Saturday, March 23, 2024

Replay Review: Far Cry 2 [2008]

Following on from my 2018 replay of the classic Far Cry, and as this very day is the 20th Anniversary of the franchise I felt it was time to investigate the next title in the franchise and experience the dangerous African plains of Far Cry 2. The original game was German developer Crytek's first game and one of the first FPS to evoke a sense of freedom by breaking out of the linear "corridor" gameplay of its genre predecessors. It used their in-house CryEngine and was published by Ubisoft. After Crytek signed a deal with Electronic Arts to produce a new CryEngine title (the infamous Crysis) Ubisoft struck a deal with Crytek to purchase the Far Cry IP, allowing their Ubisoft Montreal studio to create further Far Cry games using CryEngine technology. Far Cry 2 was the first of these.

Ubisoft's goal was to expand what had been done with the original game in both scope and scale, but not not to emulate the setting or tone established with the original which had various fantastical or sci-fi elements. Instead they decided to pursue a more grounded, realistic route and set the game in the very real-world premise of a diplomatically nameless African country where the only enemies were human beings from both sides of a brutal civil war. Ubisoft even eschewed their Tom Clancy franchise technical gadgetry here to evoke what little hope of survival someone had in this environment and while that didn't enthuse some people, it did earn the respect of others. Nevertheless the game was a success with over 2.9 million units sold in 3 weeks.

Playing Far Cry 2 again brought back memories of experiencing it for the first time 15 years ago. Playing it on hardware generations ahead of what I had back then reminded me that it and Crysis, it's contemporary, had some pretty hefty recommended requirements for its day like 2GB RAM, a Core 2 processor and a 512MB GPU! With all the graphical options turned up to maximum it's still a pretty good looking game for its age. Of particular note is spreading of fire, the lush jungle foliage, dust trails from your vehicle, mirage shimmer from overheated weapons, effects that were in their early days were beautifully realised in the Dunia engine, a version of the CryEngine that was mostly rebuilt for the game.

My original Far Cry 2 review published here in October 2009 was mostly story about a one-hour session in the game that isn't even part of the 'main story'. The best part of Far Cry 2 was the randomness of unscripted events or encounters and was not as prevalent then as it is today. Revisiting the game and seeing these encounters again doesn't obviously evoke the same awe that it did, but I do remember this game was one of the places where the modern versions of today's open world mechanics were first realised and for that it deserves acknowledgement.


The very light plot involves you as a mercenary sent to kill a notorious arms dealer called "The Jackal" who seems to be arming both sides of the civil war. You do this by gaining the support and trust of the warring factions by doing some of their dirty work. You are assisted by some 'friendly' NPCs with motives of their own who give you objectives that are somewhat aligned with your main objectives. Alternatively at any point you can pursue missions that provide medicine for your crippling malaria affliction or perform raids for the arms dealers to improve your weapons and skills. If the original Far Cry took influence from The Island of Dr. Moreau, then this takes it's cues from Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. There are no heroes here, and don't count on a happy or even a good ending for anyone.

The serious and somewhat bleak tone is only the setting in which the tale is told. The gameplay and action itself was remarkable for it's time and is still in essence of what Far Cry is today. The African landscape is as beautifully realised as it could have been in 2008. The open world areas cover a frankly huge 50sq KM necessitating vehicular transport for the most part - and there are a plethora of vehicles from ATVs to armed assault wagons and gunboats to operate. As mentioned, there's not a lot of gadgets but you do get a GPS device and a map to aid in navigation to identify where your objectives are.

In true Ubisoft fashion the entire world is against you, and tries to shoot or kill you on sight. Despite being in Africa, there are no wild animals in this region so you're safe in that regard (the era of the deadly honey-badger was not yet upon us) but everyone is armed and angry and you're perceived as a threat, so expect bullets to be flying at you as soon as the opening cutscenes end. You have a huge array of weapons and equipment to chose from and can carry three weapons in addition to your trusty machete with some grenades and Molotov cocktails. Missions involve storming or infiltrating encampments. You can adopt a frontal assault, or try a stealthy approach, there are even different  options within these approaches to complete a mission in a true deviation from a linear shooter.

Final Verdict: Ubisoft Montreal achieved its goals with its first Far Cry game and it was the true foundation for a franchise that still exists today with lush and interesting open worlds, unscripted encounters, charismatic antagonists and an array of weapons and tools to complete your objectives in more than one linear way. While Far Cry 2 itself may not be popular enough to require a remake, I hope it remains available and working for all users for years to come, with or without some light remastering.

Technicals: Approx 30 hours via Ubisoft Connect on Windows 11 at maximum graphical settings with a 4070Ti at 3440x1440 @ 60FPS

Bugs: Animations are broken on high refresh rate (175Hrz), FPS had to be capped to 60 to fix. One instance of an NPC stuck inside a rock.

Availability: Far Cry 2 is available from Steam, GOG and the Ubisoft Store for €9.99, but is frequently sold for €3 or under. Review copy purchased for €3.33 in Nov 2017

Far Cry series (PC releases only)

  • Far Cry (2004)
  • Far Cry 2 (2008)
  • Far Cry 3 (2012)
  • Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (2013)
  • Far Cry 4 (2014)
  • Far Cry: Primal (2016)
  • Far Cry 5 (2018)
  • Far Cry: New Dawn (2019)
  • Far Cry 6 (2021)

Saturday, March 09, 2024

First Play Review: Yakuza 0 [2015] [PC2018]

At the turn of the century and the failure of it's  Dreamcast console, SEGA pivoted to become a third party game developer. Game producer Toshihiro Nagoshi pitched a Yakuza game for SEGA to develop for the Sony PlayStation 2. His idea was simple: an action-adventure RPG-lite brawler with mini-games in that the player would live the everyday life of a member of the Yakuza and be an open world in the same vein as Shenmue (a Dreamcast game Nagoshi had worked on) but obviously exploring more adult themes. SEGA immediately rejected the idea as it had traditionally made games for younger audiences and violence between humans was something rarely explored in Japanese video games. Despite this resistance (and from Sony for similar reasons) Nagoshi was relentless in his pursuit to the point where he offered to resign if his game failed. Yakuza was eventually green-lit and needless to say achieved remarkable success - in Japan.

Until the Western release of the prequel Yakuza 0 in 2017, despite the popularity of the multimedia franchise that spawned around it, the Western market needed some additional convincing. The Yakuza series had been a very niche product in the West never translating into blockbuster territory. After SEGA purchased the localisation studio Atlus and put them to work on the Yakuza series, the tide turned. A 2018 shareholder report stated that Atlus understood both Japanese and American games and is "able to localize Japanese games in a way that accurately conveys the unique worldviews of Japanese titles to local gamers." Seven years on I suspect there are few Western gamers who have never heard of the Yakuza franchise. Last year Mark Twomey insisted I play Yakuza 0 as the franchise was being released in bargain bundles in advance of the latest instalment. I knew it was time...

You can often use environmental objects to fight with

Yakuza 0, although the sixth mainline entry in the franchise, is a prequel to the original Yakuza game and so marketed as an ideal starting point ahead of remakes/remasters of the original Yakuza games for the PS4/XboxOne/PC. It's set in the late 1980's when the series' main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu was just 20 years old and is framed for a murder of a loan shark's client in an abandoned property lot at the center of a land grab by powerful interested parties. The game also switches perspective to reveal the origin of Goro Majima, a series regular who, as an expelled Yakuza, is given the opportunity to return to the family once he performs an assassination which he is reluctant to do.

Gameplay involves you as either protagonist navigating two fictitious representations of real life Japanese city districts Kiryu in Kamurochō, Tokyo and Majima in Sotenbori, Osaka. As you progress you are forced to combat literally hundreds of enemies using martial arts of varying styles. As you eliminate enemies you gain their money which is not only currency with which to purchase goods and services but is also the games XP and used for levelling your fighting skills and abilities. As you explore you encounter, various NPCs which can be interacted with. They either advance the plot, sell goods, reveal new mini-games or of course want to kill you forcing you into mini combat situations. Many NPCs however are there for side-quest purposes and revel new stories outside the main narrative and flesh out the world and can be to completed or ignored as you desire.

Shit gets weird sometimes

This game wasn't really like anything I've played before. Combat is brawling but more complex than in  Batman: Arkham. Navigating bustling streets reminds me of early Assassins Creed games but without parkour. It's heavy on the epically long cutscenes like in MGSV: The Phantom Pain and Final Fantasy XIV but this tale is more grounded in reality. The sheer amount of extra content provided by the game's additional systems and mini-games that have little or no bearing on the central plot are staggering and I've never seen the like. As I write trying to compare it to anything I know, I feel it's a misrepresentation, Yakuza 0 really is its own thing in the action-adventure genre and that's a strength when so many games are similar to one another.

The game suggests you use a controller and I'd certainly understand that considering the console origins but I tried with KBM and while a bit finicky at the beginning it became fairly fluid. However while the fighting was OK it's not gameplay that I'm too enamoured with. One major issue is the saving method. The game has no autosave nor the ability to save at any time. To save, one has to direct your character to a pay-phone which allowed saving/loading and some inventory management. This was a terrible design as you couldn't save just before a combat encounter and if defeated you may be forced to play from a point too far earlier to be 'fun' after repetition. I became tired the combat in general before long, especially during boss fights where I'd die or my fingers would get too tired before the boss' health bars (yes multiple) would run out. So rather pausing for a rest which would break immersion, I countered the game's flaws using a memory hack that gave my characters invincibility and permanent heat (stamina). While this trivialised basic encounters, it also shortened the boss fights (which were still awesome) and made it irrelevant to waste time traversing to a save point as I could no longer be defeated. I enjoyed the gameplay much more when I did this. The actual brawling and fighting isn't the main draw for these games however, in fact it's not considered great by most players, instead the real draw of the Yakuza series is the plot and side-content/mini-games.

Mini-games include dancing

While the main path of Yakuza 0 is deadly serious to phenomenally dramatic proportions, the side content splattered throughout the world is genuinely bizarre, cringe and hilarious in equal measure. There are minor side-quests scattered throughout the world that you could easily miss but if you find them you will be rewarded with a fascinating insight into Japanese culture and all that comes with it. Some quests I found were to help a small boy get his video game back from a bully, assisting a new aspiring dominatrix be more dominant, and having a drink with a government advisor giving him ideas on how to increase taxes and what percentages should be charged. Side games like playing mahjong, remote-control car racing or singing karaoke can be played. Other side-games include ways of accumulating greater wealth such as managing a real estate empire by buying up land and putting rivals out of business or managing a cabaret club by hiring girls to provide an evening's companionship. The depths of most of this content were fascinating but ultimately would have taken too long for me to explore, perhaps I will do so in later entries.

Yakuza 0 is is a character driven game with a movie quality, branching, arching and twisting plot that despite starting out pretty weak, soon blossoms into one of the most well written, surprising and incredible stories I've ever witnessed in interactive media. From other Japanese games I've played I'm used to a concentration on a strong lengthy narrative more than is done in the West. This game is no different and easily has hours of cutscenes including an epilogue that finishes 40+ minutes after the 'final boss' and so you basically sit and watch without any interaction for that length of time. For some this level of non-interaction will be too much but for me the 5 or 10 minutes of well acted, fully motion captured narrative every once in a while allowed me a rest from the button mashing combat. Had this been a visual novel game I'd probably have enjoyed it just as much. The only gripe I have is that there must be over 100 characters, all with Japanese names that can't be easily remembered especially as so many begin with the same letter; e.g. Shimano, Sera, Sagawa and Shibusawa are four very different people!!

The drama is portrayed with cinematic-level techniques and quality

Final Verdict: Yakuza 0 is unlike anything I've ever played. I've never enjoyed a game where I've found the combat so weak but this is a unique situation where experiencing the game is a greater reward than actually playing it. The developers' love of Japan and its eccentricities are obvious and exploited for our entertainment. It is easily one of the best narrative experiences ever to be digitised and was a huge success for SEGA with the original PS4 release selling out in Japan. I'm now looking forward to what the rest of the series has to offer.

Technicals: 33.5 hours through Steam on Windows 11 with an RTX4070Ti @ 3440x1440 175Hz.

Bugs: One crash recorded.

Purchase Options: Available on Steam or GOG for €19.99 and often found in a discounted bundle with others in the series. Review copy purchased from Steam for €6 in July 2023.

Yakuza/Like A Dragon franchise (only PC releases shown)

  • Yakuza 0 [2018]
  • Yakuza Kiwami [2019] 
  • Yakuza Kiwami 2 [2019]
  • Yakuza: Like a Dragon [2020]
  • Yakuza 3 (Remastered) [2021]
  • Yakuza 4 (Remastered) [2021]
  • Yakuza 5 (Remastered) [2021]
  • Yakuza 6: The Song of Life [2021]
  • Judgment [2022]
  • Lost Judgment [2022]
  • Like a Dragon: Ishin! [2023]
  • Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name [2023]
  • Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth [2024]