Far Cry 2 is a hard game to classify and an even harder game to review. It's not one that can be approached by a casual gamer looking to spend a few minutes here and there; it's a pretty deep game even though the story could have done with some extra spit and polish. Far Cry 2 takes place in Africa and has nothing to do with the previous instalment: Far Cry. It seems that since Ubisoft now own the name Far Cry, which I think they were determined to use for brand recognition and to help sell copies of the game. With over 1 million copies sold, they must have done something right already.
You pick from one of several male characters, the rest become buddies sprinkled throughout the game's storyline and massive 50km world. There are two warring factions and a mysterious protagonist (The Jackal) to contend with, old Jackal is an arms dealer who seems determined to re-ignite a conflict in Africa and sell, sell, sell to the warring sides. You are sent to take him out and in a lengthy first person introduction that reminded me of the tram scene from Half Life (how I loved that) you're driven into Africa by a chatty taxi driver.
Things don't go as planned and you contract malaria, the rest I'll leave up to you to experience, suffice it to say that I didn't actually see it coming. Far Cry 2 is a sandbox-style shooter that has two acts, both split between a northern territory and a southern, taking place over a combined total of 50km of beautifully crafted Africa. The engine (Dunia) is capable of producing some pretty slick vistas with minimal pop-up and pop-in even when travelling in one of the many vehicles in the game. When you finish the rather lengthy tutorial you're left alone to explore the massive game world and approach missions, side-missions and diversions to your heart's content. There are a lot of these; some of them unlock weapons at the arms dealer. You can upgrade your arsenal there.
There are two warring factions, the UFLL and APR. You can play these off against each other and earn diamonds (the main currency in the game) by performing various missions. You'll also get a couple of buddies (who can die so be careful) to help you out. One will become your best buddy and provide you with alternative mission solutions and opportunities (these help upgrade your safehouses) in the faction missions, the other is a sort of mobile field medic come search and rescue operative. They'll pull your bacon out of the fire if you go down.
There's a minimal game interface that lets you track your health and weapon ammo. Your health works on a regenerating system of rectangular indicators, as long as you have a part of a box it will regenerate to the maximum of that particular block. Should you lose too much health you'll start to bleed to death and you'll need to perform a quick field-medic repair to your body. These can range from pulling slugs out of your skin with pliers, setting a broken arm or cutting a bullet from a wound. It's all viewed in first person immersion, so that you don't lose that sense of being in the game.
The system works very well and makes the combats exciting and fun; having to take cover and fix a bullet wound during an intense battle adds an edge to the gunfights that might normally be lacking. You can medicate yourself with a syringe of sorts and that will fully restore your health. You can also use those to help a dying buddy in the field. (If you're like someone else we know, you can draw your gun and put them out of your misery)
From time to time you'll suffer malaria attacks and have to take pills; these pills aren't unlimited as you follow the story. You'll have to undergo certain missions for the Underground to get more. It helps add another sense of urgency and unpredictability to the proceedings as many times I found myself coming across a checkpoint full of hostiles only to need to take a pill as I started to suffer from the onset of the symptoms.
It's a massive game as I mentioned before and there are numerous road vehicles and a hang-glider to allow you to get around the huge world map. There's no loading when you're exploring Africa, but when you reload a save or use one of the many bus routes (quick travel) to get around, the load times are a little longer than we've come to expect. It's a small price to pay for such an unfettered gameworld where unpredictable encounters can happen as you're driving down the road. There are numerous check points (guard posts) to investigate and repeatedly clear (they always seem to repopulate every time I go back) of hostiles. There are safehouses that can be unlocked (by killing the guards) where you can store weapons, upgrade by doing buddy objectives and save your game by resting (this also allows you to choose the time of day when you might awake. If you want to do a mission at night, sleep until its dark).
Ubisoft have also placed a weapon degradation mechanic into the game, your weapons will get worse with prolonged use and over time. They'll get dirty, grimy and eventually jam. A jam can be cleared by pressing X on the 360 controller and the only indication of weapon condition is on the gun itself, it will become worn, rusty and look used. Enemy weapons are always in worse condition than the guns you get from your own armoury, so it's wise to restock your weapon supplies often. There are collectible diamonds to find via your handy map and tracker. Speaking of the map, again, Far Cry 2 keeps you immersed in the game and offers a map that isn't on a menu. You can open it at any time to consult your next objective marker, see where you are and even scout out a location using a monocular to mark objects such as ammo points and sniper nests.
It all fits together nicely; the sense of full body immersion is captured with effortless ease along with the gorgeous (day or night) African locales. You never pop from the driver's seat to a gunner's position; the character will traverse there in first person. The animation in the game is slick, especially for the various field repairs on your own body as well as the medication of your malaria. Ubisoft have taken a great deal of time and effort making this engine perform well, produce some gorgeous graphics even on the console version and provide some top quality animations. The game also supports a full weather system and some of the most gorgeous fire mechanics we've seen in a title for a long time. It will propagate with wind, dry grass and whilst it looks pretty - it's an invaluable tool for causing some serious trouble for your enemies since you can use a flamethrower or Molotov cocktail to ignite mostly anything.
This brings me onto the physics of the game. Once again the engine delivers solid physics with some nice touches such as being able to hurl a grenade into an ammo dump and watch the ammunition go off killing anyone that's standing nearby. These kinds of physics based systems allow for a wide variety of tactics in terms of mission objectives. You can adapt your techniques on the fly and use the environment and enemy emplacements against them in unique ways not often captured by other first person shooters.
Enemy AI will often make use of flanking moves and tactics. They'll also call out to each other and attempt to ambush you with false directions. They will also scream in agony if knocked down and start to bleed out, pulling a weapon in desperation. This is where the AI comes into its own; a screaming colleague will draw the attention of his companions and can be used as a trap for either a well placed explosive device or a snappy sniper-shot that kills your intended target as he comes to check on his wounded ally. Its touches like this that makes the experience all the richer and the gameplay transforms into something else. You can easily feel like the hunter when you're the hunted as you turn the tables on a vastly superior force by clever use of the environment.
Tied into the gameplay of course are the excellent sound effects, the superb musical score and the weapon effects. These audio elements are combined in the right mix and stand out far more than the vanilla voice acting, which lets the game down a little especially with some of the dialogue. It feels as though a great deal of effort was farmed into the actual engine but the story was left till last and piped in using the generic dialogue creator. Whilst not terribly bad the delivery of some of the lines sounds forced and jars the player out of the game world and reinforces the fact that it is just a game and not an African manhunt gone badly. It's a minor niggle but one that stands out to me since I'm a sucker for good dialogue and solid storytelling.
Far Cry 2 also features one of the best map editors in a console game to date, it's simple to use but will require a little bit of a learning curve to get the best out of. The editor allows you to create maps for use in the games many multiplayer modes and provides an excellent set of tools that are extremely robust and powerful. Every aspect of the game's map can be tinkered with and set, from the time of day, the weather, the ambient lighting to the actual terrain itself. The terrain tools are mind-bogglingly effective and within 10 minutes you can create your own little piece of Africa ready for multiplayer mayhem.
It's nice to see that there's already a growing community of user made maps on the console version as well as the PC. You can play numerous multiplayer game modes, choose various character classes/careers and unlock/upgrade weapons by earning diamonds. When you combine this with the robust single player experience that allows you to approach the game as you want, with very little railroading, the incredible level of detail in the graphics and animations, Far Cry 2 is leaps ahead of the original game. I can see why they didn't go with the original protagonist and setting and why they made the changes that they did.
My initial reservations about the game vanished like new-born early-morning mist rises through the grass surrounding the jungles. It does a competent job of trying to do something different in the first person shooter genre and succeeds in terms of raw fun and gameplay tactics. The AI does have some issues now and then when it might suddenly forget what it's doing. There is some pop-up and pop-in if you're looking for it and the story feels a little flat, the side-missions have Assassin's Creed/GTA syndrome and feel a little repetitive.
All in all though, Far Cry 2 is a game that you simply have to experience and will probably last you around 30 hours if you just focus on the core story. There's a considerably deeper gameplay experience to be had if you concentrate on mixing it up and approach your objectives with a little bit of innovation.