Version tested: Xbox 360
In every civil war, there's a moment when the lines have been drawn, but neither side wants to shoot first: a sickly, sweaty sort of time, full of mistrust, fear and empty posturing. That's where Far Cry 2 lives: a world composed primarily of tension. It hangs in the dusty air even during the opening cab ride, bubbling up suddenly as reckless traffic barrels unexpectedly past at an intersection, or threatening to boil over at that first roadblock, when the militiamen stalk around the car firing off questions and staring, sizing you up before eventually letting you past.
Games have drawn you into worlds with a first-person passenger trip before - Far Cry 2's opening is, at best, a copy of a copy - but what's different here is the subtlety of the staging. There are no death squads executing people or smug scientific installations itching to go haywire. Instead there are realistic touchstones: the cabbie pointing out a distant plane and adding that it's the last one out for a while, or that near-miss down the road, given a quiet chill by the ensuing roadblock, where you aren't attacked or beaten over the head with exposition, merely belittled and slyly informed of the playground rules of this oppressive environment.
Narrative subtlety is a quality that defines the game, yet it's not the only force at work. The tension remains, too, but it's tension of a different kind: Far Cry 2 needs its Africa to provide both a realistic backdrop of suffering and unreliability, where guns jam, cars stall, and there's always a human motive lurking in the shadows, as well as a combustible playground, where unlikely heroics turn the tide of a skirmish, and there are enough explosive barrels to keep even the most unhinged joyseeker happy. Inevitably, sparks often fly when the two agendas converge: this is an admirably serious FPS, yet one that struggles with its own identity.
Technically, Far Cry 2 is a regular marvel, modestly hiding its achievements under the surface. From its sandbox, composed of miles of jungle, savannah and swampland, which requires only a single (albeit prolonged) burst of loading after fast travel or each restart, to the invisible ways the game's narrative re-stitches itself around your choices - the roles you choose not to play fitting themselves back into your story - these are the kind of technical ambitions which succeed only if you don't notice them. And you almost don't, with only the occasional hitch as you round a corner and a chunk of geometry is hanging in mid-air for a second, or when the game forces an obvious trigger point. The result is an authentic setting with an engine built to capture the particular light of every time of day, or spread unpredictable fire across its grasslands - sometimes useful, always deadly, and prone to getting comically out of hand.
And then there's the story. Other games draw their inspiration from Seagal or Norris, but this is Heart of Darkness - a book with plenty of psychological intrigue, but very few flaming jeeps driving into a barn as you're comically mown down by a passing zebra. It's safe to say that adjustments have been made.
The plot is simple: you're a mercenary tasked with tracking down the Jackal, the arms dealer whose weapons are fuelling both sides of the war. Yet the game refuses to conform to your expectations, wheeling out endless missions that don't lead you closer to your target, but do give you a queasy glimpse of the world his actions have created. As the game strides into its second half, it becomes obvious that you're not hunting the Jackal so much as building up a portrait of him, your closest points of contact being when you stumble across nasty tableaux he has constructed - slaughtered bus passengers, or a downed airplane - and the tapes he has left alongside them detailing his thinking.
Or you might not find them at all. And that's the most brilliant design choice: Far Cry 2 won't patronise you by doling out story in chunks. It would rather allow you to search out the details for yourself, depending on your own eagerness to do so. Instead of following a predictable trail of clues, you take jobs from the game's conflicting factions, and set about exploring at your own pace. And the factions don't make anything clearer, either: both the dogmatic and pompous UFLL and the self-indulgent and swaggering APR are deeply entangled in violence, and equally ineffectual. There's no good and bad choices here - the game makes it clear that time has come and gone and all that's left is the playing out of a mindless war - there's only money, information, and your target.
What this all actually translates to is hardly groundbreaking, however - the game's missions conforming to the, "Go here, kill everyone, and possibly blow up an object" school of level design. Accepting unofficial alterations to the plan from a buddy makes things slightly more interesting, but the action really clicks when you realise the game's humdrum framework is encouraging you to experiment: the targets may be uninspiring, but you can approach them from almost any angle, using terrain, the landscape's endless capacity to catch fire, or even stealth. For the first few hours, I found the game a plod, until I realised that it was my playing style that was plodding, and if I toyed with objectives, things improved immensely; I was soon chaining together gunfights, staging inept sieges, and bringing the weapons and environments together in explosively hilarious combinations.
I never grew to love the game's vehicle combat, though, and the regular switching between driving and stopping to use the gun turret that it imposes (driving while shooting is out of bounds, and almost every mission is a solo affair). Worse still are the regular roadside checkpoints, home to irritatingly fast respawns. They'll whittle away your health and reduce vehicles to smoking wrecks on most drive-bys, so early on you'll likely fall into the routine of stopping before each intersection (and there are a lot in the game), shooting as many people as you can from a distance while they turn your ride into shrapnel, before climbing down, finishing off any stragglers, and stealing one of their jeeps to proceed. It's ballistic musical chairs, but without the music. And it also isn't as much fun as I just made it sound.
It's a mechanic that struggles to find any variation, and, due to a bizarre piece of sadistically repetitive design, you'll be doing it on average at least twice every five minutes. Presumably getting around in a war zone is a challenge, but if Ubisoft is struggling to capture the prospect of day-to-day terror, it only manages the drip-drip-drip of regular annoyance. An openworld game where it's preferable to get the bus between targets is one in need of rebalancing, and no amount of clever ideas will entirely redeem it.
But the game certainly tries to, most notably with the buddies. A gaggle of fellow mercenaries (many of them will be the characters you chose not to control), your buddies are collectable NPCs who will pop up to offer mission advice, or stage daring rescues when you're downed, often taking it between the eyes in the process. Filling in around your actions, living and dying based on your choices, they're charming character sketches drawn with lightness of touch. Some are generous, others curt, surly, or even obnoxious, but all of them have genuine personalities, which makes the first time you jab them with a health syringe and they still die, at odds with the usual videogame laws of cause and effect, all the more memorable.
Other ventures into unpredictability are not necessarily so successful. Far Cry 2's taste for realism is a mixed blessing. It's hard to locate the fun in guns that jam unpredictably and cars that need to be ceaselessly nannied, especially when it's a spanner in the works of a machine that otherwise runs on skill (and, in the guns' case, arguably just a cheap way of adding tension to an unremarkable battle).
Ubisoft might protest that these are elements which move Far Cry 2 beyond mere entertainment - that focusing on the perishable nature of machinery and the need to constantly control the malaria they've given you are crucial to immersing you in a real environment. That's not entirely convincing, however, as the game is, ironically, at its most artificial at the very moments it thinks it's being realistic. The idea that any car can be fixed by repeatedly tightening a single screw in the radiator is just as ridiculous as a floating health-pack when you get down to it, and the malaria you've been saddled with is pure stage-management, an artificial means of prodding you into a series of repetitive side-missions to obtain drugs.
And so the game grinds against itself, its onscreen prompts and collectables wildly at odds with a design that ensures each gun you find has a believably finite lifespan. This shorthand is definitely preferable to a deeper, but more frustrating mechanic (each time I magically fixed my car, I offered a silent prayer of thanks that there wasn't some arcane mini-game where I actually had to repair specific engine problems) but it does make you question why Ubisoft insisted on going even halfway with the artifice in the first place.
On much safer ground is the multiplayer, thanks to a careful raiding of COD4's encampment, making off with the levelling system and load-outs, while adding the single-player's flammable environment and vehicles. Elsewhere, the level editor is actually more of a full-blown level creator, allowing you to tweak the geography itself, and even telling you how smoothly the finished product will run.
Ultimately, the most immediate reference for Far Cry 2 is not Crytek's original, but Deus Ex (Invisible War, sadly), in the way it presents interesting ideas, often slightly heavy-handedly, and features a gently saggy seriousness that can sometimes come at the expense of pacing. The result is a fascinating game with successes and failures that are both equally mystifying; one that rebuilds its story regardless of how badly you mistreat it, and yet struggles to spice up a simple escort mission. Far Cry 2 is unforgettable rather than perfect, then; brilliant, frustrating, sombre and comical, it offers freedom within extremely curtailed limits, and strives to treat its players like adults. In the end it remains, true to its source material, a game that was born to struggle with itself.
8 / 10