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TVG takes a stroll into the Heart of Darkness - comes back thoroughly impressed and with sand in its boots...
- Sandbox gaming in an FPS!
- Mesmerizingly good gunplay.
- A nifty map editor.
- Sandbox elements don't always mesh well.
- Lengthy drives across the savannahs.
- AI that's occasionally suspect.
For the first few hours of play, Far Cry 2 will have you tearing your hair out, but stick with it because as you get used to the gameplay and the story opens up, it truly becomes the Heart of Darkness that it seeks to emulate. The story, based on Joseph Conrad's 1902 novel (which is also the basis for Apocalypse Now), eventually blends with Far Cry 2's truly open world FPS gameplay to bring players something truly original and unique within the genre.
Ubisoft Montreal has merged some exhilarating gunplay with the first sandbox FPS game in existence. Some have come close to this in the past, such as previous Crytek projects Far Cry 1 and Crysis, but these games never managed to engineer a completely open world. Although the game environments were vast, players were still bottle-necked through the familiar linear format. With Far Cry 2 you simply have a map that you can traverse from one side to the other whenever you want (much like you would Liberty City in GTA), while story and side missions can be picked up from various hubs on the map and are opened up by your interaction with various buddy characters and other NPCs.
Stick At It
The problems with this structure in an FPS become evident as soon as you settle down to the first couple of hours of gameplay. Firstly, whenever you start a mission there's usually a long drive across African savannah to your next objective. Granted, the surroundings are visually superb (more on that later) and you can get a swift bus ride to some areas on the map, but there's often a lot of tedious transport between the action. To counter this, Ubisoft Montreal has made sure that anybody you come across on your travels will promptly try to blow you apart for no apparent reason (other than that you're in a war torn African nation in a state of anarchy).
It's a bit like being in the centre of [insert your English city of choice here] on a Friday night - everybody wants to start on you and you're not quite sure why. The men in any car that drives past or checkpoint you pass through will immediately open fire without provocation, which can get tiresome pretty quickly when you just want to get to your next objective. Ubisoft Montreal had to have some sort of dynamic by which the action continues when you're driving these large distances, but perhaps a bit of choice would've been preferable. If, for example, you were able to bribe aggressors with a couple of diamonds (the game's economy), then perhaps that would've made things a bit fairer. Without a feature like this, it's a bit like constantly having three wanted stars in GTA without actually doing anything wrong.
You'll soon learn how to deal with this by always travelling in a machine gun mounted jeep or approaching checkpoints from a distance and ambushing the soldiers, but other features in the game also take quite a while to get going. The various options in the storyline appear to be pretty superficial at first as your buddy offers alternative objectives to those dished out by the two main factions in the game, the APR and UFLL. These seem to serve up tangential missions and story-arcs but, if you choose a mission that your buddy has offered (instead of the rival factions'), you'll simply end up doing the buddy mission first followed by the original faction objective afterwards. If you ignore your buddy's mission, all that happens is you do the faction mission without getting the history level increase with your buddy (which doesn't appear to have much of a knock-on effect).
There's usually some overlap between the two options (one mission has your buddy crop spraying from a plane once you've eliminated forces in a field as part of the main objective), but that's about as deep as it gets. At any one point you'll have two main buddies, one of whom offers you up these alternative missions and another who acts as a second life, rescuing you from the jaws of death once per mission. Whenever these buddies get injured you have the option to kill, heal, or abandon them. Killing them will eliminate that character from the game (and the second life/optional mission that come with them), while healing increases your buddy history a bit more.
The main story missions from the UFLL and APR can be accessed from the game's central hub, which is the capital city of Pala. You have the choice to double cross each faction by accepting rival offers, but it's not until the very last few missions of the game's first map that you begin to see the significance of these decisions. We don't want to spoil the story for you because it should really go down in gaming lore as one of the best examples of tangential storytelling in an FPS (right up there with Deus Ex), but let's just say that it really does mess with your conscience and there's some pretty dark choices that you'll have to make. Far Cry 2 finally opens up into a game that really makes you feel like there are significant choices around every corner. Overall there are only a couple of key decisions that sway the game's direction, but the illusion that there are many more is very well cast indeed.
Another good reason to stick with the game is to unlock more weapons. A standard set of arms are gradually introduced as the game progresses, but these are fairly plain for the most part and don't offer up a wide range of choice (additionally, their tendency to jam does get pretty irritating). Help is at hand though, because doing side missions for an arms trader (which invariable consist of eliminating a rival convoy of armaments) will unlock enough goodies to blow a hole in the side of Fort Knox. These include remotely detonated incendiary explosives, sniper rifles that can hit a coin from 200 paces, mortars, silenced MP5s - the list goes on... These sorts of weapons open some of the most rewarding gunplay we've seen in an FPS game for a very long time.
Incendiary explosives, for example, pack an explosive punch that's worryingly therapeutic in its destruction of pretty much everything. Imagine the pleasure you can have by placing one on the route of those armament convoys, waiting patiently behind a tree for the precise moment and then raising hell - priceless! Then there's the 'Grassy Knoll' approach we took to killing a high ranking official at a troop rally. We were no match for the horde of troops so we simply sat atop a hill overlooking the rally (at night for extra stealth), got out our new Dragunov sniper rifle and dispensed with him. We did the job and were out of range before his followers even knew where the shot had come from. In short, we've never felt quite so much like Jason Bourne in a computer game before (and that includes The Bourne Conspiracy).
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