We aren’t very far into 2022 yet, but there’s already been a substantial number of major game releases and announcements. Already, we’ve seen the launch of Pokèmon: Legends Arceus, Horizon: Forbidden West, Elden Ring, and Dying Light 2, among others. These games come from different developers and publishers, were built for different platforms, take place within entirely different settings, and encapsulate entirely different moods – but there’s one substantial element that links all of these games together: they’re all open world.
The open world format has become the central design trend of AAA games production. In the Xbox360 and Playstation 3 era, large open worlds in titles like the earlier Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto were more of a novelty among linear smash hits like Call of Duty and Uncharted. But as the years have gone on, open worlds have become increasingly played out and the entire gameplay format has become to feel fairly rote. In particular, Ubisoft’s entire output as a publisher has become increasingly dependent on repetitive, formulaic open world titles. The “Ubisoft Formula” has become a punchline in games discussion. The studio’s flagship franchises, Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, have put out massive numbers of games that see constant criticism for being bland and predictable. Far Cry 6 came out fairly recently, but it’s honestly hard to even remember it happening. It feels like nobody was really excited for the game before or after it came out. There have been a lot of Far Crys, and 6 doesn’t appear to do anything to really set itself apart from the pack. Open world fatigue is real. It’s not even a problem with the games being bad, really, but moreso a problem with the game’s being bland. Often, opinions on these games sum up to “it’s another open world”. You’ll probably enjoy your time with it, but it’s unlikely to really electrify you or surprise you.
Not only have these games become increasingly safe structurally, they’ve become increasingly safe narratively. Ubisoft, again, is infamous for their posturing that they produce “apolitical” art, something which I argue objectively does not exist, and they seem to have absolutely no interest in attempting to use their platform to tell meaningful stories or convey any sort of message or opinion that might alienate a single consumer. As someone who really likes when games use the medium to tell stories, and just generally likes art that feels heartfelt, I often find myself lamenting how soulless AAA games tend to feel. It’s not that the stock open-world design produces exclusively games I hate – I love Techland’s original Dying Light despite its generic open world design – but it feels like titles like Doom Eternal, games with a genuine spark of life to them, are the exception rather than the rule.
That’s how things are today, but things weren’t always this way. It turns out, lurking in Ubisoft’s back catalog, is a title that feels almost totally antithetical to the company’s modern image, sans the open world format. Yes, today I’d like to talk about 2008’s Far Cry 2, a game that I’ve recently finished for the first time and one that’s extremely interesting to discuss in the context of the modern open-world deluge. Far Cry 2 is a very widely discussed game, and I admit that I wouldn’t have even played it had I not watched Errant Signal’s excellent video essay about Far Cry 5, and Noah Caldwell-Gervais’s Far Cry series retrospective, because I mostly viewed all of the Far Cry games as interchangeable. Maybe that’s the case for the rest of the series; I wouldn’t know, I haven’t played them, but it isn’t for Far Cry 2. Let me tell you why.
Far Cry 2 is an interesting title in how it features design decisions meant to actively disempower and frustrate the player. Sure, it’s not unique in including these sorts of things: modern horror titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent disempower the player by stripping them of any means of self-defense, and titles like those in the Dark Souls series arguably also engage in player disempowerment. However, Far Cry 2’s mechanics are interesting in the way that they create genuine feelings of helplessness far more akin to Amnesia than Dark Souls, and produce a sort of tedium that feels almost antithetical to what I’d normally think of as “good game design”.
The pinnacle of these mechanics is the Malaria system. No matter your choice of protagonist in Far Cry 2 (which is, largely, a meaningless choice anyways), your character will always be stricken with the disease, which can cause bouts of nausea that you’ll need medication to contend with. These can occur at any time – including during intense combat situations, and can completely screw you over if you don't account for the possibility. Medicine is in short supply, and the only method of acquiring it is by doing sidequests for the resistance, one of the few types of missions that the game features. If the illness strikes you while you’re out of medicine, well, you might just be screwed. I have memories of discovering that I’d used my last dose in the middle of a mission, finishing the quest and then driving recklessly to the nearest resistance hideout to resupply. What I find so interesting about this mechanic is the way that it derives the player of agency. You have the ability to stave off illness-induced death, but you have absolutely no control over when you lose your vision and ability to fight due to a bout of malaria-induced sickness. Is this annoying and arguably unfair, especially in a situation where it snowballs into a combat encounter going awry and leading to a game over? Yes, it kind of is. It’s a mechanic that’s so obviously going to piss people off that no experienced studio would put it in their game because they think it would be fun or have some sort of mass appeal. It’s a mechanic that exists mainly to make a statement. You are not the Doom Slayer. You are a fragile human being like everybody else. You are fragile and, by and large, alone.
Other mechanics accentuate this feeling of helplessness. Another oft maligned feature of Far Cry 2 are the endlessly repopulating enemy checkpoints. These aren’t your average, everyday respawning enemies – these places repopulate at a rate that can be compared to the way that enemies in old NES games like Mega Man instantly respawn the moment their spawn location is off screen. Often, and more frequently as the game progresses, I would fight my way through an enemy checkpoint that was in front of an enemy encampment that I needed to go to for a mission, fight my way through that, only to be ambushed by enemies at the same checkpoint I fought through on my way in, which had been fully repopulated inside 15 minutes. It’s frankly ludicrous how quickly these checkpoints refill. Again, this is a feature that I found myself getting rather frustrated with, especially with some of the more well-defended checkpoints in the late game. But again, this mechanic is so obviously frustrating that it’s not the sort of thing that gets implemented by accident. It’s another mechanic meant to make the player feel helpless and alone. It turns out, that as one person fighting two armies, your actions don’t really tend to make that much of a dent. You are not Duke Nukem; you are not a bad enough dude to single handedly save all of mankind from an alien invasion. You are a singular mercenary fighting against both sides of a civil war. You are deeply alone.
Respawning enemy checkpoints undercut the player’s sensibility of making progress. Other aspects of the game also accomplish this goal. Another famous feature of Far Cry 2 is the weapon degradation system. Guns degrade extremely quickly, and arms in poor condition tend to jam in the middle of combat, or even misfire and become totally unusable. Weapons salvaged from enemies are always in atrocious condition and prove to be exceptionally unreliable. Luckily, the game’s only major collectible is diamonds, which are used to buy new weapons and upgrades. Purchased weapons don’t jam… for a time. Even weapons acquired from the arms dealer will degrade, eventually ending up in just as poor a state as enemy equipment. The weapon jamming mechanic is at its most interesting in the early game, when the only permanently acquired weapons are all utterly useless and the player might genuinely feel the need to rely on salvaged enemy equipment, trading reliability for effectiveness. The degradation system contributes to this sense of phantasmal progress. A new weapon isn’t a permanent, reliable upgrade. It’s a form of progress, but you can’t rely on it forever.
This article is meant more to contrast the design ethos of Far Cry 2 from the standard contemporary open-world formula, but I can’t help but dedicate a paragraph to discussing how all of these aspects contribute to the feel of Far Cry 2. The game is a legitimately oppressive experience at times, and often becomes fairly tedious. Normally, tedium is a huge turn-off for me when it comes to pushing through games, but it didn’t grate quite as much in Far Cry 2, because I felt like I had something to reflect on during downtime. The lack of fast travel points necessitates a lot of driving between objectives, both forcing you to deal with the same checkpoints over and over again, and being one of the few games that genuinely tries to capture the oppressive boredom of war reported by real soldiers. This goes hand in hand with the game’s story; the player does missions for two warring factions, neither of which seem to genuinely stand for any actual beliefs, constantly engaging in acts of violence too horrible for the commanders to bear any undeniable connection to. You’re constantly betrayed by pretty much everyone; and as the game goes on, it feels like nothing you do does anything but further contribute to the hellish civil war that’s leaving the country in ruins. You are not the good guy in Far Cry 2. It’s a game that leaves you constantly wincing at the sort of things you do to progress in it, which is, in my opinion, the sort of thing we really do need more of. Having the player inhabit a morally questionable character is something that we tend to see semi-irregularly, and though games like BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us: Part 2 have generally mixed receptions among the wider community, it’s always interesting to see developers use game protagonists this way. Of course, the mercenary you play as in Far Cry 2 has pretty much no character and is just unequivocally an atrocious person, rather than a more nuanced character like Booker or Ellie, but it’s still compelling to see.
OPEN WORLD, CLOSED DOOR
Far Cry 2 is so interesting in the way that it features so many of the tropes that define so many modern AAA open-world titles, but contextualizes them completely differently. If Far Cry 2 came out this year, I think people would look it at as a sort of Spec Ops: The Line for the new generation: a game which engages in the tropes of its aesthetic niche in order to problematize them and criticize the western post-colonial imperialist mindset which defines the aesthetic. Even knowing the game predates the proliferation of many of these tropes, and considering that Far Cry and Far Cry 3 especially was one of the games that popularized them, I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that Far Cry 2 would’ve done extremely well as a purposeful critique of the open world format.
Take, for instance, the constantly respawning enemy checkpoints. In current open world games, clearing out enemy encampments has become a standard series trope. To reference a game I’ve actually played, you could look at the bandit camps from Rage 2 as an example, but if you pull any contemporary open-world title off the shelf at GameStop, expect to see some sort of checklist of enemy encampments for you to tediously clear out. Far Cry 2, in contrast, provides these enemy encampments for you to clear, and even a checklist of places to explore, but provides little to no reward for doing so. All you really get is the ability to get through the checkpoint without being attacked (this time), and an indicator on your map as to what resource you can gather at the checkpoint, something that is both extremely minor and not particularly useful. It’s far more reasonable to restock at actual safehouses, rather than fighting a group of enemies just to restock on molotovs.
Also consider the two-faction conflict. Though I again confess to not really keeping up with every stock AAA open world release, the two-faction conflict trope is apparently common enough for Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee Croshaw to dedicate an entire video essay to talking about it. Far Cry 2 takes place in the midst of a 2-faction conflict, and the player is forced to work with both factions in order to make progress. However, unlike in games like Dying Light 2, neither of the two factions really seem to stand for anything. Both of Far Cry 2’s factions have no ideals beyond seizing power, profess no vision of the nation’s future, and seem to have no goals beyond crushing the other side [readers are welcome to make their own joke about American political parties here]. There is no faction that the player has any incentive to side with; both of them readily betray you, and even when running missions for either side, you’ll be relentlessly attacked by their soldiers. It’s a much different implementation of the two-faction conflict dynamic than we typically see in modern titles. This is the thing that I thought about the most in regards to feeling like a purposeful subversion of genre tropes; even though this game predates the trope, it’s hard to not view this with hindsight and see how it contrasts with what the genre would become.
Far Cry 2 accidentally serves as a perfect antithesis to so many of the tropes which define modern open world games, but came out too early for it to actually be a deconstruction of the subgenre. That’s why we need another Far Cry 2; from this game, I can tell that a game very well could effectively dismantle these tropes, but we need developers who are actually making a game with that as the intention, rather than it being a hindsight-driven projection. Open world games feel as though they’re blending together more and more, and as major studios keep dedicating ludicrous amounts of resources to games that it seems absolutely nobody has any legitimate interest in buying or had any interest in making, it feels like someone in the industry needs to take a moment to reflect on how things are going. The modern warfare subgenre lost a lot of traction after Spec Ops; admittedly, that was probably more coincidental than anything, since it had been overexposed before the game released, but I can’t imagine that the the shockwaves Spec Ops made upon launch in 2012 didn’t influence the downfall to some degree. Maybe Far Cry 2 2 could do the same thing.
Far Cry 2 is far from a perfect game. Even though it serves a larger narrative purpose, it’s a rather tedious experience and something that’s probably more interesting to talk about than it is to actually play [it doesn’t help that the game is also fairly unstable on modern platforms, and I experienced frequent crashes and at least one save file corruption incident that caused me to lose like 2 hours of progress]. It also, honestly, doesn’t go far enough in the disempowerment department. Sniping, like it is in most open world games, is just embarrassingly unfair in Far Cry 2, and the moment you manage to afford a sniper rifle of your very own is pretty much the moment that the frantic and chaotic combat becomes methodical and easily manageable. I tried to avoid sniping for some missions, just for the sake of variety, and the difference in difficulty was night and day. It honestly felt like playing an entirely different game. Hopefully, if Far Cry 2 2 comes out, the developers find some way to make sniping a less reliable method of easily subverting all of the game’s combat challenge. Would a AAA studio, in an era where games are such an absurd financial investment, be willing to take these risks and make a game that is so purposefully hostile to the player? Maybe not, but the success of the Dark Souls series and its derivatives prove that there’s still a market, at least, for games that are cruel to the player. I’m just not sure there’s much of a market for games with purposefully vindictive stories.
Far Cry 2 is a very interesting game, and one that I feel as though gets brought up surprisingly little in discussions of the open world genre. Maybe it’s mostly because people don’t really discuss the “boring” open world titles all that much. Conversations about Dying Light 2 and Far Cry 6 feel significantly less common than discussions of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or the recently released Elden Ring. I can’t imagine I’m the only person suffering from severe open world burnout. I’ll confess that I’ve never been extraordinarily invested in the AAA release schedule, but I’m finding it harder and harder to care about upcoming titles when all of them follow basically the same formula. Why would I buy Far Cry 6 for $60 when Far Cry 3 is so structurally similar and a third of the price?
Far Cry 2 is not a perfect game, and it may not have intentionally subverted the open-world tropes that it helped to define, but it still stands in contrast to the empowerment-driven ethos which have come to define the genre as we know it today. It’s not a game that I’d recommend to everybody, but it’s definitely an interesting one to look back on.