Most of my readers will remember that I’m known as one of the biggest fans of Far Cry 2 in the world, having done my ‘Permanent Death’ saga in which I played through the game in one life and documented my progress and how playing in that manner changed the game. So readers should know that I’m already hopelessly biased against the sequel to what is, in my estimation, one of if not the most interesting and important game of our generation.
So in trying to work through my initial reactions to Far Cry 3 I’m faced with the impossible task of trying to sort out my inevitable disappointment from some more legitimate gripes. John Walker has already listed a bunch of things that he finds incredibly grating about the game, but there’s one particular issue that I haven’t seen anyone really put their finger on.
I think the main issue I have with the game is that I don’t like its tone, and I’ll explain what I mean by that with a couple of examples. The tone of FC2 was incredibly ambiguous, and almost entirely unique. Tom Bissell in his review of the rubbish Spec Ops: The Line, described FC2, saying that, “the game just stares back at you with lidless, reptilian eyes. It doesn’t care how you feel.” The way that I described it, back in one of the first things I wrote about the game, was that it was “about the individual; death; nihilism. The contentious design decisions, even the whole game, only starts to make sense when viewed through this lens.” Mortality and the nihilism of deadly violence is not just A Theme of the game, it is it’s only theme. When that prism refracts individual design elements; the enemy AI design and their distinctly ambivalent likeability; the incredible natural beauty; the precarity of the instruments of death; and the themes of the individual missions, with their echoes of post-colonial adventures in Africa, all of them are revealed as shorter wavelengths that make up the crystal clear light shining throughout that whole game.
FC2 was about entropy (how rare to say that any game is about ANYTHING, let alone something so abstract and important!) and carried an awareness of material entropy – fire, oil, metal and springs, gas and cartridges, rust! Blood and dust.
And after playing it for about 5 or 6 hours I want to ask a similar question: What is FC3 about? 5 to 6 hours was approximately how long it took for the theme of FC2 to emerge, so it seems fair to ask now. Except that I don’t think FC3 is ‘about’ anything, at least not in the same way that FC2 was. Possibly this is an impossible standard to live up to – perhaps FC2 was a fluke, an accident, an impossible project never to be repeated.
But why would that be the case?
“Because of the market, stupid! Because game development happens in a certain way and it means that a game with such singular focus will never be made again!”
That kind of cynicism is remarkably prevalent in the faux-enlightened corners of the enthusiast press and can even be found creeping into the occasional mainstream publication. But that argument can’t even be taken seriously once we expose the rhetorical assumption behind it – that there is something natural or inevitable about certain kinds of contemporary game development. At the risk of alienating my less philosophically inclined readers – this is pretty clearly an extension of what Mark Fisher calls ‘Capitalist Realism’.
Almost incidentally, that also presents a unique problem for games studies, in that it is an admission of the fact that extra-game forces have a greater determining power over the game than anyone who supposedly is making actual ‘game design’ decisions. When was the last time you read a paper about weapon reload time changes and their impact online that also took into account and integrated the larger, determining forces of capitalist production and workplace labour laws? Which means that design philosophy is an up-for-grabs target of critique.
So assuming that FC2 was the product of it’s own distinct design philosophy, one which I won’t attempt to name or even locate within Clint Hocking and/or his team of designers (this for pragmatic reason), I will say that it is obvious that Clint et al. had a design philosophy for FC2. So let us instead posit the existence of the design philosophy that resulted in FC2 merely for comparisons sake. Then what can we say, in comparison, about FC3’s design philosophy, by observing the results (i.e. by playing the game)?
Let’s talk specifics – this game has some really shitty racist elements. I won’t say anymore about it because it’s bleedingly obvious to the point where I could just copy+paste the phrase “Magical Negro” a hundred times and it makes my point for me. I will leave it to others to decide whether FC2 was, in it’s own way, racist or not (though I suspect it was far less so, if it even was).
An even easier comparison to make between FC2 and FC3 has to do with the amount of dehumanization the enemies undergo. In FC2 the enemies are nasty, brutish, violent mercenaries and this is an important element to their character, but they also get scared, they are terrified of dying and particularly of dying by fire. This is probably one of the most important and least remarked upon elements of FC2. In FC3, the red-shirted pirates are caricatures. Little better than cardboard cutouts from a shooting gallery, except that they also fire back. The main antagonist – Vaas – is actually the exception to this rule, which is a weird thing to deal with. He is, however, pretty much a non-entity past the intro (at least up to the point I am at in the game).
Another area where the sequel fails (at least comparatively) is in terms of the weapons and what I can only describe as their ‘feel’. This is a combination of a number of things I’m sure, including the way that FC2 stuck religiously to first-person perspective, and the way it balanced the whole combat system around an ongoing shortage of ammo and the risk/reward of picking up a ‘rusty’ gun, etc, etc. I guess it’s clear that the number of systems entailed in the combat mechanics of FC2 is quite nearly all of them, and that was itself fantastic. FC3 has the same shortage of ammo but instead of a system around the risk associated with picking up enemy weapons… FC3 involves a hunting and crafting system that feels far more artificial and grindy in comparison. At the very least these are inelegant solutions.
And similar observations can be made elsewhere – why does it take so long to loot bodies and why play an animation? Why can’t I pick up ALL the cash money piles at once, instead having to perform the same tedious “press and hold” routine for three or more piles of cash ($7… $3… $9…). So far I think what FC3 is most about (if its about anything) is what might best be described as the “general upward trend” gotten from grinding. I’ll save you the boring readings of grinding through a political-economy lens and just say that while I can often enjoy the occasional grind, I think the FC2 alternative solution of a more ‘flat’ experience (no levels, few upgrades very miserly apportioned) was a much, much better fit for a first person shooter with operatic scope and pretensions to being meaningful.
The economy reflects this issue as well, with Tristan Damen (@Unbearabledutch) pointing out on twitter today that: “FC3’s economy seems pretty busted. Only reason you need money is to buy weapon attachments.” If I had to pick one word to describe much of the crafting and economy decisions in FC3 I would describe them as arbitrary.
Lastly (for now) the decision to include civilian/native populations (which were nearly-exclusively ‘invisible’ in FC2, bringing its own set of problems, primarily around ‘othering’ the inhabitants) but without going to the trouble of making them anything more than set-dressing opens FC3 to accusations of denying indigenous agency/autonomy (passive civilians waiting for the hero to rescue them) which is a frequent problem for games generally. In fact this is one of the reasons that their very omission in FC2 seems like such an enlightened choice. Better to avoid it altogether if one can’t do it properly. Another comparison here might be apt, this time to Just Cause 2, which John Walker (and numerous others) has already usefully compared it to. But the caricatures of civilians that the Just Cause series presents (where they wander aimlessly, occasionally chat about something or other, and generally provide a backdrop feeling of a ‘lived-in-place’) only works within the context of the wider suspension of disbelief that is necessary for any Just Cause game. FC3 doesn’t go to these same ludicrous heights, nor does it pack as much into the world, with frequently big empty spaces to be trudged through (which remain unlike FC2 which turned them into an endurance test and an integral part of its meditation on the nature of safety in relation to deadly violence).