Far Cry 3: Learning from mistakes
24th Sep 2011 | 14:30
Far Cry 2 was a great game," says Far Cry 3 Producer Dan Hay. "I played it and I loved it. But we went online, looked at what people were saying and decided things had to be tweaked." If they were paying attention, Hay's team would have left with a long list.
There were the enemyinfested checkpoints, endlessly respawning bastards no matter how many times you cleared them out. There were weapons that would explode and fall to pieces in your hands in the middle of a firefight against foes who ate lead like the Terminator.
Those same bulletproof sods made stealth near-impossible with their psychic AI routines, and ten of them would shoot you full of holes the instant one saw you.
Everyone in the world was hostile, and crossing the beautiful world wasn't a journey, it was an expedition - if you didn't come properly equipped you wouldn't make it halfway. Weapons were essential, but so were syrettes full of morphine, malaria drugs, a decent set of wheels, and a place to sleep along the way. The game was so obsessed with building a brutal and realistic world it didn't care whether you were enjoying yourself or not.
But Ubisoft Montreal's new Far Cry team know all that, and Far Cry 3 is all about fixing what came before. "We want to give the player the opportunity to turn on the action whenever they want," says Hay. "We want to make sure the AI isn't just hammering you with bullets. We want to let you move around the periphery of an area, making the game wait for you."
"We want the player to feel like they've got the tools at their disposal to really engage with the world however they choose," adds lead designer Jamie Keen. "So the way you stay hidden and the way the AI interacts with you has been improved. We've got an amazing stable of games around us at Ubisoft Montreal, and we've looked to Splinter Cell for inspiration.
"The game's not all about stealth, but you'll be able to play in a much stealthier way. It's not going to suddenly break as you're playing and have you cursing the AI. In fact, getting the enemy AI right is a really big challenge for us, and it's something super important that we really want to nail."
But you'll need something to shoot them with when you're done hiding, so those guns have been made tougher and their bullets hit harder. "We spent a lot of time discussing degrading weapons," says Hay.
"We don't want to punish the player, so the reality is that when you pick up a weapon, you're going to shoot it and you're going to be successful. As for respawning enemies and camps, if you go through and find someone and take them out, that's an action that's got to feel real. If you take out a character and you put them in the ground, they're staying in the ground."
It's an all-new team behind Far Cry 3, working with Far Cry 2's Dunia engine and following the lead established by Ubisoft's former Creative Director Clint Hocking, who has since left Ubisoft to work with Lucasarts. Shortly after the release of his game, Hocking hit the comments thread in a post about Far Cry 2 on games writer Tom Francis' blog Pentadact.com, defending some of the more radical decisions and explaining why the game was the way it was.
Why is everyone, your friends included, so hostile? "Because they are bad fucking people!" Hocking laughs. "They are self-interested, dangerous assholes. Don't be so high and mighty, errand boy. You've probably killed and burned and stabbed more people than all of your buddies combined. Why do you think you are the one we hired to kill The Jackal and not one of them?
"The respawning guardposts thing - yeah, we're getting raked over the coals for that. Funny thing is, we did discuss it. I decided it was better to have them repopulate rather than have the player be able to empty the world of gameplay. I still think it is the better solution, barring a really robust one that would have taken weeks we did not have. As much as I think it is the best possible solution, I admit I underestimated the response. Lesson learned.
"I would very much have liked to have done a better job of realising the buddy system, making them more present and meaningful," he continued. Time, it appears, became a deadly factor in development.
"We didn't know until far too late how long those faction missions would be - they are three times as long as we imagined, easily, making the pacing of the 'hunting The Jackal' story much weaker."
Hocking's self-awareness has been taken to heart by the Far Cry 3 team - they know how good Hocking's game was, and they know there's room for improvement. "Far Cry 2 is an amazing platform to start from," says Keen. "There were definitely some things we can improve on. Those are the things we want to address first and foremost."
GOING THE DISTANCE
"I think we specifically wanted to make sure that we build a game where, if you're a shooter player, you can come straight in and be successful," says Hay. "But if you play other types of games, like RPGs, you can still pick up the controller and enjoy it. (Main man) Jason Brody is a character just like you. He's on vacation and his plane crashes, and he's forced to survive.
"We wanted to make sure that the act of going through the jungle wasn't arduous," he explains. "We wanted to make sure there's something around every corner. You might find an worked, amplifying the experience in strange and interesting ways. The brutality of the world matched the lawless, war-torn setting, and the difficulty of crossing the terrain and unreliable weapons gave it an edge of hyper-realism few games have ever matched.
"They tried some really brave stuff," says Keen. "That brutal world, no HUD... That's a really brave direction, especially in an open world game where there's a lot of information you need to relay to the player. In Far Cry 3 we don't want to alienate the player, but we still want to retain some of Far Cry 2's heritage."
Far Cry 2 felt like a world first and a game second. There were few concessions to modern game design - no sign-posting of objectives, for example. So while you'd curse your flimsy weapons or the twitchy AI, you still felt perpetually on the edge. While Far Cry 3's world is more accessible by design, it's more deliberately immersive, too.
"We want our setting to feel like a living place. Not something you're driving yourself, but something you just kind of get involved in," says Keen. "You'll see villagers doing something over there, or a fight happening over here, or a crash that's happened. You'll get a real feeling that the world is alive and that it's going about its business when you're not there. There are people trying to live their lives in this dangerous world. You're going to meet people who'll offer you tasks that aren't all about combat. Even the really bad guys will leave you alone if you help them out."
There's a new economy, a cover system, a levelling system, and weapons which simply explode with power. "It's really important," says Keen, "for us to make it all feel real."
THE UNREAL THING
Reality was Far Cry 2's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. As Hocking put it: "If we've managed to make a shooter that makes the average person feel something because of all the violence he is causing then I think we've succeeded." On those terms it was a spectacular success, right up to the final moments where you're given one last choice: How do you die? A bomb or a bullet?
Beneath that searing African sun, Far Cry 2 was a hell on Earth and it often played like one. It was never the reality of the situation that hurt the game, but the unreality - the moments when AI respawned, when apparently perfect cover failed to hide you, when six bullets wouldn't drop a man, or when everyone in the world wanted you dead at all costs.
As criminal gangs exploit slave labour on a tropical paradise and thugs execute innocent people on their front steps, Far Cry 3 isn't about shying away from that reality. It's about making the world more real by stripping out those moments of unreality and building an open world more intricate and detailed than any space in a videogame.
"If you've never been on a plane or never experienced the Indian Ocean, or Thailand, or the Philippines," Hay says, "well, now you can, for the price of a videogame. But it's a dark, gritty place. We won't shy away from controversy. We sat down and we asked - what scares us? We aren't afraid of what's under the bed. We aren't afraid of what's in the closet.
"We're afraid of the guy who comes through the window at three o'clock in the morning with a knife. That's this game. How do you deal with it? How do you manage it?' Hay pauses. 'Okay, so now how do you manage it if you're in the middle of nowhere where there is nobody to help at all... ever?" Next year, we get to find out.