Over four years, “Far Cry” has established itself as a slightly oddball action franchise full of Hawaiian shirts, sultry secret agents and Dr. Moreau-esque monster monkeys. Now Ubisoft is releasing a proper sequel that’s stunningly beautiful and morally harrowing, but plodding in its execution. Early buzz and a loyal fanbase of hardcore shooter enthusiasts have sparked some excitement for the title, but “Far Cry 2″ is unlikely to fight it’s way through the pre-holiday onslaught to crossover success.Unlike the supernatural tone established by the original and carried on in its multiple offshoots, “Far Cry 2″ is realistic and grim. Set in a fictional, war-torn African nation, it casts the player as a mercenary with a mission: to take out the Jackal, a mystical arms runner who loves to gloat and quote Nietzsche. It doesn’t take long for the protagonist to make the country even more dysfunctional by disrupting ceasefires, blowing up water pipelines and cutting off the populace from food and medicine. “Far Cry 2″ may be dark and unsentimental, but unlike so many games that commit atrocities without a second thought, it’s capped by a satisfying conclusion that steals just enough from Joseph Conrad. The game’s greatest strength is its visuals. Wide-open vistas yield views of zebras galloping by a jeep while militants fire rockets from miles away. The experience of sneaking through tall, waving grass and then turning around and setting it all on fire is thoroughly immersive, and from the bleached ribcages in the desert to the clay huts in a native village, the designers have spared no detail. At the same time, the relentless immersion can grow tiresome. It’s a pleasure to reach for the map and see the character’s actual arm raise it into view, but shooter fans who like their action constant and convenient will lose interest the 10th time they watch themselves fix a car engine or gruesomely cauterize a gunshot wound with a Zippo lighter. Gunfights are brisk and unpredictable, but the mission framework falls short. Almost every assignment entails sneaking — or barging — into a base, picking off henchmen and capturing or killing a target. Then there’s the preparation: one mission can demand up to half an hour of arduous travel and repetitive prep, including patching up a vehicle, picking up ammo, getting past guard posts and finding a save point — essentially, everything short of packing dry underwear and a toothbrush. The “buddy” characters that are supposed to provide an emotional hook come and go arbitrarily and suffer from choppy voice acting and shallow backstories. As for the locals, never mind that the villages are empty and the civilians are safely out of sight — any game that spends so much time in a car and doesn’t provide a single Afrobeat radio station has captured the geography but missed the culture. With a 25-plus hour single-player campaign, online multiplayer complete with a ranking system and even a map editor for players to make and share their own levels, “Far Cry 2″ encourages its audience to lose long, slow hours in an all-too-believable war zone. And if the destruction and moral depravity get too heavy, the lighter side of the “Far Cry” franchise still shines through: Ubisoft brought back the hang-glider — and the view up there is breathtaking.
An Ubisoft presentation of a game developed by Ubisoft Montreal for the PC, Playstation 3 and XBox 360. Reviewed on Xbox 360. Rated M. $50-$60