Make Me Play Video Games #1: Far Cry 2

First off, holy crap. I’m sorry this took so long to get posted, but playing this game for such a long time left me with a lot to say and it was murderously hard to pick what to put in and what to leave out of the review. Once again, we find that a long review is way easier than a short one. I promise to try and trim things down next time. For the meantime, however, I give you:

Far Cry 2

Source: Steam Store
Paid: $10 for the retail game including “Fortunes” DLC pack
Play time: 41.8 hours

The vast majority of first-person shooters are roller coasters: they whisk you through a set path, popping up targets and obstacles as you go to keep things exciting and surprising. Far Cry 2 wants to be the entire amusement park, letting you run from ride to ride as you choose.

The result is, to put it mildly, an immense game. I spent almost 42 hours playing it, and that was after I quit playing all the side missions to completion at around the 50% mark and started barreling through the story as fast as I could. The world is huge by first-person standards, fantastically detailed with sun-dappled savannahs and glittering jungle waterfalls. There are newly-abandoned shacks and lost weapons caches tucked away in every corner of the map. You stumble across crashed escape planes and the aftermaths of gunfights over diamonds. But then you see a car patrolling 50 yards down a road, turning around, and then patrolling the same 50 yards in the other direction. Forever.

Far Cry’s story is sketched in broad strokes: you are a member of the mercenary and war profiteer community that seems to have descended en masse on the war-torn country of Nowhere-In-Particular, Africa. A client or clients never-to-be-named have tasked you with killing the Jackal, an arms dealer flooding the country with cheap guns that he sells indiscriminately to everyone with a trigger finger. The Jackal himself, a gravel-voiced Nietzsche fan, shows up almost immediately to taunt you for succumbing just as immediately to malaria; he (naturally) gives you your first gun, then pulls a Gandalf, inexplicably disappearing in the middle of the opening gunfight of a war between the two factions who have been arming to fight over the country. While the Jackal’s motivation is more complex than mere profit, his philosophy, articulated in a series of collectible interview recordings and a few more chance meetings, is also more ethically (and logically) murky than just making money off of war.

Your fellow mercs don’t fare much better. You select one of nine characters at the start of the story. All of them play exactly the same; the only effect of the choice is that the unchosen characters can be met in the game, waiting to be rescued by the player and then putzing around in Mike’s Bar waiting for a chance to hand out missions. One buddy asks you to murder a pair of drug dealers setting up shop in the boondocks of the bush. Another has VD and wants you to gun down the clinician who sold him an unsatisfactory ointment. Yet another suggests stealing an impossibly toxic defoliant, while yet another suggests actually spraying the countryside with it so that it will be easier to kill everyone.

If you demand a story with morality that ranges between gray and black, Far Cry 2 ought to be right up your alley. Games don’t come any grittier. The awful part is that you aren’t any better than the other assholes trying to make a buck in the war.

You don’t rape anyone, and your gun is always holstered at any time that civilians are around, but other than that as a silent protagonist you don’t seem to have any compunctions about doing whatever all of your jackass allies ask you to do, and even if you avoid the other mercenaries and their missions, you won’t go anywhere until you complete all of the missions offered to you by the two militia leaders in each town. These range from simple things like stealing gold from the nation’s returning king to wonderful humanitarian acts like cutting off the water supply to an entire neighboring country. No matter how much you may want to not do a job for either of these nimrods – say, the job where you destroy a malaria cure factory, guy who’s dying of malaria – you will eventually have to in order to go through the storyline that’s been written for you, because this is the skeleton that the rest of the action in the story is hung upon. You never select goals for yourself, other than your nebulous “how does killing all these mercenary guys help me accomplish this, anyway?” goal of finding and killing the Jackal, which was really just a job in the first place. The upshot is that you are completely free… to do stupid, evil shit in any order you choose.

Even worse, your character, who you’ve already been frustratingly unable to control in the course of his descent into amorality, has a baffling, 3:10 to Yuma-esque change of character late in the game that makes absolutely no sense given what he’s been doing up until that point. It just feels like the character is wrested from the player’s hands time and time again, as though the writers were struggling with the difficulty of creating character development in a character who never speaks and cannot be seen, and instead resorted to just having him do stuff in the hope that we’d get the idea.

A special “what the fuck” has to be noted in regard to the final act of the game, a dizzying series of late-game side switches on the part of almost everyone that suggest the writers confused “a sequence of plot twists” with “a plot”. Given the paucity of events leading up to this sequence, I got the sense that the relatively plot-heavy ending was written early in development and then the game was accordioned out to connect the ending story and the beginning, stretched across the linear segments like lines on telephone poles. The start-stop-start effect is jarring.

These betrayals could have been poignant – and had a point – if your betrayers simply made the case that you brought it on yourself by following the course laid out for you in the game. Certainly, nobody could fault them for turning on such a psychopathic killing machine. But that case isn’t made, and the resulting tale feels hollow.

For most of your time in Far Cry 2 you will have your choice of missions that include assassinations, convoy destructions, odd jobs for other mercenaries, and a few mandatory story missions that are handed out by the game’s two local militia factions. You’re occasionally pressed by your dwindling supply of malaria medicine to lift the siege of a refugee hideout and deliver passports in return for another half-full bottle of Lariams*. Otherwise you’re allowed to grab tasks from whichever NPC you’d like to advance with, although you have to go through each faction’s story missions in order.

The action is broken up into two major non-linear sections, the first in a northern map, and a second in a southern one. These large acts are in turn divided by a brief non-linear section that forces you through a set series of tasks, and the game ends with a similar conventionally straight-forward series of scripted battles.

These different segments – those that allow free-roaming play and those that funnel you through a planned series of events – highlight one of the weaknesses of the sandbox format. There’s only so much that can occur in a free-form play environment; exciting situations emerge from various combinations and collisions of the rules and systems put in place, but the rules are never changed or violated, as can happen in the best twists and turns of a pre-planned story. Far Cry is at its best when it’s being unpredictable, but the game is actually at its most unpredictable when it’s heavily scripted. The amount of control given to the player by the ability to choose where to go and how to approach situations, and the knowledge that only certain circumstances will emerge from those situations, drains a quantity of the tension from the game.

Another unfortunate side effect to Far Cry 2‘s combination of expansive game world and go-anywhere play style is that you frequently have to travel for miles to get even the most rudimentary mission done. The optional buddy components of missions sometimes have the good grace to be located near the main mission area, but often as not will send you 30 minutes out of your way – clearing out checkpoints and fighting off patrols the whole way – before allowing you to fight your way through a similar trip back to polish off the original objective. It’s exhausting, monotonous at times, and smacks of designers padding out the length of their missions unfairly. Far Cry is good fun in doses of an hour to 90 minutes, but any more of it and I start to get antsy; the time spent sneaking through bushes and taking buses back and forth (and back again) starts to feels like it outweighs the time spent fighting. When this feeling sets in, Far Cry really needs me to stop playing for a while and let those good memories of exploding ammo piles and stealthy headshot-fests entice me to get back to playing. I could see a reviewer or shooter enthusiast who tried to play the game for long stretches becoming frustrated and even bored with Far Cry’s emphasis on travel and survivalism.

It’s probably an attempt to keep things fresh, but the decision to essentially start the game over again in a new province after the halfway mark instead feels once again like padding. It also takes a lot of the fun out of playing for completion. In the first map I completed all of the side missions. In the second one I practically ignored them, partly because I didn’t need anything they offered, but also because the feeling that there was a point had gone. I built up relationships with buddies in the first province, built up my safe houses, and then it was all taken away in the move. Why go through that again?

There is an upgrade system in Far Cry 2 that is centered around collecting diamonds and spending them on guns and upgrades at stores that are scattered across the map. You are paid very generously for completing the main story missions, but if you want diamonds faster – or you want to buy guns before starting one of the tricky story missions – you can also get them for completing simple assassinations or by simply finding hundreds of them that are stashed around the map. You can upgrade the guns you buy, but each gun has just one upgrade each for accuracy and reliability; if you aren’t happy with the way a gun feels, you’re expected to buy a different one.

Your strategy in Far Cry 2 has to start before you fire a shot, in the gun shop. You can carry a primary, secondary, and special weapon. Usually the primary is a rifle (automatic or sniper), the secondary is a pistol or SMG, and the special is a heavy weapon like a machine gun or rocket launcher. However, there are exceptions; for instance, the silenced SMG counts as a main weapon, allowing you to also carry a silenced pistol, and the silent sniper rifle counts as a special weapon, precluding you from bringing heavier weapons while you carry it, but allowing you to carry two sniper rifles if you want to. Balancing these trade-offs to find a loadout that fits with the way I want to approach each mission is one of the real joys of the game for me. Conversely, until you discover and assemble your dream team of weapons the game feels off-kilter and a bit of a chore. And having your chosen weapons break – and they will break – is either thrillingly stressful or just irritating, depending on whether you can cope without them or not.

As purchased on Steam, Far Cry 2 comes with a post-release DLC pack called Fortunes. The Fortunes pack includes – I shit you not – a scoped, silent, explosive-bolt-firing crossbow that has longer range than the RPG launcher you can buy from the gun-runner, and at least as much destructive power. Oh, and it’s free. And it’s available from the start of the game. It’s damn near game-breaking; at least one mission that should be a harrowing infiltration to plant explosives on a heavily-guarded fuel tank turns into a quick hike up a nearby hill, one shot from the crossbow, and a paycheck. There’s nothing that says you have to use the thing, of course, but it’s always there and frankly it’s a giggle and a half. I can see how it might add some value for someone who bought the game at release and originally played without it, but for someone coming to Far Cry 2 for the first time it’s a bit like getting your ice cream before dinner. It’s fun, but it takes the flavor out of your lima beans afterward.

The game’s design shows a certain amount of console orientation. There are numerous stationary save points at various safe houses and they crop up in important locations like gun shops and faction HQs as well. These are meaningless to PC players, who are free to save literally anywhere. More egregiously, the game tracks numerous meaningless bean-counting tasks that are probably related to achievements on the consoles. Hundreds of little briefcases with stolen blood diamonds are scattered around the map for the player to find, but you don’t really need the cash. You can make enough diamonds via story missions and side missions to buy all of the best weapons for yourself, reducing the diamond hunt to a grind for incrementing your “cases found” count. Or maybe a compulsive reaction to the flashing green light on your map that indicates a nearby briefcase.

There are other half-baked grinds built in that don’t add anything to the game as well. You can do missions for various other mercs who are too busy hanging out in the local bar to kill their own enemies, but all you gain from doing so is “history” with the people you help, and “history” doesn’t actually have any noticeable effect on the game. The side missions are just busy work. Worse still, they always send you to places you’ve been before or will visit later in the course of the main story. The fun in a shooter isn’t in merely shooting people, but in achieving something by shooting. Going to the same shooting gallery and killing everyone again doesn’t give that sense of having an effect on your world.

Likewise, completing many missions gains the player “reputation”, but increasing your reputation doesn’t change anything significant about the game; sometimes NPCs in town will say something deferential to a high-reputation player. Enemy guards who aren’t aware of your presence will be overheard talking about the “psycho merc” more and more as your reputation grows. Higher pay for missions? Cheaper weapons? AI gunmen to help you out? Yeah, no.

We see a theme: over and over, Far Cry 2 denies the player a sense of long-term accomplishment. There is the short-term thrill of combat success, but it rarely ever really changes anything. This might make a valid point about war, meddling mercenaries, and the other themes of the story, but it makes for a frustrating game.

The game also keeps track of how many enemy checkpoints you’ve “scouted”, letting you check your map to see what sort of supplies are kept there. There’s no advantage to investigating all of the checkpoints beyond the dubious value of knowing what’s in them; scouted posts will still have enemies in them the next time you come around, and scouting them all doesn’t trigger any other bonus. This has the dubious honor of both disappointing the player when the realization sets in that there’s no reason for the little “scouted” counter and annoying the player who is fighting his way through the same damned checkpoint right outside of town for the tenth time. This is realistic enough, but once again it means that if you want the thrill of completing a missions and slamming through the story points at a rapid pace, you’re better off somewhere else; Far Cry 2 is for people who want to inhabit this space for a long time and really burrow into the feeling of surviving in a bush-war ecosystem.

I don’t mean to harp on all of this grinding – lots of RPGs allow you to grind, after all – but it’s all just such incredibly pointless busy work. Far Cry 2 wants to pretend that the open world is chock full of decisions with consequences, but it just isn’t. Do the missions for the gun runner so you can buy the good guns. Do the assassination missions if you want have cash for the good guns right away, or don’t if you’re feeling hairy-chested enough to get by for a while with rusty guns scrounged off of enemies. Then go through the story missions, doing the buddy parts to upgrade your handy-dandy safehouses. Nothing else in Far Cry will have any effect whatsoever on the world. Perhaps I’m being hard on the extra stuff – after all, this is a shooter, and going through all the optional content does give you plenty of chances to shoot people. I guess it’s the shadow puppetry, the trying to make the extra stuff seem more significant than it is, that really trips me up.

Another side effect of Far Cry 2‘s structure is that its pace tends towards the glacial. Missions have no time limits. The factions seem to be in no rush to carry out their little brush war without you. Target convoys drive around in circles forever, and assassination targets wait patiently for days while you bus, bike, walk, or hitchhike your way to them. Even when it’s implied in the story that you need to shake a leg you’re actually free to make your way to the target area at any pace you like. After every major story mission you’ll be tasked by your best buddy with yet more traveling as he calls for backup in the ensuing firefight; although it sounds like your buddy is in imminent danger, you can make your way to him at your leisure, secure in the knowledge that he won’t actually be in any trouble until you get there. On the Normal difficulty that I played at, you can actually just wait until your buddy kills everyone, then show up and get credit for finishing the mission. Far Cry 2‘s slow pace and the distance and difficulty of travel seem to acknowledge and reinforce each other in a way that makes the whole thing seem like a deliberate poke in the eye of shooter fans who need an adrenaline spike every couple of minutes.

Even with all of these immersion-breaking systems poking through the skin of the game I was still able to sink into it and feel truly involved with the world being presented, and as I did I came to develop my style of play in a sense that verged on true role-playing. Early on I was a run-and gun merc, lugging a cheap assault rifle and pistol from place to place and filling pretty much everything that moved with lead. As I became more acclimated to the conflict and realized the benefits of subtlety and caution, I evolved into a rampaging predator with a camouflage ghillie suit and a brace of silent weapons. Whole bases fell one at a time, nobody the wiser until he received a silent bullet to the head in his turn.

One of the unexpected consequences of my quiet little genocidal firestorm was that I began to spend more time listening to my victims. I heard them chat with each other over cigarettes and a campfire. I heard them swear as I plugged the new guy in the back, remind each other what his name was. I heard them pant and groan as they dragged themselves to safety and pulled out a pistol to make their last stand against me. I heard them panic as they realized nobody else was left, go berserk, begin to pray. I came to pity them.

And so I changed again, from human bazooka to scythe to a scalpel. I began to spend long periods working my way around outposts, scouting them with a monocular instead of in a smoking ruin at my feet. I learned to snipe my targets from longer and longer distances, trying not to alert their guards. I walked through the bushes instead of driving on the patrol-infested roads. I took the bus, essentially a magic stealth teleporter that delivers you to any quadrant of the map without interference. I tried to complete the jobs given to me with the least amount of collateral damage to my colleagues possible.

Of course, the bare minimum amount of damage would involve not taking any side missions, or I suppose to quit playing entirely; in the meta-game sense that would be the best way to not kill anyone at all. But then there is still the perverse thrill of the 500-yard silent headshot. When you combine it with the tension of getting silently into position and then escaping before anyone can catch up with you, the desire to avoid bloodshed is overcome by the buzz from a job well done.

The major way in which Far Cry 2 fails to generate a dynamic playground for you to romp through is in its handling of the two factions that are supposedly at war in the game. Put briefly, they’re not at war with each other. They are both at war with you. The soldiers that patrol the roads and staff the outposts are anonymous and interchangeable; there’s absolutely no concern with or way to tell which faction they are from. This is fine, because the faction leaders absolutely do not give a shit how many of their men you kill; if there is a mission left in either militia’s string of the story, you can take it from them even if you have killed literally thousands of their soldiers. Likewise, there is no set territory owned by either faction. It’s too bad, because a sandbox is more fun when there are forces at work that you can learn to ride and influence. Changes in territory, the ability to use faction soldiers to distract each other, firefights to join or avoid; all of this would have added to the sense of a real place rather than a cardboard cutout of a war propped up for scenery.

Far Cry 2 doesn’t really offer too many ways to interact with the environment. You can shoot and explode things or people, and you can touch/pick up/talk to them. Fire is easy enough to start, and can flush enemies out of cover or even wound them, but it’s too unpredictable and short-lived to really come into play as a tool in combat. Buildings and terrain withstand infinite amounts of damage, so your options in combat are limited to maneuvering through the terrain and aiming well. Fortunately, the shooting feels great. The guns all handle well and have different appearances and sounds when being fired; you really get the sense that each is a unique tool rather than variations on a theme.

The game privileges sniping, headshots and stealth – the silent sniper rifle you can buy near the end of the first province is essentially 10 dead enemies you carry around in your pocket. Stealth weapons certainly do less damage than non-stealth weapons do, but this is sort of a meaningless distinction. Doing less damage with impunity is far more powerful than doing more damage for a brief period and then being shot full of holes. Your colleagues in the trade obligingly assist by wearing white t-shirts and colorful ballcaps rather than, say, camouflage, so it’s easy to spot and snipe them even at night or in the rain. Even when you can’t see them, the enemies are quite expressive, and will let you know when they are idle, alert, wounded, reloading, and so forth. In the same way, vehicles can be heard approaching long before they can be seen, and an alert player can use this to avoid patrols and set up ambushes.

As a result, it’s possible to develop an awareness of the game’s environment through its soundscape that becomes second nature, and this is a nice feat in a game that is really just happening on a screen. Animals in the jungle can spook you, which is a fun feeling the first time it happens. About my only complaint is that some of the music in the game has vocal tracks, which is a bit disorientating when you are listening for voices to tell you when enemies are near.

I’ve read complaints from people who complain that the enemies see you from too far away. I disagree. They can see you about the time you see them, which seems fair. The game has a fully functional day/night cycle – it even lets you pass as much time as you want at any safe house, so you can wait for night to fall and attack under cover of darkness. The camouflage ghillie suit you can buy from the arms merchant is purported to improve your hiding ability, although it’s supposed to only really work if you crouch down in a grassy area; I honestly have no idea if it actually has an effect. Also, in much the same way that you can hear the enemies moving about, they can and will notice you if you’re making lots of noise by running or walking about. Simply crouching makes your footsteps silent, and goes a long way towards keeping your stealthy skin intact. I have snuck through checkpoints and entire bases, killing every guard with single silenced pistol shots to the head, without being spotted. By the end of the game, I was sneaking through the checkpoints without killing anyone at all. If you play like you’re Naked Snake, guards can literally walk within feet of you without ever noticing. If you pretend you’re Master Chief, well, guess what? You’re going to attract some bullets.

In some ways, Far Cry 2 is a perfect military game. It has that vibe of “hurry up and wait”, long stretches of complacence alternating with assaults of sheer panic. Combined with the need to skulk through jungles, I think that you could take the low-level gameplay and tie it to a more directed, linear high-level structure to create a pretty crazy Vietnam-era game.

Far Cry 2 is currently available for $20, and at that price it’s worth investigating for FPS fans who enjoy tactical variety. If the bundle drops below $10 again it’s a safe purchase for pretty much anyone who likes action games.

* Honestly, your malaria med of choice isn’t ever named, but if he were taking megadoses of a mefloquine, a substance that’s been noted to cause “depression, anxiety, paranoia, aggression, nightmares, insomnia, seizures, birth defects, peripheral motor-sensory neuropathy, vestibular (balance) damage and central nervous system problems” every 15 minutes or so, it would go a long way towards explaining your character’s behavior.

If you’re curious about Far Cry 2 and don’t mind having the story pretty much completely given away, you should read “Permanent Death” by Ben Abraham. This 400-page Acrobat document is set up as a cross between a slideshow and a novella, and it includes some really great writing of its own.


2 thoughts on “Make Me Play Video Games #1: Far Cry 2”

  1. You would be in there like Clyde Barrow, just getting cut down in a hail of bullets.

    Seriously, though, I’m sure FC2 supports multiple playstyles. I just had more success with the one that I’m most comfortable with.

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