Revisiting Far Cry 2: heat, murder and malaria in gaming’s most oppressive locale

Far Cry 2

The twin regions of Leboa-Sako and Bowa-Seko are as unremittingly unwelcoming as its residents.

This is not the African continent of holiday brochures, its mustard-toned savannahs, iridescent watering holes and peaceful fauna welcoming to the most timid of tourists. This is not a nation captured in a National Geographic spread, where local people go about their business against a backdrop of endlessly beautiful nature. This is the Africa of a sidebar story at the back of a newspaper’s international section. This is the Africa of the guerrillas, those who fight over a carcass land stripped of resources by long-vanished colonialist vultures.

Even the most unwelcoming videogames are often set in places that, aside from the bullets and peril, have a holiday-destination appeal. And the Far Cry series boasts some of the most appealing vistas in the medium. The first game is set within a Southern Pacific archipelago, its shimmering scenery inspiring even the most focused fighter to occasionally stop and stare. Likewise, the blue mountains that rise out of verdant blankets of foliage make Far Cry 3’s Rook Islands some of the most precious jewels in either the Indian or Pacific Oceans. Far Cry 2, however, is a grim exception, and not only for the series, but also the entire medium: its twin regions of Leboa-Sako and Bowa-Seko are as unremittingly unwelcoming as its residents.

This is the Africa of pothole-cratered roads, of rusty AK-47s, worthless money, dusty shantytowns, blistering poverty and unshakeable malaria. Leboa-Sako, where you begin the game, ebbs and flows between barren desert and sweltering jungle. It has its own sort of beauty, but one that masks a hostile character. Bowa-Seko, its conjoined twin in the south, revolves around Mosate-Selao, a town under a shaky ceasefire. But there are no such promises elsewhere. Militia run the neighbouring roads and villages, and line the banks of the vast Lake Segolo.

At one point, the game was so coherent that it was possible to finish the story unwittingly if a forest fire killed the final boss.

The setting has a heavy sense of authenticity; indeed, Ubisoft Montreal’s art team reported of being surprised at how much the real Africa it visited during development for research differed from the one of imagination. So Far Cry 2’s crooked, wasted trees and dense tinderbox thickets (which light up at the slightest provocation) are plucked straight from reality. They have none of the usual welcoming sheen of a videogame set. Most game worlds are built around their player and exist for the player’s whim, edification or entertainment. This is a videogame world that is, at best, indifferent to your presence. At worst, it’s entirely hostile towards it.

The hostility goes beyond mere scenery, too. Far Cry 2’s systems not only reflect the character of its setting, but in many cases are born from it. Here, the poverty extends to your inventory. Your guns might lock up and fail at any moment, and if you crash your corroded jeep into a tree stump, you’ll need to fix the mechanical damage yourself with sweat and spanner. Likewise, medical attention takes the form of prising bullets from wounds with pliers. To add illness to injury, your character is sick with malaria throughout the game, which must be managed with a fistful of pills every 20 minutes. Played on a console, every trip is taut with the danger of loss: lose your life before you make it to a safehouse and your progress will disappear with it. The stakes are never anything but extreme.

The lack of relief (comic or otherwise) from this intensity can be wearying, but there are occasional concessions. Despite the clear indication that these regions have long been stripped of their valuable resources by imperialist settlers, diamonds can be found in the rough, making up a currency that can be used to import better equipment or simply pay for a round of drinks for people you meet. But these rare moments of capricious kindness are offset by the guerrillas that own the land. Both Leboa-Sako and Bowa-Seko are regions liberally punctuated by hostile checkpoints, whose guards, their AK-74s dangling lazily at their sides, either peer into your truck to see what’s worth stealing or simply open fire on sight. This makes every trek across the country a costly one: do you attempt to drive through the checkpoint and enter into a cross-country car chase, or take the off-road route and, more likely than not, find yourself upturned in a ditch long before you reach your destination?

In July 2007, the studio sent some of the team to Kenya on a fact-finding mission. They camped on the savannah. When they returned, they drastically changed the game to reflect their experiences.

Joseph Conrad’s The Heart Of Darkness is a clear influence (even one of the early missions is named after the novel) and the game matches Conrad’s work in engendering a sense of journeying into forgotten and forsaken Africa. Here, humanity has been thinned by heat and violence, the rules are distinct and unfamiliar, and more than anything, you are not wanted. In the end, even your closest friends turn against you.

This is a game world, which – much like its inhabitants, who eye you with suspicion and cruelty – goes out of its way to discourage you from revisiting. Its churches and clinics do not exist for your benefit. Even the ex-pat bars are wary of your presence. It’s telling that only the safehouses provide genuine pockets of safety and security, but are remote, cramped rooms where you are usually alone. As silently requested by the game, few will return to Leboa-Sako and Bowa-Seko once the credits have rolled. They aren’t designed for repeat business. In this sense, Far Cry 2 is an unequivocal success. Rarely have the human forces that oppose you been so backed with such resolution by a game’s very geography.