Far Cry 2
In its opening stages, Far Cry 2 is easily one of the most seductive and impressive games this generation has yet seen. Ubisoft Montreal’s Dunia engine driving the game is a wondrous technical achievement, boasting an abundance of impressive effects and incidental details which mark it out as something genuinely special. However, look beneath this veneer of masterful technology and first-class presentation and there lies a game which is so very nearly at the top of its genre were it not for some incomprehensibly frustrating design decisions.
Far Cry 2 ventures into a nameless African state embroiled in civil war. Two factions are vying for control of the country, the borders and air travel have been closed to the outside world and as a hired mercenary it’s the player’s job to assassinate the gun runner supplying both sides and prolonging the conflict; a legendary and elusive figure known only as The Jackal. Far Cry 2 has many allusions, both literary and filmic – you’ll be bombarded with references from Joseph Conrad and Friedrich Nietzsche, and half the time is spent expecting to see Marlon Brando around any given river bend. However, despite these shameless influences the world is cohesive and diverse, and it creates a real sense of place and tangibility.
Much like the oft-lamented Boiling Point: Road to Hell – or perhaps as a more familiar touchstone; Grand Theft Auto – the main character performs tasks for the different factions in order to gain their trust and get more information on his quarry. The problem here being that these missions have little relation to the larger plot, and it doesn’t feel as though anything which occurs is really bringing the protagonist any closer to finding The Jackal. There isn’t a great deal of variety; missions generally require you kill someone, destroy something or maybe even kill someone and destroy something. It doesn’t help that despite which faction the current mission is for, every character in the gameworld is gunning for you. Apparently this is because you’re a deniable asset on secret missions, but that still doesn’t really explain why every single soldier or mercenary in the whole game shoots the moment they see you.
For a First-Person Shooter, there are times when the shooting in Far Cry 2 feels awfully unreliable, suffering from gross inaccuracy. With most weapons aiming down the iron sights is pretty much essential, otherwise you might as well just throw the bullets at the enemy for all the damage it does. Weapons can be upgraded at the gun shops littered around, and similarly purchasing additional firearms at these stores unlocks them henceforth. The usefulness of the more powerful weapons such as the rocket launcher or silent dart sniper rifle is offset by the lack of ammunition, often meaning that despite being as well armed as John Rambo, caution and stealth are often at least as useful as raw firepower.
Compounding the character’s vulnerability are the degradable weapons and malarial sickness. Once a weapon has been used a lot it will visibly start to deteriorate, before jamming and eventually blowing up; this is obviously not a preferred result, so dead enemies’ weapons are procured, although these too are often worn and dilapidated, making gaining arms a constant – and sometimes irritating – juggling act. Further, at the beginning of the game the player character contracts malaria and periodically is hit with an attack, resulting in a feverish loss of clarity and requiring medicine to control it. This is acquired by doing missions for members of the civilian underground movement, and they share their meagre supplies as payment.
The African landscape is a stunning setting. There is a huge amount of variety across its 50 square kilometres, from savannah, through jungle, valleys, mountains and swampland. Whatever else can be said about this game, Ubisoft Montreal have achieved an unreserved success in this regard, and produced a beautiful and immersive game world which can match almost any other developers’ efforts. What really helps is the physical connection between the player character and the game – shoot the branches of a tree and they fall off; push through foliage and it bends then springs back; set alight to a plain of grass at it will be guided by the wind, consuming all dry flora until it burns out. Not only is this a very pretty game world, it is one that can be destroyed in ways few games besides Crysis ever manage.
Looking past this impeccably polished exterior though, and the first of many little yet niggling flaws really begin to detract from the experience. One of the game’s most unbalanced areas is in its enemy AI. When in a firefight they can be a thrilling opponent; running for cover, trying to flank, getting on mounted guns, or the like. However, trying to sneak up on foes is so ridiculously awkward that any real notion of stealth goes out the window after the first couple of hours – even in the dead of night enemies seem to have hawk-like eyesight; able to see through bushes from 100 feet away. In the day it’s even worse, meaning without one of the few very long-distance weapons sneak attacks become nearly useless.
Further, though the game world of 50 square kilometres is an impressive feat and a nice bullet point for the back of the box, in reality it means there will be driving – lots and lots of driving. There is a small selection of vehicles and they are all fairly similar but inoffensive to use, although all suffer from gross oversteer, and since so much time is spent driving it’s a shame the controls couldn’t be a bit more forgiving. More time is probably spent behind the wheel than firing a gun, and similarly more time is spent studying a map than shooting, too. Despite its attempts at set-pieces and engaging characterisation, this isn’t really a game for people who want another Call of Duty 4; it’s more of a weighty and at times excessive adventure.
Arguably the game’s biggest and most frustrating flaw is in the constant enemy checkpoints and respawning guards. These checkpoints litter the map, often situated at junctions in the road, and there are usually at least three or four guards stationed at each one. Driving through without stopping is an option, but guards often get in their own truck and will manage to catch up within seconds; not to mention if your vehicle takes too much damage it will need fixing, requiring you to stop and get under the hood with your wrench. The alternative is to pull up outside of the checkpoint and either pick the guards off from afar or approach from an undefended angle for close combat. Either way, when travelling to a mission, having to bypass or clear out three or four enemy checkpoints is extremely tiresome, and when it’s preferable to drive along railway tracks for ten minutes rather than go through a few firefights, something is wrong with the game’s design.
Lacking the PC’s quick save system or any sort of checkpointing, dying in Far Cry 2 can be very easy and frustrating. To combat this, there are ‘buddies’, who will rescue and revive the player should they fall in a firefight. Once found in particular missions, these allies are met in a couple of bars, and doing missions for them strengthens the friendship – they will often ask for an alternative way to complete the faction’s missions, for their own profit or benefit. Their inclusion is definitely a positive, as it helps dilute the feeling that every other character in the game is hostile, although it’s a shame there’s not more interaction with them outside of doing jobs for them.
Visually, Far Cry 2 is very strong. The African landscape is vast and colourful, and although there is a little minor pop-in, it’s totally forgiveable given what has been accomplished. The sound effects are superb, with an array of appropriate incidental noises such as chirping insects in the grass or a busy cacophony of animals in any jungle area. Guns sound brutal and dangerous, with vicious cracks and convincing echoes, and generally Ubisoft has done a marvellous job all around with the game’s audiovisual presentation, including some appropriate and authentic music which really helps establish the premise. Voicework is generally well done, although there are characters who sound too forced and artificial, but on the whole there appears to be a huge voice cast and almost all of the principal characters are competently and sympathetically delivered.
Far Cry 2 – not unlike its Ubisoft Montreal stable-mate Assassin’s Creed – is one of the most impressive, awe-inspiring and yet frustrating games of the last few years. It is a beautiful, vast and incredibly well-presented game, with a small number of nonetheless extremely detrimental design decisions. It’s undoubtedly worth trying (if only to marvel at the technical and visual wizardry) but there’s a lot of unfulfilled potential here, and here’s hoping Ubisoft are paying close attention for the next entry in the series.