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SummaryMediocre shooter, set apart by its exotic locale
The GoodI’ll disclose this up front - I’m a bit biased. I married into an East African family, so there’s a special place in my heart for a game set in Africa. Although the story is set in a fictional central African nation, the scenery looks very East African (and the development team went to Kenya for research).
And when I say “looks”, I mean it “looks fantastic”. The graphics are just gorgeous. Big, open plains. Exotic vegetation. Grass slowly moving in the wind. Zebras and other animals roaming freely. And a dynamic time-of-day and weather system. You’ll find yourself on a river, gazing at the early morning fog tinting everything in yellow.
So let’s get into the story - you’re a mercenary, sent to said country to assassinate an infamous arms dealer, the Jackal, who is selling weapons to two big warring factions. However, you've barely even landed and immediately contract Malaria (wow, that was quick?!) and pass out, waking up to see the Jackal mock you. With your mission now basically failed, you spend your time doing random jobs for the two major warring factions.
Those jobs are pretty similar - go somewhere, kill someone or destroy something. As you play, you’ll meet random NPCs who can become your buddies. Those serve several purposes: For one, they serve as a “get out of jail free” card - if you’re about to die in a firefight, a buddy will appear and save you. That works once every day or so. (The silly part is that a buddy will save you whenever you would have normally died, even if that was because you fell hundreds of feet. How does the buddy save you? Scrape you up off the ground and put you back together?!)
The other purpose of a buddy is to provide an alternate solution to a mission. Once you receive your assignment, your buddy will call you and offer you a different way, which usually includes additional waypoints, but results in an overall easier job.
I have to say that the buddy system actually works quite well. You always have one primary buddy, and you almost feel something like an emotional bond to them. They can actually die - you can save their lives, but only so many times. At some point, they’re mortally wounded on the ground, and the medication that used to immediately heal them stops working. That leaves you with the option to put them to rest by over-medicating them, abandoning them, or shooting them in the head, which allows them a final line like “I’m sorry, mama”. I was impressed how effective this is when you experience this scene for the first time.
There are side-missions as well, but there’s not much to them. You can receive assassination missions (go to position X, kill person), or jobs to destroy convoys (which conveniently drive in a circle, waiting for you to ambush them).
How you go about a mission is up to you. The map is open, so you can approach from different directions. You can be stealthy. Or just blow everything up. Engage in lengthy firefights or try to rush through the opposition.
The BadThis game is repetitive! There are so many missions that feel identical: Go to contact person. Receive mission. Get call from buddy about alternate route. Go to waypoint A. Firefight. Go to waypoint B. Firefight. Rinse. Repeat.
What’s really annoying is that enemies always appear at the same location, even outside missions. Every major intersection and every checkpoint has a bunch of people out to get you. You can kill them all, but drive for a while and come back, and there’ll be another set of people waiting for you just where you killed (or ignored) the last bunch.
Really, it seems like you’re the most hated person in this country. Everybody is out to get you! Whenever you see someone, you can be sure that they’re about to take shots at you. There are no civilians in the game. Sure, it makes it easier to identify friends and foes, but it feels a bit weird.
The only mission that really stands out is the last one. It seems like all of a sudden, the level designers woke up. Why couldn't more missions be like that? Really, so many great things happen during the final 30 minutes of the game.
The enemy AI is a mixed bag. It’s touted as being super smart, and they sometimes appear to be tactical - they flank you, hide behind obstacles, etc. At the same time, they just look completely lost sometimes. There've been many occasions where I saw somebody in plain view, looking roughly in my general direction but not doing anything in particular. After staring that person in the eye for a few seconds, I wondered - was that an NPC? A civilian? Do those exist after all? So I walk a bit closer, almost touch him when he finally springs to life and shoots at me. So it was an enemy after all, just a stupid one.
As for the story, there are several problems: First of all, there’s the old problem of the silent protagonist. The entire game is played in first-person perspective. Even during “cutscenes” (i.e. people talking you, the camera never ever leaves the first person perspective), you’re fully in control of the player. You never say a word. It just feels weird.
Next, all the characters are completely and entirely interchangeable. I completely lost track of who is who. None of the characters have any distinguishing features or characteristics. Later on, you can somewhat side with one faction or another. But which one do you pick? I don’t know! They’re all the same!
Same with the buddies - they look different, but that’s the extent of it. If one dies, another one takes their place, but it doesn't seem to make a shred of a difference to the actual gameplay. You also have this reputation system, but it doesn't seem to serve a purpose. It seems like the developers initially planned a lot more depth but ended up cutting a lot.
At the same time, parts of the writing is actually nice - and the best parts are even kind of hidden. A little side quest is to find audio tapes of an interview with the Jackal, and those are great! But those tapes have no bearing on the rest of the game, so players are unlikely to find many of them. And it’s a shame, that’s where the writing really shines. It often feels like Far Cry 2 paired a great writer and a bunch of not so great level designers.
The map is big, which is nice. You can travel using jeeps or boats. The problem is that both are destructible, and there’ll often be random patrols on vehicles just chasing you and trying to take you down. It’s a matter of time until your car breaks down. You can either fix it if it’s not beyond repair, or you commandeer the vehicle of said patrol after you eliminate the owners, but sooner or later, you’ll be stranded without a car, forcing you to walk, run (which makes you dizzy after a few seconds due to Malaria), and eventually find a car. This can take a while.
This problem was solved in Red Dead Redemption with the ability to whistle, where a horse would appear within seconds. Grand Theft Auto avoided the issue by being set in a city where you are surrounded by cars (and starting in GTA IV, you could call for a cab on your cell phone). But here, in the big open plains, you’re forced to just walk for ages, in a huge open area with nothing but plants and a few animals for miles.
And for all the boasting about the game being so open and free, it usually ends up being pretty linear in the end. You go through the main missions one by one. In the end, there aren't that many different solutions to the core parts of a mission, and the game doesn't really handle you trying to outsmart it very well. In one mission, I was supposed to assassinate somebody with a sniper rifle from the building across. Instead, I managed to make my way into the building of the target itself... who simply stared at me, not saying anything, even after I started hurting him.
The Bottom LineAgain, I must remind you of my bias - I couldn't dislike this game. It does such a great job conveying the flora and fauna of sub-saharan Africa that I enjoyed just walking around and taking the scenery in. And the graphics are great.
The game itself isn't bad - lots of interesting guns, reasonable shooting mechanics, lots of driving and firefights. It just feels repetitive and unspectacular sometimes. The story barely moves at all (and the lack of cutscenes and the completely silent protagonist really don’t help here), and the characters are so flat that you couldn't possibly care about any of them.
And - don’t worry, this is not a spoiler - a word about the ending. A quick Google search reveals that it is universally hated. I personally loved it. It’s different and brings a nice touch to the whole storyline. But that may again be due to my attachment to Africa. People who don’t care much about the continent might not appreciate the ending.