Far Cry 4: Preview - Games Weekly

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Far Cry 4: Preview

We keep coming back to ‘the anecdote factory’. It’s how one glowing review described Far Cry 3, and the phrase has become a touchstone for the Ubisoft development team now working on Far Cry 4 . Creative director Alex Hutchinson and game director Patrik Methe both want Far Cry 4 to be a neverending ‘water cooler’ experience.

The term reveals not just Ubisoft’s ambitions for Far Cry 4, but also the trajectory of the entire series since the cult hit of Far Cry 2. Back in 2008, that game, under the direction of Clint Hocking, generated a handful of memorable, beloved moments for everyone who played it. A new model for fire propagation, jam prone weaponry, a mild case of malaria, and a country filled with mercenaries and militias all combined to create harrowing and frequently tragicomic combat.


Far Cry 3  increased the player’s power by getting rid of the gun jams and the malaria, but also filled the world with aggressive wildlife and more reasons to interact with it. Me the, who directed  Far Cry 3 , tells a story about overhearing other developers swapping experiences during a lunch break outside the Ubisoft offices. As they traded anecdotes about misadventures involving crocodiles, cassowaries and pirates, he suddenly knew they had a hit on their hands.

With Far Cry 4, Ubisoft is trying to create even more opportunities for interaction. In  Far Cry 3 , you would often find some angry animals caged up inside of out posts. If you shot the lock, you could release a justifiably outraged tiger on some hapless pirates. Now, when you find yourself without a convenient tiger to help you clear out a base full of bad guys, you can simply lob a slab of meat in their midst and hope it draws some hungry carnivores.

“At some point we came up with the idea that you end up with a steak when you skin an animal, so you can throw that to attract nearby predators,” Methe explains. “That’s an example of something we came up with to give more opportunities to the player.”

Adding game mechanics like this is one way to bring the Industrial Revolution to emergent storytelling. But Ubisoft is also hoping that players will mass produce adventures of their own.

A confession: I’m not a creative PC gamer. I got sick of digging in the dirt and crafting in Terraria. I’d rather play a single player shooter campaign than try to build the Enterprise in Minecraft . When someone hands me mod tools, I usually head over to ModDB and wait for someone else to do something with them. So please understand how rare it is for me to be excited by something like the Far Cry 4 in game editor.
UBIQUOTE
“The different systems colliding together we're creating stuff that we could not anticipate. We were surprised. That's the anecdote factory, and that’s the direction we pushed even further on Far Cry 4.”
It succeeds on two levels. First of all, it eliminates all the technical hang ups the frustrations that typically keep people away from experimenting with mod tools or game engines. Secondly,  Far Cry 4 puts player created maps and content right where you can find them: just one click away from the main menu. There is no wall between what you create and what I can play, and vice versa.

This was Mathe's mission. He feels that they created good tools for Far Cry 3 , but made it incredibly difficult for most players to ever find what other people were creating. This time, it’ll be different.

“We did our best, but it was such a big game,” he explains ruefully. “I am not ashamed to admit, it was difficult to find maps. If you wanted to play user created content, you almost needed a PhD in engineering or software design, or maybe even anthropology! I dunno what you’d need, but you’d need something. It was really hidden. And that is the opposite of the approach we’re taking today.”

The map editor is not at all intimidating. Ever used Photoshop? Congratulations, you’ve basically mastered a trickier version of the Far Cry 4 map editor interface. Each map begins life as a 512x512 meter plane. You look down on it from a window showing the view from your floating developer camera. All the tools you need are wrapped around it.

The act of creation
My guide to level editing is designer Julien Lamoureux. He takes over the mouse and keyboard, remarking that, “I’m a professional. These two,” he points at his two bosses, Methe and Hutchinson, “are not.” Hutchinson laughs, “I am but a gifted amateur.”

Even allowing for the fact that Lamoureux is a professional, his results are impressive. He starts out by choosing which kind of map he’s building. There are four mission / map types than you can design. Assault (kill all enemies), Hunt (kill all animals), Outpost (seize the outpost) and Extraction (get from point A to point B).

Next, Lamoureux takes a perfectly flat, open grassland, and with a few sweeps of a paintbrush tool, covers it in dense forest. He selects a type of road a dusty ingle lane dirt path in this case and cuts it through the forest segment by segment, so it looks a bit curvy and careless.

Next, he opens up the building library in the right-hand toolbar, grabs a few stucco buildings, and drops them into a clearing. He follows that by opening a menu of AI-controlled enemies and planting them around the campsite. There are additional dropdowns that would let him choose their behavior, or assign them patrols, but he’s in a hurry. They’ll just be normal Far Cry 4 enemies in this instance: they’ll wander around in a small area, keep watch, and react aggressively to perceived threats.
UBIQUOTE
“Now there’s no barrier. It’s very easy to access [the level editor]. Everyone can have the opportunity to build their own map. And thousands of players are going to play it.”
Next Lamoureux opens up the asset library and plonks down a campfire, some chairs, a few red barrels, and, of course, a crate. He scatters some loot around, then uses another brush to create a low ridge to the south of the camp. He plants the player’s spawn point there. Then he hands me the controller and clicks a button.

The editor vanishes, and I find myself spawning into a fully playable Far Cry 4  level. It took Lamoureux less than three minutes to create a basic Outpost mission. “I’ve never been a level editor in my life,” Me the chimes in, seeing the slightly stunned expression on my face.

“I’m a normal dude, with no experience in map editing. And I would say that I can get the same result. Though it takes me about double the time.”I feel like I've stumbled onto the set of a game design infomercial. But it’s not a trick. I was able to follow everything Lamoureux did. It really is that easy.If you want to give your map a certain vibe beyond terrain features and buildings, you can select a global ‘theme’ for it that changes everything from the color of the grass to the sounds of the wildlife.

Select a jungle theme and everything becomes more lush and foggy. A Himalayas theme yields some brilliant, stark lighting, shocking blue skies, and distant snow capped peaks in the background, while the rest of the map gets a dusting of snow and frost.

But why stop at lighting and atmosphere when you can change physical reality? Lamoureux goes back into the editor to show me how you can change the gravity on your map. Suddenly, you can make super jumps and go bounding across the level like a character in Starship Troopers. I immediately go vaulting over the enemy outpost, showering it with grenades like an evil Santa.
An M-60 and a pair of pissed-off elephants
He shows me some other maps, like Elephant Rampage, in which you answer the timeless question: is five minutes enough time to wipe out a map full of enemies with nothing more than an M-60 machine gun and a pair of extremely pissed off elephants?

All this variety can put a mighty strain on any gaming PC. Fortunately, the map editor also keeps track of where you are in terms of your performance budget. It doesn't just warn you about hardware limits, either. It also lets you know if there are any fatal problems with your map. When you go to save your work, you’ll be taken to any outstanding issues that you need to solve. Think auto correct, but for level designers.

Is an AI standing outside the navigable ‘mesh’ that covers the accessible terrain on the map? You’ll be shown where the problem is, along with a tooltip explaining why it’s a problem and what you need to do about it. Did you forget to set down a spawn point for the third wave or enemy reinforcements? The editor will show you the problem, and give you the means to repair it.

Ubisoft wanted to do some fixing of its own between  Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 . While Far Cry 3 was a tremendous success, the team weren't blind to the more polarizing aspects of the game. Especially the profoundly unlikable protagonist, Jason Brody, whose ‘hero’s journey’ led him into a cul de sac of white-savior / messiah complexes.

The hero of Far Cry 4, Ajay, has a different relationship with both the player and the fictional country of Kyrat. American raised, he is originally from Kyrat and his family has deep ties to the country. He is intentionally not an outsider come to ‘save the natives’, but someone who gets caught up in something much larger than his own personal quest to scatter his mother’s ashes in her lost homeland.

While Ajay will say and do things throughout the game, he will largely be left to the player to define through action. It’s not a broadly branching narrative along the lines of The Walking Dead or Mass Effect, but you will get a lot of little decisions you can make along the way to leave your mark on the world. The important thing, as far as Hutchinson is concerned, is that it remains your story.

“The story is a frame to allow people to build their own story. We try to get out of the player’s way a much as possible. No longer is the narrative about saving people, but really you’re just taking over outposts. We're trying to get narrative and gameplay aligned. So as much as possible, it’s all build your own narrative.”
UBIQUOTE
“I have a weird sensation that the likes and dislikes are going to flip. The people who were like, ‘I don’t want to be a douchebag!’ will be like ‘Hooray!’ And the people who want to play a [clearly defined] character might have more of a challenge.”
Hutchinson’s influence and Assassin’s Creed sensibilities are already visible in the main game. There is lots more to do than in Far Cry 3 . Semi random events pop up on the map, so you can be on your way to an outpost then get word that there’s a juicy convoy nearby that you can ambush. I was flying in the gyrocopter above Kyrat when I spotted a group of civilians being held hostage by the Royal Army.

In a cautionary tale about reckless humanitarian intervention, I opened fire with my machine pistol from the air and accidentally shot a hostage through the head. Having nixxed my chance to do a good deed, I rather sheepishly buzzed away.

It all reflects Hutchinson’s desire for a slightly busier Far Cry . “I thought [ Far Cry 3 ’s] world would be denser. Coming from the Assassin’s Creed side, I thought there’d be more,” he explains. “I thought the open world was gorgeous, but there were big gaps in my experience. Lots of empty zones. I wanted this just a bit denser. To have more activities that would feed into the anecdote factory, and that would allow more emergent stuff to happen.”

This has led to some undeniably good things. There is more stuff to do, and a lot of it is more interesting than in Far Cry 3. Outposts, for instance, can be recaptured by the enemy until you control all the outposts in a given region of the map. So you don’t end up running around an island completely bereft of enemy strongholds.

There are also fortresses to tackle, which function as super outposts and are much harder to take down, although you can weaken their defenses by performing some preparatory missions. But if you feel like you’re ready for a special, hardcore challenge, then by all means, try to take a fortress single handedly.
I accidentally shot a hostage through the head
 There is a contradiction here, one I’m not entirely sure Hutchinson and Mathe appreciate. Can you really industrialize and mass produce memorable anecdotes for players? Ubisoft seems to think you can. Its game systems crowd alongside one another. Fire, enemy AI, aggressive animals, and even friendly troops now jockey for space on the open world battlefield. They slam into each other, creating all the reliable chaos you might expect.

But when the deck is so stacked with wildcards, does the anecdote itself become devalued? How do you leave room for the player to find unique adventures when the system is designed to yield a neverending supply of improbable encounters? In the end, Ubisoft seems to be building a better, smarter version of  Far Cry 3 , with all the costs and benefits that implies. But the Far Cry 4 that really excites me is the one I’m going to build with the map editing tools, and the one I’m going to play once the entire Far Cry community gets a chance to play god in the mountains of Kyrat.

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