In Far Cry 2's chaotic world of mercenaries, gunrunners, and armed militias, you'll find yourself dropped into a dizzying web of shady clients and paper-thin alliances. All manner of names and faces are introduced during the course of the storyline, but the real star isn't anyone brandishing a smuggled weapon in search of blood diamonds; it's the daunting and awe-inspiring 50-square kilometers of African landscape that make up the game's open-world setting. Aside from providing the opportunity to soak up an amazing sunset, Far Cry 2's free-roaming terrain brilliantly harmonizes with the first-person combat. The diverse landscape and myriad environmental factors work alongside a wide assortment of weaponry to give you tremendous freedom to approach each mission. Combined with solid multiplayer, Far Cry 2's sheer breadth of action provides you with plenty of reason to stay lost in the African wilderness despite an underwhelming plot and the occasional sense of tedium in navigating from one location to another on the gargantuan map.
Far Cry 2's story is filled with potential. You're a mercenary working for a client who's sent you to an unnamed African nation engulfed in civil war, and your job is to take out a notorious arms dealer known as "The Jackal." He quickly proves to be an elusive figure, so you'll need to begin working for various warring factions that the Jackal has armed so you can trace the supply line back to your target. The two primary organizations at the heart of all this bloodshed are the militaristic UFLL and the revolutionary APR. You'll spend the bulk of the story working for these two groups, getting to know their power structures, and taking on all of the violent tasks they throw your way. Complicating things is the fact that your character has malaria, which means you'll need to occasionally play nice with the more ragtag Underground, the only group with the medical connections necessary to keep your potentially life-threatening symptoms at bay.
Each story mission can be played in multiple ways. There are 12 potential buddies randomly scattered throughout the storyline who you can befriend (nine of whom are available to choose as your silent protagonist), and they're often keen to tack on their own interests to the quests handed out by the UFLL and APR. Instead of just taking out a target, you have the option to earn extra reputation points by working alongside your buddy to first squeeze any remaining assets from the soon-to-be-deceased. This also earns you the ability to increase your level of companionship with that buddy. It's a neat reward, but it doesn't shed much light on their backgrounds. But that's par for the course; the main story is delivered in such a rushed, quick-and-dirty way that you never feel very involved in the game's overarching conflicts. The plot is less Blood Diamond than it is early Grand Theft Auto, a long roster of changing faces that scroll by far too quickly to capitalize on the politically charged setting.
Although disappointing for a single-player campaign that could easily drain more than 30 hours of your time, any shortcomings in the plot are mostly forgivable thanks to Far Cry 2's overall structure. The game is organized in a way that provides a daunting amount of freedom to explore, earn currency, and wreak havoc on the game's landscape and its denizens. It's all laid out in a manner typical of sandbox action games. Pulling out your map reveals a collection of icons that signify available missions and points of interest that you can meander toward at your own leisure. Among these are dozens of side missions that you can take on, with various forms of rewards. Delivering transit papers to trapped refugees earns you malaria medication, destroying rival convoys for gun merchants unlocks new weapons for purchase, and performing assassinations for mysterious voices at the other end of your cell phone rewards you with diamonds. You can also rough up militias stationed in small camps and turn their dwellings into your own safe houses. The side missions can feel a bit repetitive when played through in rapid succession, but they offer a great change of tempo when sprinkled throughout the main narrative. But what's most clever is how their differing rewards intermingle so wonderfully with your needs in progressing through the story: Malaria pills keep your HP and stamina up, diamonds buy you new weapons and ability upgrades, and safe houses provide temporary shelter to stock up and save your game.
The freedom of choice that goes with selecting which mission you want to perform carries over to how you execute them, and that's where Far Cry 2 really shines. There are a variety of factors that affect the way you approach each mission, from the number of people you need to kill, to the landscape, to the weather and time of day. If your job is to take out a key figure hidden deep within a militia camp in the jungle, you'll do well to take a nap at your safe house until nightfall and silently stalk your prey under the cover of darkness. If it's a windy day and you need to take out a bandit outpost in the dry plains, you can start a fire from far away with a flare gun and let the breeze and arid conditions collude to spread the flames toward their camp, finishing off the survivors with a sniper rifle. Need to clear out a bunch of scattered guards? Why not shoot an oil drum near an ammo stockpile and watch as the bullets erupt in every direction like deadly pieces of popcorn? Of course, you can also get up close and personal with pistols and machine guns, but the moments in which elaborately planned assaults succeed are some of the most gratifying points in the game. The whole process of staging an attack only becomes more intricate and rewarding as you slowly upgrade your safe house into a full-blown armory and unlock new weapon and vehicle abilities--all done through the gun shops.
The sheer variety of weapons plays a big role in your ability to craft a personalized approach to each mission. For every situation, there's a weapon ideally suited to delivering mercenary justice. From the AK-47 to the Molotov cocktail and the remote-detonated improvised explosive device, they all feel like weapons that could easily be plucked from the civil wars of Africa. Furthermore, your weapons will cycle through an authentic level of wear and tear, particularly those picked up from ragtag militiamen; secondhand weapons will show dirt, frequently jam, and eventually break, which means that it's best to buy them from the shop. All of the above makes for a uniquely desperate and makeshift style of combat compared to other first-person shooters.
If there's one drawback to the combat, it's that it tends to be a little too forgiving after the first few hours of the game. Your health is divided into several individually regenerative bars like Resistance: Fall of Man, but once it gets low, you can inject yourself with a syrette for added health (though if it's really low, you'll first need to perform a slick self-heal such as yanking bullet shells out of your leg or snapping a broken arm back into place). You can eventually upgrade the amount of ammo and health you have to further tip the odds in your favor, and even have a buddy rescue you whenever you die (though you need to keep an eye on him because he can be permanently killed in a scuffle). Most of the challenge arrives when you're looking at your map in search of the next mission and then get surprised by a bunch of roadside bandits while you're driving one of the game's numerous run-down SUVs or river boats (which exist alongside hang-gliders, trucks, licensed Jeeps, and dune buggies as the types of vehicles you can operate). However, there are still very few moments when you don't feel like an everyman caught in a nasty situation, and that sort of improvised payback is what makes Far Cry 2's combat so engrossing.
Visually, Far Cry 2 is a stunner. Though not as technically amazing as the jungles of Crysis, Far Cry 2's depiction of the sprawling African wilderness makes up for it with environmental diversity and intimidating scale. Several landscapes are represented here: dense forests, rolling plains, arid deserts, craggy badlands, and even shantytowns and hut villages. You'll see trees swaying, the charred remains of a brush fire, and several forms of wildlife running around. It all looks incredible in the transitional period of the day-night cycle when the sun is falling or rising through the horizon and everything is cast in a warm glow. The game also sounds great, with tribal music accompanying you at all times, from a relaxing ambience in calm situations to a rapidly escalating roar of drums in battle. The voice acting during mission briefings feels strangely hurried (as if it's some trick to squeeze more dialogue onto the disc), but that's largely offset by excellent enemy banter during combat.
Adding to Far Cry 2's value is the 16-person online multiplayer. The gameplay modes on display are nothing terribly special (you'll see variations of Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Territories), but the fighting captures a lot of the appeal of single-player, including vehicles, fire-based weaponry, and a great sense of scale in each map. But what sets the multiplayer apart is that you don't need to settle for the included maps; each version of the game comes with a deep but intuitive map editor capable of letting you create everything from dense urban locales to sprawling forests. And downloading new maps is simply a matter of seeking out featured selections or hitting "download" when a Quick Match search lets you know that you don't have that one yet. Such uninspired gameplay modes are certainly a letdown, but the map editor has great potential to inject loads of lasting appeal into Far Cry 2's online component.
Although the original Far Cry was available only on the PC for the first year and a half of its existence, Far Cry 2 will see an expanded audience with the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 versions all available out of the gate. However, its roots are clearly on display when taking in the differences between the three platforms. Far Cry 2 looks best running on a PC, with clearer textures, better foliage, and less pop-in. The console versions also suffer from the occasional loading hitch when you're driving into a highly populated city. Another key difference is that the PC version lets you save anywhere you want, whereas the 360 and PS3 games only let you use predefined save points. However, the latter difference isn't quite as lopsided as the graphical disparity; saving anywhere gives you more room for experimentation in approaching your missions, but the console versions provide a more clearly defined sense of consequence that adds extra tension to the combat. You'll definitely want to go with the PC version if you've got a system capable of approaching the hardware requirements, but the differences aren't so great that you won't have a blast with either console version (which are virtually indistinguishable from one another).
Overall, Far Cry 2 is a game in which you can quite literally get lost for hours at a time. But that feeling of exploration is precisely what makes the game so much fun; your creativity never feels stifled when approaching a mission, and the game's overall structure of side tasks, friends, rewards, and upgrades is a diverse ecosystem rivaling the landscape itself. No matter whether you're a PC fan whose played through the similarly structured Crysis or a console owner new to the world of open-ended first-person shooters, you won't be disappointed by Far Cry 2.