When you first start playing Far Cry 2, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that it absolutely bloody hates you. Gunfire flies from nowhere, peppering you to pieces before you’ve even seen your attacker. Your fragile health bar drops to almost nothing within seconds. There are seemingly-random, one-hit deaths aplenty, and even when you do get a warning, the slow and cumbersome health recovery system means that you often won’t get the time to heal yourself before the final bullet sends you staggering to the ground in a pathetic heap.
But it would be a huge mistake to turn away. A huge and terrible mistake. It’s not Far Cry 2’s fault that its opening hour is defined by repeated stabbing of the continue option. It’s just that it’s trying to craft a richer, more satisfying – and challenging – experience for you than a lot of games do. While regenerating health, clueless enemies and a total disregard for the repercussions of death may have made a lot of recent shooters more accessible, they’ve also simplified them, stripping out some of the depth and replacing skill with perseverance. While Far Cry 2 is certainly no Ikaruga or Mega Man style endurance test, its less lenient approach is a deliberate move with the aim of teaching you how to get the best out of it. And there’s a lot to get.
It’s an intelligently designed game with the concept of thoughtful killing at its centre. The real joys of Far Cry 2 don’t come from gung-ho Rambo raids of enemy bases – although they’re certainly possible – or the sheer number of bad guys you’ve plastered by the end of a mission. They come from an immense sense of freedom and the smug satisfaction of a well-executed battle plan.
Dropped into war-torn Africa with just a pistol, a machete and a couple of contacts, the only instruction you’re given is to find the head bad guy (an amoral arms dealer called The Jackal) and kill him. You’ll talk to the local militia to get missions, using the respect earned to gather information. You’ll make friends with locals and traders, who will give you side-quests and even alternative ways to complete existing briefs. But which tasks you accept and how you carry them out will be entirely down to your own choices. Do you, for instance, tackle an assassination in a tense cease-fire zone by going in guns blazing, before making a quick escape in a waiting car and hiding out until the heat calms down? Or do you slowly stalk your prey into a lonely back alley and make a silent knife kill, walking away without a care in the world?
When asked to steal documents from an enemy base, do you snipe the perimeter guards from the bushes, soften up the rest with grenades and then make a quick smash-and-grab attack, or do you make a methodical stealth run, leaving undetected with a zero body count? No mission in Far Cry 2 ever dictates how you have to play it. You just get a location and an objective and are allowed to do whatever you want when you get there. And with new weapons and equipment unlockable at your own pace via side-missions, there are no limitations apart from your creativity.
Once you realize that those early punishments are just the game’s way of making you think a little harder about how you approach things, the brilliance of its design starts to emerge. Those random deaths weren’t random; you just hadn’t learned the subtle warning signs. The slow, manual healing system isn’t unfair; it just makes you think about falling back and using cover. Barring the occasional AI glitch, enemies react fast to any possible threat, fanning out to find and flank you before you can get close. They’ll use the jungle as camouflage, they’ll fall back defensively if they can’t find you and if they spot you out in the open, some will even jump into vehicles and try to run you over before you can get a shot off. They’re sharp, aggressive, and when they’re nearby you have to be thinking and adapting constantly. It’s an incredibly exhilarating change from the tired old “Circle-strafe for the win” routine.
And it’s not just during missions that you have to keep on your toes. The whole, vast, open-world map is littered with militia outposts, meaning that the journeys to and from your objectives are just as eventful as anything that happens when you get there. Whether you travel by car, boat, on foot, by hang-glider or a combination of all, anything can and will happen as you and your environment play an eternal, bullet-strewn game of cat and mouse. Everything feels organic and lived in, especially in the open countryside areas. There’s no hint of repeated design despite the vastness of the wilderness – a stunning achievement.
The sense of being part of a constantly evolving, unpredictable adventure is hugely liberating. As gorgeously real as Far Cry 2 looks in screenshots and video, nothing can prepare you for how deeply immersive and alive it feels to play. It really is your own story, unfolding spontaneously on a second-by-second basis. Ten playable characters are available too. Your choice won’t affect gameplay, but it will affect the plot. You’ll meet the ones you don’t choose as NPCs, and each will bring their own optional missions and side-stories.
Of course, there are niggles. From time to time it’s a little too easy to get by just by sniping, and some of the game’s collectables require a bit of platforming action, which while incorporated in a subtle way, scream “This is a videogame!” a little too loudly. And when the AI does falter, it’s even more obvious for the same reason. But it’s Far Cry 2’s dense, textural universe that will stay with you long after you power down your system. With gameplay this organic and a world so rich and explorable, Far Cry 2 is a game you’ll live in. You’ll regularly play it until embarrassing o’clock in the morning, and then you’ll get up and shamelessly start all over again. And you’ll love every second.
Oct 15, 2008