More isn't Always Better

Far Cry 2 Art

HIGH Using real-time fire as a strategic advantage.

LOW Driving, driving, driving.

WTF People just leave diamonds lying around in the wilderness in unlocked briefcases?'s own Brandon Erickson recently mentioned Far Cry 2 in his blog, asking whether open-world game design, which has seemingly become the trendy design du jour, is really all it's cracked up to be. Crytek accomplished a lot with the original Far Cry in 2004; the game was large and open, but linear in the sense that the player had a clear objectives and a sense of direction. It wasn't a game like the Elder Scrolls series, where players can wander in any direction for hours on end and discover all kinds of interesting little nooks and crannies tucked away in the vast expanse of the virtual world. Rather, Far Cry sought to provide players with a broader array of strategic options that a fully linear corridor-style shooter could never achieve. In this respect, the game was wildly successful.

While Crytek focused their attention on their next-generation graphics engine and the Crysis games that made use of it, Ubisoft Montreal took over development duty for a sequel to Far Cry. What they've crafted is a game that retains the open-world design of the original game, but one that conversely sheds virtually any other similarities with its predecessor to the point that it is a Far Cry sequel in name only. I would even hesitate to call Far Cry 2 a "spiritual successor" or "re-imagining" of the original; there is no Jack Carver, no freakishly muscular mercenaries, and no campy science-fiction twist; the game takes on a more gritty, realistic setting in the grasslands of Africa, where the player chooses from a handful of protagonists and aligns with mercenary factions competing over various commodities of the nefarious criminal underworld.

The world of Far Cry 2 is a 50 square kilometer, graphically vivid recreation of stereotypical African locales (no specific country or region is named as the game's setting). There are grassy plains, waterfalls and rivers, destitute villages, and, of course, zebras. However, the "50 square kilometer" talk is a good chunk of advertising hype, because while players can travel across a huge world map, most of the traveling is done on narrow, confined roads. Impassable cliffs frequently choke the player's travel options, such that the game's "open world" motif mostly consists of traveling from one hot spot to the next. The various hot spots are indeed quite large, and the combat situations can be approached with a healthy variety of tactics. But the spaces between those hot spots feel a bit claustrophobic for a shooter selling itself as "open-world."

Far Cry 2  Screenshot

Ambitious though it is in some respects, Far Cry 2reveals some of the problems developers face when designing consistently engaging open-world gameplay. Non-linearity in itself is not necessarily a good thing, any more than concessions to "realism" are a good thing. I've always believed that a game need only to consistently adhere to its own internal logic, rather than attempt to disguise the contrivances that are necessary to craft any challenging game. In Far Cry 2, those contrivances are not very well hidden. Significant portions of the game are spent simply driving or wandering from one location to the next, and the driving portions are about as exciting as… well, driving. The lack of item management is a successful gamble, but the inability to queue multiple quests results in a great deal of driving from one location to the next, to a large degree negating the value of an open-world game design. After all, part of the concept behind well-designed side-quests is that they can be accomplished with little deviation from the central quest, sort of like picking up dry cleaning on the way home from work. But even when players are pursuing some of the rather tedious side quests, far too much time is spent driving along those narrow dirt roads. Ubisoft seemingly recognized that these portions of the game were devoid of compelling gameplay, so they added some filler to make it more palatable. Enemies re-spawn almost as quickly as players can dispatch them, and the game is saddled with a ridiculously cheesy diamond-hunting mini-game—as if people just happen to leave hundreds of diamonds lying around in suitcases all over the African wilderness.

The combat, where the meat of the gameplay lies, is mostly tight and exciting, with only some minor downfalls. Of the exceedingly few elements retained from the original Far Cry, the cartoony and exaggerated combat is still intact. While this is purely a stylistic choice, I felt it lacked the tactile responsiveness of other top-tier shooters. When I pump an enemy full of lead, I like the feeling that those bullets are hitting them the way bullets tend to hit things. I don't necessarily expect Rainbow Six style one-shot-kill realism, but few elements of a great shooter are as imperative as the visceral thrill of seeing enemies recoil from the palpable thud of a perfectly timed shot. Far Cry 2 never quite achieves this, instead delivering a combat experience that has an inescapable b-movie hokiness to it, where enemies react to being shot like robots covered in ballistics gel. However, there are some other elements in the combat that compensate for the lack of tactile thrills. Guns can jam, environments are destructible, and explosions can and often do result in an inferno that dramatically and convincingly engulfs anything and everything as it spreads with the blowing wind. A graphic health management system in which the on-screen character physically pries bullets and shrapnel from his flesh or pierces himself with a syringe further adds a dramatic and strategic flair to the action. It's the moments when these elements gel with the game's solid artificial intelligence that Far Cry 2 is at its best, forcing players to improvise their way through difficult and unpredictable situations.

When Far Cry was released back in 2004, it was one of the most advanced first-person shooters ever made, and featured an open-world design of a scale that had never been accomplished in the genre. Ubisoft made some ambitious design decisions, some of which worked and some of which did not. The action portions of the game are great, as the combination of tight gunplay, destructible nonlinear environments, a creative health management system and respectable artificial intelligence make for a satisfyingly visceral challenge. But much of the rest of the game meanders, and Ubisoft resorted to cheap tactics—inexplicably afflicting the protagonist with malaria, re-spawning enemies after a short period of time, and tacking on a silly diamond-hunting mini-game—to fill in parts of the game that are devoid of substantive, engaging gameplay. And while the game's plot is fairly interesting and well-developed, the repetitive gameplay makes it feel tacked on and tertiary. A mixed bag that redeems itself just enough to be worth playing, Far Cry 2 serves as a valuable experiment in open-world first-person shooter game design, but one that is not quite up to par with what developers like Crytek and GSC have accomplished. Rating: 7.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This review is based on the PC version of the game, version 1.02.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, drug references, intense violence, sexual themes, and strong language .The game is not over-the-top or gory and no worse than most PG-13 movies in most respects, but it is clearly inappropriate for children.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game allows the use of subtitles for all dialogue, but is full of real-time audio cues (gunfire, enemy chatter, etc.) that impact the gameplay significantly.

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