Far Cry 2 (Xbox 360)
One night while driving my jeep across Far Cry 2's virtual veldt, I caught a glimpse of something just out of range of my headlights. It was a zebra, bounding through the tall yellow grass, fleeing.
I braked. The zebra galloped across my path, paused briefly, then vanished into the night.
I sat there for a moment with the jeep engine idling, staring at the spot where the zebra had just been. I'd seen wildlife during Far Cry 2's daylight hours -- the game has a fully articulated day-night cycle, complete with sunrises and sunsets -- but never before at night.
There was something about seeing that lone zebra after dark that gave me a chill; I felt a tangible sense of awe and mystery. I thought, There are things out there in the darkness that are moving around independently of me. At that point, the controller in my hand, the television in front of me, all of it slid away. These are the moments I live for -- when a game transcends its limitations, when it reveals an unexpected soulfulness, when it becomes, briefly, more than a game.
Fortunately, Far Cry 2 -- the Crytek-free follow-up to the 2004 original -- has plenty of moments like this. Fans of the original should know a couple of things up front: Gone is Jack Carver, the reluctantly feral protagonist of the original. Also gone: the lush tropical island setting.
This is not a good neighborhood to try to sell Girl Scout Cookies in. No, they don't even want the Do-Si-Dos.
And while the original Far Cry pushed the envelope when it came to nonlinear gameplay -- i.e., there were always two or three ways to resolve every situation -- the sequel takes that notion to its logical extreme by giving you a Grand Theft Auto III-like open world (50 square kilometers, to be exact) in which to wreak your first-person shooter mayhem.
At the game's start, you select an identity: the old guy, the young guy, the little white dude with the annoying face, etc. Don't fret too long over your decision; your choice has no bearing on gameplay whatsoever. After you've picked someone, you're given a passive, 10-minute-long Half-Life-esque jeep ride into the game's rural African landscape.
Your ultimate goal is to find and kill some guy named The Jackal. (I'm guessing his mother didn't name him that.) The Jackal is an arms trafficker who is supplying the local warring factions with weapons. Your job is to accept various missions from both factions, all in the name of eventually discovering the location of The Jackal and killing him, which will end the war.
Oh, and by the way, you have malaria -- which is mostly an annoyance. The screen goes all foggy every 15 minutes or so. Hitting the left bumper on the Xbox 360 controller accesses your antimalarial prescription. Pop your pills and you're good for another 15 minutes. This only becomes a serious problem when you're in the middle of a firefight. Personally, I could have done without the malaria subplot, since it only serves to slow down a game that's already in danger of being overly long.
According to the game's manual, there are six different mission types to choose from: Story, Faction, Underground, Side-Quest, Convoy and Assassination. But, in my experience, 99 percent of the game's missions play out like this: 1. Go to this location; 2. Scout out said location; 3. Fight through waves of bad guys; 4. Destroy a specific target and/or assassinate someone; 5. Get new mission.
Like the zebra moment, what happens between missions is arguably more interesting than what happens during missions.
That's what you jackasses get for filling barrels with gas and painting them red and leaving them in the middle of your village.
Sitting on a nearby hilltop while crouching in the weeds as I scouted out an enemy encampment with my monocular was exciting. The monocular turned green whenever I located an item of interest, like an explosive barrel or a weapons cache. Whenever I'd gathered enough intel, it was time for me to plan out my invasion of said encampment.
I'd typically begin a mission by thinning out the enemy ranks via a sniper rifle, ideally tagging a few of those explosive barrels to cause confusion. It's worth noting that fire spreads in the game. Starting a fire is a good way to literally smoke out enemies. It will spread from building to building, from tree to tree. Even vehicles in the game can catch fire, and will eventually explode. One perfectly viable tactic: driving a burning jeep towards an encampment, but leaping to safety (Y button) before it enters the encampment. Once inside, it's only a matter of time before the driver-less jeep explodes, causing chaos and setting fire to the surroundings.
Once an encampment had been softened up a bit, I'd then typically switch to a close-range weapon like the shotgun, then enter the village and clean out any stragglers.
If this sounds fun, that's because it is fun. And things get even more interesting via Far Cry 2's Buddy system. You'll inevitably rescue Buddies during these missions. You can develop virtual relationships with these Buddies. They'll offer tactical advice, giving you alternate ways to accomplish a mission, and they'll sometimes even accompany you on missions, doing their best to help keep enemies at bay while you achieve your objectives.
In theory, I like the Buddy system. Getting cell phone calls from Buddies mid-mission, or finding a Buddy lingering around in a Safe House (the little shacks scattered throughout the game world where you can rest, swap out weapons, regain health, and save your game) -- that goes a long way towards making the game feel less like a lonely, solo experience. It's something I'm oddly always conscious of in a game, the degree of loneliness I feel.
In practice, the Buddy system doesn't work so well. Early on in the game, my Buddy got into trouble. I rescued him; I hovered above his writhing, shot-up body, and hit a button to share some of my health with him. In an interesting twist, the game also allows you to do something far more inhumane: You can simply pull out your pistol and off your buddy, saving all of your health for yourself.
The second time my Buddy went down -- I followed the puff of blue I'm-in-trouble smoke to locate him -- a nearby enemy was shooting at me, and in the confusion, I hit the wrong button and shot my Buddy, inadvertently sending him to Buddy Heaven where he could run and play with his other Buddies in verdant fields.
This happened again a few missions later: I got confused, pressed the wrong button, and boom, I'd turned my friend into a corpse. And the game makes it clear that once a Buddy is gone, he (or she) is gone forever (i.e., for the remainder of the game). I felt genuinely sad in these moments, and found myself engaging in a bit of fictional reverie. "Remember that time I came back to the Safe House and you'd fixed chili for the both of us, and we watched a rerun of "Two and a Half Men"? That was always your favorite show..." But mostly I felt angry at the developers for making it too easy for me to execute someone who had been asking me for help.
While I'm complaining, I also didn't appreciate the game's constant parade of ambushes. I'd be merrily driving along, trying to look at my map, en route to my next objective, when suddenly a jeep with a manned turret would come barreling over a hill, shooting out my tires so that I'd inevitably have to pull over, get out, and deal with them. Once I'd finished them off (CG Tip: Shoot the man on the turret first, then hit the driver), I'd repair my car (go to the hood, press the Y button), get back in, start the engine, and begin driving again, only to have the same exact thing happen again about 30 seconds later. This happened approximately 37,000 times while playing Far Cry 2.
Far Cry 2, as I said, isn't a short game. In fact, it's probably around 20 hours too long for most gamers. In the name of speeding things along, the voiceover actors were obviously directed to leave all spaces out of their dialogue, sometimes to hilarious effect.
And should you be looking to extend the life of the game even further, the disc also features some relatively robust multiplayer options for those looking to take the game online. Choose from six different Classes -- Commando, Sharpshooter, Guerilla, Rebel, Gunner and, my favorite, Saboteur (I love sneaking about in the underbrush hitting enemies with my neurotoxin darts). On the downside, you get four fairly pedestrian multiplayer modes -- Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Diamond and Uprising. But on the upside, you get this absolutely massive, lush world in which to play these modes.
For consumers who are light in the wallet these days, Far Cry 2 is absolutely one of the year's best gaming bargains. You could ostensibly play this and nothing else well into 2009. I only wish that, overall, I cared more about the people and places in Far Cry 2 on a moment-to-moment basis. The game's narrative is obviously the weak link here; it's messy and vague and confusing; none of the characters distinguish themselves as memorable.
No matter. The world of Far Cry 2 is so convincing and beautifully articulated, right down to the last zebra, that I was more than happy to tell my own story here. I imagine the locals singing songs about a boogie man who lingers on nearby hilltops, and watches them from a distance, and causes their barrels filled with fuel to mysteriously explode. A creature who, when they least expect it, sends a burning, driver-less jeep speeding into their villages. A cold-hearted man who, they say, has a tendency to kill even his own Buddies in battle.
Now that's a story for you.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.