Games of 2008: Far Cry 2

Shortly after I started my first game of Far Cry 2, I was treated to an on-rails taxi ride where my driver pointed out some of the unique sites of Africa. There are groups of civilians wandering in hope of escape from their country, varied wildlife, the spreading of a flash fire spreading from a patch of dry grass to a nearby tree, and more than a few angry-looking mercenaries. Functionally, this segment did nothing for me that Half-Life’s tram ride didn’t do back in 1998. Though, the tour did allow me time to take in the harrowing beauty intrinsic to Far Cry 2. The game’s microcosm of Africa is beautifully realized and serves the game as an entity unto itself; a living, breathing pseudo-ecosystem. More than that, Far Cry 2 provides the player with a robust toolset of destruction that makes each of the game’s bountiful combat encounters play out different every time.

When the segment ends, my character blacks out as a result of what I soon discover to be a latent case of malaria finally manifesting itself at the worst imaginable time. Upon waking, I see that I’m recumbent in a shanty hotel room and there is an unfamiliar figure standing at the foot of my bed, reading my confidential mission documents aloud. He quickly makes himself known as The Jackal, the infamous arms dealer that I have been sent to assassinate. This first scene represents the sole objective of Far Cry 2′s premise in its entirety: it introduces the player to The Jackal, gives some basic background on who he is, and what his relation to the player is. The scene ends when my character’s malaria flares up again and he blacks out.

Next time I wake up it’s to the sound of explosions and fire all around me as my hotel (and likely the rest of the village it’s in) is being ravaged from a battle outside. I grab a nearby pistol and then learn the basic game maneuvers as I crawl through debris and jump over broken walls until I eventually make it outside the village and, once again, black out.

Far Cry 2 actually begins after another hour or so of pedestrian tutorial quests. My primary enemy in the country knows who I am and that my only mission is to kill him, I’m stuck in the middle of a violent civil conflict between two warring factions (each of which are filled with higher-ups willing to do whatever it takes to beat the other), and the weapons I grabbed early on in the tutorial are jamming up in the middle of a battle. My pistol basically disintegrated at one point near the end of the tutorial segment. What’s worse is that my character is suffering the full extent of his malaria — short of death, I suppose — I get violent attacks that can only be held back by medicine given to me by members of an African Underground movement and I can only run about fifteen yards before I almost pass out.

It’s not uncommon for a game to start a player off in an altered state; a number of games have a player start off exceptionally strong and then strip away all of the upgrades after an introductory segment. Some games start a player off weak and the player will slowly become more and more powerful. Far Cry 2 starts a player off with weak weapons that are prone to rapid degradation and a deadly incurable illness. The only way to move forward is to work closely with one of the two factions who are at war with one another and tearing about the African culture and people in the process.

What I have going for me are my friends. I rescued a woman named Michelle, a fellow freelance killer, who was being held captive by a group of mercenaries in a slaughterhouse and since then she has become a sidekick who will intervene in the heat of battle. She introduced me to another mercenary when I went to meet up with her in a nearby bar. Together, these two people will end up forming their own unique narratives with and for the player. One of them will serve as a means of subverting a number of the missions given to the player by one of the two factions by offering optional “sub-quests” that will both hurt one of the factions while making the eventual completion of the base mission easier. The other buddy is a player’s parachute: when he/she is “rescue-ready” then he will come to the aid of a player who was killed in battle by offering a resuscitation and brief fire support. The game’s buddy system forms part of Far Cry 2′s story; the optional sub-quests flesh out the details between a given buddy and the player and form a narrative that is, in part, unique to a given player.

More importantly that the subversive sub-quests are the rescue buddies that will end up forming a sort of emergent narrative that will enhance a player’s view of a combat encounter — these are the stories that gamers will take away from Far Cry 2 and talk about with their friends. Stories about how their friend Michelle, Nasreen, Marty, Hakim, or some other character game in just when a player got an unexpected shotgun blast to the chest and died. And then that rescue buddy came in and brought the player out of his near-death state by coming to the scene with his AK-47 or Desert Eagle blazing and then dragging the player to safety and then announcing “Heal up and let’s go; there are about three guys left out there.”

Much like a Grand Theft Auto game, Far Cry 2 takes place in an open world while holding the player to a fairly strict progression system through the single-player campaign. The premise delivered through these narratives is best handled in somewhat linear manner, though, because these are the least interesting stories that are told within the game. Most of the missions (and all of the various side-quests) that a player can engage in are just an excuse to go to a specific location to battle a bunch of people.

Combat is where Far Cry 2 is at its very best. The game provides a toolkit of back-of-the-box seeming features that, surprisingly, actually add a lot to the way that a combat scenario plays out in-game. There’s the naturally-spreading fire, weapon degradation, partially destructible environments composed of materials with realistic properties, non-scripted artificial intelligence, day, night, and weather cycles, and countless other systems all working simultaneously. The material properties allow for players to employ somewhat realistic strategies mid-battle; if an enemy is standing behind a wooden fence, then a player can just shoot through it and, hopefully, kill the enemy. If a pair of guards are standing next to a series of ammo canisters the player can throw a Molotov cocktail at the area and the ammo containers will explode and violently shoot a huge number of ammo rounds in its vicinity (killing whoever is near it). And if another pair of enemies are standing right atop a large patch of dry gas? Use a flamethrower to ignite the whole area in flames and watch the fire spread to a nearby gas canister which sets off a chain reaction of explosions through a town. The number of crazy situations that I’ve had spring from these gameplay systems in my time with the game are just too limitless to recount here.

As I was playing through a series of missions one day, I noticed something strange about the enemies that I was fighting. At this point I was about sixty or seventy percent through the game and my character had built up a bit of a reputation for himself in the game world and I had invested money in a Stealth Suit that would give my character an increased ability to hide when crouched around grass. Since I took a liking to conducting all of my dealings in chaos at night, this mission was occurring at around 3-4:00am in the game world, so the sun had yet to rise. I was able to clear most of this enemy encampment stealthily thanks to the sound suppressor on my MP5 submachine gun and was in the process of hunting down two or three more targets. I had no idea where they were but I was able to hear a few distinct voices so I was just tracking the sound of the spoken dialogue. And then I stopped to listen to what the enemies were actually saying; instead of the usual taunts and proud machismo the enemies were now scared. These few remaining souls were aware who I was and that they had no chance to make it out of the situation alive and they just wanted to hide and be left alone. As it turns out, reputation is an actual value that has corresponding effects in the game world. As a player goes through missions and eliminates various faction members and higher-up faction figures his reputation will increase. As the reputation increases, the entities that inhabit the game world will start reacting differently to the player’s presence.

The most commonly-listed flaw with Far Cry 2 is the amount of time gamers have to spend traveling to-and-fro and how that travel is constantly interrupted by enemy checkpoints filled with guards that seem to respawn all-too-quickly (whenever a player leaves a “sector”). It’s a valid enough concern as vehicular travel (and vehicular combat, to a lesser extent) is such a prominent focus of the game. The enemies do, ultimately, respawn far too quickly but this fact made checkpoints something I wanted to avoid. And, as such, it opened up an aspect of the game that I would never have discovered otherwise: the joy of intelligent navigation. Far Cry 2 does not have an automatic route navigator; if a player wants to find his place in the game world then he will need to use his in-world GPS device combined with the in-world map. It’s a cumbersome endeavor but it functions as such for good reason: it’s not something that someone should be doing in the heat of combat.

Looking at the map and plotting out a trip was a sort of mini-game unto itself. It’s a process that should be done at the beginning of any mission and retained in the player’s mind for as long as possible. Whenever I was given a mission to complete I wanted to avoid as many checkpoints as possible, so as soon as my mission briefing was done I would find a vehicle and then get out my map and plot my best course. Often, a “best course” would involve a brief trip to a bus station, pick up a car near the bus station, and then drive to the objective on a main road for as long as possible and then take a detour through a rough forest or valley path to avoid checkpoints. Sometimes just avoiding land entirely would be a good idea as the waterways in Far Cry 2 function a lot like highways. This wasn’t even a process I was fond of early in the game but, really, playing Far Cry 2 is never about rushing into action and combat from the very beginning.

I’m not even touching on the game’s subtle user interface or its clever narrative techniques for this piece. Far Cry 2 is an enormous game that is so much more than any of its individual components or features. It’s an open-world first-person shooter that truly and successfully embodies the concept of emergent gameplay. The game’s vision of Africa is never a mere backdrop for tried-and-true gunplay, it’s an actual character in itself; the represented beauty and danger serve as gameplay mechanics for the player’s exploitation at any point in the game.

To date, Far Cry 2 is the finest example of what video games can be.

Mechanics 7: Heart of Darkness (Far Cry 2)

I just got another mission from the unnaturally quick-speaking warlord of the African UFL — one of two warring factions in Far Cry 2 — when one of my buddies gave me a call on my cell phone telling me to meet them if I wanted to make my mission take twice as long as it would if I simply followed orders at no real additional benefit to me. I guess I could just do it, though. I mean, my buddy Nasreen is, apparently, one of the only two women in all of Africa. It wouldn’t hurt to endear my playing character to her a bit more. It’s an awfully big safe house, after all.

Wait, why is my screen pulsing and turning yellow? Oh, it’s my Malaria. It’s flaring up. There’s an on-screen pill bottle that’s telling me I should press my left shoulder button. But, I’m also in the middle of driving through the jungle since that checkpoint I just cleared out before getting my new mission already is restocked with new people. Maybe they’re just meandering civilians? Probably not. They have guns. Do civilians in Africa have guns? All right, I’ll just slow down my truck and take my pills. Done. No more yellow screen. I’m also out of pills, but I just got them refilled after I delivered some transit papers to an African family hiding in a broom closet in a veterinary office (under control by the African Underground). Am I really out of pills or do I just need to deliver more transit papers? Africa has a strange exchange rate.

Malaria is probably contagious. I guess that rules out my chances with Nasreen. Maybe she’ll give me more conflict diamonds when I help her out in lieu of, well, anything else. I think I just hit a zebra while I was looking at my map; oh, and I just entered into range of the checkpoint. That’s okay, I’ll just drive away fast — my engine is smoking. They shot up my engine. I could run faster than my truck’s new top speed. Normally I’d be able to get out and repair the engine back into it’s racing shape, but considering that I have an assault truck with two angry African soldiers speeding towards me is probably out of the question. Normally, since I have a vehicle of my own and don’t really want to steal theirs, I’d just whip out of my high-grade rocket launcher — since I just payed thirty-five blood diamonds to get access to it since my old RPG was far too inaccurate — but that has a bit of a blow-back that would probably cause my smoking Jeep to burst into flames (killing me in the process). The assault truck is getting closer; I don’t have much in the way of cover around me and if I get ran over it’s game over. I got it: I’ll bring out my AR15 and try and pick off the driver, leaving the gunner out of range to do any serious damage. Got him. Now the gunner that is moving into the driver’s seat. Done and done.

Now my screen is pulsing red and the quickly-diminishing last notch of my life bar tells me I’m in the process of bleeding out. Unfortunately, I took far too much damage to just hit the left-shoulder button and inject myself (with what I assume/hope are mere painkillers) so now, instead, I see my player character look down at his leg — there’s an enormous bullet entry wound. That looks pretty rough, but it can be bandaged up. Wait. What. What is my character doing? Why does he have pliers? Is he — oh, okay. He just pulled the bullet out of his own wound. And I have my gun back, which means I guess I’m going to live. Why is there someone in front of me with a shotgun — oh, that wasn’t friendly. Ouch. Neither was that.

I guess I’m dead now. The screen is fading to black, so I’ll just load my last saved game; wait, the game faded back in and now I see my other friend Michelle (the only other woman in all of Africa). “Hold on, I’ll get you out of here” she says as she whips out her AK-47 and fires at some off-screen enemies (I assume she avenged my near-death by killing my almost-murderer). The screen is fading back to black. Was she too late? Oh, it’s fading back in. Michelle is dragging me somewhere. She is saving me, right? Fading back to black. And back to Michelle; “all right, patch yourself up” she tells me as she places a shiny, new Desert Eagle in my hands. I get up, inject myself with the last of my mysteriously-filled syrettes I carry around, and now I’m out for blood. Not mine this time. Why did I forget to stock up on syrettes when I was in town? Why?

I should have been paying more attention while I was taking the drive to my destination, as this isn’t any old checkpoint; this one seems to have about ten or eleven mercenaries spread across a small plot of land. And they already know I’m here, so that makes any stealth kills nigh-impossible. But, I do see a way to take out about six guys with a single action. Three of the mercenaries are standing near a large ammunition dump; if I hit that with a rocket then the immediate explosion should kill at least one guy, but that will also cause the ammunition canisters do explode and every single round of ammo contained within to go crazy and start firing in a every direction which, hopefully, will take out the other two guys. The other thing the explosion should do is set fire to the nearby trees and grassy areas which, ideally, will engulf another two mercenaries (and hopefully, that will spread far enough to kill one more mercenary).

That plan ended up working for all but the fire-spreading. Which I “aided” by throwing a molotov cocktail at the desired patch of grass and trees. At this point, I still have full health, but I also have to deal with another four mercenaries. From my well-covered spot (a big rock), I was able to pick off one enemy but, by this point, the other three were well within range to kill me swiftly. As I started frantically firing at one of the trio my assault rifle jams up — in the heat of taking a new mission and figuring out if I could somehow woo Nasreen or Michelle I forgot to make a trip to the armory to replace my rifle and pistol. My rifle is rusted to hell at this point; I’m actually pretty lucky that it just jammed and didn’t, essentially, disintegrate. At this point I’m madly mashing the X button (reload/fix jam), fix the jam, and then fire another few shots at my assailants. Then the gun disintegrates. At least I have my shiny silver Desert Eagle that Michelle gave me, though. A few seconds later and I’m free and clear. I only have two of my six health bars, but I’m not bleeding out.

And this is what Far Cry 2 is about. There are complaints about the amount of driving, the incredibly quick enemy respawns for checkpoints (never when you’re in the area, at least), and the lack of civilians that populate the country (strange given the story is about them), but Far Cry 2 goes beyond such petty issues. It’s one of the first games I’ve ever played that really embodies the concept of emergent game design (or progressive game design). It’s an open-world game that, although only partially “open” in terms of its narrative progression, does everything it can to keep players confined to the game world. There is only one time where the game camera doesn’t function as the player character’s eyes and that is when a player “sleeps” in a safe house and the player is treated to a time-lapse view of the outside world as the amount of daylight changes.

The primary result of placing the player so firmly in the game world is that every player action has a sense of gravitas attached to it. It’s a feeling that pervades the single-player portion of the game so strongly that the first I jumped into multi-player I felt oddly confused. Missions near the end make players wonder if what they’re doing has any semblance of “right” to it whatsoever; the mission may get the player closer to his/her objective, but what’s the cost attached to the player’s action? It’s a shame that the player is locked into a limited number of actions when given a mission; there has never been a game I wanted to have more narrative choices in than this one.

I still can’t believe I accidentally hit a zebra.