First-person shooters are such a by-the-numbers genre that it's a welcome breath of fresh air when a developer incorporates some genuinely unique elements to differentiate its game from the run-and-gun style that even the best shooters complacently settle into. Such is the case with Far Cry Instincts. Not to be mistaken as a direct port of last year's PC original Far Cry, Instincts is an original game that is essentially a heavily altered version of the PC game.
The game begins as run-of-the-mill wise guy Jack Carver, a boat driving tour guide in an unnamed tropical region, is escorting a young woman on a photography venture off the coast of some uncharted islands. She insists on leaving the boat for a short time, and while she's gone, Jack is attacked by heavily armed mercenaries and narrowly thwarts death. Abandoning his boat as it's destroyed, he slips into the jungle and begins a quest to escape the island alive. While that scenario alone would have provided ample fare for a top-notch survival-action game, the plot slowly grows more sinister and eventually veers off into a mixture of Jurassic Park and The Island of Dr. Moreau.
What separates Far Cry Instincts from the pack is its emphasis on stalk-and-kill stealth gameplay. While the game does fall victim to a number of hackneyed clichés, it also introduces some unique gameplay elements that make it more than just another shooter. Jack finds himself in a lush tropical paradise populated with heavily armed mercenaries. Confronting them Rambo-style when he is armed with only a knife and a pistol is almost certainly suicide. Instead, he can crouch or belly-crawl through the thick foliage to remain unseen, silently stabbing enemies from behind or setting traps and using diversions to attract their attention.
The trap system is one of the more unique elements in the game, although it is fairly limited. By just pressing a button, players send Jack into a "trap mode" that allows him to fix natural traps on trees. There is only one kind of natural trap, and how Jack can make them infinitely (and instantly) is a bit of a logical mystery, but hey, it's a videogame, right? Jack can throw rocks to make noise in an attempt to lure unsuspecting mercenaries in the direction of the traps. Later in the game, Jack can lay claymore mines, although I didn't find them to be as useful.
The game lacks any kind of a stealth meter a la Splinter Cell. Instead, players simply need to use common sense. Jack is most visible standing up, less visible crouching, and-- unless he is out in the open--nearly invisible when he's prone. The mercenaries in the game are reasonably attuned to their surroundings. They notice noises and movement, alert each other when things seem awry, and pursue Jack aggressively when they spot him. They have three levels of alertness, which are indicated by green (unaware), yellow (curious), and red (alert) dots on Jack's magical radar located in the lower left hand corner of the screen. However, it would be disingenuous to say that the artificial intelligence (A.I.) in Instincts is top notch. It's certainly good, but certainly not on the level with the superbly aware A.I. in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Enemies are prone to some occasional odd behaviors, not the least of which include barely reacting when their buddies are killed by a trap. In one case, I mistimed a back stab and ended up merely slashing a soldier in the back, and he didn't even turn around—he stood still and said, "Did you hear something?" While it would be unfair to heavily criticize Far Cry Instincts in this respect since these kinds of glitches are found in nearly every game of this type, they are notable problems nonetheless.
Ultimately, I was a little disappointed in the implementation of the stealth elements in the game. Most often, I found that while stalking enemies was enjoyable, once some of the heavier weapons are introduced (and there is firepower galore ) it was easy enough to jump out in the open and blast them to bits like I was playing Doom or Quake. Perhaps the solution there is to increase the difficulty level, but overall, I felt that the sense of fighting for survival against impossible odds that is so exciting early in the game gave way to a more traditional action shooter. Some of the mechanics, like the use of traps and Jack's really cool ability to roll on his back and shoot up through the floorboards of the mercenaries' shacks, become virtually useless later in the game.
When Jack is spotted and the game dives into all-out combat, the enemies do not display particularly impressive intelligence either, often simply standing still, pursuing the player recklessly and often failing to use their surroundings for cover. This unfortunate lack of depth in the A.I. gives the action a somewhat cartoonish, Serious Sam type of feel. This problem is remedied to some extent later when the player encounters some heavily equipped (and smarter) special-forces type mercenaries, but I would have liked to have seen more intelligent combatants throughout the game, making the difficulty a little more consistently progressive.
There are also numerous vehicle sequences smartly interspersed with the on-foot gameplay. Players will take control of ATVs, Hummers, jet skies, hover boats, motorboats, and even a hang glider. All the vehicle sequences give a great rush of speed and flow flawlessly with the game, as they are accompanied by a great deal of scripting—so, as Jack flees by land, sea, or air, he's dodging rockets, helicopters, mines, and a hailstorm of bullets. Without question, the hang gliding sequence, where Jack swoops through a vast jungle canyon while evading a small army of mercenaries, ranks as one of the most fun and impressive moments I've encountered in a game.
As the game progresses and the plot trades in its swashbuckling themes for a more science-fiction ambiance, Jack acquires animal-like "Feral Powers." These powers are introduced gradually over the course of the game, and allow Jack to track his enemies by their scents, run with cheetah-like speed, leap incredible distances, slash enemies to pieces with his bare hands, and see in the dark. These powers add beautifully to the stalk-and-kill gameplay, and make the clichéd "one man army" plot a great deal more believable.
Early in the game, Jack has to horde arbitrarily scattered health power-ups just as his innumerable first-person shooter hero forefathers have done. After acquiring his Feral Powers, his health naturally regenerates, turning him into sort of a videogame version of Wolverine. The Feral Powers are regulated by an "adrenaline" meter, which also naturally regenerates—although players can still collect power-ups that automatically refill the meter. Additionally, even after Jack acquires his Feral Powers, health packs are still scattered randomly in the levels should players need a quick boost during a firefight. Personally, I'm getting more than a little tired of collecting health packs in videogames. Numerous games have innovated more creative ways to approach the system, and especially since Instincts actually uses a rather creative (not to mention plot-justified) health and adrenaline system, the tired old cliché of power-up hunting feels out of place.
Multiplayer features are standard (save for the exciting Predator mode, which gives one player Feral Powers while the other players stalk him, mercenary style), but there are a ton of customization options—including a very cool and easy to use map editor. Players select one of three basic templates, then add in all kinds of effects, vehicles, trees, hills—the whole nine yards. It's a lot of fun just to toy around with the thing, and Xbox Live subscribers can upload their custom maps and play them online.
Though I wasn't entirely pleased with the direction the game took towards the final act, Far Cry Instincts is nonetheless one of the most unique shooters I have played in quite some time. I consider myself a die-hard first-person shooter fan, but even for me the genre can get a little stale. The expansive and beautiful settings, stealth elements, liberal use of vehicles and Feral Powers help the game bridge the gap from a pure shooter to a more compelling first-person adventure.
Frankly, I think the entire action-centric, Island of Dr. Moreau direction the game takes in its latter half is unnecessary. The game is more than suspenseful enough just by placing the player against impossible odds, and the game's lush tropical locales are much more compelling than the indoor corridors that appear a bit later on. If only the game built on its stronger elements as it progressed rather than shying away from them, it would have been truly outstanding. As it is, Far Cry Instincts is a well-crafted, original, and welcome entry into the genre.