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Far Crying Out Loud

January 28, 2011

Shortly thereafter, the sun began peppering me with shotgun blasts. The bast.

So, a mere two years and some days after it was released, I’ve finally started to make some headway into the colossal, unwiedly beast that is Far Cry 2. I’m nowhere near finishing it, mostly due to my distracted playing style (approximately three or four missions a day, in between playing other games and listening to new Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell records. Which are wonderful.) My feelings on it thus far are roughly equivalent to my feelings on multiplayer gaming, and in fact, life in general: it’d be great if it wasn’t for all these people.

But there are plenty of positives I want do discuss before we plunge noggin-first into the perishing abyss of the game’s mistakes. So let’s form a close-knit circle around these Enchanted Stones of Faint Praise I pilfered from a drunken gypsy while I arrange my thoughts into a coherent piece.

RIGHT?!?!

Firstly, it’s astonishingly pretty. And this isn’t vacuous, surface-level prettiness either – this is the kind of graphixability that actually makes Far Cry 2 a better game; glistening plants bend to your touch, or catch the light distractingly as you’re trying to line up a shot; the sun poking through the trees as it rises at 5am diverts your attention long enough for you to crash your jeep idiotically into a craggy outcropping of rock; dancing plumes of dark smoke on the horizon cause you to forget about your quest to find important drugs so you can investigate what inevitably turns out to be a brushfire started by a careless mercenary’s campfire. Equally delicious is its use of dynamic loading – vast miles of desert and jungle are available for exploration with nary a load time save for when you first boot the game. The sense of place is impeccable. If it were a game that encouraged mirthful perambulation, I suspect you could lose hours to just aimlessly kicking about before eventually succumbing to the elements like a foolhardy gap year traveller.

It’s full of surprising moments too, all springing from its desire to be a realistic portrayal of the African plains. Open-world games are usually either tremendous at this kind of thing, or utterly laughable: Far Cry 2 manages to be both. Sure, there were times I laughed my lungs out at a merc setting himself on fire by heedlessly chucking a Molotov cocktail at his feet in tall grass; but there was also that time I felt a frankly strange amount of guilt for hitting a zebra with my car (HE RAN OUT IN FRONT OF ME I COULDN’T BRAKE IN TIME OH GOD MAKE THE BLEEDING STOP DON’T LOOK INTO HIS COLD DEAD EYES). More often than not, it’s the strangely striking sensation of charging your armoured van determinedly towards an enemy encampment, and glancing sideways to notice a mighty wildebeest keeping pace alongside you.

The buddy system was a nice touch: you’ll be introduced to various hilariously badly voiced merc chums who’ll help you out when you’re at death’s door, pulling you to safety and fending off nasty shooty men while you recover, and expecting the same courtesy from you if they’re incapacitated in the process. They’ll give you missions, give you alternate objectives while you’re on other missions for the competing factions, and generally just be quite nice to be around, for reasons we’ll explore later.

And the firefights are splendid things. Truly fantastic, demanding tactical thought, but with numerous opportunities for you to make yourself look cool. Sneaking through tall grass at night to come up behind a checkpoint full of guards, exploding a gas tank to draw their attention, then mowing them down with a combination of grenades and machine-gun fire while shrapnel flies every which way, noticing the tidily-designed health bar dipping low, ducking behind a quickly disintegrating wooden shack to pluck a bullet out of your fleshy, vulnerable calf, reset your forearm and insert sweet sweet medicine into your bloodstream with a syrette, then diving back into the fray, strafing behind trees and barrels as you take out the remaining guards, before doing in the surviving wounded with a machete is a truly wonderful 5 minute capsule of manshoots.

The first four hundred times, at least.

Firefirefirefirefirefirefirefirefirefirefirefirefirefirefirefirefire

Here’s the huge problem with Far Cry 2. Everyone you encounter on your very frequent and lengthy travels between safe towns, with the merciful exception of the aforementioned hilariously badly voiced merc buddies, will shoot you on sight. They hate you with the fire of a thousand suns and want you dead – even if you’re just timidly minding your own business, perhaps curiously observing a deer drinking from a stream, they will shoot you with uncanny accuracy, commendable enthusiasm and psychopathic determination. If Benton Fraser from wonderful 90s Mountie comedy series Due South was a troupe of murderous African soldiers, he would be these soldiers.  They will track you down in armoured vans and jeeps. They will snipe you for coming within a mile of a checkpoint. They are relentless and unyielding in their desire to riddle your body with horribly unhealthy bullets. And frankly, if I wanted the experience of travelling through an impoverished landscape where every single person wanted me dead, I’d go outside.

But whatever, right? That’s fine – that’s the game. Shoot the guards.

But oh no! That wronged gypsy from earlier has come back and cast an awful curse on Far Cry 2, because look: it is not fine.

The downside to creating such a stupendous artificial Africa is that you end up expecting the world to function in much the same way the real world does. So, while it’s just about barely conceivable that everyone you pass on the street might shoot you on sight, it’s far less forgivable for the checkpoint guards to respawn within minutes. For a game that values choice and permanence – for example, if one of your hilariously badly voiced merc buddies dies, he’s dead forever and ever and ever – it never lets you feel like you accomplished much by surviving a checkpoint on your way to a mission, because on the way back, you’re gonna shoot the same guys again. And this from Clint Hocking, the guy who famously accused Bioshock of ludo-narrative dissonance. Pfffft, eh?

Sound effects, you see (hear).

There are other minor issues. The malaria the player’s afflicted with is never really explored satisfactorily, reduced to occasional interruptions where the screen goes blotchy green and you have to down a pill, and when you run out of pills, a trek to a guy with more pills, inevitably surrounded by numerous guards for no apparent reason. And yes, all the missions boil down to “drive here, shooting some guys on the way, arrive, shoot some guys/masonry/equipment, drive back, shooting some guys on the way” with occasional leeway for more driving and shooting, but it’s a first-person shooter, so I guess expecting much more would be expecting a completely different game, and is most likely just a side effect of the game being superficially similar to the STALKER series. The weaponry jamming from time to time can feel cheap, but I guess the guns are meant to feel cheap and used, so maybe it’s meaningful? I don’t know.

I do know it’s a fun game. In Small Doses. But even Dane Cook was good in Small Doses. Great film, that.

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