FEATURE: Far Cry 2′s Heart of Darkness
”The original Far Cry is The Island Of Dr Moreau, a story of a mad scientist that has unlocked the inner savagery in man and created literal monsters,” says Far Cry 2’s creative director Clint Hocking. “But at the same time HG Wells was writing Moreau, Joseph Conrad was writing Heart Of Darkness, which actually has very similar themes. It’s about someone in the jungle that has discovered and is leveraging man’s inner madness, and become a metaphorical rather than literal monster. This is Far Cry 2.”
Hocking is sitting in a small meeting room that opens into the large, open studio where 150 people are making a world set in a fictional 50 square kilometers of a central African failed state. They’re also making a game engine, tailored for rendering seamless streamed environments. It’s called Dunia, which means ‘world’ in Swahili, and will be used extensively among Ubisoft’s games for the coming few years.
The team occupies a newly decorated floor of a shabby building that’s just around the corner from Ubisoft’s main development office, isolated from the rest of the company. It feels like a self-contained start-up, and for all the location might suggest that the team has been hidden away in embarrassment, it brims with the self-confidence that comes from being tasked with creating a game and shaping Ubisoft’s future tech with enviable freedom.
Let’s confirm something right now: “Don’t expect mutants as some surprise later on,” producer Louis-Pierre Pharand tells us. This is a rugged recreation of Africa that’s more in tune with the dreamy realism of Conrad’s ambiguous portrayal of colonialism and base human nature than the science-fiction of Wells. “I want to create an analogue experience for the player. I want him to feel the grime under his fingernails, the sweat, smell the gun oil,” says Hocking. “I wanted to create the guns jamming, the dust – the world isn’t this clean, sterile, digital representation of Africa.” As such it rather contrasts with the original game’s somewhat clinical depiction of the blue skies and luxuriant vegetation of tropical islands, but it stays true to its mercenary-infested exoticism.
The expansive open world, comprising savannah, desert and jungle, dustbowl colonial towns, corrugated iron shanties and Dogon villages, is continuous, with new areas loading seamlessly. It can be traversed by one of many vehicles, which include rustbucket hatchbacks, roaring dune buggies, the ever-useful Land Rover, boats and a hang glider, and is fenced with a ring of impassable desert – venture in and your car will eventually overheat and you’ll fall from heat exhaustion.
Herd animals graze before fleeing at any disturbance, while grass, bushes and trees sway with the wind, which can boil up into dark squalls, sending leaves and branches flying and whipping the grass into waves. More than most virtual worlds, this one looks and feels deeply credible. Broad fronds of jungle undergrowth are translucent, with shadows from those above showing through, and orange dust is thick in the late afternoon sun. The level of detail on the latest build is a good deal higher than that seen at Far Cry 2’s original unveiling at Leipzig in August.
Great attention has also been paid to the people who live in this world. The story goes that the country’s government has collapsed at the hands of a popular uprising, but the rebels have since split into two opposing forces, the APR and the VFLL. Heading each are warlords who profit from prolonging conflict through the diamond trade, and profiting from the warlords is an arms dealer, the assassination of whom is the game’s ultimate goal.
Pharand runs a demo that begins in a dusty town with a river running through it, one side of which is dominated by the strongly dug-in APR, the other occupied by the VFLL. Chickens cluck amid a tense atmosphere as the player walks around. The APR mercenaries react to the player’s presence, tolerating him but uneasy: they raise their guns in warning if he stares at them for too long, but they’re hesitant to begin firing. Their behaviour is the result of Far Cry 2’s reputation system – act the badass by winning battles and being ruthless and you’ll gain edgy respect among the two groups, allowing you to rise up their command structures to close in on the arms dealer.
They won’t tolerate him stealing their Land Rover, though, and the clapped-out, unguarded Datsun probably won’t make it up the steep hill to the next mission objective. Nipping in to take it sparks a quick response, the town erupting in gunfire and shouts as the truce between the two sides breaks and members of the APR chase after the player. Without comparable vehicles, they quickly fall behind, and Pharand drives up a steep track to arrive at one of the game’s many encampments. Here, ‘buddies’ – in this case a grimy, tattooed man called Marty – hang out, NPCs who will help the player if they should fall in battle nearby, carrying them to cover and providing support. There are 13 in total, and should they die helping you, they are gone from the game for good.