Monday, October 27, 2008

A Far Cry from Fun

We're in the midst of the October deluge, where the last three weeks has seen a plethora of big triple-A releases across all the major platforms. Fable 2, LittleBigPlanet, and Fallout 3 have all made the beach-landing in this Normandy invasion of holiday titles.

Unfortunately, even in this treasure trove of entertainment there must be the soggy leavings of games that don't quite manage to make that big splash. Holding company with this inauspicious group is FarCry 2, Ubisoft's pseudo-sequel to Crytek's sci-fi shooter.

Where the original FarCry had you taking on the role of Jack Carver, mercenary cum half-animal superhero, FarCry 2 instead lets you choose one of several soldiers of fortune. To help you select, you get a little dossier for each character complete with a photo and a minimal backstory.

A cool little twist is that the mercenaries you don't select will show up in-game as recruitable buddies who will help you earn a bit more cash out of missions, or bail you out when you get in over your head.

FarCry 2 opens with one of the longest and least interesting first person preludes I've ever seen. During the drive, you get little peeks of what the game has to offer. Impressive visuals, fire propagation and random wildlife are all on display during this drive, but the dialogue quickly turns it into a snooze fest.

FarCry 2's story is bland and uninteresting. It probably had the potential to be great, but the game presents it to you as an after-thought. The gist of the plot is that you're dropped into an unnamed African country to hunt down an arms dealer known as the Jackal, who has been supplying both sides of the civil war currently ravaging this part of the continent.

The voice acting is pretty heinous, too. Everyone delivers their lines in a rush, as if the actors were called in a week before the game went to production. All the characters speak in a bland monotone which makes paying attention difficult. Were it not for the subtitles, I would have completely glazed over during all the cut-scenes. As it is, the game does little to hold you attention during any of the speaking parts.

Before we launch into FarCry 2's faults fully, let's take a minute and examine what it does right.

The environment is beautifully crafted, ranging from thick jungles to the edges of a vast desert. Sunlight streams through the trees and makes the white sand glare brilliantly in the noon sun. At night, you can almost feel the African wilderness getting colder as the sun drops beyond the horizon and the deepest reaches of the jungle become as black as tar.

The day/night transition is done very well, and it looks especially impressive when you view it during your sleeping periods. The time speeds up, and the camera shows you a view from outside your hut as the clouds flash past and the day slips into night.

The game presents itself as an entirely first-person experience, and for the most part pulls it off brilliantly. Opening car doors, checking you map and fixing your wounds is all done through your character's eyes, and it all looks correct. Nothing feels out of place in this perspective, but it does have some strange faults. We'll get to those later.

The fire propagation system works really well in this setting. Almost anything can be lit on fire, and the tiniest spark can ignite a huge conflagration. The fire effects are impressive, and the sound scales well with the size of the blaze. A small ember will sound like a tiny sizzle, and a large brush-fire will roar and snap as it leaps from brush to tree, consuming everything in it's path.

Having NPC mercenaries as your buddies helps with the immersion, as well. When you get in too deep, one of your friends will rush in, guns blazing, and pull your dopey ass out of the line of fire. This is done from first person as well, and you'll flit in and out of consciousness as you're dragged away from the hot zone. You can turn the tables and pull rescues for your buddies as well. The only difference is where your friends will always help you out, you have the option of using a syringe to heal them, or use your pistol on them to ease their passing. It's a pretty brutal choice, but having buddies is always preferable to being out in the African wilds with no backup.

Now that we've given FarCry 2 some praise, let's dive right into where it falls flat on it's face.

The setting. While I praised it above for being lush and beautiful, it's ultimately a detriment to game play. The area is huge(over 50 square kilometers) and most of the time you're confined to jungle roads. Trying to venture off the beaten path will often result in backtracking because, more often than not, you'll end up going backwards as you've run into an impassible cliff face. Besides a bus travel system, there is no way to get across the map quickly. That's a huge annoyance as the buses are usually nowhere near the important areas, and the missions are often on the other side of the map. Driving is the only real option, but even that has it's short comings.

To navigate while driving, you have to pull out your map. Not bad in itself, but you can't set a way point. Might sound minor, but it becomes a major hindrance when you have to drive all the way across the jungle with a map constantly open to guide yourself. When you're looking at said map, the game has an annoying tendency to focus your view upwards onto the road. When you're trying to divine which fork to take and you look up before you can figure it out, it leads to some course-corrections.

Every car is also extremely fragile, and bumping it into too many trees will necessitate either a road-side repair or the acquisition of a new vehicle. Bullets will also put a stop to your travel plans fairly quickly, and every guard at every single checkpoint is only too happy to chase you down and riddle your poor car with lead.

As explained earlier, the first person view is well done, but with only one major hitch. You can do everything from that perspective, but when you look down, you don't have a body! For a game that's trying to be immersive, having you look down at your floating gun will take you right out the experience.

The AI is fairly rudimentary and predictable. The enemy will chase you with a single minded determinism seemingly forever, and their battle tactics aren't too sharp, either. If you hide, the AI will shout out where they think you are, but only the shotgun wielding baddies seem to try to find you. The gunfights present no real challenge excepting the fact that it takes three to four head shots to down an enemy, and they will sometimes get right back up. Having a man survive a grievous head-wound and bounce back on the attack is kind of out of place.

FarCry 2's missions are rather tedious, as well. Drive to the other side of the map, and kill the enemy. Sometimes you're tasked with blowing something up, but that doesn't really change the fact that the mission set is really limited.

For everything FarCry 2 manages to innovate and experiment with, it misses the mark with a lot of basic shooter and open world mechanics. In a retrospective view, FarCry 2 can be praised for trying to mash two genres which are not paired together that often; unfortunately, it can't pull it off in an entertaining way.

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