Don’t look now, but the Far Cry series is almost twelve years old. With four main games and a collection of expansions and spin-offs, there’s a lot to look at when surveying the series, but only one of those games is the best.
And the best Far Cry game is Far Cry 2.
Let’s get this out of the way first. Yes, it has problems. The respawning checkpoints were a pain in the ass, as was the need to keep taking malaria medication. The animals in this game are mere window dressing, and the way your weapons degraded is one of most frustrating mechanics of the past decade.
And yet...and yet for all of this, in spite of all this, Far Cry 2 was so ahead of its time, so brave in its decisions, that it’s impossible to look at the series as a whole and not see it as the defining moment of the franchise.
The first Far Cry, while expansive in scope, was still a linear shooter, not to mention one shackled to an absurd sci-fi plot that ruins the game once it takes its narrative (and level design) turn.
Far Cry 2, however, did away with this. It brought the open-world design of a Grand Theft Auto game, complete with vehicle acquisition and mission pick-ups, and dropped it into a sun-drenched first-person shooter. Rather than battling through pre-determined gauntlets, enemies popping their heads around corners or over crates, your tasks took place in the great outdoors, and left you free to approach them however you wanted.
It did this in 2008, a time when the only other game trying to be so open and flexible was Crysis (a series that, may I remind you, has since all but retreated from this in subsequent games).
Far Cry 3 & 4 (and Blood Dragon, and Primal) have since followed, but they’re in many ways merely echoes of Far Cry 2. Attempts by Ubisoft to take the bones of an inspired piece of design and clean them up, scrape off some admittedly rough edges and make them more palatable to a wider audience. In doing so, they’ve created one of the best running series in video games. Paradoxically, though, those rough edges were also what made Far Cry 2 so good in the first place.
Sure, Far Cry 3 and 4 are “better” games (and Primal so weird it almost begs to be left out of these conversations), in the sense they’ve been exhaustively focus tested until their systems and presentation are ticking like a Swiss watch. Gone are the weapon jams, the malaria fits, all those little things that, taken individually, sap your will to enjoy Far Cry 2.
“It’s normal for a game’s enemy units to make you feel threatened, but it’s rare for an entire world to make you feel this vulnerable.”
Combined, though, all those little hindrances and niggles form something incredibly rare in video games: a world which feels consistent across both its gameplay and narrative. Clint Hocking, the director of Far Cry 2, coined the term “ludonarrative dissonance” in 2007, prior to FC2's release, and while the term has gotten a little worn down through over-use (or mis-use) in discussions in recent years, it’s an important thing to remember when talking about Far Cry 2.
Ludonarrative dissonance basically means there’s tension in a game between its gameplay and its story. Far Cry 3, ironically, is a prime example: the game’s story pits you as a young man with no combat experience, who must race against the clock to save his friends. The gameplay, however, has you lounging around hunting animals, while wielding an AK-47 like a super soldier. The Grand Theft Auto series (Trevor excepted) has also long suffered from this. Many players don’t care about this, but when you’re into a series enough to care enough to write (or read) something like, you care about it.
In Far Cry 2, however, everything comes together. All those little complaints you have about the game that annoy you when you list them on the internet come together to form a world that is unrelenting and hostile. Not in a comical, “honey badger’s gonna git ya” kind of way, but in a more pervasive, “I am in a very dangerous place that I don’t understand which could kill me at any moment” kind of way.
Which fits the tone perfectly. Far Cry 2's story takes place in Africa. Not the Africa you see on a travel show. The one you see on the news. It’s less about elephants and tribal music, and more about failed states, diamond mines, mercenaries and atrocities.
You play a soldier caught up in the middle of this foreign world, where everyone around you is either killing or about to be killing. It’s a world in a moral vacuum, its civilians all but gone, the only people remaining portrayed as opportunistic murderers. At best.
Far Cry 2's Africa, then, is a world out to get you in every way possible, from the controversial design decisions it makes to the relentless enemy presence to the characters you encounter that will pay you right up until the point they try and kill you. It’s normal for a game’s enemy units to make you feel threatened, but it’s rare for an entire world to make you feel this vulnerable.
This harmony between gameplay and setting helps make Far Cry 2 the best game in the series, but it’s not the only reason a kinda-broken game from 2008 is still able to stand apart from its peers, which are more “fun”.
Mostly, it’s because Far Cry 2 was so ahead of its time that even now, over seven years after it was first released, it still feels more daring, more modern than most of its peers in the shooter genre. Even the stuff that has been cut from the series feels fresh, like the fact your map existed in-game, not on a separate screen, and to use it while driving meant juggling it on your lap.
It’s ending is worthy of mention, too. The player is given a simple choice to make towards the conclusion of the game; rarely will a binary decision end up affecting you more in a video game than the actions you must commit and the outcome you face after this one.
Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 are excellent video games, don’t get me wrong, and I even have a soft spot for the first half of the first game. But when talking about the best game of the Far Cry series, you have to begin and end with the one that didn’t just lay down the rules every subsequent game has followed, but did it with some guts.
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