Welcome (Back) to the Jungle - The Enduring Appeal of Far Cry 2

  

    
 
I played through Far Cry 2 on the PS3 back in 2009 and consider myself to be a pretty big fan of the game, which means I couldn't resist getting the Ubisoft Weekend Deal on Steam yesterday when I saw that FC2 was included in it. Separately the game is normally priced at around 12,5€ and that's a bit steep for just one game that I've already finished, but the inclusion of Bound in Blood and Vegas 2 - both of which I haven't played - sweetened the deal quite a bit.
 
Much like Mirror's Edge - another one of my absolute favorite games from the past few years - Ubisoft's radical departure from Crytek's original (and largely forgettable) Far Cry is a brave but not always successful attempt at redefining what the first person action genre can and should be all about. The constant guard patrol skirmishes, awkwardly procedural narrative structure and pretentious references to Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness are among the game's most notable flaws, but Far Cry 2 features what's easily one of the few truly memorable and genuinely meaningful open worlds of any video game thus far. On a superficial level, the African settings provide a healthy dose of escapism and showcase an impressively modified CryEngine capable of producing a lot of vegetation, complex fire effects and huge draw distances. Even the stupid diamond scavenging is curiously addictive thanks to the lively, detailed and atmospheric environments in which they are situated. From a mechanical standpoint, most open world games are either dumbed down RPGs or generic action adventures, but Far Cry 2 builds its open-ended exploration on top of solid foundation of robust shooter gameplay which compares favorably to most linear FPSs in terms of basic controls and overall design etc.

More subtly, though, the relentless brutality of a game world in which everyone who lives and breathes pretty much is guaranteed to be hostile combines rather effectively with the sheer gruesome physicality of the action (pulling bullets out of your own legs, succumbing to creepy malaria attacks etc.) to produce a relentlessly grim experience which reinforces the plot's otherwise heavy-handed message about the senselessness of modern combat in the third world. At the end of the day, there's a real sense that the game doesn't merely use an exotic location just because it can; but that the gameplay and settings are instead purposefully integrated to produce a certain effect and atmosphere.
 
It may be difficult to discern at times, but Far Cry 2's enemy AI also has a bit more realism to it than most shooters. It's not necessarily more difficult - although it can be - but the AI has something approaching a normal field of vision, which is definitely a rarity within the genre. In most action games, as soon as the enemy knows someone is shooting at them they are able to magically pinpoint the player's exact location and immediately start their counterattack. In Far Cry 2, a sudden explosion is just that; a clear indication that something bad is happening, but unless it is completely obvious where the attack is coming from the enemies are simply going to be scared and confused (at least for awhile, anyway). And as I understand it, the time of day and plays a huge role in determining both enemy FOV and the different behavorial scripts being applied to any given situation, making Far Cry 2 a game that feel like a dynamic open world in more ways than one...

Also, what's up with that crazy high-tech fire-spewing crossbow thingie? I don't remember it from playing through the PS3 game so I assume it's part of the Fortune Pack DLC (which I don't think I ever got around to buying).  
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The Witcher - Ulterior Motives

Much like civil war or the outbreak of some hideous disease, fornication in The Witcher is a complex phenomena which can happen suddenly and without warning or, alternatively, as the more predictable culmination of a long process of rising tension. From a narrative standpoint, it's sometimes presented in a reasonably convincing manner (both the Shani relationship in this video and a few of the one-night stands are pretty plausible), but more often than not the constant screwing around comes across as inexplicable and rather gratuitous. It also has a "gamey" element to it, in that there's a very strong urge to, so to speak, "catch 'em all"...which of course only further undermines the psychological realism and personal integrity (such as it is) of the main character.  
  

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The Witcher (Gameplay #7) On Being Swamped

The first few minutes of this clip was recorded many weeks ago, just before I stopped playing The Witcher last time. I left the game rather abruptly because of sudden increases in the game's difficulty, a constant stream of fetch quests as well as a couple of performance issues related to the Swamp area featured in this video. 


While I still think that there's far too much running back and forth between quest locations, after having returned to the game lately the two other problems have proven to be far more manageable than I had expected. With some extra XP and alchemical potions those pesky downers (sorry, *drowners*) and other ugly monsters in the swamp turned out to be quite easy to deal with, and the truly horrible frame rate drops seem confined to a few very particular areas. I have even come to appreciate the Swamp for its unusually oppressive atmosphere (even by Witcher's standards) and surprisingly diverse collection of settlements spread across the forbidding landscape.
 
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The Witcher (Gameplay #6) Fight Hard, Think Hard, Drink Hard.

After having been gone for more than a few months, I'm finally back in the world of The Witcher - where sword fighting, heavy drinking and engaging in existential discussions about the nature of Good and Evil are considered good ways of spending a dark and dreary night in the shady back alleys of Vizima.   
  

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TOEE is now on GOG


 
 
 
 
 GOG has released The Temple of Elemental Evil, and this is truly a big day for all PC RPG fans.

Getting Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment on GOG in such a short time span has certainly been nice, but given just how many Interplay re-releases and bundles we've seen over the years those games have never been that difficult to find (at least as long as you got a credit card and know how to spell "Amazon" or the name of a similar online service). And the Infinity Engine classics are just that; games which immediately had a huge impact, continue to be genuinely appreciated for their high quality and also sold well enough to make Black Isle and Bioware well-known among huge swaths of the gaming population. 

By contrast, The Temple of Elemental Evil was released in 2003 to little fanfare, received a lot of justly deserved criticism for its plethora of bugs and disappeared off most store shelves pretty quickly, never to return in any shape or form. The story could have ended there, but after 3 years a dedicated team of fans produced the final version of a massive community patch known as "Circle of Eight", which includes countless ruleset additions, balance tweaks and bug fixes while also greatly improving overall game stability. The impressive end result of all this hard work is that - in terms of the fundamentals of its mechanics, the sheer depth of its gameplay as well as its faithfulness to the source material - TOEE is now arguably the best Dungeons & Dragons simulation on the PC.

In a nutshell, the game takes the isometric viewpoint and party management of the Infinity Engine and adds to that a proper turn-based combat for significantly improved tactical controls, a more robust interpretation of the D&D ruleset as well as a richer and technically more advanced audiovisual presentation. The Temple of Elemental Evil will not appeal to story-oriented players, nor does it cater to those who want a more easy-going and immediately accessible gameplay experience. TOEE is a hardcore, unabashedly old school dungeon crawler focusing entirely on tactical battle scenarios and stats-based character progression, and everyone who finds that kind of gameplay remotely interesting now has a second chance to get a copy of this underrated classic. As someone who at the time of writing has the most frequently watched TOEE video on YouTube (close to 50,000 views at this point, which indicates that there's a certain level of interest in the game out there), I couldn't be more happy about this.

Buy the game here:
http://www.gog.com/en/gamecard/the_temple_of_elemental_evil   
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Live to Grind Another Day: A Response to the Divinity 2 QL

The recent Quick Look of Divinity 2 was hotly debated in its comments section (as tends to be the case when a QL includes a lot of fairly negative staff commentary about the game in question), and this is my take on this minor controversy.  
 
First off, while no one would mistake Divinity 2 for a polished game by one of the wealthier RPG developers around, once again I get the feeling that the GB staff and their various guests are just a little too picky when it comes to the general audiovisual presentation. I played the X360 demo after having watched this QL and, sure enough, the graphics aren't state of the art...but they're not that bad, either (Vinny is certainly easily pleased by less-than-Crysis-like graphics...). In fact, if I hadn't known about the graphically superior PC version I would even have been positively impressed by the lush outdoor environments, vibrant colors and nice lighting effects. As for the frame rate, it looks considerably worse in this video than it did on my TV (a very cheap HDTV). 
 
Now over to the more importand and tricky question; is an unabashedly generic game like Divine Divinity 2 really worth playing (especially considering all the other supposedly awesome RPGs on the market right now)? I don't own the game and probably won't get it for quite some time, but from my brief time with the demo I'd still answer that question with a tentative "yes". In the closing minutes of the QL, Dave correctly points out that there very much is a hardcore audience for roleplaying games which completely lack the narrative flair, visual pyrotechnics and inspired settings of the genre's AAA titles, but instead focus on delivering huge game worlds, deep character development/customization systems and a fairly steep, grind-friendly challenge. Despite Dave's obvious lack of enthusiasm for the game and Vinny's tendency to make fun of its technical shortcomings I for one definitely got more interested in the game by watching it being played for an extended period of time during the Quick Look. 
 
The hint of despair in Dave's voice when he was talking about the difficulty of the game's early quests actually whetted my appetite - not because I think I'm a better gamer than Dave (I'm probably not), but rather because my natural RPG impulse when presented with tough enemies is to grind away at random enemies for hours (as well as explore the game world thoroughly) so I can then finally wipe out those previously unbeatable foes. That said, I'm not a completionist in any way and usually criticize JRPGs for unreasonably lengthy main quests; so merely celebrating the sheer time investment a game requires is emphatically not something I would endorse. Still, my overall perspective on this indicates a fairly obsessive-compulse playing style which clearly doesn't fit everyone in the modern RPG world of incessant level scaling and tidy, main quest-focused game structures. I hasten to add that none of this is meant to imply that Dave (or anyone else who didn't get excited about the game) doesn't like rolling up his sleeves and digging deep into a complex RPG world - I don't know the guy but I'm sure he does - the point I'm trying to make here is merely that different player's relative tolerance for grinding and deliberately slow-paced game progression is a highly relevant factor here, and that what frustrates some players might very well be the exact same thing that motives other gamers to start paying some serious attention to character development, world exploration and other important aspects which might ultimately determine his or her own ability to master said game.
 
Assuming that the game's worst technical issues (save game glitches etc.) can be sorted out, I hope DD2 will find its audience. I have a feeling it would be quite content with standing not on the shoulders but in the shadow of the genre's giants, where a certain subsection of the RPG fanbase will gather together in the shade and live to grind another day.    

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