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Ubisoft's Heart of Darkness

The open world of Far Cry 2 reveals a bit of itself to us at a pre-E3 Ubisoft event.

Having split ways with the folks at Crytek, Ubisoft is taking the Far Cry series in a slightly different direction with Far Cry 2. The change of scenery from an idyllic tropical island to the varied landscapes of Africa makes this a much different-looking game, but after my hands-on time with the Xbox 360 version at a recent Ubisoft press event, it’s the tighter gameplay and the distinct lack of sci-fi nonsense that have me intrigued.

The original Far Cry–and, frankly, everything else I’ve seen out of developer Crytek so far–always struck me as more of a glorified tech demo than anything else. Sure, the technology behind it was very impressive, but it lacked focus, and all of the Island of Dr. Moreau business only undercut the game’s basic action-movie appeal. Far Cry 2 seems to take a lot of this to heart, stripping the game down to its most basic tenets–large environments, missions that encourage improvisation, and lots of shooting at dudes.

So instead of mad science, you’ll get a story about African warlords and conflict diamonds, with you playing the part of a malaria-stricken mercenary tasked with assassinating a particularly ruthless dude called the Jackal. Though you’ll always play the part of the merc, you’ll get to choose your appearance from one of 12 different characters. Interestingly, you’ll end up interacting with the other 11 characters that you didn’t choose to play as, taking on missions and such. Furthermore, these supporting characters can be killed at virtually any time, though if you befriend them and keep them alive, they can come and save you from the brink of death in the middle of a firefight. Besides having malaria, the game seems to have lots of deliberately gritty touches designed to remind you of what a nasty, messed-up situation you’re in. Some of it’s visceral stuff, like using a rusty pair of pliers to pull bullets out of your arm, which looks appropriately brutal. The issue of weapon reliability, though, can have real consequences, since having a weapon jam during combat is never fun.

As different as the ripped-from-the-headlines premise and the arid African setting are from the original Far Cry, the core action still felt familiar, though noticeably refined. The firefights are chaotic, especially when the physics kick in after you ignite an ammo box or a propane tank. Ubisoft is touting a high-pressure AI system that, in concert with the destructible environments, will encourage players to keep moving. You can expect some vehicular action with cars and boats and such, and like the weapons, vehicles can break down. At one point I had to pop the hood on the Jeep-branded Jeep that I was driving to perform some mid-chase fixes, which I can assure you is not the ideal venue for automotive maintenance. Fire will also play an interesting role in the action, as you’ll be able to use molotov cocktails and flame throwers to start brush fires, with the direction of the wind dictating where the fire will travel. Aside from looking pretty awesome, you’ll be able to use this to incinerate, trap, or distract enemies.

While it’s maybe not looking as immediately stunning as its predecessor, Far Cry 2 still has some strong technological chops. For starters, the world is large–the game is split into two maps, which represent a total of roughly 50 square kilometers of real estate. Far Cry 2 creative director Clint Hocking said that a part of the development team went on a 10-day safari in Kenya for research purposes, the result of which is a fairly naturalistic aesthetic, as well as some good environmental variety.

Between the game’s dusty look, the dynamic firefights, and the distinct lack of mutated monkeys, I rather enjoyed what I played of Far Cry 2 on the Xbox 360, and the PC version is looking even sharper. Expect to see it on those platforms, as well as the PlayStation 3, later this year.
Jeff Gerstmann on Google+