Fatalism in Far Cry 2

NOTES // This was first published September 23 2010 on Five Players.

Everyone in Leboa-Sako and Bowa-Seko wants you dead.

Sure, there’s the guy who drives you into town who seems nice enough and a friendly vicar or two, but not one of them is there to help when your intended assassination target is pointing your own gun at you and a civil war is erupting outside. There are refugees by the thousands, you’re told, but they’re all stuffed into the back rooms of inconspicuous huts and are conveniently absent when you’re delirious with malaria and staggering down a dirt road while everyone in Africa tries to murder you. You have friends too, but they’ve long since betrayed you when you’re five minutes from the final cut scene and you have to choose between a bomb and a bullet.

Yep, Far Cry 2 gets a lot wrong.

The checkpoints with instant bastard replacement the minute you squeeze the area out of your PC’s RAM turn even simple journeys into navigational puzzles – puzzles made all the more treacherous by the local policy of constructing cars from the same stuff Mr. Kipling uses for his pie trays. A trip north isn’t just a trip; it’s an expedition. Quicksaves make the job easier on PC but on your console every jaunt is punctuated by visits to safe houses to save and diversions to seedy bunkers to replace exhausted firearms and stock up on ammunition and fuel. Every safe house has to be fought for and every weapon scavenged from the bodies of the local militia looks as though it had been buried in a quarry since the end of the Second World War, and only sturdy guns can be trusted when you’re placing your life behind its barrel.

So you plot your journey carefully, taking buses and boats wherever possible because in Leboa-Sako and Bowa-Seko you don’t want to fight. Far Cry 2’s combat is made clumsy by bastards who can spot a stray hair hanging from a man’s nose at three hundred yards and by weapons with all the penetrative power of a dildo made from jelly. Even once you get where you’re going Far Cry’s missions consist exclusively of going to Point A, killing Bastard B, and returning to Point C to rescue your buddy if you chose to take their always-terrible advice on the way to Point A. In Leboa-Sako and Bowa-Seko friendship is measured in misery.

If only the cars were sturdier you’d be able to rush checkpoints and escape into the jungle before the militia men could react, adding a whole new strategic weapon to your arsenal. If enemies could be marked the way they could in the original Far Cry, if the game’s stealth system were more generous, and if you had some indicator of just how hidden you are at any given time then you’d gain a dozen new tactical options in every fight.

If those checkpoints didn’t respawn the minute you turned your back you might feel like your presence was impacting the world in some tangible way. If the missions had more variety there’d be a reason to use the more useless weapons in Far Cry 2’s arsenal – the IEDs, the mortars, the inexplicable four-shot grenade launcher, the tranquiliser gun – and if the story were better told maybe you’d care about the factions and care which friends lived and which ones died.

If there were just a chance that the dust cloud advancing towards you weren’t sure to be hostile you’d have to go a little easier on that trigger; you’d have to wait to see if it the distant car housed more thugs or a friendly face able to give you a ride, weapons, or medicine. If half the world was friendly every moving vehicle would become a dilemma; and if militia men sometimes pretended to be civilians – oh, what then?

But if all these things were true, maybe you wouldn’t find yourself standing in the middle of a road with a one-handed grenade launcher in your pistol slot, staring down an advancing convoy as the whole world burns around you. Maybe you wouldn’t have started that fire and maybe you wouldn’t launch a point-blank grenade into the lead vehicle’s grill, flipping the entire thing over your head without your even flinching. Maybe you wouldn’t pump round after round of fully automatic shotgun fire into the driver’s side of the convoy truck as the man behind the wheel tries to make his escape and maybe you wouldn’t have fired your last grenade at a passing zebra just for the fuck of it.

If those things were true, maybe you’d turn down the mission halfway through the game where a local general commands you to murder your way through a nearby – though not really nearby; nothing in Far Cry 2 is nearby – experimental plantation. Maybe you’d object to his reasons for the operation; not because it’s wreaking havoc with the local ecosystem, but because it’s being guarded by paid thugs from the faction across town. Maybe you’d put a stop to things when one of your buddies comes up with the bright idea of spraying the entire jungle with Agent Orange for no other reason than to make shooting the thugs easier. Never mind that he’s killing half the country’s wildlife, never mind that he’s spraying it all over your face too, and never mind that he’s guaranteed to crash that fucking plane and get ambushed only seconds after you complete your mission.

If Far Cry 2 worked better you might start to care, and that might actually be a bad thing.

Far Cry 2 doesn’t care about players and I don’t care right back. I walk around ceasefire zones brandishing a grenade launcher – forever on display and forever threatening like the revolver on the hip of the Man With No Name. I take out checkpoints with it. I smash convoys with it. I fire it into huts at point-blank range and stick a needle in my arm to kill the pain. I launch speculative grenades at passing boats just in case they feel like starting a fight. I rescue friends with it and fuck ‘em if they get caught in the crossfire.

Far Cry 2 invites fatalism, pessimism, and near-suicidal tactics because optimism and strategy went on holiday to Leboa-Sako and got murdered just like everything else. Hoping for the best doesn’t work. Being clever doesn’t work. Nothing good will ever happen to you in Far Cry 2′s Africa, and none of your carefully-designed plans will ever bear fruit.

Everybody hates you no matter who you work for and the bodycount is the same no matter which missions you choose. A hundred failed attempts at stealth and a dozen tactical assaults gone wrong lead you to conclude that a ruthless massacre is the only possible or acceptable solution. Far Cry 2 distances itself from any emotional investment by making its story, missions, characters, and nine tenths of its own back-of-the-box features – and the choices those features are supposed to offer – almost entirely irrelevant.

Popping the ol’ Wank Hat on for a second, it’s as if the game were so intent on recreating Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and so determined to make a monster of you that every last feature is built to push you towards callous, insane, and horrific murder. Taking the Wank Hat off, it’s clear many of the design “decisions” weren’t so much decisions as trade-offs between what was desirable and what was possible. In either case the result is the same – “I’m a man of peace!” you protest, and Far Cry 2 says “let’s see how far that gets you, fatty.”

I didn’t get to write much about Far Cry 2 on its release and I haven’t found an excuse to write anything about it until now. The game’s ship sailed long ago but I’m on my third playthrough and there are some things I had been wanting to write down for a while.

Much of what I would have said back at Far Cry 2′s launch was very nicely covered and illustrated by PC Gamer’s Tom Francis in a trilogy of posts to which Clint Hocking himself responded with some explanations for the more radical design decisions and some excuses for the more laughable ones. They go a long way to explaining why Far Cry 2 is what it is.

Like the first Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry 2 has the feel of a proof of concept waiting for a sequel. If the third Far Cry is as strong as the second Assassin’s Creed it’ll be pretty special. Far Cry 2 remains one of my favourite games of the last five years, both in spite of and for its many, many faults.