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The 12 Games of Christmas: Far Cry 2

We've not taken our medicine today, so things might seem a little woozy. Perhaps there's some drugs behind this latest window?

For the sixth game of Christmas, my true blog gave to me…

If Crysis was a far cry from Far Cry, then this is a far cry from Far Cry too. It's the inexplicably-named arbitrary sequel, Far Cry 2! [You are actually fired, not joking this time - Ed]

Jim: When the RPS hivemind was discussing our games of Christmas earlier this month Far Cry 2 came up, with me as its primary advocate. I've played it for many hours, and had some excellent fun times, but nevertheless my first words in that discussion were criticism. In fact, on reflection, my wordy bashing of the game could fill many pages. It was, I concluded, this year's best disappointment. While it was undeniably saddening and frustrating in a number of ways, it was also one of the best games of 2008.

The two reasons this game was impressive and inspiring were easy. First, the atmosphere of the place was near-perfect. The grotty, gritty African shanties were oppressive, swathed in the threat of violence, and clearly corrupted. The countryside surrounding them, which ebbed and flowed through savannah and swamps, into jungle, and outwards into arid desert. A sense of disease and danger existed throughout. Few games manage such a consistent feeling of tension in their world, and Far Cry 2's design had, like many other games this year, pushed at the borders of what is possible in a game. It was world design that seemed to breathe uneasily: the worried civilians, the terse mercenaries, all woven into the throbbing soundtrack: it was humid and heavy. More impressive still were the little details that augmented the experience: the flies that swung briefly into your vision and disappeared, the way you knocked on the door to be let out of a militia HQ, the comparative rattle weakness of an old car against the sleek rubberised solidity of a brand new 4x4- and the map, that weird piece of paper magic. Far Cry 2 reeked attention to detail, and it's tough not to love that. It provides access to somewhere we're not, with amazing fidelity.

Then - the second reason - was the combat. Imperfect, yes, but full of energy. It was occasionally marred by AI awkwardness, or the relative ease with which confused NPCs could be despatched (some even killing themselves), but the actual chaotic mess of melee was superb, brutal, and ultimately thrilling. Fire propagation and real physics meant that a creaky trainyard could be transformed into a flaming, exploding mess, with enemies screaming their last observations about the world as you ripped them open with an automatic shotgun.

Knocking a rolling convoy off the road with a bazooka, or blowing apart wooden structures with a couple of grenades: this was all meaty, ugly, violent stuff, filled with energy and gore. The brilliant superhuman horror of tearing bullets out of your flesh to survive makes this into an 1980s action movie of a game, with cartoon logic in an all-too-real world. Getting hold of a dune buggy and bouncing into an enemy encampment, leaping out hurling molotovs and gunning down screaming mercs and close range, well, that the kind of release I'm appreciative off after a long day at the office. (My imaginary office in the sky.)

Nevertheless it was not a smooth ride. Indeed, there was a lot of critical flak generated for Far Cry 2, and I was in agreement with most of it. Even if we ignored the strange checkpoint respawns there was plenty of "oh, Ubisoft" sighing, which was a real shame. Perhaps the comparisons with Assassin's Creed were inevitable, but they were almost all irrelevant. If there was a useful comparison it was probably that neither game took advantage of the world it had decided to build. In a year of open world games, it was one that hadn't really benefited from the decision to create such a wide open environment. Far Cry 2's open world structure became a frustration not because of the limited number of missions, or because of the way the story was told, but because it seemed to continually shatter its own illusion.

The "worldiness" of Far Cry 2 only really seemed to work in the ceasefire towns, where violence would be met with violence, but you were otherwise left alone. It seemed to me - and almost everyone who commented on the game - that NPC behaviour should have been similar throughout the game world, perhaps with spats of sporadic fighting. Instead, all NPCs outside the town area were hostile. It made for a rabid, psychotic existence, where everyone would attack you on sight, unprovoked. The context of most FPS games - where you are up against a linear horde of automatically hostile enemies - seems to make sense of this. An open world where you are simply driving along, minding your own business, does not. In Far Cry 2's world, even a glimpse of your passing would drive NPCs to the brink of rabid madness, to the point of leaping into the jeeps and racing after you, bent in your destruction. It never seemed coherent. Perhaps that's because the structure of the game suggested that it should be more like Stalker or Fallout 3 - more of an RPG, with its towns and landscapes, its missions and its vehicles. Ubisoft, meanwhile, went headlong into the land of the shooter.

This was tempered somewhat on the second map, where taking to the waterways reduced most of the aggro. Cruising along these and going ashore to take on the objective does seem to be the way the game was intended to be played, it's just a real shame it took several hours to get that stage - about the same time that the majority of the weapons were opened up. It was also at this point that getting kitted up for combat, grabbing a vehicle, and heading out into the world, became really interesting.

Nevertheless, the project of exploration for its own sake seems to have been failed somewhat by Far Cry 2's mechanics. despite it being lead Far Cry 2 bloke Clint Hocking who set me off thinking in that direction earlier this year, this was still not the explory shooter we wanted. I suspect the FPS aspects of Far Cry 2 were just too far to the foreground for it to work. A game of exploration needs to be more random, more RPG-inclined, as either Fallout 3 or Stalker were, to really make exploration for its own sake interesting. Far Cry 2 tried it on with the diamond cases, but they might as well have just been money, and the tracker system was just another all-too convenient piece of magic.

But there was more to it than that: the African setting somehow seemed exploration-retardant in its whole. It was lush and lavish, and wonderfully detailed, but somehow I didn't feel like there was going to be anything unexpected, nothing to really discover. While I was stunned by the steaminess of the jungles, awed by the glimpse of a towering waterfall, and beaten by the dusty, sun-saturated surrounds of the desert, all these places ended up feeling like a film set. I knew that it was little more than the place where my pretend violence was going to take place. Not that I minded, because the violence was so entertaining. Little asides, like the way that readied buddies pulled you from the brink of death, or the way missions played out into a series of mad firefights, made it all worthwhile.

So an uncomfortable thumbs up for this strange game, then. Problematic and enormously entertaining, beautiful and oddly shallow. It was, like many of the greatest things in life, deeply flawed. I can't love it, but I can, and do, think it's great.

Kieron: While I don't take issue with almost anything Jim says - though, perhaps inevitably, I'm going to dwell on what isn't included in the "almost anything" - there's an interesting subtext to it, and much of the debate around Far Cry 2. As a game, it was a self-conscious attempt to evolve the First Person Shooter. This is something people want. But, when they actually say that, what they seem to mean is "evolve it into something else". If the path of the evolution of the shooter turns it into an RPG... well, I'm not sure it's evolving the shooter at all. I suspect Far Cry's failing is that it seriously believed in trying to grow whilst still determinedly wanting to remain a shooter.

Personally, my main annoyance with Far Cry 2 is that I simply haven't played enough of it. Around 8-10 hours into the thing, still on the first map and I love it. This is frustrating, because when people ask me for a recommendation of a good game recently, I have to add a load of provisos before giving Far Cry 2. And they're not problems I have with it, but since I haven't delved enough of the game, I'm also aware they're problems which may grow for me. In the slow days of January, I'm going to crack back on with it. Who knows - maybe I'll end up doing something like Far Cry 2: A Defence and call the internet outside for a fight again.

Because there's a lot to love in Far Cry 2. One issue I'd take with Jim's position is noting its exploration possibilities are strictly limited. There's actually two things pushing you towards exploration - and rewarding you if you do so. Firstly, those diamond cases. They're not just a tiny bag of Gold. A good chunk of those cases have an implicit, context-based story around them. It's not the equivalent of banging your head on a Mario Brick and getting a coin. They're often these little potted dramas - how someone fell to their death, crashed a glider, whatever. The fact they're crafted so carefully makes me feel for them in a way which random-generated Stalker never managed.

Secondly... well, the other thing pushing exploration is those constantly aggressive natives. What's the safest route between X and Y I can manage in this land of mentalists? With a more passive populace, I wouldn't feel the need to do this. And the best moments of the game have been provoked by my lateral movement and the game's response to me - heading towards an assassination, skimming the south edge of the airport, sand beneath my treads... when a couple of zebras run alongside my truck. The sun's setting. It's about as atmospheric as a game's been this year. And then I see the convoy ahead...

I suppose that's the other key thing with Far Cry 2. It was a shooter which took me to a place I've never been before in a videogame. The price of entry is an odd little mental switch which isn't built into us all, I suspect. Either you can make the mental adjustment that you have to fight everyone, or you don't. I made the leap easily, and got on with it.

I think, as a game, it was incredibly brave. I actually think that making it into an RPG would have been the easier option. There's plenty of models for that sort of game. Far Cry 2 struck out on its own - and I'm suddenly reminded of Thief. While Ubisoft Montreal's leap of faith fell far shorter than Looking Glass, I think it's commendable.

And as a final note, I suspect the problem with Far Cry 2's approach was actually one of worldbuilding, and ironically the complete opposite of Far Cry 1 and Crysis'. Everyone hated the aliens in both of them. But if Far Cry 2 was actually set on a hostile alien world, with little pockets of civilization giving you tasks and a landscape which loathed your very presence... people would have been fine with the combat. It would make sense. The problem with Far Cry 2 was by creating a world which looks like a place where people live, and then not creating people who act like people there was this conceptual leap for the gamer to make. And while I made it, I can equally totally understand while others wouldn't.

Either way, for everyone, I think it was worth the attempt.

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