The odds are quite good that you are utterly sick of reading about Far Cry 2. Every games writer and most of their dogs seem to have written something about it. It’s a widely-discussed, thoroughly analysed critical darling and cult favourite that continues to divide opinion today. In all honesty I doubt there is very much more to be said about it.
On the other hand, the internet circa 2011 didn’t really need another blog about gaming and yet, somehow, Arcadian Rhythms has carved itself a small niche shaped like a band of opinionated misfits. So let’s give this a try, eh?
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
Ambivalence is a term often misused, readily used as a synonym for mediocrity; something one can take or leave. True ambivalence involves holding two contradictory feelings or ideas about the same subject, typically positive and negative.
I can’t think of a single videogame of recent years that has produced such a sense of ambivalence in me as Far Cry 2, and I feel it a fair assertion to make that I am not alone in this.
Many players bounce off the game early, barely progressing past the initial tutorial before losing interest; others sustain their interest until the game’s flaccid middle stretch. Common complaints about the game concern the endlessly respawning checkpoints, the shootout grind of moving from one place to another, and the game’s sometimes naked attempts to pad out the experience by placing mission waypoints at seemingly arbitrary yet always distant locations.
By contrast some players adore the game to the extent of hunting down every last diamond, or spending hour upon hour exploring the wilderness to be found off the beaten â€“ and patrolled â€“ tracks. This is the game’s “marmite factor”, if marmite truly were universally loved or hated. Some love Far Cry 2. Others despise it.
This post is for those, like me, who simultaneously love and hate Far Cry 2 in all its glorious, idiotic, beautiful and frustrating glory.
ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE
There’s a lot to love about Far Cry 2. It’s a delightfully open sandbox game, allowing players to explore at their own pace and to whatever extent they care to, and doesn’t suffer from the common sandbox narrative flaw of allowing players to dawdle whilst repeatedly stressing the urgency of their Main Quest. Oblivion Gates are opening throughout Tamriel! But by all means take your time robbing houses and dropping mudcrabs off cliffs. Unspeakable horrors from demon dimensions don’t mind waiting; it’s pretty much all they do.
Far Cry 2‘s unusual setting is another big plus, both its environment and locale and narrative concept. It’s a game drenched in world-weary cynicism; it isn’t even accurate to call it moral ambiguity. This is a country torn apart by civil war, and the missions they send you on are almost invariably acts of abject barbarity. There is an honesty to the game’s grimy, self-interested mercenaries, and to the cold hard reality of purportedly ideologically-driven factions ultimately acting in the same vile manner for the same reasons of realpolitik and military expedience.
It’s a beautiful game, too, despite all of this vileness. The jungle and desert environments are a perpetual delight, and the day-night cycles produce some stunning sunrise and sunset vistas. The game’s fire propagation model remains one of the best, offering the sick pleasure of watching flames lick through shacks and grass. Driving across open ground, bouncing along in a battered old jeep and seeing herds of zebra scatter ahead of you is a more wholesome experience and equally pleasant.
Much like the way fire propagates, events in Far Cry 2 play out with fascinating variability: this gives the game a great capacity for developing unique stories, much as all the best sandbox games allow. One example from my first playthrough involved assassinating a target who was concealed in the middle of a very dangerous area, surrounded by more soldiers than I could realistically take out. Instead I located an obscure footpath that wound through a narrow pass behind the shantytown I had to fight through and inched my jeep along it. My GPS went haywire as a result: this trail was not designed for vehicles. I wasn’t going to leave it behind, however, because that mounted gun would come in handy if I botched this operation.
Fortunately I successfully found a back way in and, after sneaking through a few thankfully-deserted shacks, I picked off the target and his bodyguard with close-range shots from a sniper rifle. I fled the way I had come as the alarm was raised, but the jeep I’d used was too cumbersome to reverse up the trail. I abandoned it and fled through jungle on foot as night fell; it was at this point that I became paranoid, realising that Far Cry 2 might, for all I knew, include dangerous fauna. (Sadly, it doesn’t.)
There are smaller things, too. The way most vehicles handle like the rusted, barely-functioning Soviet-era shitheaps they are. The buddy system and the intensity of firefights after comrades save you in a crisis. Other stories like assaulting the fort in the north to recover stolen documents, picking off snipers and patrols with my upgraded Dragonov before sneaking around the back and storming the interior with my double-barrelled sawnoff. The fear you hear in the voices of enemies towards the end of the game (a trick that I can only remember The Darkness II also pulling off well).
ALL HANDS ON THE BAD ONE
There’s a lot to dislike as well. I mentioned common complaints about the game earlier; these are legitimate concerns. All too often the game feels redundantly repetitious. Having to assault (or race through) a checkpoint you destroyed less than five minutes previously is a bore and encourages lazy play. You will also find yourself tuning up engines with astonishing regularity, although here upgrades do mitigate some of the tedium.
Enemy patrols are also… well, they’re an irritation, frankly. Individual mercs will chase after you in cars and try to run you off the road, not even breaking off when you pop shots at them from the turret mounted on the back of your own technical. Enemies will often drive up behind you and ruin your efforts to scout or snipe a guardpost from afar. Absurd pileups can occur, too, with jeep after jeep rolling up to you in the middle of a firefight. I have lost count of the number of times I died on my way back to a safehouse because I ran into one patrol and, whilst fighting them off, several more vehicles zoomed up and either ran me down or triggered a chain of explosions from the ludicrous pile of jeeps nearby.
Narratively there are holes at the heart of the game. Its events play out with little involvement from natives, and almost no involvement from civilians, of the unnamed African country in which it is set. For all its realism and cynicism it occludes from view the very real stories of its sources of inspiration. Relating back to the previous paragraph, it must be said Far Cry 2‘s AI can be pretty good but it has no sense of self-preservation whatsoever, which really undercuts the idea that your opponents are desperate mercenaries like yourself.
It should be noted that endlessly hunting for goddamn diamonds can also be a pain, especially as many of those upgrades are so vital to improving the experience. Well, that’s sandbox games for you. At least it’s not Crackdown’s bloody orbs.
After you’ve been playing the game for long enough you’ll also realise something the game does very well to mask the fact that it does something else comparatively poorly. It is honestly amazing that the game can seem like this enormous great conceptual space, and works so hard to maintain that fiction, whilst mechanically it is nothing more than kill guy > kill guy > kill guy > drive fifty metres > kill guy > kill guy > kill guy, repeated ad infinitum. All shooters must struggle to disguise the simplicity of their core mechanics and Far Cry 2 does better than most, but that moment of realisation can be damaging to the richer experience it is so keen to deliver.
OF ALL THINGS I WILL GROW TIRED
Earlier I noted that the central third of Far Cry 2 is flaccid. It would be more accurate to say that when the game executes a reset halfway through, setting you back to doing the same shit you’ve done before, a feeling of ennui sets in. Pursuing objectives that play out in the same generic fashion as everything you’ve previously seen (go here, kill everyone, trigger a thing) feels flabby and tired. I had to take a few weeks off from the game at this point before I could bear to return.
Happily it picks up again towards the end, with your actions feeling as though they have actual, lasting consequence, and the game’s slow climax involves a lot of great moments followed by an ambiguous denouement. The remainder of this section will involve spoilers, so if you want to avoid those then let me say it delivers on both a mechanical and a narrative level, and you should now skip to the bit titled ‘Difficult Fun’.
There are unfortunately some serious issues with Far Cry 2‘s conclusion, specifically in the figure of mighty whitey, riding in to save the day in barbaric Africa, as portrayed here by the Jackal. This character is a monstrous arms dealer who the game slowly turns into an anti-heroic figure because he chooses to use mass-murder as a tool to fix everything. It’s the “hard reset” fallacy of politico-militaristic policy; that things have gotten so fucked up that the only way to fix it is to clean up and start over. It is barely a step removed from the ‘regretful’ barbarity that recurs throughout the manifestos of the sick and monstrous; many must die to make a better world so that such evils need never be perpetrated again. This nation, its people, they will be better overall if we can get rid of the undesirables, the bad apples, the liberals or the Jews or the socialists or the mentally ill or the queer. It is not a real solution but it is a fascistic impulse.
It is perhaps Far Cry 2‘s most obvious shortfall; slipping back into crude arguments that because a situation is so difficult to understand, so replete with cruelty and evil and barbarism, that only acts of greater terribleness can save the day. Put another way Far Cry 2 falls prey to the fallacy at the core of humanitarian intervention: that what is needed to make things better is a stronger man, probably white, with a bigger gun and a better heart. Deliberate or not it is at best an arguably racist and clearly authoritarian solution to the problem the game portrays.
It does, at least, recognise how such ideas compromise those who enact them and render them part of the problem, ending with the mutual suicides of the player and the Jackal, although in so doing it also makes the Jackal and the player character into heroic figures, sacrificing much for the good of others. It suggests that the actual acts undertaken by these anti-hero â€“ killing hundreds of men, selling weapons into a civil war in full knowledge that they will be used on civilians, destroying and stealing medical supplies and food, burning farms and crops, flooding mines, murdering journalists and politicians and more â€“ are justifiable for the eventual cause of “the greater good”.
The game does not shy away from suggesting that the player is a monster and it is only their final acts that represent a chance for redemption. This is a more comforting reading, although it is quite obvious from the very first moments in the game that the player character is merely another a monster among many; they just happen to be a more efficient monster. This doesn’t undercut that fundamental discomfort with what the player has been party to but it at least indulges the usual FPS power fantasy.
Like Spec Ops: The Line, there is also the fact that because this is a game driven by programmed routines and systems, the player really has no alternative choice other than to stop playing. Enemies can’t be spared; no one will surrender. The whole conflict is curiously bloodless when it comes to civilians: they are encountered so rarely, and only in non-combat areas, although suggestions are repeatedly made that civilians have fled, or are trying to flee, and the two factions are both treating them as monstrously as one another. The game presents a narrative experience that is quite unique, but to do so it carefully builds aÂ faÃ§adeÂ to prevent meaningful decision-making.
Although I’d like to imagine that it is today an uncontroversial statement that games need not necessarily be ‘fun’, I know that this can still prove contested. If you happen to disagree with me: just work with me here. I mean, hell, you may as well if you’ve read this far, because I can make an educated guess at what you must think of Far Cry 2.
Many great works of fiction utilise the power of ambivalence, harnessing those inherent internal tensions to strengthen a sense of drama or to make an intellectual, metaphorical or emotional point. Take the 1969 Marlon Brando film Queimada (better known as Burn!, though I prefer the Italian title because I am a pompous little shit): its first half sees Brando assisting a slave revolt in the Caribbean, ultimately helping them overthrow their masters and establish independence. In its second half he returns, this time to quash the revolutionaries and bind them to the yoke of a different colonial power. Brando’s character’s motivations and ideals are demonstrated to be subordinate to the power he serves; the first half of the film sets him up as a heroic white knight, sweeping in with the authority of a nation at his back to act as a liberator, before subsequently revealing the Emperor’s New Clothes to be economic and political expedience and cynical realpolitik. It is a magnificent film and a deeply uncomfortable watch, keenly aware as it is of the tension between the tendency of film to deal in archetypes and likeable heroes versus the untidy, barbarous history of imperial powers and those they control.
Other works involve deliberate stylistic choices that accentuate core thematic elements of the experience: the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, for example, are famously slow-paced and long. In Solaris this allows a gradual and rooted sense of its characters’ emotional roots to develop and then be disturbed by alien intrusion, as well as provide for a sense of brooding mystery. In Stalker it, along with the tendency of the camerawork to focus on empty scenes and decaying details, contributes towards the sense of isolation that lies both at the core of the film’s small cast of characters and at the heart of the film itself.
I chose these two examples because I feel they’re illustrative to consider alongside Far Cry 2. Tarkovsky’s pacing and the length of his films often results in viewers, particularly modern viewers, finding them dull or even unwatchable. It can take real effort and force of will to persevere with them and work to reveal what makes them worthy of their audience. Queimada, on the other hand, is uncomfortable because it deliberately sets out to build up and then subvert audience expectations about heroes, film plot and the narratives of nation-states. Its grimy and cruel representations of human behaviour, particularly in the political domain, is a dispiriting experience.
Regardless both Tarkovsky’s and Pontecorvo’s films are worth persevering with because what they offer is not ‘fun’ or accessible gratification but unique experiences that demand intellectual and emotional engagement from their audiences. So too does Far Cry 2: for all that it is frustrating, time-wasting, limited in its range of verbs and beats or lacking in psychological depth, it also stands apart from its contemporaries and successors thanks to how its coheres mechanically and narratively. For all that the story it tells can be weak or meandering it is also ultimately powerful, and attempts something brave and bold which it never lets go of. It is because of Far Cry 2‘s ‘flaws’ that it is so effective, so talked-about, and so divisively remembered.