The online shooter scene is probably the most crowded and fiercely competitive space in gaming today. With Modern Warfare and Battlefield competing for number one, and with games like Halo and Gears of War pulling in their own loyal crowds, it's hard to see just how you can create an audience. It's not as if these games are lacking in quality, and creating a game to rival them involves hard work, innovation, and endless reiteration.
This is what Ubisoft Massive was tasked with a couple of years ago when they started on the multiplayer component of Far Cry 3. Not the most obvious choice as Massive rose to prominence putting together real time strategy experiences like Ground Control and World in Conflict.
"We were being pigeonholed as a strategy developer before Ubisoft came along," studio manager David Polfeldt explains.
Pigeonholed or not, Massive had earned a lot of respect for their multiplayer work. And more specifically they had created great team-based multiplayer experiences in the past. In many ways, Ubisoft Massive is the best kept secret of the Swedish gaming industry, as they haven't put out a brand new product of their own since 2007 and World in Conflict (expansion Soviet Assault launched in 2009), but they're a 230 man operation with 80-90 people working on Far Cry 3 and the rest working on a secret project (rumoured to be a Tom Clancy MMO), and Uplay infrastructure.
"Far Cry multiplayer is all about team play," says creative director Magnus "Soundboy" JansÚn.
Words we've heard many times before, but Far Cry 3 tries to implement it in a non intrusive and interesting manner that is best likened to area of effect buffs found in RPGs. It's called Battle Cry, and as you build your own class you also get to pick which Cry you equip. They vary from boosts that add extra maximum health to everyone in the vicinity, extra speed, emergency healing, and so on. There will be lots of these battle cries and some are ones you will want to use as soon as possible once available (there is a cooldown), while others are best saved for when they're really needed (the emergency heal for instance).
A great idea that encourages grouping up to reap the benefits of everyone's battle cries, without forcing players into roles and restricting player freedom. There is a counter in the bottom right corner of the heads up display that lets you know the number of team mates in the radius of your battle cry so you can make an informed decision on when to use it even if players are behind you.
Battle cries feed into another important system. Team Support. You get team support points for using your battle cry, and it increases with every team mate that is affected. You also gain points for reviving team mates that are bleeding out, as well as tagging enemies.
As you collect these points a meter on the right side of your HUD fills - it has three levels and lets you use team support actions once you've reached these levels.
There will be lots of different actions in the final game, but for this demo we were limited to three actions - a basic scan that let's you locate enemies and track them behind cover, a psyche gas attack that confuses everyone within a given area for a set amount of time, and finally a barrel bomb drop where a pirate comes flying in on a helicopter dropping burning fuel barrels down on those below. It adds a different flavour than the pointstreak rewards in Modern Warfare 3, and it is only given out as a reward to those who perform team actions.
Out of the team support actions we got to try out the middle one, Psyche gas, was the most interesting both in terms of effect and tactical potential. The psyche gas affects everyone within its radius and instead of seeing team mates and enemies with red and blue names everyone is transformed into black monster-like beings with white eyes. Friendly fire is turned on and chaos ensues. If you know where your team mates are you can still function and kill off the enemy, but you run the risk of killing your team mates when doing so.
It feeds into the whole insanity angle of the game, and it creates a lot of confusion. It's a great way to block off an area making it very difficult for the opposing team to capture a node, or just to create general havoc. My first reaction when I was hit by psyche gas was to jump into the water and swim away, it did little to help me (the effect of the gas is there to a set amount of time no matter what you do). I'm sure once players are used to its effect it won't be quite as devastating, but in our ten or so matches it felt potentially more potent than the barrel bombs.
We tried out two modes of Far Cry 3 multiplayer, and a third one, Team Deathmatch, was mentioned in passing. First of we got to play Domination on a map called Sub Pen, a map with a submarine moored at one end, a small village on the other side of the map, and several tunnels and routes between the two areas. With two teams made up of eight players each, it was pretty much your standard Domination match with the added layer of the team support structure mentioned above.
Massive had created a few standard classes for us to play around with, and they all seemed to work fairly well with the map. While there wasn't a ton of obvious sniper position to take there were certainly situations when sniping was the way to go. Domination was a good way to introduce us to the new ideas playing a familiar game mode.
Next up, was the real eye opener - Firestorm. The game mode is basically a two stage match where you have two nodes to defend and two nodes to attack during the first stage. The trick here is those positions are fuel depots you try and set fire to, and once one fire is set you've got a short window of opportunity to set the other on fire to start the second stage of the mode.
As one depot is set on fire the direct route to the other is blocked by fire, so you can't set fire to one and then move to the next, but have to coordinate two attacks in order to pull it off in time. A nice touch that really forces you to teamplay - and you also have the choice of defending both your depots or focusing your defence on one of them.
When two fires are set it starts the Firestorm phase. A radio node in the centre of the map spawns and is activated after a further 30 seconds. The team that set the fires can call in a plane that drops fuel to end the match and the other team can call in a plane that drops water and resets the map.
The finale has a real interesting set up that lets you either rush the radio node after 30 seconds, or perhaps plant explosives and play a more tactical game, kill off the other team and then take it. You only need one player in the area to start capturing the radio node, but on the map we played (Temple) the radio was really exposed with lots of elevated positions surrounding it. If you've saved your team support action you might want to psyche gas the area for some real hilarious results.
Firestorm showed real potential and hopefully Massive have a few equally innovative and exciting modes hidden away.
Building your class is something we were not allowed to play around with in this build of the game for obvious reasons - they wanted us in there playing the game, not fiddling with options. But listening to the developers it is clear that there is a lot of freedom built into this and you will be able to really build the kind of soldier that best suits your tactics.
You can also put together a couple of different load-outs so you can switch if your tactics aren't working or build classes that suit certain roles or modes. It's all basics really, but the nature of how you unlock new gear through intel, your battle cries, and team support actions, as well as perks, makes for a much greater variety when it comes to your options. Maybe you equip a perk that cuts your battle cry cooldown so you can collect more team support points? Maybe you focus on speed and equip a battle cry that increases your pace? There are lots of options, and we were only really shown a fraction of what will likely be on offer in the full game.
At the end of each round the winning team gets to have their way with the best player of the opposing team. Show him mercy, beat on him for a bit or worse? It's your choice and you unlock more of these end sequences as you progress through the game. It's a bit like a fatality in Mortal Kombat, but with the added bonus of having players of both teams watching.
Speaking of unlocks the team at Ubisoft Massive have a rather interesting take on the whole Battlelog/Call of Duty Elite set up. Players collect intel playing games and the intel unlocks new weapons and gear, and you can follow and aid the progress from your PC, laptop or smart phone, and friends can help speed up the process.
So will Far Cry 3 succeed in carving out a multiplayer niche of its own, strong enough to lure in players who previously spent their time in Modern Warfare or Battlefield? Well, it remains to be seen. It certainly has potential, and even if the control scheme is somewhat cluttered on console (on PC this is not really an issue), it appears to be a nice marriage between the frantic pace of Modern Warfare and something far more team oriented and tactical with enough innovation added to give it a fresh appeal.