Far Cry 2 is a very serious video game, maybe the most serious video game ever created. Its unflinching earnestness makes it, in my opinion, one of the most important games of recent years, if not all time. Far Cry 2 is everything big-ticket games are almost always too scared to be: it is hard, it is strict, it is a pain to actually play, it is uniformly bland in its approach to conflict and interpersonal relationships, it is - well, genuinely amazing.
Details Are Everything
The power of the game lies in it prioritising itself and its message over the player at every turn. While it is still at the end of the day a shooter - and so ostensibly about interactive death-dealing - this isn’t readily apparent because the tools it gives one to do so are incredibly fickle. Guns degrade with every shot, making them increasingly ineffective with sustained use. Ammunition is precariously scarce out in the field, a problem which is further exacerbated by any remaining bullets in a magazine being lost if you reload before exhausting a clip, both of which - understandably - make any and all combat encounters extremely tense. Most divisively, weapons jam regularly, resulting in a precious second where you can't actually shoot things at all, even if you've successfully navigated all the other hazards to get to that point.
The rest of Far Cry 2 ardently follows this line of thinking. I wouldn't call it aspiring to be realistic, more a willingness to complicate readily understood genre norms to make the player feel uncomfortable.
The game is set, for example, in a civil war-torn African country after governmental collapse. Opposition politicians and the military have drawn their respective lines in the sand and the nation has been split in two, with the nonpartisan civilian population caught in the middle. The player assumes the role of a mercenary who arrives in the country to assassinate The Jackal, the arms dealer supplying below market price guns to both sides and so ensuring the perpetuation of the conflict. To accomplish this task you’re forced to work with and against both sides as a “deniable agent”, essentially meaning every man with a gun, regardless of faction association, sees you as his enemy. It’s a murkier setup than most shooters, actively seeding moral quandaries from the off and removing any real assurances the player would normally receive telling them that they are, without a doubt, the good guy.
This fractious and ambiguous political landscape has a physical manifestation, as the countryside is dotted with hostile checkpoints that dispatch enemies if the player strays too close to them, something which is largely unavoidable owing to their vast number. Driving or running full pelt through one is never really an option, as foes will pursue you doggedly on foot and from armed vehicles. The only real strategy is to tackle each checkpoint systematically, ideally beginning with an opening barrage from a truck-mounted cannon, and then a more traditional run and gun to mop up any stragglers. It's a winning approach to be sure, with a big pile of bodies accumulating in a respectably efficient time. There's no ceremony or even enjoyment to be had with these skirmishes because the camps quickly refill with new personnel once the current ones are removed and the player moves on. It’s really just an unavoidable facet of the conflict, hence the need for an unflinchingly swift and emotionally removed method of (re)depopulation. The abundance of these camps means that the player is more than likely going to come into contact with them whether they choose to or not; indeed, a journey of any real length across the map will almost certainly result in at least one unwanted encounter.
The aforementioned weapon unreliability and the constant shadow of combat, combined with the player character being quite fragile indeed - only a couple of bullets are required to down you - all ensure one is wary and on the back foot at all times. This makes Far Cry 2 something most shooters are not: an experience defined by defence rather than offence. Your foes here are a constant within a genre all about flux: they don't simply represent an off-balance equation the player can easily redress through evening the odds with firepower. In Far Cry 2 your enemies are the innumerable arms of the two almost-incumbent powers, while you are the outsider for once, presenting little more than a minor distraction to these incalculably larger forces. They aren't, as is so often the case, a small group of radical insurgents or terrorists or Commies, waiting about for the player - “the super West” - to turn up, right their wrongs and then go home for a barbecue. They are the divided peoples of a warring nation, the two sides of a conflict which encompasses its entire population. You can’t win, there is no end, and there certainly won’t be a time when you’ll roll through the countryside as part of an impregnable fleet of trucks blaring out rousing tunes. You will simply just remain; a gun for hire, swallowed by a situation much larger and fiercer than yourself.
Alone in a Crowd
In most shooters the combat itself is the point of everything, here, it is a means to an end, a way of stemming the flow of an endless conflict, even if only for a moment. You blank out the faces, the faction and the politics behind the guns because there’s no other option: the battle will not end conveniently once you reach the top of that hill or cross that bridge. Reinforcements won’t come and finish the job so you can be whisked off to fight in the snow or the jungle or downtown Manhattan. Everything will just keep on going, because no conflict truly ends when the battle is won. You, quite strikingly, begin to embody your character completely and become a mercenary; the person who, yes, might do this because part of them enjoys it, but also the person who unequivocally does this for the money and not allegiance or duty. This is a job, first and foremost. In this way, no pleasure can be gleaned from most of the combat because the player isn’t actively choosing to participate, they are merely a bit-part being sucked into it, generally speaking, against their will. If anything, all the shooting just becomes a chore as you get waylaid and sidetracked at every turn, forced to fight large groups of men en route to the large groups of men you actually needed to fight. When you eventually do arrive at your destination you’ll likely be limping, low on ammunition and sorely lacking in medkits; the game wants you to know that things aren’t always as easy as we’d like them to be, that maybe, just maybe, we’ve all become a bit too accustomed to cheap, easy death. Far Cry 2 wants you to feel helpless, it wants you to appreciate the great weight of your actions, that dealing in violence isn’t quite as carefree a vocation as many other cultural products would have us believe. It, above all else, wants us to feel isolated and alone.
Well, not quite alone.
Early on in your embroilment within the civil war you’re directed to a place called Mike’s Bar. It’s a small watering hole where other mercenaries gather when they’re not plying their trade. Through a bit of friendly repartee you can become acquainted with these contemporaries, who will in turn offer you little jobs to handle for them - sometimes, I’d assume, a cold beer is the more favourable option in a warzone. Upon completing the first of these tasks you’ll engender yourself to their giver, who will be so impressed with your zeal they’ll offer to help you out should you need it. Which you undoubtedly will.
The usefulness of your buddies is twofold. Firstly, they’ll give you their own take on campaign missions, often radioing you while you’re driving to the appointed location and telling you how they’d go about it. These suggestions are always a bit more involved - acquire documents, for example, to publicly shame a target and drive him into hiding, rather than attack him in the open when he’s surrounded by guards - but the results will make the ultimate objective easier. Secondly, they’ll come and scoop you up if you fall in battle, which, as I’ve already discussed, is a certainty. Once your health is entirely depleted you’ll keel over and your vision will go blurry and a bit desaturated. However, instead of being greeted by a rousing quote or simple loading screen, you’ll see the determined visage of friendship, as your buddy slaps you awake and then drags you - in a very stylised, jump cutting fashion - out of harm’s way. They’ll then pump you full of adrenaline and throw you a handgun, fully expecting you’ll get right back to it and partake in a thrilling - it always is, however many times it happens - last stand.
Over time you will undoubtedly develop a strong affinity towards the person who repeatedly saves your life, happily returning the favour - and thus flipping the dynamic of the relationship on its head - when needed. If buddies go down in a firefight you only have a short time to stop them bleeding out all over the savannah, so you’ll be forced - and compelled - to quickly make your way to their side and assist, bullets and explosions be damned. If they’ve sustained minor injuries - a broken bone, first or second-degree burns etc. (this still being a video game) - they’ll be okay with the sort of shot in the arm you receive, anything more serious and you’ll actually be called upon to euthanise them, overdose or headshot being your options. A buddy can only recover from injury a few times, after which they straight-up just die the next time they catch a bullet.
It is, then, in your best interest to keep these people alive. Beyond their inherent usefulness, however, and despite their relatively superficial nature, these relationships do become meaningful in their own right, primarily as a by-product of the game’s need to be - just like its clearly-held opinion of warfare itself - exhausting and painful. In the harsh environments of Far Cry 2 your buddies act as both a means of novelly dealing with death-avoidance in a mechanical sense, but also in simply giving the player a friendly face amid all the ones you’ve forcibly blurred out. As I’ve said, almost everyone in the game greets you with lethal violence, which is why the couple of minutes you spend with your buddies - people who are genuinely benign - feel so cathartic, even if you are frantically keeping the wolves from your shared door at the same time. It’s truly thrilling when they turn up to help you out of a sticky situation and you battle side by side for a time, primarily because it just breaks up the aggressive sense of loneliness that permeates every minute of the game.
Bloodying the Water
About halfway through your hunt for The Jackal, Mike's Bar comes under attack. At the same time so too does a church full of civilians, which really does beg the question: who do you try and help? The typical video game response - you playing the supposed good guy and all - should be to head to the church and defend those who can't do so themselves. That's the logical answer for a genre at the heart of a medium that thrives on letting its audience play the unstoppable hero. But in Far Cry 2's waren-like mess of right and wrong, where I'd been barely scraping through with the assistance of my foolhardy buddies, well, my choice was made the second the question was asked.
Upon approaching the bar I was ushered inside, where all my buddies were busily gathering together ammunition, blocking doors with fridges and doing that thing where you look into the barrel of your gun through the casing ejector to make sure it isn’t jammed - wise moves all round, everything being considered. Then the assault began. Men poured from the surrounding jungle belching bullets and fire, keeping our little ragtag family cloistered beneath window frames and kitchen appliances for protection. The whole situation was very reminiscent of a lot of the shootouts in Bonnie and Clyde, both practically and thematically. Here we were, the roguish bunch of outlaws, hunted down by vastly superior forces, cornered and on the receiving end of overkill-levels of violent retribution. We held out valiantly, popping up from cover for snatched moments of retaliation, but in the end we were overwhelmed. I fell in battle and failed my friends.
I awoke, miraculously, on a truck full of bodies, though I was just about still alive. I was informed that the battle at the bar had been a watershed moment of sorts, and that all of my friends were dead or missing. The guilt I felt was crushing: these people had helped me and saved my life countless times before, indeed, I’d done the same for them, so why hadn’t I been able to help them when it really mattered? I kind of lost my mind a little at this point and became obsessed with the conflict at Mike’s, reloading and reloading my save to try and do it better (or something), convinced of the idea that if I could hold out against the waves and waves of aggressors they’d eventually stop coming.
They - and it’s clear as day to me now, far removed from the skirmish - simply never do. You fight and fight and fight and eventually succumb: you simply can’t win. There it is again: Far Cry 2’s mantra, constantly whispered into your ear: “you can’t win”, “you can’t win”, “why do you keep trying?”. At this point the journey is far from over, and you do eventually make a new bunch of mercenary friends willing to lay down their lives to keep you on your path to The Jackal, but after The Battle of Mike’s Bar it’s just not really the same. Before it everything was hard, sure, but you at least had some control over just how miserable and alone you were. You at least had a chance of saving your buddies and maybe fighting to see another day. After it, though, the cruelty of the game’s intent is laid bare and you begin to fully appreciate what it is trying to teach you.
In a late-game swerve, we discover that The Jackal wanted the war to escalate not for profit, but so the two sides could wipe one another out to such an extent as to create an opening for the mass exodus of trapped civilians. Later still, as you’re on your way to bribe the border guards with diamonds, you’re ambushed by your remaining friends; men and women who, in case you’d forgotten amid all the near-death bonding sessions, kill people for money. The encounter is brutal in so many ways.
And that, really, sums up Far Cry 2. It’s a game in which your main objective is to shoot things, but also a game which wants you to question the validity of its own existence and those of its contemporaries. It makes you feel insignificant and weak in a genre built upon power, forcing you into the arms of dangerous strangers to make up some of the deficit. With them, you’ll forge your way across a nation, fumbling with right and wrong as you tirelessly pursue an objective you don’t even fully understand. Yes, you are, I suppose, the good guy on a humanitarian mission, but in the process you actively get involved in a lot of questionable situations, effectively using the very war you are attempting to end as a means of furthering your quest to actually end it. You’re forced to flit between employers, friends and allegiances in pursuit of your target, pragmatically weaving your way through a morally ambiguous warzone, murdering for scraps of information and supplies, never quite sure if you’re doing the right thing. It’s hard to figure that out at the best of times, but especially here, where everyone is driven by necessity rather than choice. Your final betrayal is the game’s way of making sure you’re listening when it tells you for the last time that war is horrible, that it corrupts and eventually makes liars and thieves - or corpses - of us all. In the end, the only source of true conviction is the game itself. It knows that trivialised violence, trivialised warfare - trivialised misery are everywhere, and it wants you to recognise, through a sheer war of attrition, that these things are anything but trivial.
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