This diary first appeared in PC Gamer magazine issue 366 in January 2022. We do one every month, taking on new challenges and approaching our favourite games from entirely new angles – and letting you know how we got on.
You emerge from the iron shack into a luminous dawn, a blue hour vision of crushed darks and saturated colours to the susurrating of strings, pregnant with tension. Before you, a stretch of scrubland that peters out into the gleaming desert at the reddening horizon. But in front of that is a car.
It's a sports car of sorts, but you know this was born in a second-string factory in the '80s, its sharper corners now unfashionable, its metaphorical corners cut. Racing stripes are lost in a veneer of rust and decay. Yet you know that this car was someone's pride and joy, the result of many nightshifts and dreary days. Now it's a potent symbol of the UAC's deterioration. Misplaced money, exploitative imports, shattered dreams… Then a dust cloud in the distance signals that this moment of reverie is over, and you have to shoot someone in the face.
This moment has stayed with me for more than 13 years. It was one of the most vivid places I had ever experienced and sits with other distinct, sacred memories both real and virtual, from approaching Rapture, to the wonders of the Maasai Mara itself.
I loved Far Cry 2. There was atmosphere and cinematography that Vittorio Storaro would have been proud of, and a soundtrack that featured Baaba Maal. There was a lightness of touch that demonstrated that developers trusted the player to fill the blanks, if they provided an immersive enough experience. Most of all, I had dreamed of an FPS Elite, a truly open world I could live in, and approach as I saw fit, with as few breaks in the mise-en-scene as possible. I wasn't disappointed.
I loved the actual map and GPS you hold up in real-time, the healing animations, being revived then carried to safety by acquaintances and the surrounding desert providing the softest of invisible walls. All these worked to sustain immersion, even if the game's desire for verisimilitude bore contrarian fruit. The prevalent opinion was that much of it sucked.
Most were irritated by the recurrent bouts of malaria, but I thought this was genius. Likewise both sides in this war, equally mired in murder and corruption, want to kill you, regardless of what you do for them. This means that you're being shot at, by everyone, all the time.
"I can't drive anywhere without being chased," was the common complaint amongst folk.
To which my answer was, "You drove places?" If you weren't hiking into the mountains to watch the sunset over the savannah between missions, you were playing the game wrong. I suppose this was where gamers began to diverge, now that the worlds were open and real enough, between those who were all about the 'splodes and mayhem, and those for whom walking simulators would later be designed. The latter would populate the hills and forests of Day Z and Rust, harried by the former, before leaving to fall in love with Delilah in Firewatch.
Bed & Wreckfest
I've had a hankering to return to the UAC, and it's the hiking, the sunsets, and the zebras that I'm after. A holiday. I'm not interested in the journey to the heart of darkness or the nihilism, I'm not even after the Jackal as such. He's just on an optional day excursion.
So, no unnecessary deaths. No guns. No moral relativism. Just a good time.
I get the taxi from the airport, which is how all vacations start. I see the locals fl ee, surrendering the battlefield to the thieving westerners. It's okay, I'm going to leave all this behind and ‘see the real UAC' like some entitled backpacker.
I don't remember the intro tutorial being quite so linear though. Malaria dominates the opening scenes. I pass out and wake to meet my target, the Jackal, who quotes Nietzsche like an alt-right teen. I escape a firefight in the town without spilling blood, before losing consciousness again, to be rescued by one of the many militia parasites. He sends me on my fi rst murder, but I'm on holiday so I get in the waiting coupé and try to drive away. I hit an in-universe invisible wall – another severe dose that sends me right back to where I started. I'm not going to get any sight-seeing done until I get some medicine.
Thus, I'm stuck doing awkward stealth in a warren of narrow valleys and gloomy ravines, under overcast skies. I'm noisy without any of the buffs and get swiftly made. I can't explode a red barrel without unloading a full clip into it. I'll need a more powerful pistol at the very least. I have a shopping list already, which will require diamonds, so I have busywork to do. Between pretending my car is an ‘environmental hazard', and my machete, I jump the hoops and get a lead on some meds.
I notice the GPS is now clear… So once I've got my chloroquine, or whatever, the away-break can begin. I wanted those savannahs, those zebras, those deserts, those skies. Now I can get them.
My memory was of walks, and views, and special one-off moments. Once I climbed a mountain and found a deserted village that belonged to a people largely untouched by the imperial West. Arriving before the mission it was designed for felt like I was rounding a corner in the Jordanian rocks and seeing Petra for the first time. At the very top of this climb, I found a hang-glider. I soared and wheeled through the blue sky, seeing the lush landscape below and the deserts beyond, the animals scattering before me. I was a bird. It was over in seconds and when it was done, it was done. They weren't marked on the map, and I never found another.
Would not recommend
Now I'm getting stuck in chokepoints, pursued by unfeasibly speedy jeeps by mercs with X-ray vision and unerring marksmanship. Anything I'm driving stops after being shot, meaning I can't outrun anyone. It's possible to avoid trouble by going round obstacles, but it requires a patience that I don't seem to possess anymore. I've been spoiled by the Rook Islands and Kyrat. My daughter and I played Far Cry 5 together, and often stopped killing cultists to enjoy the sports and the views. It was always an easy option, even with deadly wildlife.
Laboa-Sako, the northern part of the UAC, is definitely less appealing than the south, where after a lot of grind I go on to find many of the small wonders I'm looking for. But even on the periphery of the desert where the metaphorical diamonds are, it's a lot like going on holiday to somewhere you loved as a child, but now… It's smaller, browner, less full of potential than you remember. The beaches smaller, the arcades short of games, each one less thrilling than it was but ten times the price. There are still small beauties to find, but if you've been to Vegas, Prestatyn seems tiny, because it is.
But I see my animals, managing not to hit them all with my car. I see some sunsets and some amazing vistas. I get rained on, a lot, which spoils the pictures, but that's holidays for you. And I find my ancient village, but it's full of ex-pat monsters with mortars. I suppose, at least in this game, if I shot someone in the head, they'll die, unlike the less considerate soldiers of Yara.
And that's the rub. This time, I'm on vacation, but for someone on safari, I'm spending a lot of time machete-ing people to death. It's all necessary self-defence, of course, but I might as well be using a gun. So, accepting that rules are made to be broken, I grind and arm myself with the M-79 Grenade Launcher…
Start of darkness
The sub-text of Far Cry 2, such as it is, retreads Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, or more precisely Coppola's Apocalypse Now. The assassin travels through a ravaged world in search of the one most responsible for it, inevitably adopting the same methods, and in doing so, is infected by the same sickness, literally and figuratively. Opinion is sharply divided as to whether Conrad's masterwork is a vicious takedown of European colonialism, or a deeply othering piece of racism, with the smarter money being on both. The concept was better served by Spec Ops: The Line, but it remains the de facto theme of the Far Cry series, with wildly contrasting success and states of dissonance.
The first-time round, I became very good at it all, slipping unnoticed from place to place and playing both sides against each other. Slowly, these mercenaries began to talk of me with fear in their voices. And I was a monster. I would shoot someone in the leg so his cries would attract his friends to my headshot party. This was okay, because everyone was a Western, colonial interloper with no business in the UAC except exploitation and greed.
Finally, I tired of being a shadow and the ennui born of invincibility, I swapped my sniper rifle for a rocket launcher or two. I destroyed everything. The people, the buildings, the vehicles, the trees and grass. I blazed with the brightness of a thousand suns. I knew then it was time for the endgame, to face the Jackal… and discover a warlord who had come to regret his actions, just as I had come to revel in mine.
Having the M-79 again makes killing effortless. Satisfying. I see the roadblock and try to drive round it, but I'm daring them to spot me. "Just try it," I think. That becomes, "I'll teach you for messing up my shiny Jeep." I thought it would make the killing less disturbing, but it just makes it less personal, even funny. I'm changing, and it's changing the nature of the trip. My notion of a good time shifts like a snake.
The idea of snatching a few minutes of magical serenity between the serious business of surviving a civil war, as a counterpoint to the violence, the corruption and decay… that worked. It made the sky, the sun, the animals, the desert sand and forests sacrosanct… all immune to the violence. Killing people so I can enjoy them in peace is taking the edge off that awe. I'm slaughtering mercenaries, because I can't get to the hang-gliders. I'm worse than the monster waiting for me at that final pass, worse than the man who hunted him 13 years ago.
The Jackal misunderstands his Nietzsche, of course. There's nothing inevitable about what happens in the UAC. The ‘power' in ‘will to power' isn't Kraft – control and force – it's Macht – sublimation, overcoming the self and selfish, the channelling of force for creativity. I look at my photographs. Is that what I've done? Yuck. I need a shower.