Head to Head: Far Cry 3 & Just Cause 2

As summer continues so do our weekly features. This time, there are TWO features each week! Today, we're launching a new series called Head to Head.  Head to Head is a space where one of our writers talks about and compares two games, franchises, characters or developers... and the list goes on. It is less about crowning a champion but rather how they are both similar and different.  To start things off, today's article will discuss Far Cry 3 and Just Cause 2.

Upon seeing the magnificent trailer for Far Cry 4 at this year's E3, I re-downloaded my long-ago purchased copy of Far Cry 3 and started playing it. My thoughts on that game are not too different from what everyone else has said. While the storytelling and overall plot are terrible, the emergent storytelling is amazing. So much so that upon climbing all the radio towers and liberating military compounds, I stopped playing. As far as I know, I’m only ¾ of the way through the main quest but the part of the game that I loved was over, thus, Far Cry 3 was over. Yet the itch that the Far Cry 4 trailer started still needed to be scratched. I dabbled in several open-world games trying to get at the itch, though nothing would satiate it. Not Fallout: New Vegas, Skyrim, or even Dead Rising. And then it dawned on me: Just Cause 2.

And oh my, are those games cut from the same cloth. To describe them to someone according to their plots, it would appear that they have very little in common. In one, you play as a government agent sent to find his former boss and overthrow a corrupt dictatorship. In the other, you’re a douche bag captured by bandits who kills a lot of people to save his friends. But once you move beyond that, the games become first- and third-person versions of each other.

The first and most obvious similarity between Far Cry 3 and Just Cause 2 is the setting. Both take place on fictional south Asian islands. Far Cry's two Rook Islands are largely the same in terms is urbanization and climate.  In Just Cause 2 you wreak havoc on the islands of Panau, each with their own ranges in elevation, cities, townships and weather. Despite this, the majority of your time in Just Cause 2 takes place in its jungle regions much like Far Cry. Both games try to use its setting to show an oppressed people living under a terrible situation but neither does a great job of conveying this. In Far Cry, most people are either enemies or members of a warrior tribe called the Rakyat. How these seemingly capable fighters haven’t managed to fight back against Vaas, Hoyt and their minions is a mystery. In Just Cause, though, you are fighting a government and most of the people you see are not warriors or fighters. Unfortunately, the only people you get to interact with are agency compatriots and the leaders of the three factions, so you never really get empathize with the people being saved.

Another mechanic that both games share is the ability to liberate villages, camps and military compounds. How you free these locations is done in their own separate ways. The number of settlements in the Rook Islands are smaller compared to Just Cause 2. Both games have you killing all of the occupied forces in order to free it. Once this is done, the Rakyat will arrive and keep the camp safe. There are also radio towers to climb and re-enable, clearing away Far Cry's "fog of war." These actions go a long way to making you feel like you’re “taking back” the island. In Just Cause 2, liberation is achieved by destroying everything and picking up collectables. This feels less like freeing a group of people out of bondage and more like...collecting and blowing things up. A significant difference between these methodologies has to do with scale. The camps and tower designs in Far Cry are different from one another. I was amazed that after playing the game for 20 hours, I had no idea what was happening in the story but could recall instead the few dozen smaller stories of how I liberated this camp or climbed that tower.

That’s not the case in Just Cause 2. There are literally hundreds of camps and villages and many of them look very, very, very similar. Because of that, seeing one does not allow me to reminisce on my past victory. This is majorly due to Just Cause 2 being a much larger game with no single area as unique as those in Far Cry 3. But I also think this is due to the camera position. Just Cause 2 is a third-person game while the other is a first-person game. Rico Rodriguez has a much greater sense of person than Jason Brody because he has a face the voice can be attached to. On the other hand, the player feels more connected to the world in Far Cry 3 from Jason's perspective as he interacts with people and traverses obstacles. You can "feel" him pull levers, open doors, hurdle over cover and grab enemies from behind. Enemies that then react directly to your actions. In Just Cause, you don’t have that physical connection. All enemies react the same way to your basic attacks and there is no cover to vault or hide behind. Rico is far more realized that Jason. The Rook Islands feel more like a place than Panau.

Tone also plays a role in defining these games. Both are ridiculous and insane in their respective membranes but for wholly different and opposite reasons. Just Cause 2 does not take itself seriously. Everything, or almost everything, is a joke used for comedic effect. The result is that, like the Saints Row games, it embraces its “gamey” nature and applies it to the narrative. Far Cry 3 is ridiculous because it takes everything seriously. The actions you perform are absurd om nature but the game doesn't flinch from trying to relay those actions in some sort of emotional and compelling way. It may have tried to be a commentary on violence in games but such commentaries need to be good in and of themselves, not simply to be a commentary. Just Cause 2 is more successful at commenting on the violent nature of games because it doesn't try to make any sort of social or political point. You see Jason Brody become a more egregious asshole as the game progresses due to his exposure to violence. Thus violence is bad. Far Cry 3’s narrative seemingly laughs at you for enjoying the violent destruction while encouraging it at the same time. But you get laugh with Just Cause 2 as you surf atop nukes.

The final and most binding element of both games is the underlying theme of chaos and serenity. You are an outsider throwing a monkey wrench in the machinations within the Rook Islands and Panau. You cause disruption and destruction organically on a large scale. It is interesting to note, however, that while each game thrives on chaos, they do so differently. Like many of its urban sandbox brethren, Just Cause 2 has a heat meter, the more you do, the higher it goes. With the higher levels is brought reinforcements and helicopters to try to put an end to you. This can create quite large and prolonged battles but in the end, you’re in charge. To end the battle and lower your heat, you either run away or die load back at a safe house. There are no external factors that are out of your control. The military will only attack if struck first or if you trespass in their space. This gives an order to the chaos of your making.

Far Cry 3 is chaotic in a more pure sense of the word. There is no visible meter but enemies will call for reinforcements and will attack when they see you regardless of where you are. But more important is the fact that there is a third player in Far Cry 3 besides you and your enemies: wildlife. Nothing is quite as exhilarating as feeling like you're in control of a situation until a mountain lion blindsides your character. Because enemies and wildlife can attack at all times, it trains you to be wary. But the sight of a three-way battle between the Rakyat, militia and wildlife is marvelous.

Now, chaos is fine and dandy but highs can only be high if there are then also lows. And few games do lows as well as Just Cause 2 and Far Cry 3. Both games, as previously mentioned, take place on tropical islands and thus the worlds are beautiful and sometimes even breathtaking. But nice scenery is only enjoyable if you can stop to pay attention to it. Thankfully, not only do they encourage exploration outside of the main path, the games offers great means to traverse them. In Far Cry 3 you can travel via zip lines, find hang gliders to soar from and eventually have access to a wing suit. In Just Cause 2, the options are more varied. There are planes and helicopters, but there is also Rico’s infamous infinitely deployable parachute and grappling hook. With this, you can spend hour just parasailing around without any goals other than taking it all in.

Just Cause 2 and Far Cry 3 are different game in many respects and it would be impossible to say which one is better than the other. Thankfully, I’m not asserting any such claim. But despite their differences, the games have the same spirit about them and in many ways are far closer in kinship than Far Cry 2 and Far Cry 3 are. They, Just Cause 2 and Far Cry 3, more than most games in the sandbox genre embrace chaos and organic battles and they are the better for it. But more than that, they match their high octane moments with ability to soar through the clouds in complete peace. And that is something more games should aspire to.

That does it for this edition of Head to Head. Check back later next week with for more feature goodness.

Jonathan is the host of the DarkCast, DarkCast Interviews, and Gamers Read. He loves books, video games, and superheroes. If he had to pick favorites, they would be Welcome to the Monkey House, Mass Effect, and Superman respectively.