I finished Far Cry 2 (buy on Amazon) the other day, and I have to say I was pretty disappointed. The designers took on some controversial subject matter by setting the game in an African civil war, and they really don’t do it the justice it deserves. But before I get onto that, let’s look at the positives.
For a start, this is a stunningly beautiful game. I’ll be looking at ‘wonder’ in the next instalment of ‘Why Do We Play Games?‘, and this is a prime candidate for a game that makes you go ‘wow’. The savannahs, jungles and deserts of Africa have been lovingly recreated, and the stunning visuals do a great job of really pulling you into the gameworld. One of the best aspects is the wildlife: you often find animals wandering across the road, and there’s something quite magical about driving down a deserted road late at night, only to turn a corner and startle a herd of zebra with your headlights, watching them scatter into safety of the undergrowth. The animation on the various beasts is absolutely superb – I found myself wandering after a goat for a good five minutes, just to see what it would do. It was fascinating to watch it forage among the undergrowth, occasionally letting out a plaintive bleat, and scampering away in fright if I got too close. It seems a very odd thing to admit to, but goat-watching was easily in my top five highlights of playing this game.
Still, goats aside, the landscape has such a beguiling beauty that I found myself happily roaming around with nothing on my agenda except sightseeing. I must have spent a good hour puttering along one of the rivers in a fanboat, just to admire the scenery and with no more motivation than a yearning to see what was around the next corner. The only thing that spoiled my sightseeing trip was that every now and then gangs of men would start shooting at me. For no apparent reason.
And that leads me onto what is probably my biggest bugbear with Far Cry 2 – the fact that everyone, everywhere is trying to kill you all of the time. Considering that you’re meant to be an independent mercenary, it doesn’t really make sense that both sides on the civil war want to kill you on sight, particularly as you might be pulling a job for them. Surely it would make more sense to have a system like the GTA games, where rival factions can offer you missions, and as your standing improves with one side over the other, they stop shooting at you when you enter their territory. And that’s another thing that doesn’t make sense – there aren’t any territories. You’d expect that there would be a front line separating the two warring factions, but instead there’s just a tiny ceasefire zone in the centre, and outside this everyone shoots you all of the time. There’s no real way to tell the two sides apart either, and nor is there any need to, since they all just want to have a pop at you. I can only imagine that your character is wearing an incredibly racist T-shirt that inflames the sensibilities of anyone who views it.
In practice this all out war against you makes for frustration, as getting anywhere becomes a tedious episode of driving along a road for a few hundred metres until you reach a checkpoint, then bombarding it mercilessly from a distance to ensure everyone is good and dead, before repeating the same thing 3 or 4 times until you reach the start of your mission. This gets very dull after a while. Granted, there are bus stops that allow you to fast-travel between certain locations, but often these stops are miles away from where you want to go, and the general hostility towards you really discourages any exploration of the open world environment.
Not that there’s really a helluva lot to do in this open world (apart from sightseeing of course). Initially there seem to be plenty of side missions to take on, but it quickly becomes apparent that they’re all identical, simply involving travelling to a certain location and either killing some bloke or blowing something up. Rewards are either diamonds (the game’s currency) or an increase in your ‘reputation’, which means people are more likely to run away when they see you, and THEN begin shooting. Diamonds quickly become needless, as you’ll gather more than enough during the course of the main game to afford all of the weapons you require, and once I obtained the ‘good’ sniper rifle and the ‘good’ machine gun, there was no need to buy anything else. I also quickly realised that hunting for the hundreds of diamond-containing briefcases scattered across the gameworld was a complete waste of time.
The one mission type that varied slightly from the template was one in which you had to destroy a convoy: this involves purchasing some IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and then secreting them on a road before waiting for the convoy to come past. Initially it was great to discover some variation in the gameplay, but then it turns out there are eight of these missions and they’re all EXACTLY THE SAME.
Thankfully, you’re given a bit of creativity in how you approach each of the main story missions, even if they all follow the same template. This is where the use of fire really comes into its own, as you can use petrol bombs to ignite the surrounding grasslands and herd the enemy into your line of sight. Special mention has to go to the realistic depiction of fire as it creeps along the ground, igniting bushes and vehicles in its wake – the designers obviously spent a long time getting this right, and it pays off. However, apart from the creative use of fire, your options are few – just piling into an enemy camp with guns blazing is a surefire way to get killed very rapidly, and I quickly realised that the only real way to complete each mission successfully was to adopt the tactic of slowly picking off the enemy at range with the sniper rifle, which works in every single case.
One thing that elevates the game above its peers is the sound effects, particularly the explosions. A well-placed grenade will ignite a jeep with a satisfying ‘WUMPFF’, and the resulting shockwave will scatter debris over an impressive area, causing trees and bushes caught in its path to sway and buck dangerously. This little detail really adds to the experience, particularly when spreading fire starts igniting barrels and vehicles left, right and centre, leaving you flailing helplessly in a worrying maelstrom of destruction.
But whereas the sound effects are generally very impressive, the speech leaves a lot to be desired. I hesitate to say the voice acting is dreadful in this game, because I’ve heard a lot worse (I’m looking at you, House of the Dead 2), but it does sound like most of the actors phoned in their performances, and it’s painfully clear that many of them didn’t take time to read the script properly before launching headlong into it. Quite often the actor will mash together two sentences with nary a pause for breath, as if full stops are going out of fashion: it makes you wonder whether they were paid a flat fee rather than an hourly rate. The actor who plays ‘The Jackal’ is the worst offender of the lot: the EDGE review described his odd delivery as a “peculiarly hurried monotone”, which I think is pretty apt, although I’d throw in “unintelligible” as well (come back Bane, all is forgiven). In fact, most of the speech is pretty muffled and difficult to make out: all of the characters sound like they’re speaking to you from the other side of a cupboard door. I turned off the subtitles before I started the game, as I much prefer playing games without them, but within 15 minutes I found myself reluctantly turning them back on again, as despite some patient twiddling with the sound levels on my TV I just couldn’t work out what anyone was saying.
Another disppointing aspect is your ‘buddies’: when I heard that your colleagues could die permanently within the gameworld, I initially thought it would be something like Fire Emblem, where you’d build up a rapport with the characters, gradually uncovering more and more of their story, which would ultimately make their passing more tragic, and emphasise the horror of war. What you’re actually presented with are lifeless, cardboard cut-out characters who have little to no impact on your game experience: it’s telling that I felt more remorse after accidentally running over a zebra than when I accidentally ran over one of my ‘buddies’.
However, the fundamental problem with the game is that it’s essentially a linear and ultimately pointless experience: a bit like watching a nihilistic, 25-hour-long war film. You’re presented with the option of undertaking missions for either side, but the game forces you to take on all of the missions for both sides anyway, so the ‘choice’ is inherently pointless; in the end you’re just funnelled down a relentlessly linear path towards the same endgame, regardless of anything you’ve done in the previous 25 hours. What’s even more frustrating is that the missions you’re presented with almost all involve doing hateful things for hateful people. I found myself thinking: “Actually, I really don’t want to blow up the water supply for this already impoverished and war-torn country,” but the game gives you no option other than to carry out the mission. Your ‘buddies’ – other mercenaries – might give you the option to ‘subvert’ the mission in some way, but usually it’s just for their own personal gain and still involves destroying medical supplies or defoliating a forest or some other such horrible act. We know that being a bad guy can be fun from other games like GTA or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but the essential difference is that GTA veils itself with a black humour that distances it from reality, and Star Wars does a similar trick through the prism of science fantasy, which makes the ‘badness’ of your character more acceptable. Far Cry 2 creates a realistic depiction of a realistic African country and then commands you to carry out atrocities. This is not fun.
The game makes a ham-fisted attempt to redeem itself at the end, essentially saying “hey, look, EVERYONE in this conflict is bad, and they should all be killed”, which really doesn’t justify the previous tens of hours of gameplay. Couple this with the fact that civilians are pointedly not included in the game, and it feels like the designers are simply ducking the issues. The game developers might justify the structure by saying that they forced your character to partake in awful, amoral activites to show that people like this exist, and that ultimately war itself is pointless and amoral, but they seem to have forgotten they’re making a video game. You can get away with portraying this kind of thing in a film, which is an essentially passive medium, but video games place you in complete control of your character’s actions within the game, and by forcing your character to be a complete b**stard against your own wishes, the game designers are not only taking away your autonomy but removing the pleasure of playing too.
It’s a shame: I was really hoping for an intelligent and respectful insight into the complex reality and morality of war, but this isn’t it. Sadly, games like Far Cry 2 just serve as a reminder that most video games have a long way to go when it comes to telling a decent story.
[Another game flung from The Mantelpiece by Lucius Merriweather.]