I never really could get my head around sandbox games - that is open-world, non-linear, free-roaming affairs. I enjoyed the odd Grand Theft Auto game here and there but never managed to see one through to the end. It usually trailed off once I'd explored all the new environments. When I played Far Cry 2 I wasn't expecting something along these lines. The first game in the series featured wide, expansive environments but it was essentially linear. You had to progress from point A to point B and so on, but how you got there was largely up to you. This time around you are dropped into the heart of an unnamed African country and are pretty much left to your own devices, being able to explore in all four directions of the compass.
The problem, for me, lies therein. What am I doing? Where do I begin? According to the text displayed at the bottom of the loading screen I'm here to kill an elusive arms dealer known as 'The Jackal', who also happened to pay me a threatening visit whilst I was bedridden with malaria. I am released into the jungle in search of medicine to calm my intense migraines, but apart from these two loose goals I have no clear objectives. How do you track down a man and a pill in Africa? Where do I begin? Far Cry 2 points you in the right direction to an extent but I often found that I was wandering aimlessly until I uncovered a new side mission in which I had to assassinate an unknown figure for an unknown employer.
A vital ingredient for a great game is purpose. In other words, having objectives and feeling the sense that you are working towards reaching them. I do not particularly get that feeling in Far Cry 2, instead I feel that I am like some sort of nomad who knows nothing but violence and survival.
Ubisoft had a great opportunity to portray some fascinating characters: refugees made homeless by the conflict, thieves forced into crime to survive, etc. But instead the downtrodden natives are shown to be leaving the country in the introductory car ride and the only people you meet are warlords, henchmen and people trying to make profit from the situation. Character interaction is wooden and uninspiring, with NPCs doing little more than standing and staring at you while they quickly recite their lines. There is very little hint of emotion. Perhaps I've just been spoiled by playing too much Half-Life 2...
On the plus side, it's not all bad. The scenery is breathtaking, the AI is pretty impressive, the shoot-outs are challenging and intense, the music fits perfectly and the weapons are satisfying to use. But these are all things we have come to expect. After all, we've been honing those skills for years. Why can't we get the other things right?
Finally, I feel I should comment on the level editor that comes bundled with Far Cry 2 on all versions (PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360). The very fact that this software is available on the console versions probably tells you a lot about it; it's a stripped-down piece of software which makes large-scale terrain morphing to be performing quickly and very easily. Constructing buildings is as simple as selecting one from a list and clicking where you want it (also allowing you to manipulate its orientation at any point). The image above is a map I whipped up in less than an hour. This kind of ease does, of course, come at the cost of freedom. You are unable to create your own buildings or walls as you are completely restricted to Ubisoft's premade assets and currently you can only create multiplayer maps (no AI NPC options available, although enough pestering on Ubisoft's forums might hopefully change that). The editor is certainly a good starting point for anyone interested in level design, or even anyone who just wants to mess around and create some great-looking maps with ease, but don't expect it to teach you all the skills you need to move on to more complex editors like Hammer and UnrealEd.