Far Cry 2
The savannah winds rustle the long grasses around your knees, animals linger by the foliage, a dusty, pot-holled track stretches across the plain and into dense jungle at the periphery of your vision. Up ahead is a rag-tag shanty town, and through the scope on your rifle you can make out guards, dressed in uniforms of faded T-shirts, aggressively running a checkpoint. This isn't the first time you've had to deal with these guys, and it won't be the last; thankfully, the vista you're taking in, and the promise of further plot revelations up ahead, make this inconvenience worthwhile.
Far Cry 2, in case you hadn't realised already, isn't very much like its predecessor whatsoever, beyond the obvious appeal of an exotic setting and a hang-glider thrown in for old times sake. Gone are palm-fringed beaches, azure waters and monsters from outer space, instead Ubisoft have gone high-brow, dispensing with the package tourism to take us traveling properly - to a war-torn African state beset with civil strife.
Your character arrives in this failed state (an amalgamation of innumerable African stories, where internal factionalism, greed and inhumanity have conspired against the unfortunate local populous), just as everyone else is trying to leave. The UFLL and the APR both want control over the country, and its lucrative diamond trade, and while civil war looms large, everyone who can is leaving (your cab driver fills in much of this desperate setting during the journey of the opening sequence). While the factions squabble over land, resources and political ideals, only one man profits: the Jackal. It is this sinister, enigmatic arms dealer who you, a hired gun, have been sent to kill.
At the outset you don't know why (although many of the opening secrets will be laid-bare by the game's finale) you're sent here, it's just another mission, but things go drastically wrong when you contract Malaria, and it quickly becomes apparent that this bravely realistic setting is not one you're going to escape from in a hurry. At the start of the game you'll choose one of nine characters to control, all of whom have realistic back-stories, and subtly amoral characteristics. Although you'll only play as one mercenary, many of the others will still turn up at various points in the game's story, offering you missions, advice, help, sometimes hindering you or fighting you. The first time a surprise buddy pops up to save you can be a real moment of joy; genuine relief; but you might also see your buddy die, despite your best efforts.
The way the buddies work in this open-world Africa is a marvel, Ubisoft having created a generally believable world, full of interesting, diverse characters, all with their own ideas and agendas. This is further borne out as you progress in Far Cry 2. At the outset, the Jackal and your eventual goal will seem very far-away. Instead you'll be relegated into undertaking missions for either of the worlds factions, furthering their aims for money while gathering evidence for your own ends. In this capacity the Jackal interview tapes scattered across the world are a nice touch, adding detail to the plot should you want it.
You might have guessed already that aliens aren't likely to show up at any stage in the proceedings, indeed, the action in Far Cry 2 is so predictably realistic it can be a tad grim occasionally. Much of the time you'll be following orders to the effect of 'go here, kill this guy, destroy this item', and so on. Still, the world is such a joy to interact with that you won't mind too much, elements like the Jackal tapes, the weather, the day-night cycle, your contacts adding much to an otherwise predictable, if technically 'open', experience.
The combat itself is rock-solid, and the vast map coupled with interesting, varied terrain certainly adds a tactical element to any assault, missions often giving you many ways to succeed. The flamethrower, if ironically one of the least-realistic elements overall, comes in very handy here, allowing you set fire to foliage, bushes and trees to potentially dramatic effect. Fire spreads realistically, you see, and you can at times hem in your foes with flames while gunning them down from the safety of another approach. The choice is yours, while the game seems to positively reward experimentation - thanks to AI that can at times be exceptional.
This isn't just another corridor-based first-person shooter, rather the open-world offers up a raft of choices about who you fight for, where you go, and who you befriend. While missions for the factions make up the bread and butter of the gameplay while you learn about the world, and the Jackal, there also a few pleasing diversions. You can hunt for wealth-bringing diamonds abandoned in the wilderness using a tracking device on your GPS, and at times you'll need to do favours in order to obtain vital Malaria drugs. Driving around will take up a lot of your time as well, especially when moving between distant places on the map.
Ubisoft have clearly gone for a cinematic feel for the most part - the HUD used sparingly - while essentials like the map/GPS are presented in-game in a believable manner, in order to maintain immersion. Indeed, as whole the environments of the game can be quite astonishingly atmospheric; detailed terrain, buildings and foliage combining with wind, weather and light effects to create some scenes that will make you stare in wonder. One of Ubi's goals was to foster a sense of the exotic, and they've certainly managed that. On top of this, as the plot thickens, the player really is left with some truly unpalatable decisions as the humanitarian situation in the country worsens. The developers should be commended for their brave and at times uncomfortably realistic take on mercenary life, and Africa in general, although the parallels with Heart of Darkness can be stretched in places. Blood Diamond is perhaps a better point of reference.
Far Cry 2 isn't perfect. Some of the missions do feel a bit hum-drum despite the sometimes electric nature of the combat itself, while you can't help but feel that true freedom has been curtailed in places to make the plot fit in with the player's actions. The game is hard, too, and it can take time and patience getting used to the frequent jeep assaults, which often arrive from unexpected angles. Even the game world's frequent road-side checkpoints can slow your progress to the brink of frustration at times.
The multiplayer mode, meanwhile, is for the most part excellent, Ubisoft having included all the popular modes - complete with vehicles and fire-starting nabbed straight from the singleplayer game without mutilation. There's also a nice twist on Capture the Flag called Capture the Diamonds, which can be hilarious, while the comprehensive map editor bundled should have user-generated content fans purring with delight at the completeness of the tools on offer.
In the end Far Cry 2 must be regarded as an ambitious title that occasionally over-stretches itself. Technically its a marvel, especially when it comes to the creation of a realistic and highly immersive world. The story too is a bold and well-executed step into unfamiliar territory for gaming. But the meat of the gameplay has its failings, and every so often it just doesn't quite live up to its epic billing. Still, for endevour alone this slice of African adventure more than deserves your attention.