The battered car bounces over the rutted dust road, mercilessly jarring you as you cling on for dear life in the back seat. The driver hasn’t stopped talking since you left the airport - he clearly believes that his country is self-destructing.
Your gaze drifts right and you peer through the filth on the window at the stunning African landscape - neck-high grass gently sways in front of the acacia trees - in the next valley, the desert runs into the distance, barred only by a huge rocky escarpment.
Welcome to Far Cry 2. Welcome to Africa.
This astonishing drive through the game world (similar to that through the war-torn Middle Eastern streets in Call of Duty 4) elegantly introduces every element of the game – from bush fires to weapons convoys to guard posts to the malaria coursing through your body. Indeed, as you arrive at your hotel, you start shaking, your vision becomes blurred and you slump forward into an ominous white light as your malaria takes hold. You will spend much of the game hunting for scarce medical supplies to keep the disease at bay.
The Africa of Far Cry 2 is a dangerous, unpredictable place saturated with heavily-armed militia and a few desperate humanitarians. At the centre of the conflict is The Jackal, an arms dealer who has been providing weapons to all the factions. And at the periphery brutal, greedy mercenaries rake in as many of the spoils of war as possible. You play one of these mercenaries, and it is amidst the casual violence and tentative alliances that you make your living, as well as carry out your most important mission, and the reason you have been sent to this hell-hole in the first place – assassinate the Jackal.
The Jackal turns out to be a slippery customer, and in order to find him, you’ll have to start doing jobs for one of the local militia. However, after gaining their trust with a couple of jobs well done, you’re quite within your rights (as a moral vacuum) to suddenly switch allegiances and work for the other side. Or perhaps you’d prefer to shatter the shaky ceasefire and start an all-out war in the main town centre.
The wonder of the game is that it allows you to approach each mission in any way you like. For example, in an early mission to collect documents from a train yard, some may favour the full-out frontal assault; driving in to the middle of the heavily armed gang enclave with all guns blazing. Those of the sneakier persuasion might prefer to hide out on a nearby hill and pull out the sniper’s rifle, or even wait until dark and creep in past the guards to the objective. Pyromaniacs have all manner of options open to them, from aiming at explosive fuel depots next to ammunition dumps, to starting a fire near to the camp and letting the wind carry the flames across the bone-dry grass.
And this is where Far Cry 2 really stands out from the crowd - the immersive, dense and varied landscape, all 50 virtual square kilometers of it, becomes as much a weapon in your arsenal as your machine guns, pistols, rocket launchers, mortars and flamethrowers. You can always utilize it to your best advantage, whether sniping from a rocky outcrop, or anonymously bombarding a convoy from the relative safety of a grove of trees.
The graphics are stunning, with rich textures on the corrugated iron shacks and jungle foliage. The frame rate never slows down and the lighting effects portray the 24-hour day-night cycle elegantly. Standing on a clifftop as the last of the sun’s rays filter over the desert is a wonderful moment. Slightly disappointingly there is the odd bit of pop-up, but never enough to detract from the immersive experience.
And the game is spectacularly immersive. Every action from opening a door to moving seats in a vehicle is animated so you never leave the first person view, even when you’re digging a bullet out of your thigh in the middle of a ferocious firefight or taking your life-saving malaria medicine. As a result, there is no release from the tension - you are always in the midst of the action, from blazing firefights to buying upgrades for weapons on a computer.
There are certainly flaws. For example, the stealthy elements are poorly defined in that you can sometimes be standing almost next to someone and you won’t be seen, and in other cases they will spot you creeping through the grass almost half a mile away. However, these become nothing more than minor niggles in the face of the terrifying AI. Enemies will flank you, provide cover fire for each other, hunt in groups, and even drop back and bombard you with grenades or mortars from a safe distance. Each battle is unique and can change in a single moment. Planning an assault and then successfully carrying it out is enormously satisfying.
Some of the missions lead to you other mercenaries in the area who have fallen into a spot of bother. Rescue them and they become your “buddies”, dispensing advice and additional targets during missions, or rescuing you if you have fallen in battle. Completing these side missions helps you gain reputation points and additional perks at your many safe-houses, such as ammunition and health packs.
However, as it seems to be with the whole game, there is a certain lack of depth to the characters’ back stories or motivations, aside from the desire for power or money.
Indeed, one doesn’t feel particularly connected to any of the people and their struggle - you don’t have oppressed farmers working the fields, or terrified locals wandering through the towns. Instead, almost everyone you meet has a gun, is selling guns or is on the lookout of guns. Although one might argue that this is in keeping with the main story arc of arms dealing, it loses a lot of its potential humanity, as well as squandering the possibilities of its intensely political setting in the process. In the end, the main story adds up to little more than a group of people ordering you to kill another group of people.
That said, it is a small quibble in what is really an astonishing achievement. Far Cry 2 had a lot to live up to, both as a sequel and as a sandbox game competing with the likes of GTAIV, Mercenaries 2 and Fallout 3. It surpasses all of those expectations. Every journey to and from a mission or safehouse is an adventure - running into an armoured jeep or a guard post, or hunting for another of the diamond briefcases scattered around the landscape – and as such is never tiresome.
In removing the ridiculous mutant creatures and the linearity from the first game, while keeping the impressive combat and ferocious AI, Ubisoft have made one of the finest FPS to date. Any flaws with the main story are totally overshadowed by the variety of secondary missions, the exhilarating, immersive gameplay and the rich, dense African landscape, and as such, make this an essential purchase.