I can think of no other explanation for the political and moral tone-deafness in the reviews of Far Cry 2. I've trawled metacritic for assessments of the game, and while these trained professionals have an excellent eye for lighting effects and improbable AI, the fact that the narrative revolves around setting Africa ablaze for fun and profit seems to have passed without notice. Maybe I have some unusual sensitivities when it comes to doing violence on African soil, because I spent a bunch of time in college reading Franz Fanon. But I had to turn to Mitch Krpata's review in the Phoenix to get a take that did justice to the game's comprehensive moral unease. Maybe the the adjective “gritty” is supposed to capture the edge of moral horror that tinges many of your actions in the game.
I think this tendency to associate gameplay-progress with moral rectitude is what blinds us to the ethical messiness of Far Cry 2. The game's buddy system is a good example: your fellow mercenaries will come and save you from dying, help you upgrade your safehouses, and give you missions. So they must be pretty good, right?
The thing is, your buddies are not good people. After spending a small amount of time with my best buddy Paul Ferenc, I came to the conclusion that the man was in line for a severe beating . He may have pulled me out of a scrape once or twice, but those facts doesn't paper over the fact that Paul is a callow douchebag, the feckless backpacker type satirized in The Beach. I'm supposed to help this man achieve his lifelong dream of kicking back in Thailand for six months and getting high every day.
My contempt for Paul led me to the next logical question the game poses: how is it that you're any different? Every game makes you feel like you're the moral center of its cosmos, and this is misleading. Seeing yourself in the other mercenaries (you can actually choose them as player-characters) just reveals what you would know if you weren't locked into seeing the world from the first-person: you're part of the problem. The player is just another well-heeled Western interloper looking to capitalize on the political chaos for his own ends. Nobody's welfare seems to factor into the equation.
To its credit, Far Cry 2 doesn't beat you over the head with this stuff. Everything is done with a subtle hand: a doctor in town almost calls you a “foreign mercenary”, before stopping himself and calling you an “altruist.” But early on, I held a knife to an aid worker's throat to get the location of some medical supplies, which I then destroyed in an effort to get some leverage. After threatening to slit another man's throat I heard him mutter “This life!” as I walked away. The moral tenor of the game doesn't come through elaborate speeches and grand gestures: it's all in his tone of voice as he utters the line. It's all there if you're paying attention.
Maybe you're a well-meaning imperialist: you're be looking to take down the man who's fueling the conflict by dealing arms to both sides. But in the meantime you're just another asshole with a gun playing the political mayhem to your advantage. And if, at the beginning of act 2, this involves some arms-proliferation to break a cease-fire between the factions, so be it. The game told me I had to do it, anyway.
And while we're talking about the game making you do things, it's important in closing not to overlook the most important point: it's incredibly fun to kill people. The gunplay is expertly tuned, and the armory offers you an absurdly diverse array of tools with which to discharge your animal strength; because the combat scenarios are so open-ended, the game encourages you to try a wide variety of those weapons and strategies. I have no idea what kind of alchemy is going on under the hood that creates this urge to murder downed enemies with a machete (I have this feeling it's a combination of the way the perspective mimics your head-movements and the prominence your hands in the visual frame.), but I find myself doing it at every opportunity. I shot a man in Pala, just to watch him die. And the fire, the fire is awful pretty when it ravages the plains. And so, I guess the real message is that killing people is its own reward. Does it matter why?