Far Cry 3 review
There can be little doubt that Ubisoft is the bravest of the big publishers. Where others concentrate on smoothing off as many edges as possible to produce ultra-polished (and often bland) triple-A fodder, Ubisoft encourages ideas-driven development, even it that leads to failure. 2008’s Far Cry 2 was perhaps the most obvious example of this culture – an extraordinarily brave, bleak, system-driven shooter that divided critics and fans alike. Those who loved Far Cry 2, though, really loved Far Cry 2.
While Far Cry 2 had clear problems and questionable design decisions throughout, it introduced three concurrent systems that defined its combat encounters; fire, enemy injuries, and the buddy system. The first is self-explanatory and immediately gratifying, but the others only revealed themselves to those who stuck with the game. The way enemies would tend to injured comrades, or chase down the player when crippled, led to the types of emergent stories that would light up message boards for months. Add in a system where a buddy character would randomly join in your fight, risking permadeath, and you had a recipe for greatness, even in a problematic framework.
Far Cry 3 keeps only one of those systems, ditching the other two in favour of a much more consistent, rules-driven, polished world. Yes, you can still set fire to huge sections of the jungle and it’s even more impressive than before, but enemies are now either dead or fully-functioning, and there ain’t a buddy in sight. It’s something that’ll be instantly disappointing to Far Cry 2 lovers, but this isn’t Far Cry 2. It’s a huge, gorgeous beast of a game that marries the core tenets of Far Cry gameplay (an open world with skirmishes approachable in any way you can think of) with a vast island landscape to explore, and crucially, to hunt.
Yes, Ubisoft may have ditched a couple of systems, but it has introduced a new one – wildlife. Every inch of Rook Island is teeming with animals, from spritely goats, chubby pigs and noisy boars all the way up to hissing Komodo dragons and snarling Sumatran tigers. There are even bull sharks swimming in the water, and coming across one when you’re not expecting it is so terrifying this reviewer had to pause the game and walk out of the room, shaking his head.
The animals do whatever they want, so a tiger might attack a nearby goat, it might launch itself at an enemy, or it might stalk and pounce on you when you’re setting up a perfect sniper shot. It’s a layer of emergent madness that’s quite unlike anything else. Red Dead nudged towards this at times, but it wasn’t as integral to the experience. They’re not just there for show, either. You’ll need to hunt and skin animals to craft almost anything useful, from a rucksack for loot to a pouch for your ammo.
And why do you need to quickly learn Bear Grylls-level survival skills? Well, after you (young, handsome and out-of-his-element Jason Brody) and your travelling companions are captured by madman Vaas, you manage to break free from his prison camp and set about rescuing your mates. But you know nothing. Thankfully, you’re taken in by the local warrior tribe, the Rakyat, who all sound like Jemaine from Flight Of The Conchords and scored with tattoos, or ‘the tatau’, gifting you skill-tree abilities like machete takedowns or a steady aim.
After a couple of hours in Rook Island, you don’t feel like a rookie any more. Far Cry 3 features some 38 narrative missions, all of which are bookended by marvellously acted and animated interactions with the game’s bonkers cast, and just playing through them would take well over 15 hours. Doing that alone, though, would be criminal. The world boasts an almost endless supply of side quests, ranging from hunting missions to Assassin’s Creed-style camp liberations.
These liberations actually provide the most open gameplay in Far Cry 3. They’re exactly as you’d imagine; you find a distant vantage point, use your magical camera (don’t know where Brody found this, but it’s definitely better than an iPhone 5) to scan the area and tag all the enemies within (who can then be seen through walls, for some unknown reason), and then plan your attack. Stealth is normally the best option, but difficult to maintain – usually you’ll take out one or two guys and be spotted, reverting to an in-and-out predatory attack as you pick the opposition off one by one. Watching them freak out and shoot blindly into the thick grass is especially gratifying, and as you level up (an XP system drives Far Cry 3), you’ll unlock some startling abilities, including the power to stab a guy in the neck, pull the pin out of his grenade and kick him into his mates. When it all clicks – man, is it something to behold.
And even when things don’t go to plan, Far Cry 3 is a very solid shooter – more so than its predecessor. The weapons feel great, the blasting is cathartic, and the destructible and flammable scenery helps to create some serious spectacle. Oddly, though, many of the narrative missions ditch the open world for linear blasts that could have been plucked from any shooter you care to mention.
These vary wildly in quality. The more open missions are just as enjoyable as camp liberations, and some heavily scripted events nail the spectacle you’d normally expect in Call Of Duty, but there are too many that throw enemies at you in narrow corridors and barely allow for any sort of tactical play. A lengthy section of missions towards the middle of the game sees Far Cry 3 turn into a kind of first-person Uncharted, with mystical tombs, treasure and Brody constantly commentating on his surroundings. He even says ‘no no no no’ at one point. And whoever thought that chucking three heavy (juggernaut-style) enemies into the tail end of an escort mission has clearly been chewing on one too many mushrooms.
Thankfully, things do turn around, and the overarching narrative is both compelling and alluringly psychedelic. Hallucinogens are a pillar of the story and the gameplay, and there are some outstandingly trippy sections that really do leap out into the realms of the surreal. It helps, too, that Vaas is such an outstanding antagonist, brilliantly acted and truly creepy. Like a great cinema baddy, any time he’s on screen is a treat, even if you want to put a bullet in between his sullen eyes.
So well realised, in fact, are some of the bolder sections of Far Cry 3’s story, that other parts feel totally out of place. Brody’s aforementioned wittering robs the most atmospheric scenes of some of their gravity, while the endlessly repeating incidental dialogue constantly prods against your immersion. If this was a movie, it would be savaged for its wildly inconsistent tone, but it’s not. Anything this big and open has to be afforded a few luxuries and a few missteps.
It’s not perfect, though. The world chugs a little on PS3 – the machine’s starting to show its age – and it certainly doesn’t look anywhere near as beautiful as its PC brother. It’s still a marvellous technical achievement, but one that feels a little hamstrung by the box you’re playing it on.
Worse is the overbearing HUD, which revels in showing you how much XP you’ve gained, what new crafting items are available, and what your mission objective is. None of this can be switched off, so you never truly feel like you’re lost on the island, more that you’re playing the videogame of being lost on the island. Thankfully, the intrusive and inane music can be muted so you can enjoy the sounds of the jungle.
Quite why, too, you have to find and scale huge radio masts to open up sections of the map is a mystery. The climbing mechanic is not fun, merely functional, and the views from the top are shrouded with a teal haze. It’s just busy work, and while each climb is rewarded with new side quests and free guns, it’s still a pain.
Overall, Far Cry 3 is probably a less interesting game than Far Cry 2 – particularly from a design perspective – but it is a more accessible and possibly more accomplished one. Certainly, those who struggled with the restraints, respawning checkpoints and degrading weapons of Far Cry 2 will find a sequel that addresses each and all of these annoyances. It’s a game that begs to be enjoyed.
By smoothing off those edges, though, Far Cry 3 has lost some of the raw drama of its predecessor. As sublime as its combat can be, there’s never a moment as real or shocking as losing a buddy in Far Cry 2 (and the dreadful realization that your syringes just aren’t going to save him – so you’re going to have to put him out of his misery yourself). Instead, Far Cry 3 makes its mark in its narrative (and maintains its Ubisoft progressiveness), taking you to places that no game has ever managed before. Some have tried to do psychedelia, but nothing has ever gone this deep. Not even close.
Ultimately, it’s important to not judge what Far Cry 3 isn’t, but enjoy what it is. Yes, it isn’t the genre-redefining Far Cry 2 follow-up it could (and perhaps in an idealised world, should) have been. It is, however, a beautiful, thrilling and supremely well-made open world shooter; a true epic. There’s enough content to challenge open world RPGs, even, and unlike those games, the combat is as good as any FPS on PS3. If not better.
It’s vital that games like this keep getting made. The triple-A world needs to be driven by ideas and concepts, it needs big games to make mistakes and take bold steps into new territories. Far Cry 3 does all of this, and even though it’s not the game some want it to be, it simply must be admired.