Far Cry 2

We come back from Africa with a verdict on Ubisoft Montreal's visually astounding shooter.

360, (PS3, PC)
Ubisoft Montreal

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By Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

Far Cry 2 sets out its stall in callously precise English as you exit a church in the hub shanty-town of Pala, diseased, alone and anonymous. "Somewhere out there is an arms dealer known only as the Jackal," the tutorial tells you, by way of a farewell. "He has been selling guns to both the UFLL and the APR. Every gun, every bullet, and every corpse you have seen can be traced back to him." A suspenseful paragraph break, and then - "Find him and kill him."

One, possibly unintentional effect of this chilling dictum is to remind you of what you haven't seen on your preliminary expeditions across this vast, quasi-African assemblage of jungle tracks and rolling grasslands: people. Or civilians, rather. Everyday Joes. Turns out that the engagingly understated, first-person taxi ride intro we rubbed hot hyperbolic sauce over in our preview is an elaborate bluff: the refugees and cattle herders you pass en-route to your hotel quietly vanish once the game itself begins, while the few NPCs who won't shoot on sight are securely closeted in far-flung shacks and bars. For much of Ubisoft Montreal's near-total revamp of Crytek's gun-toting franchise, the only human figures in view are a few greyscale variations of paramilitary goon.

They're pretty entertaining (i.e. violent) company as it happens, those paramilitary goons, but it's hard not to wish for the colour and vibrancy an autonomous, non-combatant populace would provide, especially when two of the game's principal ingredients - the player character and the environment itself - have been fleshed out to such wonderful effect.

Where other shooters let you sit back from the action, an ethereal mobile camera anchored to health and ammo bars, Far Cry 2 jams your nose as deeply as possible into the trials and tribulations of your virtual body. Bullets sink into forearms and legs, jolting the viewpoint and tingeing it red (a clever violet highlight indicates the source of fire), and when healing up, your character must dig them out before your very eyes with whatever makeshift surgical implements are to hand.

The malaria which keeps you constant company throughout takes its toll on your stamina: your vision blurs if you sprint for too long, and swooning fits afflict you with military regularity. One of the more memorable of these came as we were driving a jeep over a bridge, having purged the camp opposite with incendiary flares and sniper fire. At the halfway point our vision ran pus-yellow, causing us to swerve to the right, burst the brittle guard rails and plummet into the stream below. Shivering in the wreckage, fumbling for our medicine bottle, it took us a good thirty seconds to work out what had happened. Cinematic disorientation is something Far Cry 2 does very, very well.

But even were you just another ghostly, camera-mounted gun barrel, the game's bricolage of undulating savannas, leaf-lit dirt tracks and lean-to settlements would suspend disbelief in a way few other shooters have. As you part a clump of ferns with your machete you'll be reminded of Metal Gear Solid 3; the difference here, of course, is that the visual feast extends for miles in every direction, tossed by the ravages of a dynamic weather system and lit from every angle by the day-night cycle. The Dunia engine sometimes struggles to crunch the numbers, with textures, vehicles and very infrequently entire areas shuffling into existence as you approach, but grassroots hitches are more or less a given when you're dealing with something on this scale.

Why then the conspicuous absence of an indigenous population? Well, we've probably just answered that question in part - technical limitations. But there's also a design issue at stake. Ubisoft Montreal simply isn't out to create the onslaught of faces and personalities you'd get in a Grand Theft Auto or even a Mercenaries 2, but a cagier, eloquently arid open world, hinging more on the sensory experience of the jungle and the enthralling business of non-linear combat than a wealth of people to brush past or interact with. The storyline, good as it is, surfaces only occasionally amidst the ferns and optional quests, and the sheer distance you're required to travel between objectives gives you plenty of opportunities to pick a fight.

Far Cry 2 encompasses 33 main and 50-odd side missions, fed to you drip by drip at a half-dozen key locations scattered across its 50 square kilometre map. Longevity certainly isn't a problem, as each mission will take you around an hour to complete (depending on the distance you'll have to travel in the process) but if you're stuck for diversions there are diamonds to winkle out with your handy GPS detector, guard posts to "scout" or violently discombobulate and safe houses to capture. 12 AI "buddies" have been squirreled away in the guts of the world: do them a favour and they'll repay you in kind, dropping into the fray like grizzled, heavily-armed fairy godmothers whenever the odds turn against you.

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