Half-Life is a 1998 first-person shooter that pushed the realism of the genre forward by having guns lie on the ground like regular objects instead of glowing red and spinning in the air. Its graphics have not aged well – it’s on the wrong end of the Half-Life gap, which is no surprise since the Half-Life gap is named after the way that Half-Life 2’s graphics, while clearly aged, look about as close to modern games released almost twenty years later as they do to the first Half-Life’s graphics, released just six years before. Despite this, I found that its atmosphere and immersion still worked even though I first played it fifteen years after its release, past the age when nostalgia is usually able to get its hooks in.
Far Cry 2 is a 2008 first-person shooter that tried to push the realism of the genre forward by portraying a civil war in a fictitious African nation somewhere in the blood diamond region, where two rebel factions with armies comprised as much of foreign mercenaries as of local insurgents fought over the remains of a country that everyone was fleeing as fast as they could. Healing animations involved digging bullets out of your flesh with a knife or setting horribly bent and twisted limbs, enemies with a sliver of health left limp around or fire at you from the ground while bleeding out, and you have to keep your anti-malaria meds topped off or you might find yourself weakened or even incapacitated by the disease in the middle of a firefight.
You can tell from the phrasing that I don’t think Far Cry 2 was as successful in its immersion as Half-Life. Far Cry 2 has a lot more horsepower behind it than Half-Life, so where did it go wrong? Certainly not in its environmental design. Far Cry 2 depicts central Africa with a variety of different biomes and settlements, although it does lack any major cities, which is a disappointment but not an immersion problem, and in fairness to the devs I can see why representing something on the scale of Kinshasa or Luanda while also making the surrounding countryside the focus would’ve been difficult. Luanda, capital of Angola, is a major, modern port city, and Kinshasa, capital of the DRC, is the third largest city on the continent of Africa. But also it would have to look big while also being dwarfed on the map by the surrounding countryside, which means the surrounding countryside would also have to be bigger, and it’s kind of inconvenient to traverse as it is. Mercenaries tried to have major cities on a map that focused on the countryside, and the end result is that Pyongyang feels puny. Far Cry 2 has the advantage of taking place in a fictional country, though, so it might just be a small country with no major cities.
So despite one minor disappointment, environment design isn’t the reason why Far Cry 2 is less immersive than Half-Life. And neither is weapon design. Far Cry 2 covers all the standard bases: Pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, LMGs, rocket launchers. It does lack a bit of Half-Life’s variety in weird things like the gluon gun, but that’s not an immersion problem. It’s the opposite: Half-Life had to earn things like the gluon gun with its commitment to its atmosphere, making these things seem like plausible bleeding edge tech from a laboratory working at the outer frontiers of science, when they would’ve come across as goofy hyper-tech if they were dropped in right from the start (and goofy hyper-tech would be fine in certain contexts, but not Half-Life, which takes place in something approximating the real world). Far Cry 2’s gritty setting of a country worn down by years (decades?) of civil war with secondhand weapons precludes that kind of tech, so it’s not a surprise or a problem that it’s limited to your more standard military armaments.
And it’s not Far Cry 2’s enemy AI that’s the problem, either. The AI have the aforementioned limping around and firing from the ground when nearly dead, which makes them much less predictable than your standard FPS enemies, including those from Half-Life. They’re also much more willing to flank and surround the player, and the absence of any red dots on a minimap means you can get surprised by a straggler in an area you thought you had cleared, and that finding a sniper can be a challenge. And they’ll happily run you over if they can, which is an anti-climactic but not unrealistic way to die (if you want to play FC2, learn to dive for cover when you hear an engine revving). Far Cry 2 is better than perhaps any other video game at getting across the chaos and tension of a modern battlefield, where there’s never any clear signal as to whether or not you’re safe or when you’re in danger (although the game’s AI is, of course, oversimplified compared to real battlefields, and you can eventually pick up on patterns for where enemies are located and when they bring in reinforcements – still, Far Cry 2 puts a lot more effort into mitigating the limitations of AI when emulating battlefield chaos, and it pays off).
No, the problem with Far Cry 2’s immersion is its ambition. Half-Life simulated an underground laboratory under attack from aliens. You see a lot of friendly scientists and security guards early on, but they thin out as the crisis goes on, as everyone is either killed or holed up in a secure location. Far Cry 2, on the other hand, aims to simulate an entire country. The map, even combining both north and south together, is all of 6×3 kilometers, but that’s enough to feel like a wide expanse of rural countryside. No, the problem is that, outside of the in-engine opening cut scene and a couple of mission-specific spawns, there are no civilians. If you see a car approaching, you can and should unload your LMG on it or shoot it with a rocket launcher or whatever, because it is always an enemy.
Despite the fact that you look pretty indistinguishable from the mercenaries employed by both sides, both factions attack you on sight even when they’re on patrol on the roads, even early on when (as tracked by the game’s reputation system) you are a total unknown. You should be indistinguishable from allied mercs of either faction, but somehow everyone knows to attack you immediately. Even guard posts shouldn’t necessarily be able to suss out that you’re an enemy right away. Plus, while you have to take jobs from both factions to complete the story, you can support one over the other exclusively until they run out of missions, then switch to the other. At minimum, during the first half of this process, you’d think the one faction would stop shooting at you. The briefings given before missions do make it clear that you’re valuable because you’re a deniable asset, one which their own troops don’t know is (for now) on their side, but that suggests that both rebel militias are shooting at everyone they don’t personally recognize. Unless these armies are both 200 or fewer troops, that should result in tons of friendly fire.
And, perhaps most important of all, the game’s immersion is broken by its irritating and frustrating mechanics added, most likely, out of a misguided obsession with realism. I mentioned earlier that enemies can run you over, but this is a very not-fun way to be forced to reload a save. Being overrun by enemies who get on all sides of you makes a lot of sense, you’re supposed to be just a regular mercenary so really it’s kind of weird that it takes like five or six people to overrun your position instead of just three (a consequence of the deep reserve of health you get from being Player One). But also, realistically speaking, why would you ever send one person by themselves to storm positions held by eight enemies? Realistic drawbacks are only immersive if you provide realistic solutions, but the realistic solution to the problem of being outflanked is to bring more guys with you. The best you get in Far Cry 2 is a single buddy, you can only get them on the field by almost dying, and they won’t follow you to your next objective, just hang out at the spot where they bailed you out that one time (which they won’t do again until you reach a new safehouse to refresh the buddy rescue).
Plus, as is often the case with these kinds of things, realistic features that make fights easier are ignored. The enemy retreats under only the most extreme of circumstnaces, only if you’ve killed the vast majority of their allies and you’ve completed enough missions to have a strong reputation as a deadly enemy (and it still happens so rarely that I wonder if the times I’ve seen enemy remnants running away is actually a bug). Given these are rebel militias and mercenaries, you would expect them to start running away much more easily.
It’s hard to tell exactly how much of the problem is that Far Cry 2 was overly ambitious and ran out of development time on which to deliver on their ambitions, and how much Far Cry 2’s devs thought of “realism” as synonymous with “hardcore” and ignored parts of reality which make things easy or pleasant. It’s true that reality is generally more gruesome and difficult than video games, so being realistic will move things in that direction, but there are in fact nice things in the real world that video games have failed to emulate, and leaving them out is immersion-breaking. For example, unlike in video games, the real world is primarily made up of people who aren’t murderers and don’t mean you any harm. Even in warzones where people who want to kill you are common enough that you bump into them frequently, they still make up a maximum of like 10% of the total population, often less.
The malaria attacks were considered the most annoying part of Far Cry 2, but for my money I think the way enemies instantly recognize you even at very low reputation is worse, especially when combined with how quickly they respawn. Regardless of exactly what feature was the most aggravating, there were lots of gameplay elements intended to make Far Cry 2 more gritty and realistic, and which might’ve worked if the game had been realistic in general, but unfortunately it uses realism exclusively to disempower the player.