Far Cry 2 was the great narrative hope. But it seems like Far Cry 2 missed. Why? I think it’s because they got caught solving the wrong problem.
Unlike the other narrative games this season, the game is really completely about combat. And, frankly, I thought the combat could have used a lot of work. It needed more variety. And it was hard! This is a game I should have loved. I played it for a week. It’s in genres I enjoy. I’m fascinated by the tech. And there’s lots of good stuff going on in the combat design – fire, layout approach puzzles, strategic choices. But the crashes and the AI bugs (including a memorable intentional buddy drowning) are an issue, and even worse, I couldn’t finish the 2nd mission. Having to replay the mission from the beginning after dying made it all the more frustrating. That’s a lot of problems for a game, and they take precedence. A lot of time spent building up the story could have been spent training me to survive instead, or making the game easier, or developing a reasonable mid-mission checkpoint system, or anything. If I haven’t said it before, game development is miraculously hard. Massive kudos to Ubisoft for trying procedural narrative, but from my play it doesn’t seem like the trade off was worth it. These kinds of hard choices are the ones that have always kept back procedural narrative development, but them’s the breaks.
But the procedural narrative implementation itself didn’t work for me either. Narrative doesn’t have a big impact on the game – and when that’s true it’s hard to be the first innovator . It was neat to see the responsive characters and have “buddies” with character. But it was used more as bookends for quests rather then gameplay-developing, which made it feel like a branching tree. And there were no mechanics beyond “quest selection” that seemed to fit back into the procedural narrative to make it feel different. Now this maybe is better towards the end of the game (I know they did a bunch of work on character barks, for example), but as I mentioned, I couldn’t get far enough to notice. Designer doh!
The hardest part is that many of the problems I experienced were fixable with procedural narrative. Using it for better dynamic difficulty, for one, would have probably let me finish the game. The huge space was just that, huge, and procedural narrative could have given me encouragement to retraverse and explore it when I got stuck, “leveling up” along the way so the hard fight would be easier. By avoiding “fetch quests” so explicitly Ubisoft lost the value of destinations, something experience managed quests can help with. “Huge space” was part of their thing, so they couldn’t easily benefit from the art savings, but they could have used it to make the space feel alive and richer. Instead the spaces feel very repeatable and static. For example, the roads are littered with guard posts, each of which you’re forced to fight. This happens 5-8 times every mission (and after every death). To make it worse, the guard posts immediately repopulate after you leave the area. So you have to repeat this same time-consuming activity throughout the entire game. As Clint Hocking discusses in the comments here, Ubisoft discovered this problem, but didn’t have the focus to put against it. Experience managers could have paced the fights out more intelligently, so there was less grind and more action balance, instead of quest bookending.
Lastly, I have to say I found the narrative itself frustrating. As someone who tries to avoid violence, the game forced me to fight but then used its theme and mechanics to continually bash me over the head that fighting is wrong. I appreciate the sentiment and the dissonance, but it’s only one side of the coin. I got to explore that violence is wrong and comes at a cost, without getting to appreciate that that violence was necessary. A missed opportunity in a fairly nuanced theme, that would have made a big impact.
Kind of like their approach to procedural narrative, actually. A first step towards the future, but I’m not sure it was ultimately in the right direction.