It’s easy to dismiss first person shooter games these days- there are so many to choose from and so few that are truly worth the time and effort to play through. I, myself was bemoaning this fact on our forums a couple of weeks ago. I mean, really, once you’ve played Halo/ Halo 2, Half-Life 2, and Unreal Tournament, why even bother with anything else?

It’s so nice to be proven wrong sometimes.

Far Cry Instincts puts you in the role of Jack Carver, a former smuggler and mercenary with a price on his head, hiding out in Micronesia making a modest living on his boat delivering “fishing gear” to his questionable clientele. Of course that all changed when a pushy journalist by the name of Valerie Cortez showed up with a daypack full of cash and hired him to take her to the Jacutan Archipelago, a chain of islands that the locals avoid like the plague. As soon as they get there, Valerie takes off on Jack’s jet-ski and disappears into the distance, leaving Jack to a little nap while he waits. Jack awakens to the sound of a military helicopter flying overhead, and is soon running for his life as the copter opens fire on him, destroying his boat and changing his life forever.

Instincts started off as a port of the critically acclaimed early 2004 title, and in the year and a half that Ubi Soft Montreal took to translate the experience we’ve seen some of the best shooter experiences ever on PC and Xbox. They didn’t just make a straight port, however, they rebuilt the graphics engine, redesigned most of the levels, and gave our ‘hero’ Jack Carver a few new tricks like trap setting. The result is a gaming experience that stands proud with the best of them.

Simply put, this game is beautiful. Instincts really pushes the Xbox technology to its limits, delivering lush tropical jungles and far-reaching mountain vistas under a clear blue sky. The environments are so immersive at times that the expensive jungle brought out a feeling of nervous loneliness as I wasn’t quite sure where to go next or if I was being hunted by unseen eyes.

Character models are exceptionally detailed and well animated. The rag doll physics lend a believable weight to the characters, especially when you rip into them with your feral abilities (heh-heh-heh…). The entire game is seen through Jack’s eyes, and as he evolves (a result of an injection given to you early in the game), his arms reflect the changes to his body, hands curling into claws and forearms rippling with sinewy muscle.

It’s when Jack’s feral abilities start manifesting that things get really cool. Feral vision fades your surroundings to a low contrast brown tint (enabling night vision) with bright orange spots and vaporous ‘scent’ trails around every living creature you see. Feral speed is portrayed with a nice focus shift and speed blur. And when the soldier’s klaxons come on and start playing haywire with your new physiology, your vision gets blurred and glitchy, a very disorienting effect that really gets your adrenaline going.

I love it when a game’s soundtrack occasionally pops up from the background and punches things into high gear. Half-Life 2 did an exceptional job of this and Far Cry’s mix of primal drums and throbbing techno is equally impressive. Voice acting is top notch as well, with all of the actors turning in exceptional performances. Of particular note is Stephen Dorff as the perfect Jack Carver. My one gripe is that the lines for the countless soldiers you take down over the course of the game get a little repetitive after a while.

Satisfying sound effects round out the package, with guns that sound like they could really hurt someone, explosions that boom resoundingly, and ambient jungle sounds that complement the immersive visuals.

Far Cry Instincts mostly sticks to the standard FPS control scheme that Halo established for the Xbox. While there are a few secondary button variations, the game handles the core controls very tightly. My biggest gripe is that during long range weapon zooms, I kept on clicking the right thumbstick twice trying to get to the second setting when I should have been pressing up on the directional pad (when used alone it actives the binoculars). I also found myself occasionally throwing grenades when I should have been throwing rocks, completely ruining my plan to lure an unsuspecting soldier into my branch trap.

Vehicle controls are solid but a bit touchy. The slightest turn or distraction could send you upside down or over a cliff, so it’s generally a better idea just to gun it through some areas and not worry about mowing them down with your submachine gun. I get the feeling that this is the approach the developers were going for in story mode, but a little more control would have been nicer for multiplayer.

Far Cry Instincts is hands-down one of the best shooter games to grace any system this generation. The story is like the plot of The Island of Dr. Moreau mixed with Dr. No, told in a first-person style that reminds me a lot of the Half-Life games (only you get to hear your character talk). The pace is extremely well balanced, ramping up in difficulty and introducing new modes of play at a steady clip. Levels are expansive not only in size but in scope as well, and every time you start to get even a little bored with what is going on, the plot takes another twist, your feral powers evolve a little more, and you have to take a whole new approach to the next level.

Jack can only carry three kinds of weapons (excepting hand grenades) at once; a handgun (pistol, silencer pistol, auto pistol), a mid-range rifle (shotgun, MP5, Carbine) and a long-range weapon (sniper rifle, rocket launcher). It’s a good system, and allows for a nice variety of solutions once you are able to stock up in the three varieties. You can also dual-weild two of the same weapon, doubling your firepower but depleting your ammo twice as fast. And of course, there are turreted weapons throughout the game, both stationary and mounted on certain vehicles. Sniping takes a slightly more realistic path, adding a slight wobble that can be offset by holding your breath (left trigger). This uses the same gauge seen while swimming underwater. All in all, the gunplay in Far Cry is a familiar and undeniably fun experience.

While melee combat is extremely visceral and satisfying (especially when Jack’s powers start showing up), Instincts incorporates some stealth aspects that are actually crucial early in the game. When you are starting off, the actual mood of the game encourages you to play cautiously, sneaking around, setting traps, and getting in the satisfying back-stab or sniper shot. As the game progresses and you and Jack get more comfortable with the surroundings and your newfound abilities, you’ll find yourself engaged in some exhilarating beserker moments, tearing through enemies like paper- I’ll never get tired of the girly scream of a random soldier as he flies back from the blow of my claws. Things get really fun when you start combining these techniques in your approach to an enemy installation. One tactic I used for a decent stretch of one level saw me first setting branch traps on every available tree between me and them, picking off who I could from a distance with a sniper rifle or silencer pistol, and making myself visible to the rest watching with joy as they all ran to me, sometimes avoiding one trap only to step into the path of another. If there was anybody left after that I would simply run into the thick of it and slash away until the last man dropped.

While stealth and gunplay take center stage in the first half of the game, things really start cookin’ when Jack’s feral abilities start kicking in and getting stronger. As the story progresses and Jack’s dormant animal aspect becomes more and more dominant, an adrenaline bar shows up in the UI, a gauge for what powers these animal-like abilities. As long as Jack has adrenaline, he can melee slash (an ability very similar to the energy blade attack in Halo 2), regenerate health, have superhuman strength, gain thermal night vision, run faster and jump higher, and follow ‘scent’ trails. Powers like feral speed and super strength passively draw from this resource, while activated powers like the feral vision and melee slash deplete it more quickly. Adrenaline can be replenished naturally by just waiting, or quickly by eating MREs. Jack also gains more adrenaline when stealthily hunting prey (in anticipation of the kill) and by experiencing pain (this actually results in a sharp adrenaline spike).

Ubi Soft didn’t skimp on the multiplayer portion of Instincts. While there are only four game types (chaos/deathmatch, team chaos, steal the sample/ capture the flag, and predator), the maps provided are well made and extremely fun to play. Of particular note is Predator mode, which pits a group of mercenaries against a feral predator with the full range of of abilities. It’s up to the mercs to get to the sonic alarm which will kill the predator instantly before he/it picks them off. It’s a mode that is great for larger groups of people, especially if you are looking for something more than the the same-old, same-old.

While you could certainly play with some buddies either by split-screen or system-link, naturally, the best way to do this is to go online. Far Cry: Instincts nicely implements Xbox Live through it’s online multiplayer modes and content downloads. In a move that is starting to become more common with Xbox games, a full-featured map editor is included. You can even share your maps online with your friends.

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