Far Cry 2 is not overshadowed by Crysis and is not a helpless attempt by Ubisoft to milk money out of the brand. The heart of this first-person shooter sequel-by-a-different-developer is choice - choice in a big free world. Not a particularly original idea; most current-gen reboots boast the same sort of premise. But it's enough to set Far Cry on its very own unknown course - one with a rather surprising amount of role-playing mechanics, buddy characters, vehicles and malaria.
That's not Africa you're seeing, either, but a fictional land modelled on the enormous and troubled continent. "We never named the country," Patrick Redding, Far Cry 2 narrative designer and our host during a recent hands-on, tells us. "There's two reasons for that: one, we didn't want to obviously deal with all the complexities of a modern conflict in Africa, but also there really isn't one country in Africa that has all of the environments we wanted. So for us there were definitely advantages to having a fictitious setting."
It also lets Ubisoft dream up two major factions for players to ping-pong between: the Alliance for Popular Resistance (APR) and the United Front for Liberation and Labour (UFLL). Undertaking missions increases your standing with each and also earns you diamonds, which are the game's currency. Infamy is another result of your actions, and can help or hinder you. Relationships run deep in Far Cry 2; there are various characters in safehouses who offer ways to spice up your missions. Meet Frank: he wants you to blow up a pipeline. Do this and he, like others, will be more likely to let you in on secrets and offer you more tasks and help as you go.
Help takes the shape of "buddy rescue". You activate it when you are seriously wounded during a fight, prompting your buddy to spring out of nowhere, help you to your feet and carry you into cover so you can recuperate. Handy, but not without consequence; not only will you lose your weapons when rescued, you will also be in a bad way and need an urgent health injection. And if your buddy is killed, he will vanish from the world for good.
Carrying out tasks for the civilian population is another way to look after yourself - not a mandatory one, but rich in reward. You begin your adventure by contracting malaria, and civilians pay you in medicine that permanently boosts your maximum health. The country is war-torn, and they want out, and reckon helping you helps them. Become too infamous, though, and civilians will fear and avoid you, effectively cutting off your health upgrade system.
Finding the root of your malaria is central to the plot in Far Cry 2, as you pursue a faceless answer waiting at the end of a trail of clues - the comparison to Apocalypse Now is bandied about quite readily. You're in for plenty of twists and turns, mainly as a product of the social network you slowly build as you decide who you can trust. "All of the additional mechanics are really designed to play into these larger themes of trust, betrayal, social interaction, infamy and reputation, so it gives it a little bit of an RPG-like aspect," Redding says, adding that you can also ignore them if you're less bothered.
Health is not the only statistic you can bolster. You can use your diamonds to unlock more powerful weapons at gun shops by interacting with a battered PC terminal within. Once you buy a weapon it's added to a crate replicated in all of the game's safehouses. Redding says there are 30 different firearms, and you can bolster your firing skill by reading manuals. These increase your aiming skill and the weapon's power, and your choice of specific gun is reflected in how fast it deteriorates and how often it jams. Rusty-looking guns will be rubbish, while AK-47s will be reliable and US assault rifles accurate but short-lived. Like most things in Far Cry 2, you will have to use your eyes to determine what's worth picking up and what's going on; there's no real HUD to speak of, a decision made so objects feel as much a part of the game world as possible. There is vehicle progression as well - "no helicopters", but Jeeps and dune buggies and fishing boats with deeper hulls.
You won't be able to hold all of your weapons at once, either; Far Cry 2 adopts a slot-based system. One slot is reserved for one-handed weapons like machine-pistols and handguns, another for beefy ballistics like shotguns, rifles, sniper rifles and bazookas. Interestingly, one commands your machete and also your grenades and explosives; you need to hold them in two hands, not lob them while firing your pistol like a maniac. Redding decided on this to make choosing your weapon load-out an "interesting choice".
Choice again. The aim is to present you with an openworld and multiple ways of achieving your objective, like Oblivion or Mercenaries 2 or Crackdown or so on and so forth. Luckily Far Cry 2 has tools to help you find your way, like a paper map and a compass, which you can decorate with information by using some Jack Bauer-style binoculars. Interesting points are added automatically, and you can also gauge wind direction, which comes in handy when doing a spot of arson in the arid lands. You have a phone as well - to receive incoming calls from buddies ready to share more information, although it's nothing as developed as GTA. Phone and map are handled by one button, as is the general interaction button; it all fits well on a console pad.
We get to grips with a mission ("we don't really have levels in the world at all; it's a giant game world") in a marshy swamp. We talk to Frank, look at our map, hop in a car and drive towards our mark. We could be sneaky and pull off some stealth kills with a quiet weapon or our machete, but instead we plough through the front gates adopting what Redding calls "the Rambo way". It's our choice after all, and we can always go back and do it differently. Baddies pull up in cars or appear from, er, over there, and open fire. We return, stabbing our arm with health syringes (like BioShock) intermittently while forcing great spurts of gooey blood to flood from the puncture holes of those in our sights. It looks wonderful. Get shot too much and you start picking bullets out of your body. Wounded enemies are still dangerous and can drag themselves to cover and call their friends.
Far Cry 2 has no cover system, but moving from shelter to shelter is the best plan of action. Aiming through your iron sights view and firing in bursts to negate recoil is a good move, rather than firing wildly from the hip. Redding outlines a Call of Duty 4 comparison because of fast action with some realism, so the ability to shoot through thin walls shouldn't surprise you. Enemies actively flank you and will adapt to your fighting style after a while. We thought they were silly and breezed our way through them, but Redding deflated us by explaining we were on the easiest difficulty. When he got someone who looked like he knew what he was doing he would increase it. Gutted. Anyway, eventually we found our objective, planted the bomb by pressing the action button and won the day. And then fell off a cliff.
This cliff, bottomed by water, illustrates the many ways we could have approached this mission. We could have gone in that way or even waited until dark by going into a safehouse and sleeping on a bed roll; simply specify the amount of hours you want to rest for, like Oblivion. Incidentally, you can also save your game in safehouses. Redding tells us baddies change at night. They are more likely to patrol, or gather around a fire, or perhaps be in bed like normal people. Again, your choice.
As we probe about variation, we're told the majority of missions will be based around "guerrilla warfare": hit and run tactics involving sabotage, assassinations, that sort of thing. Main story missions will be more complicated and have you ambushing convoys, escorting people or attacking heavily defended forts with bosses inside. Bosses are not superhuman but surrounded by a more organised and cohesive force - a more realistic difficulty multiplier. "As we keep communicating many times over: there are no mutants, there's no feral powers, there's no aliens, there's no cyborgs - it's very much ground in the real world," says Redding. "The toughest and scariest enemies you'll fight in the game will still be human beings."
Locations will also vary. Our marsh could have been a savannah plain or dense jungle or mountains. We saw just three square-kilometres of a total 50 on offer. If you accidentally stray too far the game gently tells you to go back by increasing the effects of your malaria, in the same way Far Cry tried to drown you [by putting bullet-holes in you from a helicopter - Ed] if you swam too far out to sea. Settlements range from wooden huts to corrugated iron-clad shelters, and from colonial-style postcard towns to the harsh concrete of modern cities. Generally, interiors are limited, used mainly for cover rather than exploration.
Ignore all the side-missions and Redding thinks you'll be finished somewhere between 12 and 20 hours. Be completist and you can quadruple that. "It's not quite Oblivion, it's not quite GTA, but it's definitely in the same ballpark," quips Redding.
Far Cry 2 is also a beautiful game, at least on PC. Clever shading based on layers not textures means the game can scale to your PC, and the powerful demonstration machine displayed a crisp, sun-drenched, coherent and detailed landscape; one both functional and flattering, given the decision to all but scrap a HUD. Requirements will be typically lower than bitter rival Crysis, we're told, but Far Cry 2 will happily get the most out of even the most monstrous rig. Redding describes the console versions as comparable to a "medium load-out on PC", and warns us that, "graphically you're going to notice slight differences". Which we did. The Xbox 360 was the better of the two with its anti-aliasing, but both looked unspectacular and even drab in points. Far from ugly, mind you.
There's no co-op. Redding says it is something his team is "talking about for future games", and that the buddy system is a precursor to it. "We're supporting all the major modes for 16 players online," Redding tells us, revealing a "kind of levelling up component" based around undisclosed classes and similar to Call of Duty 4. More on that soon, we're told. Excitingly, all three versions of Far Cry 2 will also come with their own level editors. Redding believes it is "probably the most robust editor that's ever been released for a first-person shooter of this type", and explains you will be able to share your creations to others on your platform: no crossing the streams.
We're told Far Cry 2 is a "very short" time away from beta and will be feature-compete in just over a month. What we saw held enormous promise, but we're still a bit sceptical. An enormous open-world where you create your own story certainly sounds very impressive, but can often lead to duplicated filler content and a stale and unengaging experience. Make good on the promises of variation, Ubisoft, and Far Cry 2 could cast shadows of its own.
Far Cry 2 is due out on PS3, 360 and PC this autumn.