As I play through Far Cry 2 (not as much as I would like — need to find more time to explore its systems and environment), I’m struck by the problems of communication to the player and how best to flag a game’s affordances in a way that is understandable but not immersion-breaking.
Far Cry 2 has gotten a mixed reception so far1, but “mixed” isn’t really the right way to put it. Nobody seems sure what to make of this game, and I think I’ve stumbled on what makes it so disjointed (for me anyway): the low-level experience is immensely rewarding, but the high-level one feels a bit empty.
The game does an incredibly good job of getting the player into a mindset. In a lot of shooters you find the gun or set of guns that you like and try to stick to it. In GTA players become very protective of certain cars that they take a liking to. But in FC2, the player quickly learns that their attitude needs to be, “fuck it.” Your guns jam, the car breaks down, you get randomly attacked, you steal their car, drive away, walk right into a checkpoint you had forgotten about, et cetera. You live moment to moment, and once you let go of that gamer need to collect and build, you really start to lose yourself in this war-ravaged nation. The experience becomes a brutal, savage, intense, and memorable one.
But it sadly doesn’t end up amounting to much. (Disclaimer: I have not finished the game and am open to the possibility that things get better.) You’ve got these two factions you’re working for, but the game forces you to work for both of them, mitigating the idea of taking sides. It doesn’t really matter anyway, since members of both sides will shoot you if they see you on the road. I can understand the gameplay implications of wanting to never have the player feel “safe” in an area and thus wanting to keep both factions dangerous, but if I have to work for both and they both hate me, why not just have one faction that I deal with and have the rest be an impenetrable or unseen governmental group?
And then there’s the opening, which struck me as particularly weak. The player is given their overall main goal (“Find and kill the Jackal”) as a bit of text on a loading screen_. I’m not sure about you, but I’ve been pretty well-trained as a player to assume that loading screen text is for flavor or gameplay tips and can be safely ignored. It’s definitely not where I expect to find major plot points. Then they plop you into a non-interactive jeep ride while they show off DuniaEngine for what seems like 10 minutes. That would have been good time to give the player background on their mission, the region. It would have decreased the “stranger in a strange land” feeling a bit, but would have given the player a lot more identification with their character and motivation.
Contrast this with the opening of Bioshock (another good but flawed game). It immediately sets up the mystery of who the character is, which is fundamental to the game. You are, quite literally, immersed in this strange new world, and are given a thorough, if biased, account of its history while surveying the landscape you are about to inhabit. By the time you take full control2, you are completely drawn in to the game experience in Rapture.
Now even given all my whinging, I think FC2 is a brilliant game. It’s trying to do things with narrative and player mindset that very few games do, and I applaud the team for working in this space. I’m still playing it. I like the buddy system. I love the emergent gameplay and storytelling. But I keep thinking that it could have been so much better with just a bit more attention paid to the player’s initial and high-level experiences.
1 To be fair, an 85 is a very good Metacritic score, but FC2 reviews have a relatively high standard deviation.
2 If, in fact, you ever do.