Oh, Far Cry 2! What to say about Far Cry 2? I've been struggling to sit down and write this game log much more than most, not because I don't have a lot of thoughts and opinions about the game but more because none of them are extremely well-formed or otherwise decisive at this point, so let's just do this off the cuff:
To start off with, I never played the original Far Cry. It was definitely a bit of a staple of PC gaming during its heyday but I somehow (narrowly) avoided buying and playing through it. When Far Cry 2 was announced I thought it looked absolutely awesome - a very forced first person perspective which looked particularly unique in respects to interactions with NPCs. Conversations with other characters and buddy rescues immediately spring to mind as scenes I saw in previews that looked extremely intriguing to me, as did the overall gritty look of the game. When it was finally released their seemed to be quite a bit of disparity in reviews and opinion in general, with most people ranking the game as fairly mediocre despite a lot of critics praising it, especially in hindsight. Some such critics are the cast of one of my favorite gaming podcasts, Idle Thumbs, whose unanimous love for the game became one of their more infamous, self-referential in-jokes. This was probably what pumped me up the most about finally pulling the game out of my backlog... to see if it lived up to all of the hype.
"This exact scenario will play out at least 300 times in the course of the campaign."
So what is it? Well, Far Cry 2 is an open world first person shooter set in a fictional civil war torn African nation. It's a damn oppressive place for sure. You play as a mercenary who gets stuck in the country and ends up finding himself having to perform jobs for various factions in an attempt to gather the resources to somehow find a way back home. Honestly, that description of the plot is probably making it sound much more narrative driven than it actually is. For the most part the story barely matters. The aforementioned oppressive setting though, that matters! It matters because the game is oppressive in nearly every other way as well and that is perhaps its most standout element.
This has got to be the most purposely unfriendly game I've ever played. Some of the design decisions are quite interesting to dissect as, being a modern FPS and not one that is particularly concerned with tactics and realism, many of its systems are quite friendly relative to older games of the genre. This just serves to highlight the contrast of its more notable design conceits: your character starts the game with a crippling case of malaria which you end up dealing with for the rest of the campaign, ammunition is limited, weapons suck and even the good ones you purchase wear out quickly and start jamming at inopportune moments, you've got to travel fucking everywhere which is made more difficult by the fact you need to stop to fix your vehicle any time you take more than a tiny bit of damage to it, oh, and virtually everyone in the world seems to put an oddly high level of priority on killing the shit out of you, and ohhhh yeah, they respawn too! That's just a taste. The interesting thing is, having some vague idea of what the game designers were going for here, I kind liked it!
"First person driving, get used to it!"
Sure, the massive travel distances for virtually every task were a huge bummer, and the fast travel points (which I used constantly) seemed almost purposely placed at equally inconvenient locations. That, and the frequency at which you encounter blood thirsty, incredibly determined enemies while traveling and the fact they do indeed respawn also felt more than a bit overwhelming at times, but otherwise? Bring it on. I enjoyed how the game made my character and in turned me as the player feel, well, not that special. You get dumped into this dangerous place and expect to be mowing everyone down and treated like some impervious god of war? Nope, not here buddy! You're just a guy, and your experience as a mercenary isn't enough to mean you're safe when you're facing 5 guys with light machine guns and satchels full of grenades when all you have is a rusty pistol and the cover of an old shack to protect you. While I don't think this whole arrangement quite works as intended, when it does all click it creates some wonderful emergent moments that don't feel exactly like any other game I've played. Here's a taste:
An end of chapter mission (and one of the more structured ones, I'd say) has you having to assassinate a high ranking officer in his mountain top compound. Knowing I was at a pivotal story mission I poked around online trying to figure out how long it might take me to complete so I'd know if I could squeeze it into an already busy night and ended up a watching someone basically speed-run through the mission by sneaking to a rare sniping position, picking him off from afar undetected, and then making a brilliant dive off of an adjacent cliff into the river below. Given that the alternative involved a lengthy firefight against numerous enemies I decided to try this guy's method.
"You can practically feel the explosions, especially when you get nailed by debris."
I stole a riverboat near Pala and made my way all the way up north to Goka falls retreat at Mt. Thabamolaetsa, pulling onto land just outside of the compound's docks to take out a few patrolling enemies from afar with my newly acquired dart rifle (a silenced sniper rifle, basically.) After that I carefully worked my way up the mountain to avoid alerting any of the guards to my presence. Unfortunately I completely fucked this up, as I found myself in totally the wrong spot on the opposite side of the mountain and ended up in a smaller but still protracted firefight regardless. Whatever, I survived and took up the appropriate position to finally snipe the officer and dive to victory. Only, not having done much leaping around in this game, I completely miscalculated my jump and instead of a beautiful James Bond like escape, I hit the ground below in a hilariously violent moment of sheer failure. A literal laughing out loud moment of ridiculousness. To compound it, somehow the buddy system kicked in and despite being extremely dead from this brutal face first dive hundreds of feet off of a cliff, my buddy showed up to revive me and drag me to "safety" and I completed the mission successfully, adding a hilarious "WTF?!" moment to my already brilliant death. Perfect!
Really, probably my biggest complaint about the game would be its length. I more or less got it when the game reached its half way point. It could have ended there, or maybe gone just a tiny bit longer, though instead it tosses you into a whole new map with a whole new set of almost identical objectives and missions to tackle. *grumble* At least it all went by a little more quickly at that point since I pretty much knew what I was doing.
"Even just looking at the map means you might get shot in the back or accidentally drive off of a bridge."
Continuing with the negatives, the infamously jilted dialog and the (in my opinion) ineffectual story didn't detract too much from the game but were definitely notable. While I mostly enjoyed the weapon and combat feel it didn't seem quite varied enough, especially given the open world nature of the game. Further on the "eh" side would be the buddy system, which while unique and interesting at first, and certainly somewhat provocative, eventually grew to feel completely tiresome and unnecessary to me towards the end of the game.
All of those negatives and still I'm saying I liked it? Sure! The parts of the game that do work and are fairly unique really feel like they make the game something special, especially amongst triple A games. The weird, oppressive setting and equally oppressive gameplay systems, the gritty, immersive forced first person perspective that helps draw you in, the uncommon and beautifully rendered African wilderness you get drawn into, the minimalist and often in-game-world UI which lends at hand there as well, and on the perhaps more shallow side, the bizarre but often compelling fire propagation system, all deserve nods. There are other things I enjoyed as well such as the health/healing system and the utterly epic explosions but those are the most standout. I'm actually very much looking forward to finally playing through Far Cry 3 and seeing just how much of this game's influence is still detectable and what systems they've completely scrapped. All of this when Far Cry 4 was just released? Wow, I think I'm officially a "patient gamer" these days...
Screenshots are actually from the PC version and stolen from various sites on the Internet. I actually played this on Xbox 360 for some difficult to justify reason but if this game has you at all interested you should be able to pick up a digital PC version for next to nothing and even mod out some of the annoying bits to boot!
Since I've been making a concerted effort to go through my Xbox 360 backlog I've been sneaking an Xbox Live Arcade title between every game or two. Having just completed Orcs Must Die! I figured I’d also go ahead and mention a couple others I put some time into recently.
"Not pictured: imminent painful death."
First, I ended up buying and giving Trials HD a whirl. For those unfamiliar with the series (who are you?!) the game is kind of like a modern day Excitebike, only using an amped up physics engine and courses designed by total fucking sadists. You play an anonymous motocross rider negotiating various obstacles (that aren't necessarily based in reality) as quickly and smoothly as possible. It’s not really a “race” in the traditional sense but you’re always racing against the clock to beat pre-defined goals. There’s also a nice feature that lets you easily compare your scores against your XBL friends'. I knew this game had a reputation for being brutally difficult but that it was also built from the ground up on that premise, making restarts and retries convenient and forgiving. It definitely delivers there, instilling a “just one more try!” attitude on even the least addictive personalities. Personally, while I feel like I could play this game forever, attempting to gold medal every race, unlock all of the achievements, etc. I honestly have too many games on my backlog to justify subjecting myself to the kind of frustration that started rearing its head once I got into the “hard” and “extreme” rated levels for too long. Yeah, I shamefully put this one down before completing it. If I had bought it when it came out I might have finished it but I just can’t force myself through it right now.
Speaking of which, I also ended up picking up Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD during a XBLA sale at some point. Thinking of the first three Tony Hawk games causes an almost instant nostalgic flashback to my college years, with just about every one of my punk rock, wanna-be skater friends that owned a Playstation or Dreamcast at the time totally addicted to the series. I owned the barely adequate Nintendo 64 port of the first game myself and was totally addicted to it despite its shortcomings. How does it feel to go back? Eh, kind of shitty actually. The game looks pretty good and, at first play, controls more or less like what I remembered the series playing like. Unfortunately those positive impressions didn't last long as I began to notice that the controls didn't quite make the translation to the new HD engine which itself “feels” totally different and is chalk full of some now rather infamous physics bugs. Most offensively, the classic THPS soundtrack has been totally gutted. Licensing issues, most likely, but it still changes the experience drastically. While I wouldn't necessarily tell any fans of the original to totally steer clear of this remake I’d definitely suggest giving the demo a shot first. Personally, after clearing about half of the levels I've decided to put it down.
Finally, an XBLA game I couldn't even start to put down early was Orcs Must Die! Holy shit, I love this game! I've talked very fondly about both Toy Soldiers and Defense Grid on this blog in the past so it probably comes as no surprise that I’m raving about yet another highly polished tower defense game. Orcs Must Die! probably more closely resembles Toy Soldiers, as it gives the player the ability to participate in the action themselves rather than just hover above the battlefield like some kind of micromanagement obsessed deity. Actually, this game goes even further with the third person action component being a much more fleshed out and indeed, important part of the game. Some of my strategies actually centered on my reinforcing one or two paths with traps while guarding the other with my character’s selection of weapons and spells.
"Step into my web, little orcs..."
Let me back up for a second and explain the premise a little better – you play as a sarcastic apprentice “war mage” who has been tasked with guarding the magical portals from one world, apparently occupied by all manner of nasty orcs and other stereotypical fantasy monsters, to your own. These portals are all inside of dungeon-like fortresses, some of them fairly elaborate, though unlike a lot of tower defense games their layouts never really get *too* complicated. As per usual, your enemies come in various “waves” of different combinations of enemies with breaks in between in which you can use the money you've earned by killing enemies from previous waves to shore up your defenses. In this game your “towers” actually consist of various types of dungeon traps – spiked floor panels and wall dart launchers to kill your enemies, swinging maces and crushing ceiling tiles to maim them, and sliding walls and springing floor panels to send them hilariously flailing off of ledges and into lava pools. There’s even placeable archer and paladin NPCs to help guard your paths. Unlike some tower defenses games, you can also place them just about anywhere they'll fit. The traps and other defenses are rolled out to you steadily as you progress, which means back tracking in the campaign can be helpful to improve your score, and there’s even an optional (and ultimately very useful) skill tree system that gets introduced a little further into the campaign.
"No good shots showing the UI, unfortunately."
I ended up working my way through the entire War Mage campaign (normal difficulty) with 4 or 5 skull ratings on every map. I highly considered going back and chasing 5 skull ratings on every map, or playing through the campaign on a higher difficulty, but again, too many games too little time. It’s a shame that the sequel never got released on Xbox 360 but I MOST DEFINITELY plan to pick up Orcs Must Die! 2 on Steam. Robot is also apparently working on Orcs Must Die! Unchained now which turns the whole thing into some kind of weird, Team Fortress 2 inspired 5 vs 5 competitive game. Intriguing!
Per usual, Xbox 360 screenshots stolen from wherever possible.
As promised, hot off the heels of completing the main Red Dead Redemption single player campaign I installed and started playing the game’s expansion pack / DLC Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare. Undead Nightmare is interesting for sure, being something of a “total conversion” of the main game with some different gameplay elements and a different flow than the core game. The (obviously totally non-canon) story revolves around RDR’s protagonist having to track down a cure to an evil undead invasion that has taken over the frontier.
Now, given how “straight” the story and characters of Red Dead Redemption are I really wasn't sure of what to expect of the expansion. Zombies, really? Was it going to be serious or totally ridiculous? The answer is somewhere in between though for the most part it keeps its serious tone and most of the more fantastic elements and humor are delivered in a very dry way which I found amusing in itself. That actually effected the entire feel of the expansion for me too – on one hand I felt like I shouldn't take my playthrough too seriously, as it is just a silly spin-off story. On the other the fact that the world still feels dark and gritty and, over the top moments like when I found and then “broke” one of the four fucking horses of the apocalypse aside, the tone is never really completely shattered helped continue to keep me almost as immersed as the original campaign.
The zombies themselves are obviously a game changer. The whole “zombie headshots” thing definitely had a major effect on my game. Zombies will usually go down with a single shot to the head or by being burned, anything else seems to have very little effect on them. Personally I didn't make going for headshots a priority at all in Red Dead Redemption proper so this new focus on lining up my kill shots really changed the whole dynamic of combat for me, especially when ammo was extremely scarce early on. Zombies also behave unlike any other enemies in the original game and the new special zombies add even further variety to the combat.
"Headshot, headshot, headshot. Learn to abuse Dead-Eye!"
Probably the biggest departure from the main game, mechanics wise, is the introduction of a town invasion system. All of the main towns and camps in the game have a limited number of survivors. They’ll come under attack at some point (it seems to be on some sort of timer) and you’ll need to help repel the attack and clear the town of zombies. If you wait too long or things go badly you might lose some survivors. The less survivors the more frequently the town will be attacked until such a time that it can no longer be cleared back out, losing you access to small weapons caches and a bed to save your game and fast travel with. While defending these towns can get a little repetitive on a whole I found the system pretty fun. I do wish I had paid more attention to the fact that you can “assist” survivors to speed up the process of clearing out a town, however, as a few of my earlier attempts to clear towns out were lengthy and fairly exhausting affairs.
Then there were the bugs. I don’t know if this is a wide spread problem or not (I've read some things that implied that these issues were only caused by a very recent patch) but boy was my game fucked. It seemed like after playing for a while NPCs and zombies would start spawning with invisible bodies, as in you could only see their clothing. This made going for headshots a little challenging given how few zombies have the fashion sensibility to sport hats. Worse, whenever this happened I would often notice certain events failing to trigger. The first graveyard I had to clear in the story took me well over an hour due to having to restart it over several times, with one of my runs netting me something like a hundred kills before exhausting all of my ammo and depleting my will to fight on. I’d also often run into a seemingly related glitch where trying to save my game would cause it to freeze. Thankfully the generous checkpoint system meant that this was never more than a bit of an inconvenience but it was annoying all the same.
"On a pale horse (running the hell away...)"
Overall would I recommend it? Even with the bugs I experienced I could easily recommend it to anyone who liked Red Dead Redemption and likes massacring zombie hordes. Even if you only want a little more time with John Marston and company and don’t care much for zombie games I'd probably recommend it if nothing else but for another opportunity to run through Red Dead's excellent world, albeit a slightly twisted version.
Xbox 360 screenshots looted from a cursed Aztec tomb because I'm a bad, bad man.