You shouldn’t always give people what they want. This is focus testing’s fatal flaw. It’s also the reason that Far Cry 2 - a game which doesn’t give you what you want and slaps you for asking - is the best game in the series by far.
It isn’t the most fun to play, I’ll grant you that, but then fun isn’t really its end goal. That fact alone puts it in a special category of games which are not merely glossy entertainment flumes down which the player effortlessly slips. Before Dark Souls got its reputation for foisting uncompromising hardship on the masochistic player, Far Cry 2 was already there, studded collar and whip in hand. And like Dark Souls, the purpose of its difficulty isn’t the bolshy self-aggrandisement of players who beat it, but part of the game’s aesthetic, its message and its mechanism. You can’t really say that about Far Cry 3, a game which I also love, because its purpose is much more overtly the simple gratification of a consumer. There’s nothing wrong with that, and Far Cry 3 inarguably tightens many of its predecessors’ nuts and bolts, but it also buffs smooth the texture of a game intended to be abrasive.
Far Cry 2 takes the risk of being a pedant, making you patch together your car after every prang. It risks being stingy, with its ammo and resources, with the weapons you attain and how quickly. If you played it on consoles, even the places you can save are few and far between. The game risks being outright cruel - guard posts respawn almost the second you’ve turned your back on them, jeeps lurch out of nowhere to ram you off the road or harass you for miles. Weapons jam or break completely, ammunition depletes, malarial attacks might strike you down at any moment and even running a short way will leave you puffed and your vision a smear. People got annoyed at this stuff, and they weren’t always wrong - the instant hostility of NPCs suggests a level of clairvoyance that pulls you from the fiction, and the guard posts... Oh man, those guardposts. A single mission might send you back and forth through the same guard post three times in only thrice as many minutes, and each time the goons are there waiting for you.
Minus those specific gripes, however, much of the meanness of Far Cry 2 is really its point. You can’t rely on anything here: not your weapons and not even your ability to stand on your own two feet. The result is a combat system unsurpassed in its generation of dynamic, chaotic inspiration. Everything teeters on the edge of your control. Just as things are at their most fraught, when your attention is most strained, the game gives you a little push - and over the precipice you go. Oh, sorry, were you too busy trying to dig that slug out of your forearm to notice the trio of gun-mounted jeeps skittering over the horizon? Oops - looks like your rocket launcher has just disassembled in your hands! What’s that? You’re feeling a bit peaky, too?
It’s not mere sadism: it’s to force you to improvise, to lurch wildly beyond your comfort zone, often by setting that comfort zone on fire. The game never lets you maintain the upperhand: you’ll set out as the stealthy sniper, intent on cleaning out a guard post from some distant hillock, and somehow find yourself dancing over a pile-up of flaming jeep carcasses, trying to shake loose a recalcitrant cartridge from the malfunctioning chamber of a scavenged shotgun, hoping that you’ll just be able to make it to the outcrop of rock before the entire savannah combusts. And then you’ll have a malarial attack and keel over into the furnace.
But such an end isn’t The End in Far Cry 2 thanks to the buddy system. Dubious acquaintances you’ve made during your journey will turn up before you choke, drag you out of trouble, pull you to your feet and give you a second roll of those cursed dice. It doesn’t make you like them, particularly - they are too thinly drawn, your interaction too brief for that to be the case - but it’s another way of extending and enlarging the dynamism of these battles. Suddenly the chaos can snuff out the pair of you if you aren’t careful where you lob your Molotovs.
The heart of darkness isn’t a holiday destination, then. Other games seize upon exotic locations as a form of videogame tourism, National Geographic backdrops to be gleefully detonated, but Far Cry 2 feels rooted in its setting despite its picture-postcard amalgamation of distant and distinct African geographies. It very directly channels the ghosts of a colonial past, presenting the machinations of outside power perpetuating a war for war’s own sake. I won’t say that its overt attempts to parallel Joseph Conrad’s novel are especially successful - at least, not at the level of the dialogue. Within minutes of the game’s opening, a man is quoting Nietzsche at you, and even when it settles down the script is undercut but the most eccentric, hurried delivery.
But this fails to impair the more dispersed, nebulous narrative that wafts over the player via the world, via the structure of its missions: zipping happily between the services of one warlord and his interchangeable rival, each as venal and merciless as the other. You can’t fail to feel tainted by the amorality of your actions. And then, for every mission, there is a further subversion when your buddy phones you up with an optional sidequest, playing both ends against the middle.
These are perhaps my favourite thing about Far Cry 2, because they totally reject the normal incentive loop of your generic videogame sidequest in favour of a barmy web of motivations that are almost impossible to unpick satisfactorily. For one thing, despite your buddy’s claims, these missions are typically harder than the vanilla mission itself, adding multiple stages and multiple opportunities for failure. As the game progresses, they also become explicitly grotesque, exploiting or ending innocent lives for the personal gain of your buddy - a status they maintain in name only. Further, the final act of every mission places your buddy in direct jeopardy. They can only last so long, and inevitably you end up euthanising them with an overdose of morphine, or, failing that, lead.
You’re asked to trade extra game content against an easier life. You’re asked to trade the favour of your buddy against their probable lifespan. You’re asked to trade mission rewards against explicitly evil acts. Even when this system becomes transparent through repetition, the crossways collision of multiple diegetic and ex-diegetic motivations gives these missions an aesthetic of complexity that feels akin to the sort of messy, murky morality of the real world.
The final act of the game (SPOILER WARNING) redeploys these ideas in a way which makes it even harder to know what to feel about your erstwhile colleagues. Not unpredictably, they become your opponents, and slaughtering them is the only way to the game’s strange, self-effacing conclusion, in which you are encouraged to detonate yourself, bringing down a mountainside to seal the mercenary madmen inside the nightmare they’ve created. So perhaps the smart way to play is then to “use up” the buddies during the course of the preceding hours, accepting their missions but then voluntarily failing their final stage each time, essentially luring one chum after another to a gruesome, violent fate. Given the things they’d otherwise ask you to do, they may not deserve any better. The whole thing is deeply peculiar, and not quite like anything else in gaming.
From the top-level fiction down to the firefights, everything in Far Cry 2 points to the thematic North. It’s hard to break character - even if you dedicate your entire time to setting fire to zebra; the designers explicitly removed death animations for animals to discourage their wanton murder. Instead, they just sort of sag to the ground. Contrast that with later games’ bizarre obsession with turning ocelots into grenade pouches. Even the occasional toys you find in Far Cry 2 - the hang-glider, the various buggies - are hidden, their use curtailed by their positioning.
Far Cry 3 makes such things its raison d'etre. It’s a jolly old toy box and that’s a fine enough goal for a game, but its inheritance is that of Just Cause’s meaningless mayhem, and not Far Cry 2’s singular meshing of action and theme. Try as it might to tie in its euphoric carnage to some grander evocation of hedonism, Far Cry 3 can’t help but feel frivolous, perhaps because hedonism is just not that much of a stretch for games. Wish fulfillment is a pound a penny - games are already so often the macho hallucinations of mayhem that Far Cry 3 caricatures and celebrates in its Skrillex-soundtracked ganja flambé. Far Cry 2 does the much harder thing, often imperfectly, of trying to talk about something outside of videogames while using a videogame to do so, and risks offending the player in pursuing that idea. It feels like a journey into the heart of darkness should - painful, arduous but unforgettable.