Review by ryan330i

"Flawed design wears on you"

What defines a good sandbox game? Open world game design is a relatively new genre made possible by advances in processor and graphics capabilities. But what makes one sandbox design good and another one bad? This is not an easy question to answer, given that a sandbox is designed to provide a variety of gameplay experiences which can lead to different, subjective opinions on the matter. I've been playing Far Cry 2 lately, and unfortunately I think the game has helped me understand ways an open world game can fail.

In the original Far Cry the player was presented with a series of islands to traverse, one at a time. Normally these islands would contain one or more enemy concentrations between you and your goal. This provided a good pace to the game. You were always working toward a clear goal, but due to the size of the islands, the draw distance, and the variety of combat strategies, there was freedom in how to achieve it. In the big picture it wasn't a true sandbox because there was no ability to set your own goals; you were stuck on a given island until you triggered the next cut scene by killing the right person, blowing up the right structure, or arriving at the right door.

With Far Cry 2 there is complete freedom to travel anywhere you want, accept the missions you want and perform them any way you want. Plus, many of the signature Far Cry experiences like long distance sniping, vehicles, and assaulting small enemy outposts are part of the game. What could go wrong here?

A lot, as it turns out. You see, beyond the ability to set your own goals and achieve them in different ways, there is a third part of sandbox design sorely missing from Far Cry 2: Diversion. And I don't mean mini-games. Take for example two great sandbox designs, Oblivion and Grand Theft Auto. Both offer very extensive diversions. You can wander around either of those worlds without a goal and be entertained. How often did I lose track of time, watching how the pedestrian AI reacts to gunfire, or exploring a random cave for treasure, or climbing ranks in the mage's guild, or stealing cars for money. In a satisfying sandbox, freedom has to be met in equal measures with immersion, imagination and variety.

It takes more than a little gameplay in Far Cry 2 to discover something is missing. There do appear to be diversions. Diamonds in suitcases are scattered throughout the landscape, waiting to be found using a well-designed treasure hunt mechanism where your GPS blinks with greater frequency as you near a suitcase, or goes on solid when you are pointed at the suitcase. It is not a 'gimme' to find or get to every suitcase, yet it is not so hard as to be frustrating. There are also side missions to assassinate people or gain access to new weapons and equipment. There is even a side story about acquiring needed medicine. Ultimately though, they aren't diversions at all. Diamonds are the monetary system of the game and ONLY used to buy new weapons and equipment. It all leads up to very repetitive gameplay. I want a better weapon so I destroy a convoy to unlock it and then perform a primary or side mission for payment in diamonds to buy the weapon. Rinse. Repeat.

The lack of variety in how the game progresses might not be so noticeable except that the missions themselves are very repetitive in their constituent parts. The assassinations and convoy ambushes are all nearly identical in execution and only vary by the location they occur. Assassinations are always of a lone man wearing a suit in a populated place. Weapon convoys are always 3 car groups (jeep, truck, jeep) that drive in a loop until you encounter them. Even main missions have a cadence to them. 1. Accept mission, 2. Take call from buddy, 3. Meet buddy, 4. Accept secondary mission, 5. Perform secondary mission, 6. Perform primary mission, 7. Save buddy.

After a while the only thing pushing you forward is a desire to acquire new weapons for combat and perhaps a remote interest in where the main story will end up, though take note that not even the primary missions actually relate to the main story. They play out more like A-Team episodes, where every episode stands alone and has no relation to the prior or next one.

The environment of Far Cry 2 is the highlight of the game. There is a variety of landscape ranging from deserts to rain-forest like jungles. The landscape feels very fluid, flowing from one landscape type into another and the water ways look exceptional. Yet, even here there are problems. Though the flora is wonderfully done, the fauna is lacking. There are no civilians in this Africa. Almost everyone is either an enemy you are shooting at or an enemy you are not shooting at (yet). The only exceptions are mission givers in interior spaces or a "buddy" who is either rescuing you or being rescued by you. As far as I can tell, the only animals living in Africa are gazelles, wildabeasts, chickens, and a birds. And from the populations I've seen, they must all be endangered.

Given that the only thing you are going to encounter in this Africa are armed opponents, the combat better be good. By and large, that part of the game is a satisfying experience. The open environment does provide a realistic 'fog of war', where you can never be completely sure how combat will play out. There are a variety of weapons, and using different weapons will affect your combat approach. As with Far Cry, a good sniper rifle is always handy, and explosions are also well done, so I recommend lots of grenades; lobbed, launched, or rocked propelled. The fire effects deserve special mention. Even if you inaccurately drop a mortar round around an enemy outpost, you are likely to start a brush fire and either kill or flush out enemies for easy pickins'.

One disappointing element of combat is stealth. In my experience, effective stealth play requires giving the player feedback on their relative "stealthiness" and Far Cry 2 provides no feedback in that regard, so though it's easy to start a mission stealthy, it's nearly impossible to play the entire mission that way. Even a knife attack from behind at night somehow draws all enemies right to you, guns blazing.

Keeping with the theme of repetition, combat has it too. In this open world, there are an apparently endless supply of low level soldiers ready to man road intersections. To get from a mission start point to a goal, you will likely need to encounter 2 to 4 intersection outposts with 2 to 6 soldiers at each, despite the fact you've cleared those outposts out a half-dozen times, the last time 5 minutes ago. Even if you want to fast travel, you will have to fight your way to and from the bus stop. Compared with the original Far Cry, where every encounter was a planning opportunity based on the layout of the enemy base, in Far Cry 2 you end up attacking the same tiny intersections over and over and it gets damn boring. Driving off-road to avoid those is possible, but a hit-and-miss venture. You are very likely to high-end your jeep and have to hoof it back to the road to steal another. Actual mission destinations like fisheries, airports, train stations, etc., provide more opportunity for planning, but again, with no good working stealth mechanism, the most effective plan is to shoot straight and try to keep enemies off your flank.

Pretty much all enemies look alike, fight alike, and die alike. For variety, there is a small chance that a down opponent is not quite dead and will shoot their pistol from an immobilized position, or try to limp away. Those are especially satisfying trigger pulls.

By the way, this game has turned me into a heartless mercenary. Though the missions are straight forward killing people and blowing stuff up, the tack-on back stories are realistic for African warlords. "Kill this guy training our enemy to defuse bombs." "Blow up this machine that makes malaria medicine." Since you don't have obvious ways to advance the story without taking these morally questionable missions, I've resigned myself to the role of a mercenary with no conscience. If there were civilians in this game, I would perforate them for minor offenses like being rendered in my field of vision.

After the time spent with Far Cry 2, I can't help but think that this would have been a better game if they had just put an African locale with the improved story and used the original Far Cry design of sequential wide open levels. Far Cry 2 as a true sandbox has added mostly frustration and repetition to the gameplay, and has added little in the way of imagination, immersion or diversion.

Illustrative of my entire feeling about Far Cry 2, I offer this gameplay example: Whenever your vehicle takes gunfire, you have to get out and press the Y button to "fix" your vehicle, which consists of a single canned animation of you turning a wrench on the radiator. Who thought this would be fun or add realism to the game? The vehicle loses substantial performance once hit, so this isn't even a gameplay choice. You simply have to exit your vehicle and enjoy another instance of watching yourself tighten a nut. Adding up all the time I've spent doing this, I've probably wasted 15 minutes of my life watching myself tighten a radiator nut. I can't get those minutes back and I'd like to make whoever's brilliant idea that was sit and watch it looped for 15 minutes straight and see how much fun they had.


Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 11/21/08

Game Release: Far Cry 2 (US, 10/21/08)


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