we've seen on PC, but also a title attempting to push current boundaries of AI, characters and player freedom.
To find out what the development team aimed to achieve with the epic quest, we dropped Ubisoft a line and spoke to the chaps working on bringing Africa to your British bedsit.
A number of previous games have boasted of having independent AI, but usually they follow predictable routines regardless of whether they're scripted or not. What's different in Far Cry 2?
Dominic Guay, Technology Director: You are right to point out that having an autonomous AI does not make it automatically unpredictable.
It all depends on the array of possible actions and behaviours you provide the autonomous AI to work with. It's a bit scary to give an AI a lot of actions because it means it will not be as predictable for us developers and that makes our job harder.
I saw in some games "autonomous AIs" that would basically only run to the nearest cover as soon as they were bothered and stick there forever, shooting at the player.
For FC2, considering our goals for the game, we needed the AI to be able to handle a vast array of possible situations.
And we suppose the massive emphasis on player freedom makes that even more complicated, right?
Guay: The player can come from any direction, at day or night, using any weapons, long range or short range, setting fires, using boats or trucks, etc. So our AI needs to be able to deal with all of those situations, to adapt to the extent of the player's freedom of play and freedom of tactics.
Outside of battle, our AI is driven by its needs, mixing work, social activities and rest. This is also necessary considering the player can visit an area at an unpredictable time from an unpredictable place or visit the same area multiple times.
If the behaviours were predictable it would hinder the replayability. All this said, I'm still regularly surprised by our AI, I think that's a good sign.
You seem to be approaching the whole immersion sim/RPG genre, what with the unpredictable world, different NPC's, weather patterns, day & night cycles. What about people who just want to blow stuff up?
Guay: That's something we have kept in mind all along. The team really wants to do a new style of game with FC2, not just "another shooter".
That said, we also want the user to play the game they want to play, the way they want to play it. If a player wants to focus on main missions and play an aggressive style, it is possible to do so.
Even though we communicate a lot on what we feel makes FC2 unique, we actually spent a lot of effort making sure that the controls and weapons were finely tuned and fundamentally fun to use.
Ultimately, the unpredictable world, the dynamic and destructible environment, the propagating fire and the large open battlefields are things that we believe will thrill the people who "just want to blow stuff up".
As the new engine takes advantage of multi-core processors, what sort of system requirements can we expect for Far Cry 2 on PC?
Guay: That is still in flux. This said, the game is very scalable, including to single-core processors and GPUs that are many years old.
We keep all game features across the quality settings, it is only the detail and quality of the rendition of them that is changed. A little while back, I played the game on a gaming PC that is almost 4 years old.
At the other extreme, I sometimes play the game on a 4 core system running in dual GPU mode. Our development team uses a large array of PCs and they all run the game.
We are still focused on optimizations but as we near the ship date we will be able to give clear requirements.
Players can choose from a variety of different characters at the start of the game. How have you managed to keep a tight story going for so many possible characters without making them bland and overly similar?
Clint Hocking, Creative Director: Much like Gordon Freeman, the character you play in FC2 becomes a sort of 'blank slate' once you choose him. There is no dialogue from the player character, because we want the player to be the character and to be completely immersed in that experience.
The journey for the player is a personal one - not one written by a writer that tells him how his character feels that may have no real relationship to how he feels. In service of this, the entire story of the game has been made interactive and dynamic. That's why we have so many characters.
Depending on how you play, who you ally with, and who lives and who dies, some of those characters will be very important, while others will be minor characters, and still others you may never encounter.
Our dynamic narrative seeks to construct certain elements of the story based on your actions. We believe it is much more interesting to make a decision about the life or death of a character who you have build a real relationship with through the mechanics of play than it is to make a life or death decision about a character in a cutscene that has been made important for you by the writer. Games, after all, are about the player's story - not the writer's story.
We've seen a phone and a buddy system in another game recently. In fact, aside from location there are a lot of similarities between Far Cry 2 and GTA IV. Was this just a coincidence?
Hocking: I think the way you work with a Buddy in FC2 and the way it is done in GTA are completely different. In any case, it's pretty clear if you look back to Leipzig where our Buddy System was first detailed, well, there was basically no information about GTA IV at that time - we definitely came up with our buddies independently.
That said, there is no doubt that girlfriends in GTA: San Andreas were a minor influence or inspiration on certain elements of our Buddy System.
Soldiers in the original X-Com were another influence. In fact, any game from Ico to Bioshock that has ever attempted to use game mechanics to forge meaningful relationships between the player and game characters has been some kind of influence.
So no - it's not coincidence. It's a case of people with similar aims and similar inspirations working on similar problems at the same time.
Co-op play is a big thing in games at the moment. Did you ever think about going down this route?
Louis-Pierre Pharand, Producer: At some point we did. We decided to abandon it for this instalment simply because of the complexity and size of the game.
Just on single-player alone, gamers can potentially have close to 50 hours of game play. Add the multi-player experience and the map editor... gamers will have their money's worth with Far Cry 2.
What did you think of the trailer to Uwe Boll's new Far Cry movie?
Pharand: Nothing in Particular.
How are the PS3/360 versions shaping up and did they impose any limitations on developing the PC version?
Pharand: The console versions look and play great. They're stunning!
After the Games Conventions in Leipzig last year, the engineering team had as a mandate to port our engine (DUNIA) to console. So it could be used by other Ubisoft titles.
The team wanted to push its limits and decided to use Far Cry 2 data. The game looked great and we decided at that point to do some R&D to see the feasibility of having the same game on consoles.
They did it! So why not have more gamers enjoy the experience? That being said we started as a PC game and we are still a dedicated PC team. Since we want to have as many PC gamers enjoy the experience, the console developments actually helped the mid-requirement settings on PC.
That's the long answer, the short one: we did not impose limitations on the PC version.
You've said you're not trying to control the player's experience. In such a vast area and without an overriding goal, aren't you worried about players getting lost and bored?
Pharand: That is a very good question. Yes, that was definitely a concern we had and we worked hard to find ways to solve this design problem.
First, the missions are definitely there to guide the player towards a goal to assure he knows how to progress in the world without hesitations.
Second, while following those goals, it will be very easy to spot optional locations where it is possible to save, gear up, gather intelligence and buy weapons to spice things up.
Third, on top of those optional areas which are literally identified on the map, we have a diamond tracker that makes it pretty easy to know if diamonds are nearby which renders exploration more enjoyable.
Since diamonds are used to unlock new weapons, they will definitely be something handy for everyone.
Fourth, AI is also completely autonomous and therefore no patrols or small guard posts will feel the same twice, which is definitely one of the key factors at work here.
The amount of emergent moments generated out of that is pretty impressive and still keep us excited when we play even after 3 years... so we believe that will definitely help keep the excitement levels higher than pre-mashed experiences that last only once.
We firmly believed it was better for Far Cry 2 to let the player fully express himself, so we decided to deal with the design challenges related to that instead of going the easy route and control everything.
Players will always know what the current goal is and will be free to act as they please along the way. The important part is to make sure the options are well understood so players do not get bored.
In the end, power of choice is quite exciting as long because you know what the choice is all about...