Sunday 28 October 2012

Far Cry 2

A small, failed Central African state is gripped by a terrible civil war. Two rival factions, the UFLL and APR, are fighting for supremacy and both sides have drafted in foreign mercenaries to fight for them. One such mercenary is on a secret mission for an outside power, however: to find and assassinate the Jackal, a noted arms dealer who is providing weapons to both sides.

The original Far Cry, released in 2004, was an excellent first-person shooter. The game employed a structure that was both linear and freeform: a linear sequence of missions taking place on islands, but each island was fairly substantial in size, with multiple ways of completing each mission. The successor - Far Cry 2 isn't a true sequel as it does not feature any of the same characters or locations as the original - takes this to the next level. The entire game takes place on two immense open maps, with multiple missions available at any one time, as well as the ability to simply go exploring for the sake of it.

It's a pleasing evolution of the original Far Cry formula, but very quickly flaws become apparent. Having an immense open-world game as an RPG, with dialogue and skill trees and the ability to complete missions non-violently, makes a lot of sense. However, Far Cry 2 is still a first-person shooter. People talk to you, but you can't talk back. There are multiple missions available but they pretty much all involve killing people and blowing things up. A few missions can be completed by stealth, but the game's stealth mechanic is extremely under-developed (in fact, it's less successful than in it's four-year-older forebear) and making a single noise allows enemies to zero in on your position from hundreds of yards in all directions, even through trees and grass, making it a difficult option to pursue.

In addition, whilst you can choose from a plethora of optional side-missions (which pretty much all involve killing people and blowing things up), your progress through the game is determined by a series of core missions for the two rival factions. So Far Cry 2 demolishes much of its early open-world promise by not giving you much freedom to do things other than the way the game wants you to: killing everything in sight and doing the same sequence of main storyline missions. This problem is intensified by the fact that, aside from a few characters in neutral areas, everyone in the game is unrelentingly hostile to you on sight. People driving down the road will stop and open fire on you for no reason. There are checkpoints where the guards don't bother stopping or searching you, but just instantly attack, even if you are doing a mission for their side. Wiping out the checkpoints is pointless as they respawn within minutes, and the canny player will soon be driving off-road to their objectives or will be taking to the rivers, which are marginally safer (thankfully the second map is based around a huge lake, which makes it much easier to avoid the checkpoints).

In terms of writing, the game makes a half-hearted stab at political commentary: the two sides in the civil war are indistinguishable from one another and make cynical deals with one another and outsider mercenaries several times through the game. The plight of civilian refugees in such conflicts is also intermittently highlighted, with you having the option of helping an underground railroad which is transporting refugees across the border. The game does at least get across the idea that Africa has been badly mistreated by outside powers for centuries and that cynicism and greed constantly undermine attempts by its people to bring law and order to the continent. However, it also undermines that idea by portraying every single person in the game (bar only two characters of note) as a psychopathic lunatic armed with a machine gun.

In terms of game mechanics, Far Cry 2 has some great ideas - weapons that degrade and rust easily, the freedom of attacking a target any way you like, some good use of vehicles, 'buddy' mercs who sometimes help you out on missions - but then enforces repetition. 90% of the missions in the game unfold in a very similar way, with some fairly solid combat (let down a bit by the ludicrous number of bullets it takes to kill someone) that becomes old hat very quickly. A few missions stand out, such as an early assault on a floating village and a later battle in a cliff-side town, but much more frequently you're fighting in some nondescript villa or mining camp. However, the final mission - a homage to Heart of Darkness - is excellent, a tense and dark adventure that is unrelentingly linear but also well-paced and atmospheric.

This gets to the root of Far Cry 2's main problem: the game is open-world and freeform, something that is usually a welcome change from linear corridor-shooters, but does nothing interesting with the concept. It might as well have been a standard shooter, and the final excellent mission even suggests it might have been better off to have taken this course. A few memorable moments and a great setting aside, Far Cry 2 is ultimately a let-down after its excellent predecessor (and even the flawed-but-solid Crysis games being developed by the original Far Cry developers in parallel to this). Its ambition is laudable, but its execution is lacking.

Far Cry 2 (**½) is available now on the PC (UK, USA), PlayStation 3 (UK, USA) and X-Box 360 (UK, USA).

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