October 30, 2008 8:00 AM | Chris Remo
[In this in-depth analysis, Chris Remo looks at fan and critical reaction to Ubisoft Montreal's Far Cry 2 to examine the emergent gameplay elements in its 'slow burn' structure that make initially frustrated gamers later become enthralled.]
Ubisoft Montreal's just-debuted Far Cry 2 is not an inviting game. Like the war-torn (and presumably fictional) African state it depicts, Far Cry 2 is brutal, sparse, and often gives you little guidance.
Right from the start, your vulnerabilities are made clear: weapons you find on the ground rust and jam; you periodically suffer the effects of malaria; damaged vehicles require basic engine maintenance; and serious injuries demand improvised surgery, often with pliers.
On top of that, combat encounters (often approached with those rusted, jamming-prone guns) are fairly straightforward FPS affairs, and with the amount of mission-to-mission driving required in the game's enormous open world, their frequency can grate.
Many gamers have gone online to post initial frustrations with the game -- an understandable reaction from the perspective of somebody unaccustomed to its structure and design ethic, particularly in the context of an FPS.
But in the week since its release, there has been an interesting phenomenon unfolding. I have seen more and more posts by people announcing that Far Cry 2 finally "clicks" with them, that they have internalized the game's structure and systems, and have been rewarded with unique, memorable moments.
For me, those have been Far Cry 2's stock in trade. Game designers often speak about the dominance of the personal player story over the designer's authored narrative. Indeed, that potential is powerful, and clearly more relevant to games than any other entertainment medium. But practically speaking, to me, relatively few games truly exploit that potential.
Far Cry 2 has been an exception. What at first seemed like unfortunate sparseness now feels to me like a canvas for emergent gameplay (those well-worn buzzwords). There's your recurring sickness; the unreliability of found weaponry; the combination of almost uniformly dry environments, video game-y inflammable objects, and fire that propagates convincingly.
The game's persistent component parts feel designed to convey a convincingly (but not flashily) coherent world, but even more importantly to increase the chances of memorable things happening.
In addition to progressing the game's main quest line, you can help out your buddies with their own tangential objectives, sabotage arms dealers' competition to open up new weapon options, or perform hit jobs for that old game chestnut, the deep mysterious unnamed voice.
I find myself constantly telling people stories about my own Far Cry 2 experience. Sometimes they involve the game's rather basic plot, and sometimes they don't. This is not something I usually find myself doing.
There was the time, very early in my playthrough, when I got out of my 80s-era hatchback to track down a diamond in the jungle using the game's No Country For Old Men-esque homing beacon, forgot where I parked the car, passed out from malaria trying to find it, and was safely awoken by the buddy character I had recently rescued.
Or the time I was patiently scouting out an enemy encampment with my sniper rifle scope and startled by nearby sudden movement, reflexively snapping my crosshairs over to the source -- and finding my sights trained on a young gazelle that had wandered out from some overgrowth.
Or the time I had just blown up an entire base in a domino-like chain reaction, with a single well-placed rocket; turning to leave, I found myself blinded by the reflection of the high noon sun on bright white sand dunes -- and out of the shimmering brilliance trotted a pair of zebras.
These events, just a few examples of the many Far Cry 2 moments I take pleasure in relating, are not even particularly remarkable in and of themselves. Part of the game's success is its sense of restraint -- another area that works against it in the short term, but for it if you decide to take advantage of what it has to offer.
Unlike its predecessor (with which it shares only the most tangential thematic bonds of environmental openness and...shooting), there are no supernatural or science fiction elements to Far Cry 2.
Certainly, the player can soak up more bullets than the enemies, and the AI is not going to win any strategic matchups, but when it comes to the setting and the feel, few exaggerated liberties are taken -- a surprisingly (and, to me, unfortunately) uncommon approach in video games.
Africa is not rendered in a particularly stylized way, and the events that take place are often only as over the top as the player makes them (and that potential is there, if you want it).
This is video game Africa to be sure, but closer to real Africa than most video games would bother to go. One doesn't really appreciate Far Cry 2's attention to detail in that regard until the time has been invested to generate enough of the unique moments that result.
Far Cry 2, headed up by creative director Clint Hocking (a vocal proponent of exploration and player-driven experiences in games), is not for everybody. It has its flaws -- the frequency at which enemies respawn, for example, is frequently and justifiably called out.
Some of its impressive features, like its self-constructing narrative, are handled quietly enough that most players may not even notice them at work. And, in the end, some may find its fundamental gameplay building blocks too repetitive to hold interest to completion.
But Far Cry 2 does succeed where many games do not -- and very few shooters even attempt to go there. On the other side of the design spectrum as the Half-Lifes and Call of Dutys (extremely impressive games in their own right), Far Cry 2 doesn't so much attempt to define a memorable experience and effectively communicate it to the player.
In fact, the game tries to define a set of rules and an environment in which memorable experiences are likely to happen, and simply lets the player loose in its world -- a fascinating prospect.