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The Essential Games: Far Cry 2 (2008)

The Essential Games highlights games from throughout history that I would recommend, without reservation, for almost anyone to play. Click HERE for the full index.

It’s hard to pick just one Far Cry game to highlight in this series. They’re all so different. 2, 3, and 4 all have their own merits, and I haven’t played Primal yet.

The first game hasn’t aged well at all…and honestly I didn’t like it that much when it was new, either.

Let’s talk about 2008’s Far Cry 2.

Far Cry 2 was a big gamble for Ubisoft, and they went for it. Lead designer Clint Hocking envisioned an open world FPS unlike the world had ever seen. It would have emergent realistic combat systems, a vast fictional Africa to explore, and a dynamic story system that would change the major players based both on random factors, and how you played.

The final product didn’t quite retain all of this stuff…but it came close. It’s a fascinating piece of FPS history.

At the outset of the game, you select one of nine playable mercenaries. The other 8 become characters throughout the story. Two of them will become your buddies, characters that can help you out during the game and offer side mission content. By the end of the game…those buddies might not be your buddies anymore.

Your mission, in a nutshell, is to kill The Jackal, a world-renowned arms dealer with a reputation for sowing discord in volatile states. Immediately upon arriving in the game’s fictional African nation…your character contracts malaria. Originally this was going to play a bigger role in the game, but in practice it’s kind of just a second health bar you’ve got to manage by occasionally going on side missions to find malaria medication.

In order to progress through the story, you take missions from two opposed warring factions. Your buddy will often offer a slightly-tweaked version of the mission objective to you, and if you take these on instead the story is tweaked in subtle ways. It never feels quite as branching and dynamic as the original intent, but certain minor characters do have different roles depending on the choices you make. The opening of the game has a number of random things that can change, affecting your starting location and faction, but none of it strays too far from the core story line. There’s one main ending to the game, but the decisions you make along the way still make it feel like your story, even if repeated plays kill the illusion a little.

The open world was limited by the RAM available on the Xbox 360 and the PS3. Although there are plenty of wide open spaces featuring dynamic combat encounters, there are also lots of corridors, valleys, and other thinner areas that obviously mask loading/background streaming. If you clear out enemy checkpoints across the map, they eventually repopulate because the game can no longer store that information in memory. On the PC version you can save anywhere, but on consoles you’re limited to safe houses.

In spite of all the small cutbacks and limitations, Far Cry 2 is still a fun, engaging, dynamic, open game. Combat is a bit like Halo’s infamous “30 seconds of fun” concept, but amplified. Enemy characters have a great sense of the environment and your position, but they aren’t superhuman. If it’s dark out, they have a more limited sense of vision. It’s possible for enemies to run low on ammo. Weapons in the game become dirty and jam over time, and sometimes this happens to bad guys too.

Jamming weapons is but one of the “realistic” mechanics designed to slightly hamper your progress while also providing a fun sense of challenge. Cars can break down. Sometimes you’ll need to perform gross-looking surgeries on yourself when your health gets too low. Your inventory space is limited, and smart management of ammo and health supplies is a must.

The whole game has a sense of danger and foreboding seething under the surface, in spite of also setting the template for the fun open world combat that remained the hallmark of the series for future installments. It’s a great mix of dread and fun. To me it recalls the vibe of the Souls series. The story is suitably grim. Nothing is as it first seems, and the horrors of real war are depicted successfully through its entirely fictional template. This, in spite of the baffling decision to have all the dialog play out very quickly.

You’ll want to turn on subtitles.

Impressively, Far Cry 2 still holds up visually, a tough feat in this era of modern realistic graphics. It was the first game to run on Dunia, Ubisoft’s in-house fork of CryEngine 1. Ubisoft bought full rights to the Far Cry name and CryEngine 1. When the time came for a Far Cry sequel, they gutted and refined the engine. Although it might not hit quite the visual heights that Crytek always chases in their own games, I think Dunia is more impressive because it runs so much better on lesser hardware.

Dunia is still used in Far Cry games today. In Far Cry 2, landscapes look great, foliage blows in the wind, fire propagates realistically, explosions throw off a shower of particles…it’s great.

The easiest version of the game to play these days is the PC version, which is regularly very cheap on Steam. It’s also the most visually impressive, offering an early yet well-optimized DX10 renderer. I remember back in 2008 that DirectX 10 had just launched, and other DX10 games struggled to run well on my shiny new hardware…but Far Cry 2 ran like a dream. The 360 and PS3 versions are both solid, if you have those systems around.

If you’re in the mood for a fun, open shooter in a beautiful world that has something to say behind the chaos…then Far Cry 2 is a perfect choice. Some folks think that Far Cry 3 and 4 are worse games in many ways…but I actually think they both did interesting things to build on this excellent foundation. The nemesis system in Shadow of Mordor also seems strongly inspired by Far Cry 2’s dynamic story concepts.

Far Cry 2 is not a flawless video game. It’s frustrating at times, and its ambitions were slightly limited by the hardware of the day. But it’s also endlessly interesting and engaging to play, and still just as relevant a game today as it was almost a decade ago.

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Alex Rowe

Alex Rowe

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