Far Cry 2 vs Far Cry 3: A Retrospective

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A while ago I decided to give Far Cry 2 and Far Cry 3 another run before Far Cry 4 came out. I probably won’t be playing FC4 for a while, but I still think the comparison is interesting, if only for all the arguments that persist over which is the superior Far Cry game.

FC2 and 3 are opposites in some ways when you examine the philosophy of each game’s design. FC2 is popularly cited as a flawed gem that didn’t get the recognition it deserved, while FC3 is popular and better executed but also much more conventional in its design. A lot of people who love one hate the other. Everything I’ve heard about FC4 suggests it’s very much the sequel to FC3, but I still like to look back and hope Ubisoft remembers what was actually good about FC2.

FC2 is like a lot of western games developed specifically for consoles during the last console generation by developers normally accustomed to the PC. It tried to reconcile some aspects common to PC game design within the console space and ended up somewhere in the middle. Some games balance this pretty well, a lot don’t. The debate rages over what category FC2 falls into.

Look at the game its lead designer Clint Hocking worked on immediately prior — Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. Compared to its predecessors Chaos Theory — the first Splinter Cell to lead on PC, offered a lot more player freedom. Its levels were still mostly linear but it put a lot of focus on giving players many tools with which to solve problems however they see fit. Sometimes you can solve a single objective by hacking a computer, picking a locked door, eavesdropping on people, or interrogating them. Each environment in the game is a system of windows, lights, radios, curtains, and doors you can manipulate to get around guards however you want, not a puzzle to be solved with one answer. It’s a design philosophy not unlike PC classics ThiefDeus Ex, or System Shock. More relevant to recent times, Elder Scrolls and Fallout have similarly systemic environments.

FC2 is a game where basically every mission gives you multiple routes into open-ended areas along with alternate objectives. It gives players the elbow room to either roll in guns blazing on a motor boat, quietly swim into an area and catch enemies from underneath, or sneak over a hillside with a sniper rifle. It let’s you make your own plans for these operations either in the day or at night which affects enemy behavior. The fire propagation and random enemy appearances on roads increase FC2’s potential for chaotic, emergent events. The storyline is a uniquely dark series of events the game constructs non-linearly through a colorful cast of characters who can die permanently.

Some of those chaotic, emergent factors are what players hate about FC2, but I think the game’s real problem is it’s too shallow in how it executes its vision. The game’s various areas only contain enemy soldiers, all of whom attack you indiscriminately. Checkpoints filled with these enemies are too close together and respawn too quickly. Encountering enemies on the road stops being fun when it happens every three minutes like clockwork. These things made FC2 feel too repetitive for a lot of people. It’s hard to say why and how these flaws came about. Perhaps FC2″s original vision was limited by PS3 and Xbox 360 hardware. Maybe Ubisoft wanted it to appeal to players who were used to popular shooters that didn’t try to have expansive worlds, so they slimmed things down. For whatever reason, FC2’s world wasn’t as big an intricate as what was required to let its vision shine. I agree the game get’s repetitive, but still can’t help but appreciate what it tries to do because almost no recent mainstream games attempt it.

Far Cry 3 feels like a thicker game with more things going on in its world and less hiccups in its design, but I also feel like it threw the baby out with the bathwater when trying to rectify FC2’s mistakes.

Actual civilians walk around, many of whom give you extra things to do. Most importantly you see characters of two distinct sides in a war, often fighting each other at random points. There are clear markers of enemy territory where they patrol, which you can win back through the open-ended base capture missions. Wildlife actually has an (often chaotic) effect on the world. In short, FC3 has an actual sense of a living place in conflict between two sides.

FC3’s problem in my eyes is it almost completely got rid of FC2’s open ended mission design for the main campaign. Most of FC3’s campaign is really just linear first person shooter levels which to me feel pointless in an open world. Oh there are some that take place in sandbox-like environments, but even they support less creativity on the player’s part than FC2’s main missions.

There’s a mission in FC2 where, after scouting an assassination target’s surroundings, I was able to snipe him through a window on an adjacent cliff I’d snuck onto, then leap about 70 ft down into a river before anyone knew what had happened. FC3 never gives players the capacity to plan missions to that extent. One FC3 mission that sticks out to me begins in an open-ended area, but at one point forces you to blow up a door, which basically removes any choice of stealth. Furthermore, the door leads into a straight corridor section.

Y’know, the difference between FC2 and 3 is a lot like the difference between the original Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed II. The first one tried to be a completely sandbox-oriented stealth game but suffered from shallow mechanics. The second sacrificed the open-ended gameplay for a more polished end-product.

The comparison doesn’t stop there either. Ubisoft has basically repeated ACII’s design across many of its open world games. It’s obviously been the template for all succeeding AC games, but FC3 and Watch_Dogs also have more or less the same gameplay loop. In all of them you clear bases in an open world, complete linear main story missions, and unlock upgrades with points earned from doing the previous two things. FC4 looks to continue the trend. Previews for Assassin’s  Creed Unity made that game look like it was going to be a departure, but reviews say otherwise.

What’s funny is, in interviews with Ubisoft representatives about Far Cry 4, they mention how basically all the positive feedback they got on FC3 concerned its side missions where you wipe out open-ended enemy bases, rather than the main campaign. Those bases do offer players some room to plan things, but it’s still always the same routine: disable alarms, kill all enemies, repeat. Even the other side missions are just “kill this guy with a knife,” or “hunt this animal.” FC2 at least spreads things out by having you plan ways to attack convoys, assassinate specific targets (with any weapon), or steal things.

A lot of people like FC3, and we have yet to see how FC4 is received in the long run, but at the same time a lot of people are getting tired of the “Ubisoft open-world game” formula. Hopefully Ubisoft takes the transition to a new console generation as a chance to push things forward and maybe experiment again. Maybe FC2’s experimentation came a bit too early. Whatever the case, I’ve been really disappointed to see the entire shooter genre go in basically disregard what it tried to do.

BULLETS:

  • My current jam. http://t.co/7YWB6FeyVV
  • Netflix’s Marco Polo looks good. http://t.co/Yk0IkIx1Mk Also looks like it might be “Orientalism tropes: the show.” Might be hard to escape, seeing it’s about the guy who pretty much invented Orientalism. At that point I guess you gotta criticize American media’s choice of historical subjects. Marco Polo might be Netflix’s answer to Game of Thrones, but imagine a GoT-ish show just about the Mongols. Hard to greenlight in America due to the lack of white heroes. What happened to that Ching Shih show someone was doing with Maggie Q?
  • Nice: commentary on Tekken womens’ tournament. https://t.co/2WSCraHonH
  • A thing on Jim Sterling. http://t.co/KCteRqT3VK
  • Oh. And Half-Life 2 turned 10 this weekend. I don’t really have much to say about it other than the main reason why it’s my favorite first person shooter — it’s simply a masterful example of encounter and level design. The whole game is scripted events done right, and basically no other linear FPS has matched it in this area. That’s why it’s such a replayable game.
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