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Going native

Far Cry 2's heart of darkness
By MITCH KRPATA  |  November 11, 2008
4.0 4.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2 | For Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 | Rated M for Mature | Developed by Ubisoft Montreal | Published by Ubisoft
Misery has been visited upon Africa for hundreds of years now, so you might be surprised to learn that it's taken video games this long to get in on the action. Far Cry 2 fills that dubious void by envisioning a continent straight out of the worst nightmares of 19th-century colonists. Its Africa is an unforgiving landscape populated almost entirely by mercenaries, arms dealers, and power-mad militia groups. What good men there are tend to stay well hidden.

Into this powder keg steps your character, a freelance soldier charged with taking down the Jackal, the alpha male in the region who's arming both sides of a civil war. Eliminate the Jackal, the thinking goes, and you end the war. Except it's not quite clear who you're working for. And as your reputation grows, an increasing number of shady characters want you to do jobs for them. Self-interest begets treachery, and before long your moral compass is spinning like a top. It's hard to tell who's a good guy and who's a bad guy — though if the game world had any mirrors, by the end it's a safe bet you wouldn't be able to look at yourself in them.

Far Cry 2's story line is fascinating for its pessimism. It takes its cues from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with the Jackal as the Kurtz figure and the player as Marlow, but its greatest success is in the purity of its gameplay, which is superimposed on a masterfully rendered setting. The game world is massive, incorporating thick jungles, vast savannahs, and scorching deserts. Against this backdrop, you engage in pitched but localized battles, often storming a fortified location. After the gunfire, the explosions, and the screams have died away, all that remains is a vast and indifferent land.

Then there's the strong sense of your character's physical being — you're aware at all times of the burden of his body. The map screen isn't metatextual but an object that your character lifts up in front of him and that occupies most of his view. He administers first aid by jabbing a needle into his arm; he might pull bullets out of his body with pliers. This avatar isn't merely a floating, disembodied gun.

The gunfights themselves are something special. Rather than scripting combat events, Far Cry 2 has gambled on a more dynamic approach to gameplay. Nothing ever happens the same way twice. Weapons jam and misfire. The wind can spread fires toward your enemies, or back toward you. You may develop malarial symptoms and have to pop a pill, regardless of what else is happening. This unpredictability often does produce indelible moments, the kind whose every detail you find yourself recounting to friends once you're done playing. On occasion it backfires — you could be traveling to help out a buddy only to receive a message that he's completed his mission without your help.

Because its game world is so big, Far Cry 2 can seem slow-paced. You'll cross the map to accept a mission and then have to turn around and go back to accomplish it. As smaller firefights erupt along the roadways and at guard shacks and enemy safe houses, a simple trip might take half an hour or more. The sparsity of checkpoints means that the death of your character can erase significant progress. Yet the game casts a spell as you go deeper. Detours and divagations become ever more alluring. And if you lose your bearings in the wilds of Africa, well, that's the point.

Related: Review: Resident Evil 5, Review: Throw Down Your Heart, Review: The Roots of Hip-Hop, More more >
  Topics: Videogames , Culture and Lifestyle, Africa, Games,  More more >
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