They had me cornered. There I was, with a cliff behind me and a dozen angry mercenaries in front of me. My gun jammed, and my buddy was nowhere to be found. I scrambled for cover, not ready to give in even though I was out of first aid supplies; digging the bullet out of my hand would be the only option. That’s when the malaria hit, causing me to lose balance. I stumbled off the cliff and fell several storeys into the river below. I couldn’t believe my luck when I dragged myself out of the river, somehow living to fight another day.
The best games surprise and delight us. Far Cry 2 has its moments, and my plunge off a cliff in Bowa-Seko remains one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had in a video game. With Far Cry 5’s release, it's a great time to revisit one of the most interesting games Ubisoft has ever made.
A Game That Actively Antagonizes You
The first Far Cry game is an exceptionally weird game. Published by Ubisoft but developed by Crytek, Far Cry told the story of a generic first-person-shooter protagonist who was trying to go on vacation but ended up getting shot at by pirates. Most of the script is written with lines like “I’ll paint his little red wagon!” and bullet spongey monsters show up halfway through the game.
What made Far Cry stand out was its impressive level design. Back in 2004, most shooters were designed around linear corridor combat. Games like Call of Duty, Doom 3, and Half-Life 2 were built around tight, linear corridors with scripted sequences and obvious enemy spawn closets. Far Cry was different: its maps were huge, with paths through and around island jungles that let you observe and plan each encounter before engaging with the enemy. It created a distinct rhythm that made combat encounters exciting in a way that linear shooters just couldn’t match.
Far Cry 2’s announcement disappointed me. In Far Cry, you swam through shark-infested waters, crept through lush jungles, and fought weird mutants all while wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Playing as a mercenary hunting an arms dealer in Africa sounded a lot less exciting. Still, when it released a year later in 2008, I decided to give it a shot.
It’s a strange game, beginning with a lengthy ride through an unnamed African country. Your taxi driver tells you how everyone’s leaving the country, offers to bring guards beer in exchange for letting him pass, and tells you to get out of his taxi when you suffer your first malaria attack, which leaves you unconscious. You wake up, meet the Big Bad named the Jackal, pass out again, wake up again, run through some gunfire, pass out again, wake up again, and work your way through the game’s tutorial. Eventually, you are let out into the open world, where you play through the game’s missions before eventually meeting the Jackal and fighting your way to the end of the game.
The reviews for Far Cry 2 weren’t bad, but they weren’t great either. Reviewers complained about the way each character delivered their lines—it was too fast, like the cast was too nervous to do anything but read their lines quickly. Players routinely complained about the military checkpoints where even after clearing one out, the enemies would respawn within minutes, making road travel tedious. The story was neither interesting nor compelling, a dull rehash of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Far Cry 2 was brown and grey at a time when shooters were at their brownest and greyest.
Two of the most common complaints were about the game’s intentionally antagonistic mechanics. If you pick up a weapon that hasn’t been cared for, it will eventually jam or even break. Players didn’t like that very much. In fact, they’re still complaining about a similar mechanic in the otherwise beloved Breath of the Wild. The other mechanic, the one that sent me stumbling off a cliff, was malaria.
Gamers don’t like to lose control unless they remain safe in the process. In a game like Uncharted 2, the game frequently disrespects its players by stealing away camera control and forcing players to look at some “cool” scripted sequence. I can’t stand it, but Uncharted 2 is widely considered one of the best video games of the last generation. Malaria takes control away from Far Cry 2’s players, but it happens at random and it can get you killed. Losing control doesn’t work when there’s no control over it, so complaints about malaria quickly became one of the biggest complaints about the game.
To the mainstream crowd, Far Cry 2 seemed like a forgettable shooter. For years, it seemed as though Ubisoft had forgotten the series as well, until the release of Far Cry 3 in 2012. But Far Cry 2 became a cult hit, and over the years, its fans have worked tirelessly to rehabilitate the game’s image. To its fans, Far Cry 2 was a groundbreaking game, a masterpiece that gave players a powerful sense of “being there.”
A Diegetic Experience
In storytelling, there’s an idea called “diegesis,” which can be thought of as “the way the story is told.” Something that is “diegetic” exists within the story, and something that is “non-diegetic” exists outside of the story. For example, if music starts playing on a radio in a scene and the characters can hear it, that’s diegetic sound. If the music is just part of the soundtrack and only the audience can hear it, that’s non-diegetic sound.
Recently I played Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands, a semi-newer Ubisoft game. As much as I enjoy it, so much of the experience is non-diegetic, from the constant pop-ups telling me that I should join a public session (no thank you!) to the orange markers floating above the enemies’ heads and the minimap on screen. It’s par for the course for modern Ubisoft games, and one of the worst things about the publisher’s games.
Far Cry 2 did the opposite. Most of the time, there’s no interface visible at all. If you can interact with something, you’ll see a simple “interact” icon if you’re within range. If your health is low, you’ll see the health bar in the lower left of your screen. Beyond that, everything is diegetic.
Want to look at the map? Press a button to pull it out and look at it. Want to target something? Pull out your monocular and tag the object to add it to your map. Unlike Far Cry 3, you can’t tag people because people move, so it makes sense that they couldn’t be added to the map, which is a stationary thing. In most games, when you pick where to go, a holographic line or set of arrows will appear to tell you where to drive; in Far Cry 2, you have to rely on the GPS machine located in your car. When someone calls you on the phone, you physically pull out your phone to answer it.
Ubisoft Montreal worked hard to make as much of Far Cry 2 as diegetic as possible. In other games, to heal you select a healing item from your inventory, press a button, and watch your health bar fill up. In Far Cry 2, to heal you need to jam yourself with a healing syrette. If you don’t have a healing syrette, you’ll have to perform a more gruesome kind of first aid, like digging a bullet out of your hand with a pair of pliers.
To further enhance the sense of being there, Far Cry 2 introduced one of the world’s first fire propagation systems. In most games, when you shoot a red oil barrel, it explodes. In Far Cry 2, when it explodes, anything around it that can catch fire will catch fire, and that fire will spread until it burns out. An ill-timed molotov might kill you and your buddy, if you’re not careful.
Speaking of buddies, Far Cry 2 also introduced the buddy system. Buddies are characters you can recruit in the game world. If you’re hurt and a buddy is available, that buddy can swoop in, revive you, and fight alongside you to help you out. But buddies can only save you one time, and if you want them to save you again, you have to recuperate at a safe house first.
All of these systems work together in a way that makes Far Cry 2 feel more intimate and believable than many other first-person-shooters. It’s not hard to see why someone might fall in love with the game’s strict approach to diegetic detail, but that doesn’t somehow absolve the game of its shortcomings. The story is still bland, the characters still read lines poorly, and checkpoints still respawn too quickly. Some of the complaints about Far Cry 2 can be mitigated just by playing the game itself; I avoided the fast-respawning checkpoints by using boats and hang gliders as often as I used cars. The opinions of Far Cry 2’s fans aren’t any more valid than those of its detractors, but I can’t help but feel that something’s missing from the discussion.
It's All in the Presentation
Far Cry 2 is all presentation with very little mechanical substance. I think it’s the friction between the game’s emphasis on diegetic presentation and the lack of depth in its mechanics that leads to the extreme love-it-or-hate-it response that the game gets.
Far Cry 2 gives off a sense of realism through its diegetic presentation, but consider the buddy system: you have one buddy “charge,” and if the buddy dies, you get a new buddy. If you don’t “recharge” your buddy at the safe house, then your buddy won’t save you again. Each safe house is identical, save for a unique weapon that players can find nearby. It screams “I’m a video game system!” at the player.
I think it’s why people were so upset about the quickly-respawning checkpoints: the game gives off these realistic vibes, but the rapidly respawning checkpoints make it feel unrealistic. One of the more common complaints about Far Cry 2 was that everyone in the playable space was an enemy, even when you were on their side. The game tried to handwave this with a flimsy excuse that most people didn’t know you were on their side, but players understandably complained. When a game presents itself as realistic, the unrealistic aspects stand out so much more. It doesn’t feel right to explore a world where everyone is hostile, especially when the game shows you plenty of non-hostile characters.
Far Cry 2 tries to make a point that people who enjoy the kind of violence it provides are bad people; it’s supposed to be a game about a terrible person doing terrible things, but it falls apart when there are no neutral or friendly characters to engage with during gameplay. If everyone in the world attacks you on sight, then every action you take is one of self defense. Even The Jackal’s introduction absolves you of wrongdoing, with the villain more or less saying “hey, you’ll be killed if you don’t kill me, but nobody can kill me.”
The story says you’re a terrible person, and many of the missions have you doing things that result in awful outcomes, like perpetuating the war, but none of this is reflected within the game world itself. If the game wants to prove that you’re playing as a terrible person, it needs to give you opportunities to be one in the gameplay.
Far Cry 2 has cool mechanical ideas, like wounding someone with a sniper rifle to bait his friends, or watching fires spread in unpredictable ways, but they often feel like the simplest possible versions of an idea. Its antagonistic mechanics are interesting but they're still shallow. Malaria is completely random, and it’s not like you can perform work to stockpile pills to manage the symptoms. The weapon decay system is easy to understand but there isn’t much to it: a rusty gun will break, a clean gun will not.
As an open world shooter with a number of ways to tackle objectives, Far Cry 2 was nothing special. Stalker: Clear Sky, a game that released a month prior, features far more complex AI, with friendly, neutral, and enemy characters. Monsters will hunt each other. It’s possible to wander through its setting, The Zone, hear a gunfight, and arrive at the scene too late, only to find a field of corpses.
The Stalker games have a less diegetic approach, with a full HUD available at any time, healing mechanics that never require you cauterize a wound, and a PDA screen that appears at the press of a button—unlike Far Cry 2’s diegetic map, but the systems in Clear Sky are so much more interesting because characters live independently of you. Clear Sky simulates what Far Cry 2 treats as abstract; the former presents a living, breathing world. The latter is a classic video game that presents itself as something more complex.
Far Cry 3, which came four years later, addressed many of the complaints about the game. No more malaria. No more gun breakage. Predators hunt prey, and neutral and friendly characters join the fray. The story and characters were better presented and more interesting. Far Cry 3 presents a world that behaves more realistically than anything Far Cry 2 ever attempted, but it does so with a much more gamified interface and progression system.
When you look at enemies in Far Cry 3, you mark them with a floating holographic symbol above their head. The game never explains why its character can see these things; it’s a game mechanic for game mechanic’s sake. Both Clear Sky and Far Cry 3 feel more like video games than Far Cry 2, even though both games are deeper, more flexible, and more interesting than Far Cry 2 on a mechanical level. Other contemporaries like Crysis Warhead and Fallout 3 offered players far more systems and tools to engage with than Far Cry 2 ever did.
Far Cry 2 might not be able to keep up with the competition when it comes to gameplay depth, but its slavish devotion to its diegetic interface makes it an interesting game that’s still worth exploring. It might be tempting to accuse the game of being all style, no substance, but that’s not really true; systems-driven shooters still have a way of delivering exciting moments, like that time I went careening off a waterfall. I don’t hate it like its detractors, and I think its fans give it too much credit. But there’s nothing else like it out there, and sometimes, that’s all that matters.
Far Cry 5 is now available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Check out our guides to which Guns for Hire are best in Far Cry 5 as well as how to unlock Far Cary 5's real star: Boomer. Our full Far Cry 5 review is here.