A Game: Far Cry 2Saturday, March 21, 2009 14:04
Out of all the things that have been said of Far Cry 2, one single line by Kieron Gillen resonates most with me: this is one awfully brave game. Consider, for example, that you likely spend more time driving around dirt paths than shooting at enemies. Or that in a game that is supposed to present you with a realistic recreation of Africa, the only people who populate it are invariably and implacably hostile to you. Or that instead of drawing inspiration from Hollywood action movies like so many shooters do, the source material here is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
All this is brave because Far Cry 2 is unashamedly and undoubtedly a shooter. Given the goals it tries to accomplish and the design elements it tries to incorporate, one would think that it would make more sense for it to be a role-playing game or an action adventure game. But it’s not only a shooter but a first-person shooter with all of the conventions and controls of the genre. You move around with the familiar WASD, right-clicking zooms in on an enemy, use number keys to select weapons and generally try to kill everyone in sight. There is no Gears of Wars style cover system. If you want to take cover from enemy fire, you manually move to put an object between you and the enemy just as you did back in Doom.
As I’ve mentioned though, there are plenty of things that Far Cry 2 does differently. Take the story for starters. It starts off innocently enough with the player been sent into a fictional Central African country to assassinate an arms dealer called the Jackal who has been selling weapons to both sides of the civil war there. You’re taken on a standard non-interactive tour of the country in a cab which serves to fill you in on what’s happening and also show off the admittedly very slick graphics. Then it takes an odd turn. You fall over sick from malaria before so much as firing off a bullet, get paid a visit from the very Jackal that you’re supposed to kill, and as open battle erupts between the two factions end up being just another hired gun in this godforsaken country.
From here on you’re more or less set free to do your own thing, working for one faction against another and then switching sides constantly. Apparently this is supposed to help you get closer to the Jackal but the game never explains how this is supposed to make any sense. The missions you’re given are seriously nasty stuff. Destroy medicines so as to deny access to them to the opposing faction. Blow up this water pipe, never mind that it’s the only reliable source of water in the area for everyone. Smuggle in more weapons so that the civil war keeps raging and all the mercenaries can keep making money. Over the course of the game fellow mercenaries show up to give you a hand. These buddies can either save you from dying when your health is low or offer you an alternate method of completing a story mission. However this is invariably because they have their own angle going on and are out to squeeze as much money out of the dying country as possible. All very depressing stuff.
Performing these missions earns you diamonds which are used as the currency of the game. You can spend them at weapon shops to buy various weapons and upgrades. Once purchased, you can always visit the armoury next to the shop to get an infinite supply of that weapon. This is necessary because the weapons in this game degrade through use, becoming progressively more prone to jamming and eventually blowing up in your hands. You can pick up weapons from fallen enemies but in your hands they’re always so caked with rust that they’re rarely worth more than a few shots in an emergency. In order to unlock more weapons for purchase, you need to do missions for the weapons dealer. These are always the same: blow up a convoy of weapons being brought in by a rival dealer.
Occasionally at set moments in the game, you’re forced to perform so-called humanitarian missions in return for a supply of medicine to keep your malaria under control. Again, these are always the same: pick up passports from one location and deliver them to another. For a really surreal touch, you can also walk up to the various communications antennas scattered around the map and get an assassination mission from a completely unknown party for unknown reasons. Your buddies can also offer optional missions for you to perform and there’s a little more variety here, but because the only rewards are buddy ratings, which do nothing as far as I can tell, and reputation levels, which is kind of cool in that it causes your enemies to be scared of you, they’re not really worth the time.
The problem with all these missions are twofold. One, most of them are fairly repetitive. True, you can choose to go in with different weapons or at different times of day. Sneaking in at night with silenced weapons can let you play at being a ninja for example. Or you could just drive up to the mission objective in a jeep equipped with a mortar and lay waste to everything in site. But overall many of the missions are based on a set template with fixed patterns that you can easily recognize after a while.
Two, because you need to travel to a mission giver and then again to another point on the map to actually complete the objectives, you do an awful lot of driving around in the game. And no, the game doesn’t let you collect a bunch of missions and work on them at the same time. Having a mission activated prevents you from picking another one up. This is made worse by the fact that the map is cut into long corridors by stretches of rivers and impassable mountains, forcing you to take a tortuously winding route to get from one place to another and, that checkpoints with guards are liberally placed at many crossroads as a sort of roadblock towards your progress. Fighting with the soldiers at one checkpoint can be a fun challenge. Coming back to the same checkpoint ten minutes later and discovering that they’ve all respawned so you need to do it all over again only elicits an annoyed groan.
Still I have to admit that the graphics are amazing and the core gunplay is very, very good. As I’ve posted before, this is one of the most immersive games I’ve ever played. Particularly impressive are the environmental effects that change how everything looks depending on the time of day and the weather. Spend some time trudging around the desert with the sun blisteringly high up in the sky and I swear the heat feels so real you’ll be positively relieved to be able to duck under some shade for a change. You know how you can sort of smell and feel the difference in the air just before it starts to rain? Well, this is the first game I can do the same thing in.
One thing that I missed from Crysis was the destructibility of the environment. In Far Cry 2, a hail of gunfire will tear up leaves just fine, and a raging fire will give trees a very impressive crown of flames effect, but nothing that the player can do will actually knock down trees. Firing a mortar round at a shack might raise a huge cloud of dust, and won’t knock so much as a single plank out of place. Thankfully the various vehicles in the game still explode most satisfactorily and throw pieces of burning wreckage everywhere.
Combat in Far Cry 2 is suitably frenetic and challenging. All too often in shooters, when a player comes under fire from an unseen enemy, the natural response is to locate the enemy, coolly take aim at it and blow it away. In this game, that just gets you killed. The correct thing to do here is to run like hell for cover, keep your head low and try to look frantically around for the enemy only once the shooting stops. In Far Cry 2 you’re not a superman among the poor mortals, you’re just another Joe with a gun. Success comes from carefully scouting the enemy position, planning your assaults and surprising them instead of being surprised by them. One awesome thing that the game does well is that if you manage to hit an enemy and melt away, you can hear them talk about you in worried tones. “Who is this guy, CIA?” “Is that just one man? I can’t believe that’s just one man.”
But these good points don’t save the game from the “gameyness” of many of its mechanics and in fact, the high quality graphics actually serve to ram home just how artificial and sterile the world is. Why are there plentiful road signs conveniently pointing to your safe houses? Why is it possible to repair every vehicle in the game just by tightening a nut? Why do weapons convoys go around in circles and never arrive anywhere? Why are there no civillians at all? Why are the headquarters of the two factions just down the street from each other when they are supposedly at each others’ throats? Why is everyone hostile to you but mostly friendly to each other? Most jarring of all is that the writers seem to be earnest in their attempt to use Far Cry 2 to tell a grim story of the depraved nature of humanity in Africa. Again, it’s brave of them to try, but I have to agree with just about every other reviewer out there and say that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. The story ends up being a contrived, lame and at the end incomprehensible mess.
In the end, Far Cry 2 is to me a shooter that tries really hard to stand out from the crowd. It succeeds in this but doesn’t end up being a very good game in the process. All this is strongly reminiscent of the previous title from the same developers. Like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry 2 has amazing technology and does a wonderful job of leveraging that technology to create a world you can lose yourself in. But in the same way its gamey mechanics and repetitive mission structure detract from that immersion. Assassin’s Creed at least had a fairly engaging story right up until the end when you sat up and went, “What the hell were they thinking?” For me, I felt that way about the story in Far Cry 2 throughout the entire game. It might be worth a look for its novelty factor alone, but most gamers will probably enjoy a more traditional shooter.