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Why Did I Vacation in Leboa-Sako?

Posted by Nick Dinicola on January 9, 2009

After playing more of Far Cry 2, I feel confident saying that it’s one of the most immersive games I’ve ever played. The fictional Africa feels like a living world, and when I start the game and step into the shoes of Hakim (my character) I feel like I’m a real part of that fictional world. I been wondering though, why has it drawn me in as deeply as it has? There’s a strong sense of physicality with the healing animations, but if that’s all there is too it why wasn’t I as absorbed in Mirror’s Edge? The world feels alive regardless of my presence, but if that’s all that’s required why am I not pining to return to Liberty City? So I started making a list of all the things in the game that I feel add to the immersion. As my list grew, I realized that Far Cry 2 actually succeeds in spite of itself (at least for me, many of the flaws or omissions that I seem to be able to forgive break the experience for others, based on more than a few reviews).

The physicality works because of both the variety and contextual nature of the animations. I’m not taking the same bullet out from the same leg over and over again, and if I jump off a cliff, I’m not going to be pulling a bullet from my arm afterward. This helps keep me “in the moment” of the game, and feels like a genuine reaction to my environment, instead of a canned animation. And yet, if I look down when not in a fight, it’s obvious that I don’t have any legs. I never even noticed this until someone else mentioned it in a blog or podcast, and I wondered why. I think there are a few reasons: Because for most people it’s easier to notice when something is “there” as opposed to when something is missing; the “floating” character has become such a staple of the FPS genre that I just don’t notice it anymore; the game never draws attention to my lower half unless I’m healing it. By that last point I mean that there aren’t many moments in the game where I have to look down for any reason, and when I do it’s usually to pick something up, at which point my hand reaches out and grabs the object. So even though I don’t see my legs, I get a sense of physical self thanks to my hand and arm.

Far Cry 2 is far from realistic, but all of its “gamey” elements help streamline the experience so I don’t have to worry about the little, inconsequential things. Flashing weapons and items make it easy for me to find more ammo and health, and ensure that I don’t have to search every corner of every hut for that important briefcase some guy wanted me to fetch. Signposts that turn bright red or blue when pointing to an objecting allow me to focus on driving and not directions; when I get to any intersection, a quick glance at a signpost is enough to point me in the right direction. Without this feature I’d have to either have my map out constantly, or stop at every intersection to read the sings, which would get very repetitive very fast and make travel times even longer.  Speaking of the map, even though it’s a paper map I hold in my hands, it has a bright green moving triangle on it representing my position. But without this feature, simply planning a route would become a task unto itself, and any players not adapt at reading maps would have great difficulty just figuring out where there are. It’s also odd that every vehicle in this supposedly poor Africa has a GPS in it,but this is necessary for the same reasons the green triangle is necessary: To make travel easier, and when you have a world as big as Leboa-Sako/Bowa-Seko you want travel to be easy. Which brings me to my next point.

The respawning guard posts can be a major pain, but I (possibly through sheer dumb luck) never had any major problems with it, and actually liked it. As soon as I appear in that taxi at the beginning of the game, Far Cry 2 starts telling me how brutal this land is. When the taxi gets to a guard post the music becomes ominous, and the driver’s bribe to get through sounds more like begging. The missions from faction leaders range from killing the police chief to destroying medical supplies. This is a violent place where people struggle to survive on a daily basis, so why shouldn’t I struggle as well? I do struggle; every encounter, whether I be attacking a fort, a town, a guard post, or just running into another jeep on the road, carries with it the threat of death. Yes, this makes the game harder than it would normally be, and it can get frustrating when I have to fight my way to an objective, only to reach it with half the health and ammo I started with–but that’s the point. This place is brutal. I actually think being able to quicksave in the PC version (I played on the 360) detracts from this genuine struggle to survive, and undermines the important themes of violence and its consequences. I think its unforgiving difficulty is appropriate. (But I admit that it is odd how every guard recognizes and hates me immediately. I think it would have been far more compelling if some posts were controlled by the APR and others by the UFLL, so if one group chased me and ran into the other it would set off a three-way battle.)

Perhaps the biggest reason I feel like a real character in this world is because I can clearly see how my actions affect the environment and people around me. But most importantly, within that category, is the fact that my actions can have unintended consequences. These are the truest sign of a living world. Unfortunately, these unintended consequences (and all consequences really) happen on a very small level; I can’t actually affect the world. Doing missions for one faction doesn’t affect my standing with the other, and if I shoot in a cease-fire zone I won’t be recognized or watched carefully when I return. This interaction with the environment happens during firefights only. For example: I once  started a fire and ran into the camp to kill the distracted guards, but my initial fire set off a chain reaction of explosions, setting half the camp ablaze behind me, cutting off my escape, boxing me in. A buddy went down during a fight and asked me for help, but I was surrounded, so in desperation I chucked a Molotov Cocktail; I later found my buddy dead because he was lying in tall grass and my Cocktail started a fire that swept over him. It’s important that both of these examples take place during a single fight. Because I get an immediate sense of cause and effect during each small fight, I don’t really notice that my actions have no effect on the larger world. Those large-scale consequences take time to build up to, but I’m bombarded with so many of the small-scale consequences that they become my focus, they are what I remember. Of course, the realistic fire is the star here. It’s the one thing I can start but can’t control, so it’s the one thing that can come back to haunt me. It’s just a single mechanic in this huge game, but it’s one used over and over again in every fight, so this single mechanic becomes a major part of the game. (I do think it would have been great, if I broke the cease-fire too many times, to have my guns taken away from me before I enter the city, or have to sneak in and risk a firefight, maybe sneak into the faction headquarters through a back entrance.)

I’ve yet to beat Far Cry 2 (a rather infamous hardware malfunction on my console of choice has forced me to take an extended leave from Africa) but I’m excited to get back into it because I’ve heard mixed feelings about the ending. So far I’ve written only about the design of the game, and nothing about the narrative. That’s written about, in incredible detail I might add, by Tom Armitage at Infovore.org. I admit I haven’t read the whole thing, only to the spoiler warning, and I’m impatiently waiting for my Xbox to come back so I can beat the game and finally read his write-up.

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