The key to Far Cry 2's appeal isn't the vast open landscapes. It isn't the forward thinking technology that powers the striking, adaptive storyline, nor is it the truly extraordinary visuals.
It's not the violent slapstick and chain-splodes of the hysterically volatile camps, filled to the brim with ammo dumps and fuel tanks. It's not the moments of pure adrenalised catharsis, where, rifle in hand, you power through smoke and machinegun fire, enemies to the left and right. It's not even when you stride through the ruins, calmly putting down survivors by plunging a machete into their chests.
No. Its appeal is in the moments beforehand - when, from some lofty perch, you think of what's to come. You check your ammo. You reload your weapons. You heal up. You anticipate. It is the calm before the storm. You are the match before the flame. In the most player-centric world yet created, in a game that you know is about to surprise, delight and enthral you, standing still, waiting to strike, is one of the finest pleasures you can experience.
For a genre so firmly rooted in the most base of thrills - blowing stuff up and putting holes through skulls with sharpened metal from long range - Far Cry 2 is weirdly smart. The headline pitch: an open world first-person shooter set in Africa, where you're tasked with tracking down, and eventually killing, an arms dealer named The Jackal. On first glance, you expect it to be simple: a series of gorgeous but carefully walled jungle and desert corridors, filled with angry men. But it's not. It's open, it's free-roaming. You can walk or drive wherever you feel like going. Within an hour, after a very brief series of tutorials and introductions, you're released with a note. Find The Jackal. Kill him. Go.
The cliché goes "...is up to you." For so many years, so many games have promised that, and failed to deliver. What happens next is never up to you. What happens next is what the game designer wants you to experience. Far Cry 2 breaks new ground. While there is a script and a story, the details of who does what, who lives, who dies, who's left standing at the end, really do lie in your hands. Far Cry 2 comes closer than any commercial game yet to a truly dynamic narrative.
Given that the action is so freeform, it may seem odd to warn you about spoilers ahead. But: these are situations I found myself in. They may happen to you, too. If you're worried, skip ahead a few pages or something.
When it starts, you wake up in a slaughterhouse. You meet your first buddy, a guy called Warren Clyde, a smart-talking American with a fun smile. He gives you a weapon, and lets you know the UFLL, the United Front for Liberation and Labour, are holding another foreign mercenary hostage to the south. You should go and rescue them.
So you do. The mercenary turns out to be Nasreen Davar, a hottie. She is totally fanciable, and you totally would. She is eternally grateful for her rescue. She promises that if you're in trouble, she'll come and help out. Except, in your game, it won't turn out like that.
The above was my first experience with Far Cry 2. Then I started a new game. This time around. I woke up in a different place. My saviour and first friend turned out to be Andre, a Haitian. He's a taciturn chap with neat dreads and big guns. I rescue Quarbani Singh from where he's being held by the APR (Alliance for Popular Resistance), an experienced, almost elderly gentleman. He promises that if I'm ever in trouble, he'll come and help out.