“How do you stop a man who can turn a nation into a graveyard?”
I was not ready for Far Cry 2 when it first released in 2008. I wanted it, but I wasn’t ready for it. Because, at the time, I thought it was just a typical shooter and coming from someone who’s FPS experiences were narrowed on Medal of Honor at the time, that wasn’t the best launching pad into this. While I enjoyed the game, it was something that I put down as soon as I was done; not really giving it any thought outside of, ‘Well, that was dark’. I wouldn’t replay the game until six years later, after playing Battlefield 4 and Bioshock: Infinite. At that point, I had a completely different experience.
There will never be another game like Far Cry 2. Plenty have learned from its gameplay and copied what worked while ignoring what didn’t. The dynamic weather and day cycles, the pain-inducing first aid system, the expansive open world with real threats, and the weapons and vehicles that decay with repeated use all come to mind. And Ubisoft have been trying to capture the grey morality that FC2 got perfectly balanced with each successive Far Cry game: getting the closest with Far Cry 4. However, just looking at the gameplay and functionality of the title is a mistake because it ignores the previous, incredibly true statement. There will never be another game like Far Cry 2 because no one wants to create a world like it anymore: much less spend time in it.
Far Cry 2’s world is, for lack of a better word, bleak. Post-Apocalyptic horror tries for this level of bleakness often, but it does so to try and highlight glimmers of light in the darkness. As grim as a game like The Last of Us can get, it will always be offset by the relationships formed by the main characters that reaffirm their basic humanity. Even in the coming sequel, the focus has been put more on Ellie’s romantic life than the current dismal state of that world. There is no light in Far Cry 2’s darkness: no love and no hope to alleviate the constant, crushing despair. From the moment you step into the UAC (Unidentified African Country), you’re greeted with people trying to get out, bodies in the streets, destruction and the death squads you’ll soon be gunning down en masse.
Death hangs over the world and the characters the player interacts with, including the main character, are all extensions of it. There is only one character in the entire game that can be seen as even slightly altruistic: working to get innocent people out of the UAC while the two sides are determined to destroy one another. Everyone else span from the bloodthirsty death squads that serve as your constant enemy, to the warlords who give you assignments. Originally, the main character arrives to the UAC to kill The Jackal: an amoral, Nietzsche-spouting gun runner who is arming both sides of the conflict. However, you fail the mission before the game truly starts. The Jackal appears before you to mock your failure and leaves you with a gun, a machete and a bad case of malaria.
At that point, literally fifteen minutes into the game proper do we have the definitive point of character development that Ubisoft would nod to in every installment of the series as the protagonist, knowing that they’ve failed in their primary job, chooses to stay in the UAC. Yes, had they not, there would be no game to play. Bu the conceit since has always been away to avoid the full game with a similar choice. Here, the protagonist’s decision to stay is done with no moral reasoning and, considering their illness, against their best interest health-wise. But they stay regardless. Why? To make money.
With the help of allies (other mercenaries who provide support and opportunities), the Player become the willing, amoral arm for both the UFLL and APR: the warring factions of the game. You can and do go on missions for both sides: exacerbating the war, but lining your pockets well with every job. You also destroy the major infrastructure of the UAC: making it harder and harder for anyone not actively fighting to survive or run. And it proves to be extremely profitable. Each successful missions brings on more diamonds, better quality vehicles, and guns for the Player: an obscene amount of wealth in the ravaged hellscape we’re fighting in.
This is why the final mission of the game is what it is. With all hope lost and the war spiraling far out of control, The Jackal reappears and convinces the Player to get the remaining civilians out of the country: a mission that sees the death of the UFLL and APR leadership, the other mercenaries who don’t want the war to end, The Jackal who is determined to go out with a bang, and the Player as atonement for their greed and blood lust. It doesn’t feel like a victory and the war does not stop. The small bit of good The Jackal and The Player does is hardly significant in the grand scheme of things: like dropping a bucket of water into the ocean. If anything, the final mission is there to emphasize just how much you’ve destroyed.
And so, we’ve arrived at the thematic point.
There will never be another game like Far Cry 2 because there will never be another game that is willing to let you play as the villain and not excuse your evil. At no time are you given the impression that what you’re a hero in this scenario and the game doesn’t waste narrative time on hammering home how wicked you actually are. You just play the game as the game is intended: getting more efficient in the world. This, in turns, just makes you a bigger monster than the one the main character was sent in to kill: achieving the protagonist’s goals of getting paid while soaking the world in blood.
And it is so, so much fun playing the monster. This isn’t done by indulging the player. You never feel overpowered or even that much of a badass. Between the corroding weapons, limited health packs and, you know, malaria, there isn’t a moment where you don’t feel incredibly vulnerable in this world. You are just as human as everyone else and death has its hands on you as much as it does the people you kill. And I think that feeling of inevitable dread that helps make the game enjoyable, in a dark sense. It’s never a question of ‘Will I die?’; you will. But it’s never unfair to the player. It’s just another aspect of being a mercenary in this war. T.I.A as it were. It makes your consistent survival rewarding while continuing to build the narrative, as the protagonist continues to destroy the country and innocent lives within in everytime they survive the odds.
It isn’t a perfect experience, but it does the Player Antagonist so well that it has yet to be topped with Spec Ops: The Line coming to closest in making a shooter as deep and grim as this one. It is the one lesson game developers refuse to learn because, again, there’s not much of an audience who wants to be evil in-game and not excused for it. But when it’s done right, it can successful haunt the audience.
I don’t know if we’ll ever get a game that tries to replicate the characters and atmosphere of Far Cry 2. But, so long as this rough, pitch black diamond exists, there’s always hope that someone, somewhere is trying to create a new version of this Hell to plunge a new audience in, to allow them their horrors only for them to walk away and realize, a bit too late, how dark the world can really be and how bleak they can make it. Thank you Ubisoft Montreal for one of the best games I’ve ever played.
This red earth, it’s in our skin. The Shona say the colour comes from all the blood that’s being spilled fighting over the land. This is home. You’ll never leave Africa.