Another Life, Another Time: Far Cry 2 Revisited

From: Alec Meer,
Brighton,
February 2014

To: Alec Meer,
Bath,
October 2008

Hey kid,

Hah, I’ve probably pissed you off already, haven’t I? That was easily done back then, as I recall. Yeah, yeah, you’re no kid – right now, every one of your twenty-nine years feels like a scar. It’s been a bad year, even by your standards. You’re burning to up and leave this fusty old town you’ve spent the last eight years in, but you feel so tired, so broken, so bitter. You’re also about to sit down with Far Cry 2, and you’re not going to like it. Everything’s going to change in time, including how you feel about that game.

You did move to London (didn’t stay long, but for a good reason, not a bad one), that RPS thing took off so you’re no longer a slave to corporations, and hell, you’ve even got a baby daughter now. I won’t spoil that surprise further. And don’t worry, Ripley the cat’s still going strong. None of that’s what I’m writing to you about, though. Any day now, you’re going to sit down with Far Cry 2. You’re curious but concerned about it. It’s looked great in videos, you’ve thought, but it seems wrong that it’s not made by the developers of the first game, which you’re very fond of despite that crap with the mutant monkey things.

You don’t know that Far Cry 2 will prove divisive, that there’ll be a small but passionate group of fans against a larger, angrier horde who feel it’s a disaster and a betrayal. You don’t know that you’re going to fall in with the latter, though I’m glad to say that you weren’t particularly noisy about it. Though you did openly scoff at friends who enjoyed it. That wasn’t cool, kid. (I’ve never called anyone ‘kid’ in my life, and neither will you, which is exactly why I keep calling you it).

You are going to hate Far Cry 2. I’m not here to tell you that you’ll be wrong, and I’m certainly not suggesting you don’t play it for another six years. Honestly, I think a big part of the reason I like it now is because I didn’t like it then. It’s because I’m coming back to it aware of what I felt for it then, and how different things are now.

I can feel you wincing from here. Don’t worry, I’m not so old and lazy that I’m going to bust out some strained ‘like a fine whisky, it improves with age’ analogy. It doesn’t: it’s the same game in 2014 that it was in 2008, and technology hasn’t moved on enough for it to feel meaningfully dated.  It could have been released today (that day being Thursday 13th February 2014; yes, that means we’re going to be 35 years old in a fortnight. Don’t worry, we’re cool about it) and, if it didn’t have ‘Far Cry’ in the name, I’m quite sure it would have received a rapturous response from the kind of people it was made for.

You, though. We, though. Me, though. I think we’ve improved a little with age. Oh God, we’re still imperfect and quick-to-judge and tired, but my mind inquires a little further before it snaps to an opinion. It has more patience. It’s more easily able to see what a videogame is trying to do at its core, rather than full-force snarl and sneer  at what it might get wrong on the surface.

Hah, I’m being a little too kind to myself there. My brain has not undergone such change and critical epiphany that I can see design and subtext that my younger eyes could not. I’m a bit more patient, that’s all. Even so, perhaps a bigger part of my changed response to this strange, morally ugly, unusually punitive shooter is my expectations are all gone. Whatever ‘Far Cry’ once meant to me, it doesn’t any more. Oh kid, you just wait until Far Cry 3. And you wouldn’t believe me if I showed you a video of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. I won’t tell you how you’re going to feel about that (because for all I know, 2020 me is penning me a letter about it right now), but yeah, ‘Far Cry’ ceases to be a reliable definition of anything.

Perhaps, for others, ‘Far Cry’ is still a promise that was repeatedly broken. To me, its being a looser concept is freeing: when I revisited Far Cry 2 this week, I wasn’t playing a ‘Far Cry’ game as such. I was playing a game that I knew enough people I respected were fond of even though received wisdom – including my own – was that it was awful.

I know exactly what you’re thinking, and you’re right to. I’m worried about it too. Maybe I did treat Far Cry 2 differently because, on some lower, needier level, I wanted to impress those people. ‘Look, hey, I get it too! Look how smart I am! I’m not moaning about voice-acting and respawn times! I can see the design, guys!’

The reason I don’t think that’s what’s going on is that my paranoia – sorry, we don’t change there – tells me the response to my new insight would be to think me slow and silly, taking six years to clock what everyone else worked out back in your time. And so in that, too, I am freed: I realise and believe that I am now enjoying Far Cry 2 only because I am now enjoying Far Cry 2.

So. Why? The main thing for me is that I’ve approached it in a completely different state of mind. I wonder whether you could do that, if you tried. I know you were perfectly happy with STALKER back then, so I guess it’s possible. I’m just not sure you can really get past what you’re expecting this to be: a brash mayhem sandbox, big fights with an Arnie tone and a strong note of joy and indulgence. Man make boom! The way you feel right now, that’s something you want/need, as much as it is something you expect from ‘Far Cry.’

This is the thing: you have to go into Far Cry 2 braced for ugliness. Not the graphics, they still look great, and the dirt and ruin and danger of Africa even seems stronger now than it did at the time. I mean ugly in feel. It goes to such efforts here, to be ugly, to make you feel ugly. Kills are unpleasant. People are unpleasant. The situation is unpleasant. You are unpleasant. Every human structure in this place is unpleasant. Every human in this place is unpleasant. Nothing works properly. No-one likes anyone else, not really.

And Christ, the places you go in the hope of resting and recuperating. They look like places you’d go to die. Appropriate, as death is what you bring. You kill because killing is what is done here, not because you’ve come to play hero. There is no glory to be had. You push forwards, taking lives and finding new ways to take lives, because…

Well, because you’ve become a mercenary. Because it’s your job. We don’t ask that question of most shooters (although you’ll be fascinated to see the response, including your own, to BioShock 3). Most don’t have a good reason. Here, you’re doing it to be part of this terrible place’s economy. You profit from taking the lives you’re told to take, but more than that people further up the foodchain profit from it, from the perpetuation of bloodshed and bullets. The place, this Africa, doesn’t profit. Everything you do just makes it worse. It was only once I understood this that I could enjoy Far Cry 2. No, enjoy is wrong. Appreciate sounds snobbish. ‘Give myself to it’ may be better, but sounds overblown. Nope, sorry kid, writing doesn’t seem any easier eight years on.

When you play Far Cry 2 a few days or weeks from now, you’ll be trying to make jeeps explode and fight six people at once, and hare about the place like GTA in the Savannah. That’s fine, that’s OK, that’s how it goes. It just means you’re not going to like it, because it just doesn’t work well that way. It’s OK to not like it, but maybe – and maybe this is the reason I’m telling you all this – maybe you shouldn’t go around shouting or posting nasty editorials that it’s awful and a disaster and the people who like it are too easily-pleased.

I’m relieved that you didn’t do that in the end, at least not that much, but perhaps that’s only because I sent you this letter. If I hadn’t sent you this letter, you’d have been a right little arsehole, you’d never have taken onboard at least some of what others said about the game, you wouldn’t have even considered revisiting it later, and you’d never have written this letter. Heh. Timey-wimey.

When I/you/we played Far Cry 2 again, we did it differently. We played it focused on survival. We didn’t pursue big showdowns and multi-car pile-ups. We played on Hardcore difficulty, so that more than a couple of shots meant death. So that we were frail and cowardly. So that we jumped out of our skin when we heard the sound of an approaching engine, so that the bark of an enemy who’d seen movement was a spur to run and hide, not run and engage.

Oh, sure, I still saw the all-over-the-place AI, I still saw that the game’s stealth systems are barely there, I still saw the gaping logic-vacuum around the respawning guards at checkpoints, and yeah, I still struggled with the way all the voice actors sound like they’re trying to spurt it all out before they miss their bus home. I still saw that Far Cry 2 is odd, and that the fealty it swears to conceptual ugliness is not even slightly matched by its efforts in surface-level polish.

Shining through all of that, and what you won’t get when you play it very soon, is that I’m roleplaying as a desperate man. I believe I’m going to die at any minute – someone’s going to shoot me, or run over me, or the malaria I’ve contracted will finally get the better of me. Mostly the shooting, though. These people, these men with their guns, they know their land well enough to recognise when a threat is approaching. They can see me from a mile off*, they’re not fooled one bit by my attempts to hide, and they don’t seem to suffer the chronic ammo shortages that I do.

Fights never quite go how I expect. Clips are emptied with terrifying speed, guns jam, health bars empty in an instant, pursuit never stops. It’s brutal and it’s chaotic. Sure, I can plan to some degree, but come the moment it’s so fraught and unforgiving, and that means each skirmish feels truly life or death, not perfunctory or formulaic. The sound of bullets is oppressive rather than inviting, and I lunge and scrabble to cover that buys me seconds, not safety. Death watches all the while, and even when I can’t feel his cold breath on my neck, travelling great distances across this murderous Africa’s unsettling empty terrain feels like a long walk to doom. I’m roleplaying as a condemned man, and that means I’m experiencing something I very rarely do: a first-person shooter making me feel something, or feel like something. Something other. Something ugly.

That won’t happen for you. You won’t let Far Cry 2 sink through your skin, down through muscle and into bone until its feverish grubbiness gets to you. You won’t let it make you feel like it’s trying to make you feel, because you’re too outraged that it immediately seems rough around the edges, and most of all that it won’t seem to let you have a good time. You’ll look at it and you’ll complain.

That’s fine! You’ve made a living out of complaining, after all. Somehow, we’re still doing it. Don’t stop now. Please, hate Far Cry 2 as much as you want to. Just… just don’t embarrass us, OK?

Must go, anyway. There’s this boy I’ve got to talk out of buying Rise of the Robots.

all my love,

Alec

PS – don’t throw away that Sidewinder joystick when you move house, you’ll really regret it when you suddenly feel like replaying Descent yesterday.

* Yet, I must admit, they do so struggle more with finding me when I’m right next to them:

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