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Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
The original Far Cry was at its strongest in the open-ended segments which allowed the player to achieve objectives in a number of different ways. In planning the sequel, someone at Ubisoft said "Hey, why don't we make the entire game like that?" Someone else likely replied, "Because it's really, really HARD." Ubisoft stuck with the ambitious, nonlinear concept for the game and crafted a 20 square mile world for players to roam and shoot people in. The result is astonishing though there are noticeable compromises on the game's grand design.
It's important to note that Far Cry 2 is not Oblivion. You won't stroll into a small village, meet a crying woman, and pledge to find their missing son in the forest. About 99% of the people you will meet will try to shoot you on sight. If you see another car traveling the dirt roads or a guard checkpoint, don't doff your hat and try to hit them up for a quest - the only quest they're offering is entitled, "Fill Your Mouth With Rounds From My AK-47." The only places where people won't try to kill you are in the towns with cease-fire areas (unless you trespass in a restricted area) and the few safe haven buildings where friendly NPC's huddle. These NPC's aren't all that talkative, either - they'll say the bare minimum they need to in order to tell you about a quest and then they'll go mute.
While the game world is diverse and enormous, the human population is repetitive and limited. Most of the NPC's feel very copy-and-pasted, as with Assassin's Creed. They're character templates rather than actual characters. The developers don't even try to differentiate one weapon merchant from another - the buildings the weapon merchants inhabit all look exactly the same and they deliver the exact same lines while hiring you to hijack a convoy. One would expect your "buddies" - the A.I. companions who occasionally give you quests or help you on missions - would possess unique personalities but their differences are only cosmetic and they're as tight-lipped as everyone else.
The game's lack of memorable, talkative NPC's wouldn't be so bad by itself but unfortunately the copy-and-paste mentality also carries over to the quests these NPC's offer. Weapon merchants all offer the same side quest: ambush an arms convoy (a truck escorted by two jeeps) and in exchange receive access to new weapons at the store. Even the main story missions tend toward the formulaic. What happens is this: one of the two armies fighting for control of the region (the UFLL and the APR) will tell you to blow up something up, kill someone, or steal an item. Then one of your buddies will call you on your cell phone and offer you an alternate mission. If you choose to do the alternate mission, you'll go blow something up, kill someone, or steal something else, then do a slightly modified version of the original mission, and then rescue the buddy from a group of thugs. The idea behind adding these alternate paths was to give the game replayability and freedom but it doesn't make up for the lack of diversity in the mission objectives and you rarely have any clue what effect doing the primary or alternate mission has on the wider conflict so there's no moral decision going on here.
These shortcomings would sink Far Cry 2 if it were a role-playing game. Lucky for Far Cry 2, it's a shooter and all that ultimately matters is that the action is fun. And it is. Very. While, yes, the overall mission design is repetitive, your actual execution of the mission carries a lot of choice. You can purchase a variety of machine guns, shotguns, sniper rifles, pistols, and explosives - which are then automatically available in infinite supply from the armories next to weapon shops across the map. The open world map, and the abundance of vehicles throughout it, enable you to approach objectives from a number of different routes. You can also specify how long you wish to rest at a safe house, the game's save points, in order to stage nighttime raids when guards will be less likely to spot your approach.
Even if you don't put all that much time into the prep work prior to the mission, you'll still have to be careful when the shooting starts. Enemies will position themselves behind cover and also attempt to flank you. They're also pretty accurate shots, even on lower difficulty levels, so racing in head-on as you would in other shooters will likely get you killed. Healing minor wounds is pretty straightforward; it's just a matter of tapping a button and jabbing yourself with a syrette. More serious wounds will slowly bleed your health away and to survive you have to perform field surgery on yourself. After finding some cover (hopefully), you'll crouch and dig out a bullet with a knife, remove a piece of shrapnel from your arm, etc. During this four or five second action, you'll be looking down at your wound so you won't be able to keep track of enemy movement and it's a great deal tenser than, say, hiding behind a crate until your shield regenerates in Halo.
Far Cry 2 rigidly adheres to the first-person perspective at all times and it works well. Not because "it makes you feel like you're really in Africa" or something but because the execution is top-notch. When running, your arms will flail and your vision will become increasingly blurred. When being dragged to safety by buddies (which happens on occasion if you run out of health during combat), your vision will be hazy and tinged with red. As you drift in and out of consciousness, you'll see your buddy pulling you along while firing off rounds at pursuing enemies. You may wish you could skip these short sequences after seeing them several times but they're a neat cinematic touch. You'd expect the game to abandon the first-person perspective when looking at your map, but nope - you'll actually pull out a map rather than cutting to a menu screen. Again, I don't want to say that "I feel like I'm actually in the game" or some other marketing bullshit, but the net effect of this strict first-person perspective is that you're never pulled out of the game. It's all one fluid experience. Even when you're being rescued by a buddy, it feels like a continue of the gameplay sequence than some disconnected cut scene. By the way, despite the size and visual detail of the game world, there's surprisingly little loading time, other than a little bit of pop-in during driving and the loading screens when using one of the bus stations located on the corners of the map.
From a technical standpoint, the game is brilliant. The world they've created is gorgeous. I can't say whether it's the best-looking game ever - Skynet never sent a computer back from the future for me to play Crysis on its highest settings - but it's certainly on the short-list. It's not all just eye candy, either - the extreme detail of the game environments has functional qualities, as well. The abundance and variety of vegetation, fortifications, etc. add unforeseen difficulty to the gunfights - there's so much stuff for enemies to blend into or hide behind. By the same token, there's plenty of cover for you to conceal yourself behind if you want to sneak up or snipe enemies from afar. There's also plenty of fuel barrels, oil cans, ammo dumps, etc for you to blow up with carefully placed shots. Buildings aren't completely destructible as with Bad Company but you can rip a good chunk out of many of them with explosions. The game also sports flammable environments - using a combination of explosive weapons, flamethrowers, and molotov cocktails, you can roast enemies, create a roaring inferno to distract guards away as you infiltrate their base, or build a wall of flames to stop an enemy advance and cover your escape.
If you're simply rushing through the game, whether to clear your schedule for the barrage of other fall releases or to finish a review, you may just use the same weapons and tactics over and over and find the game boring/repetitive. While most shooters are non-stop action and instant gratification, Far Cry 2 requires a little more time and patience to be able to appreciate its brilliance. During a mission to hijack a weapons convoy, I noticed that it periodially passed through a valley with tall rocks on either side. I hiked over to that spot and hid myself amongst the brush on one side of the road. The truck, escorted by two jeeps with mounted machine guns, soon entered the valley. Leaping out of cover, I fired my RPG at the truck and the ensuing explosion took out that vehicle as well as the jeep in front of it. The rear jeep's gunner opened fire at me and I hurled a grenade underneath it. The grenade flipped and roasted the jeep. This all took about ten seconds and it would have been a throwaway sequence in a more linear game like Call of Duty ("Murphy, fire that RPG at those vehicles!"). It really wowed me, though. Far Cry 2 has what the best open-ended games possess: organic gameplay that makes you feel like you "own" moments in the game. That little sequence could have been in a game trailer but I, the player, was responsible for making it happen as it did.
If you're not in a patient mood, there's always the multiplayer with four modes: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Diamond, and Uprising. The first three are pretty self-explanatory but the fourth is an interesting twist on normal capture-the-territory multiplayer gameplay. Each player has a captain who must capture the points on the map, and once all the points are captured, that team must kill the opposing team's captain. It often leads to a stalemate but it leads to some very tense moments. If you're the captain and the other team has captured all the points, you still have to run out on offense and grab a point even though everyone's specifically hunting you. The game's multiplayer features six player classes with different equipment loadouts, which are upgraded by earning experience points. The advancement system, along with the mission editor that ships with the game, give you a reason to keep playing the multiplayer long after you complete the 20+ hour single-player campaign (give or take several hours depending on how many side missions you do).
It would have been very easy for Ubisoft to just make another fairly linear shooter on a tropical island for the second installment of Far Cry. Instead, they created the sequel with much loftier aspirations. There were obvious growing pains in converting the linear first-person shooter genre into a massive sandbox game but for whatever its shortcomings, Far Cry 2 is still an absorbing, impressive action game and well worth a purchase even in the crowded holiday market.