Far Cry 2 is easily one of the most seductive and impressive games this generation has yet seen. Ubisoft Montreal's Dunia engine driving the game is a wondrous technical achievement, boasting an abundance of impressive effects and incidental details. However, look beneath this veneer of masterful technology and there lies a game which is so very nearly at the top of its genre were it not for some incomprehensibly frustrating design decisions.
FC2 ventures into a nameless African state embroiled in civil war. Two factions are vying for control of the country and as a hired mercenary it's the player's job to assassinate the gun runner supplying both sides and prolonging the conflict; an elusive figure known only as The Jackal. FC2 has many literary allusions, but despite these shameless influences the world is cohesive and diverse, and it creates a real sense of place and tangibility.
Much like the Grand Theft Auto series, the main character performs tasks for the different factions in order to gain their trust and get more information on his quarry. The problem here being that these missions have little relation to the larger plot, and it doesn't feel as though anything which occurs is really bringing you any closer to finding The Jackal. There isn't a great deal of variety; missions generally require you kill someone, destroy something or maybe even kill someone and destroy something. It doesn't help that every character in the gameworld is always gunning for you. Apparently this is because you're a deniable asset on secret missions, but that still doesn't really explain why every single soldier or mercenary in the whole game shoots the moment they can see you.
Compounding the character's vulnerability are degradeable weapons and malarial sickness. Once a weapon has been used a lot it will visibly start to degrade, before long jamming and eventually blowing up, making gaining arms a constant - and oftentimes irritating - juggling act. Further, at the beginning of the game the player character contracts malaria and periodically is hit with an attack, resulting in a feverish loss of clarity and requiring medicine to control it. This is acquired by doing missions for members of the civilian underground movement, and they share their meagre supplies as payment.
The African landscape is stunning setting. There is a huge amount of variety across its 50 square kilometres, from savannah, through jungle, valleys, mountains and swampland. What really helps in this regard is the physical connection between the player character and the game - shoot the branches of a tree and they fall off; push through foliage and it bends then springs back; set alight to a plain of grass at it will be guided by the wind until it burns out. Not only is this a very pretty game world, it is one that can be destroyed in ways few games ever manage.
One of the most unbalanced areas is in its enemy AI. When in a firefight they can be a thrilling enemy; running for cover, trying to flank, getting on mounted guns, or the like. However, trying to sneak up on foes is so ridiculously awkward that any real notion of stealth quickly goes out the window - even in the dead of night they have hawk-like eyesight, able to see through bushes from 100 feet away. In the day it's even worse, meaning without one of the few very long-distance weapons sneak attacks become nearly useless.
Further, though the game world of 50 km sq is an impressive feat and a nice bullet point, in reality it means there will be lots and lots of driving. More time is probably spent behind the wheel than firing a gun, and similarly more time is spent studying a map than shooting, too. Despite its attempts at set-pieces and engaging characterisation, this isn't really a game for people who want another Call of Duty 4; it's more of a weighty and at times overstated adventure.
Arguably the game's most frustrating flaw is in the constant enemy checkpoints and respawning guards. These checkpoints litter the map, often situated at junctions in the road, and there are at least three or four guards stationed at each one. Driving through without stopping is an option, but guards often get in their own truck and will manage to catch up within seconds. The alternative is to pull up outside of the checkpoint and either pick them off from afar or sneak in for close combat. Either way, when travelling to a mission, having to bypass or clear out three or four enemy checkpoints is extremely tiresome and artificially prolongs the game.
Lacking a quicksave function, dying in FC2 can be very easy and frustrating - to combat this there are 'buddies', who will rescue you should you fall in a firefight. Once found in story missions you can do missions for them which strengthens the friendship. Their inclusion is definitely a positive, as it helps dilute the feeling that every other character in the game is hostile, although it's a shame there's not more interaction outside of doing jobs for them.
Visually, FC2 is impressive. The African landscape is vast and colourful, and although there is a little pop-in, it's totally forgivable given what has been accomplished. The sound effects are superb, with an array of incidental noises such as chirping insects or a busy cacophony of animals in any jungle area. Guns sound brutal and dangerous, with vicious cracks and convincing echoes, and generally Ubisoft has done a marvellous job all around with the game's audiovisual presentation, including some appropriate and authentic music which really helps establish the premise.
Far Cry 2 - not unlike its stablemate Assassin's Creed - is one of the most impressive, awe-inspiring and yet frustrating games of the last few years. It is a beautiful, vast and incredibly presented game, with a small number of extremely detrimental design decisions. It's undoubtedly worth trying but there's a lot of unfulfilled potential here, and here's hoping Ubisoft are paying close attention for the next entry in the series.