Animals are people, too.
Forget those intelligent design school board tyrants - it should be clear from the evidence that humanity has always had an animal side. I mean, look around! Proof of our mammalian roots is everywhere: in our sports, our music, and even in the wild. Yes, our civilized world is just a steak tartar away from jumping back into the jungle, and I, for one, can't wait to swing on a vine.
Don't get me wrong though, I'm no evolutionist. I prefer to believe that humans were created by a flying spaghetti monster. Fear his noodly appendage!
And then, fear Ubisoft Montreal's surprising first-person shooter, Far Cry: Instincts, which may well be the missing link in the evolution of the console shooter. After a full year of mostly subpar, derivative first-person shooters, this beast bears tidings of change, bites the neck of solid gameplay and thrashes around its lush environments like a pit bull on a human-flavored chew-toy. Down, metaphor, down! Good boy.
Though it shares the same first name as the hailed PC first-person shooter from 2004, Instincts was built from the ground up as an Xbox game. Considering the immense size and scope of the original, this would seem a daunting task. Lucky for Xbox owners, the dev team passed with flying colors, giving this game just as much punch as its PC forbear.
It won't wow you with story, though. You play as Jack Carver, an alpha male if ever there was one. The basic idea is that you are trying to escape from an island where a well-armed militia guards some secret scientific project. Near the beginning of the game, you are captured, made a test subject and subsequently acquire super-cool animal powers. Some typical action hoo-ha happens, a bunch of people got shot and gored, and you try to fight your way off the island. Like I said, not a lot of wows in the story, but that's where the non-wowing ends.
The sense of immersion in the jungle environment is unrivaled, except perhaps by Metal Gear Solid 3, and that's some high praise. The mountains, waterfalls, rivers, and underbrush are all lovingly detailed. Perhaps the smallest tweak brings the whole picture together: the sounds of the forest. This isn't just bird noises and bugs chirping - you hear the twigs and branches move and scratch at your face as you crawl through the underbrush. The attention to the non-combat details of the game fill out the world with a palpable sense of serenity and peace.
Of course, that quiet beauty ends in a hail of gunfire. As in most shooters, you have the obvious arsenal of rifles, handguns, and grenades at your disposal.Unlike most shooters, there are all kinds of ways to kill bad guys with them. Say you see two luckless mercenaries talking with each other in a hut. Do you: (A) sneak up through the back door and stab them in the jugular; (B) burst in the front door guns blazing; (C) crawl underneath the hut, roll over on your back, and shoot them through cracks in the floorboard; (D) set a trap on a nearby tree and draw them to it by flinging rocks; or (E) leave them be, slink past the hut and steal their motorcycle? The answer is, uh, (F) any of the above. The game gives you a number of death-dealing resources - like the clever tree-branch traps and the slick back-roll maneuver - but leaves it entirely up to you to choose between them.
Such giant possibility is matched by giant environments. While the game is essentially linear, that line is about two miles wide. Early in the game, you will be called upon to get to a waypoint. You can choose to run down the beach, putting you in sight and range of the patrol boats off-shore, or you can go in-land and try the stealthy approach, dispatching guards with your plethora of tricks. The size of the environments can sometimes be daunting and confusing, but it also frees you from the one-way, blinders-on racetracks of most shooters.
Given the mammoth size of the levels, the ability to pilot most of the vehicles in the game is a definite relief, though the vehicles are almost exclusively meant for transpo, not war. The first-person driving mechanic is nearly impossible to master since all of the vehicle's movements are mapped to a single stick, while the other stick aims your view. In theory, that means you can look to the side and strafe innocent bystanders as you drive-by. In practice, it means that innocent bystanders will laugh mockingly at you as you drive your motorcycle into the side of a building. And then, amazingly, run yourself over.
But thankfully, your driving skills are not as necessary once you gain your animal powers. Dubbed 'primal abilities', these manifest themselves in the form of groovy super powers. As soon as you learn to run like a dog, you chase more vehicles than you drive. Another handy one is the ability to "smell" your opponent's scent trails, which is nicely followed up by disemboweling them with a lunging paw attack. Not only do you see your opponents in the dark, but you can see a vivid trail showing where they have been. If you're smart and patient enough, you can track then down and pounce on them from behind.
Despite its variety, gorgeous visuals and satisfying violence, Far Cry: Instincts still pees on a few trees and poops in a few yards. One is the checkpoint save system, which can prove frustrating during some of the harder sequences. Kicking ass through a host of enemies only to die before saving, then having to replay it again and again, can wrack even the most placid of animal nerves.
For all of its visual appeal, some delivery problems crop up as well. The frequent conversations between enemies, as they chat about baseball or their buddy's sexual preferences, are genuinely funny and well-written. However, all the voices are preternaturally quiet, especially your own, requiring bat-like hearing to understand what anyone is saying. And while the engine is a monster, it sometimes cracks under its own weight. I once watched a helicopter fly directly into a mountain and then out of it again, unharmed. I suppose this sort of trade off between sheer size and random glitches is relatively commonplace, but that doesn't make it any less noticeable.
The final unscooped dropping sits on what might have been the best bit of the whole game: the multiplayer. The online experience holds a lot of promise; not only are the environments lush, the vehicles drivable and the weapons dual-wieldable, but all of the cunning traps and stealthy maneuvers from the single-player game are available. Besides, if you don't like the environments, the game includes a somewhat revolutionary (for the consoles, at least) map editor, so you can just create your own.
But despite such depth, the game simply fails to fill in the gaps. Most of the player-built maps flat out stink, and given that it takes about five minutes to download one, there should be some kind of online rating system to distinguish between the crappy ones and the less crappy ones. There isn't. Also missing is any player ranking, reward, or record for winning games. The entire online menu system is messy, using obscure icons to designate Noodly Appendage knows what, and populated with "unknown" maps that are usually more trouble than they are worth. While making a map is fun, getting rightfully wary competitors to download it is a trick. The pre-built maps are nothing special, either, although they are usually a good sight more solid than a player-created one.
The real star of the multiplayer show is the new "Predator" multiplayer mode, in which one player bestowed with a payload of primal abilities and unlimited lives attempts to defend a point against a number of humans. It's a welcome innovation of the king of the hill mechanic and is pretty cool. Sadly, there are precious few other modes available, just Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and CTF, not a huge selection from what is otherwise a huge game.
But perhaps this disappointment comes as a result of the inspiring single-player campaign. Like a fruit fly bred to eat other fruit flies, Far Cry: Instincts injects some really good genes into the morass of first-person shooter DNA. In its next evolution, we'd like to see more appendages and, of course, more tail.