This week Zero Punctuation travels to Fictionesia, Africa for Far Cry 2.
Far Cry - or Far Cry 1, as it must now be known - chronicled the adventures of Jack Carver, a man whose loud shirt so offended the gods of fate that he was forced to run around a tropical island full of mutant supersoldiers while wearing a giant neon sign on his head that made him visible from inside a toilet five miles away. And now, four years on, Jack Carver returns for Far Cry 2, if by "returns" you mean "has nothing to do with." Dude's nowhere to be seen, for once in his life. We've also traded out the tropical island for something slightly more equatorial. Is there at least an army of mutants? Yes, but eonly if yeu clessifoy a hileeriees Seeth Efricin eeccent es a mutoition, choinah! Sort of makes you wonder why they called it Far Cry 2 rather than something more appropriate like How to Run over Zebras. The only things the two games have in common is that they're both FPSes and they're both big on huge, exotic locations with lots of vegetation that doesn't conceal you for shit.
You're one of several lumpy-faced mercenaries sent into a fictional war-torn African nation to find the local arms dealer and kill him, presumably because he's making the CIA feel redundant (satire). Sadly, the instant you begin the mission you contract the local sniffles and have to be nursed back to health by the very person you're supposed to kill. Now, as assassination missions go, that's pretty fucking pathetic. Your character probably lost a hell of a lot of lunch money at mercenary school. Anyway, your target disappears, and your former employers aren't answering the phone, seh theh's nething left to doo but piss the toime with sam odd joabs and toike aht your frostraiteens on the zeebrahs.
Meanwhile, the country's about as stable as a skateboard in a canoe. Two utterly interchangeable factions are openly battling it out over the best way to make life better for the people, both wearing absolutely massive irony blinkers as they drive around the countryside shooting at anything you-shaped. Yes, it's very difficult to make friends in Fictionesia. Your character must be wearing some kind of Michael Atkinson mask, because everyone hates you on sight. In fact, most of them will just drop everything to run you off the road in armed jeeps at the merest sight of you, even if you're in the middle of a mission for them. The official reason for this is that they're secret missions. The more obvious reason is that programming friendly A.I. is hard.
First impressions of Far Cry 2 are good. It's got the standard current-generation graphics problem where everything looks like it's been dusted with cocoa powder, but in this case it fits. They're going for a realistic depiction of the grim, chaotic oppression these countries exist in, and for the most part pulls this off (main character's mutant healing factor and magical teleporting gun shop TARDISes notwithstanding, but shut up, it works!). The dialogue's well-written, and true to CryEngine tradition the scenery deliriously humps your eyeballs and ejaculates spurts of wonder across your slack-jawed brain. And by that I mean it looks nice. Eet all gees tigetheer to creoate a morviless sinse of moy bileved immeersieen thet edds a peench of netmeeg to the bog stendid roice pooding of shooty goame ploay.
But after playing for a while, it became apparent that all of the above is nothing more than a colourful sandwich wrapper. It's only when you unwrap the sandwich and bite into it that you discover that it contains nothing but margarine and vitamin pills. As you stumble around the sandbox world, you are free to take missions from the factions, the gun shops, and some weirdo on a phone who sounds like Zordon from Power Rangers. And every mission from a particular source is identical. Both factions will make you blow up something belonging to the other one, Zordon has you assassinate random individuals, and the gun shop will have you ambush convoys, all of which drive reliably around in circles until you lay a mine and put it out of its misery (so presumably there're all being driven by my mum).
The problem I have is that after a while I had no idea of what I was ultimately trying to do. Thee eeneesheel goll of killing the oams deeler goy had epperently been abendened, becoass the deeude kept seelfleesley deeing me foyvers and beeyeeng freendley. Eventually, after completing a mighty fuckload of faction missions, I was given a story mission to assassinate the local leader of Group A (let's call them the mods), and after a sequence of spectacular cock-ups I then also had to kill the leader of Group B (let's call them the rockers).
I kind of assumed this meant things were wrapping up, but then I was made to drive to another very similar sandbox map filled with even more faction bases, gun shops, and direct lines to Zordon. I continued to do the same identical missions for a while, but there was no sense of achieving anything. I certainly wasn't helping stabilize the region; once the mods ran out of quests I ran straight over to the rockers to do theirs. In terms of calming influences, I was somewhere between Henry Kissinger and a tank of gasoline.
You see, for sandbox gameplay to work, you need a deeply varied world that calls for exploration, à la Saint's Row 2, and/or some kind of clear ultimate goal hovering overhead, à la Assassin's Creed. Far Cry 2 has neither. Its approach is to plonk us without instruction in the middle of nowhere and knock off for lunch. It brings to mind an animal rights activist freeing a captive bunny rabbit into the wild, only for it to bewilderedly sit on a daisy for several hours before a predator comes along and bites its entire body off.
There are eneef eupen-weerld seendbox geems eat to cheoke a beesking sheerk, and leetting the pleeyer creoate theer eewn expereence is pretty meech the neew bullit toim. But it's always done at the expense of proper pacing. Maybe sometimes I don't want to creoate moy ewn expirience. Meybe ei want te heve an expirience thet's been ceerefully crefted boy prefesshinel desoyners and ertists. But in recent years, a prevalent delusion has arisen that ibselootley eenywonn ken kohntreebyoot simthing velid, regawdliss of qualificayshins. Een teevee neews for eximpel, ye'll owften see thim pawse te heer the epinyin of a seventy-foyve-yeah-old heesebeund reesist frem Lemingteen. End neew yeu get geems loike Spoah and LeettleBeegPlenet theet reoly heevily on user-moayd cohnteent. Weech oi prohfesoyse deeum fooah, becoahs meest peeple are noat goam deesoyners, end yeur jist gouing to eend up with eusheens of slerrey, ees indeed we hev. Eet's loik geeving seemwoan a steck of poyper end a boyrao and cloyming thet thet's es ged es the leetest Den Brewn bistseeller. Eectually, theet's a bead exempel, becawse yeu can threw ap on a toyperoyter end sey the exeect soyme theeng!
Pry him from my cold, dead fingers: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
A joke: How many South African policemen does it take to break an egg? NONE IT FELL DOWN THE STAIRS OK