In lieu of starting this article properly I’m just going to selectively quote my notes, which were written on the back of a receipt because the game amazed me so much I didn’t have time to find my notebook. That, or it’s because I’m unprofessional. Probably the latter.
“Physicality to everything.” “Great sound.” “VOICE ACTING! WRITING! VIRTUAL ACTING!” Yes, those are real notes. And yes, I occasionally write notes in full-caps with exclamation marks when I’m excited. Shut up.
I don’t normally like to comment overmuch on presentation for two reasons. Firstly, it’s rarely as important as, say, gameplay, and if you’re the sort of person who cares about how amazing a game looks as opposed to how it plays then get out of my review. Secondly, it’s hard to care about presentation when you have a computer that probably only works due to fervent prayer. Whizz-bang graphics pass me by.
I’m going to make an exception for Far Cry 3 because it looks and sounds fucking amazing, and because – for once – the tone and feel of the game is massively heightened by this.
Far Cry 3 is an open-world FPS set on and around a pair of tropical islands, and bloody hell, but the setting comes across. Wander for ten minutes and you’ll probably cross a dirt road into a forest, swim through a lagoon, climb a hill, and pass between a couple of shanty buildings. Butterflies explode out of the foliage while birds flit in the sky overhead. Deer spot you and, startled, skip away through the thickets. In the distance, a faint roar indicates that if you keep going you might bump into a tiger or a bear. The sky might cloud over and the lush foliage might get spattered with rain, or the sky might darken as things turn to night, but you’ll more likely be wandering with the sun overhead, and you can practically feel it scorching the back of your neck.
But it’s not exactly a tropical paradise, even if you somehow manage to avoid maulings from tigers/leopards/bears/komodo dragons/snakes/crocodiles/pretty much everything else with teeth. Our protagonist is Jason Brody, a rich white pretty-boy, and we’re introduced to him and his friends via footage of their amazing holiday. It’s filled with jetskiing and partying and drinking and sunbathing and oh God I hate them all so very very much. Fear not, though – this isn’t the world’s first Rich Prick Simulator, because things take a turn for the interesting when Jason and his pals skydive onto a lovely-looking island they knew nothing about, and are immediately captured by psychotic pirates who seem undecided on whether to ransom them, sell them into slavery, or just kill them for shits and giggles.
Jason escapes through the medium of a tutorial mission and winds up in the hands of the local populace, which is largely comprised of a warrior tribe that the pirates have pushed farther and farther back into the island. With their help, our protagonist sets out to rescue his friends.
What makes him slightly more unusual than a standard Unlikely Hero is that Ubisoft has actually addressed the issue of how this man, with no past history of stabbing people to death with machetes, comes to terms with the amount of shooting and shanking you’re going to force him into. During his escape, he has a mild breakdown when his brother kills one of their guards with a knife. By the end of the game, he’s cheering and laughing as blasts a helicopter into scrap. It’s… somewhat disturbing.
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Really, it boils down to one word: survival. Jason is trapped in an extremely hostile environment, and his friends – still held captive by the psychotic and extremely unstable Vaas – have only the worst ahead of them unless he intervenes. After the first few missions Jason begins to accept that he’s capable of killing and skinning animals in order to craft better equipment, and that he’s capable of murdering human beings in order to save his friends and himself.
One of my few complaints with the game is that it seems to somewhat forget about this aspect every now and then, with Jason’s personality shift only being noted on fairly rare occasions, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this is both intentional and not a bad thing. The only people to comment on it are any friends who actually manage to survive, and that’s because almost everyone else on the island is fundamentally broken.
And that’s the other question that the game raises and addresses: what sort of person would willingly live on an island that’s essentially run by psychopathic, drug-trafficking slavers? The answer: one who is seriously damaged. Vaas, the antagonist seen in the “definition of insanity” video and perhaps the best-voiced character in the game, is a drug-addicted mass murderer. The friendly Doctor Earnhardt – a sort of British Tim Leary – moved to the island to grow, create, and sell his own drugs. And, much as I could list most of the other characters and talk about some of the amazing/horrific scenes, I really don’t want to spoil anything past the first two hours of play.
This whole theme might sound a bit hokey, but it works wonders for me. Much as there isn’t a huge amount of character development for anyone except Jason, stellar writing and extremely well-staged cutscenes help the characters breathe. I got surprisingly attached to some of them, and the generally sublime voicework combines with the physicality of everything (expect Jason to shake hands, hug people, and pat them on the back, all from a first-person view) to make the more emotive scenes click properly.
The one issue I do still have with the storyline, sadly, is that it follows the whole Great White Saviour thing almost to a tee. The local tribe – who’ve presumably been fighting the pirates for awhile, and are armed to the teeth – have been continually pushed back. Then Jason Brody, a white man with no combat experience whatsoever, turns up and takes the fight back to the pirates. What?
I suppose I should also address the fact that, yes, you’ll be killing lots of animals, and some will find this rather distasteful. While I don’t think it’s enforced past one early mission, the going will be very, very hard if you don’t do it. There are two progression systems in the game – one is experience, earned for doing just about everything, which Jason uses to unlock new skills. The other is crafting, wherein you can make syringes (capable of healing Jason or temporarily boosting his stats or senses in one way or another; extra accuracy, for instance, or the ability to “sense” animals for awhile) or craft extra equipment. That equipment takes the form of pouches for extra ammunition, or extra weapon slots, or the ability to carry more items or syringes. If you don’t kill animals and craft items, you’re going to be limited to one or two extra clips of ammo, and a single weapon. The best upgrades require you to hunt rare, one-off animals.
That said, any wildlife that isn’t herbivorous is lethal. Tigers are fast-moving, hard to spot, and – early on – can maul you to death very, very quickly indeed. Bears take a ridiculous amount of firepower to put down. My first encounter with one particularly nasty creature was when I was trying to flee an enemy camp and leapt into a river to swim away… and was immediately set upon by a crocodile, which killed me in seconds (and made me jump out of my chair).
Animals aside, combat is almost exactly what you’d expect and hope for from a Far Cry game. After a few hours of play you have a wealth of options as to what you want to use to tackle your foes, and – aside from the limit to weapon slots – there’s no restriction on which weapons to take. If you want to load up with an LMG, a rocket launcher, an automatic shotgun, and an assault rifle, you can go to town.
In true Far Cry style you can scout out an enemy location from a distance first, tagging enemies to show up even behind cover, before sneaking in and using instant-kill Takedown moves to thin their numbers. You can sit at long range with a sniper rifle popping heads. You can set fire to the environs with a flamethrower or flaming arrows, or simply charge through the front gate and pretend to be Rambo.
Stealth and cover are both well-employed here. The game’s expansive foliage affords excellent cover for a silent approach, plenty of weapons have silencers available, and the melee Takedowns get more and more powerful as you proceed. What start off as one-target stealth kills soon expand into endless close-range chain kills, grabbing the target’s knife and throwing it at another foe for an extra ranged kill, or pulling a pin on their grenade and kicking them into their pals. Considering it also features the ability to do Takedowns by jumping onto foes from above, or grabbing them from below, Far Cry 3 starts to do Assassin’s Creed better than Assassin’s Creed.
Cover, meanwhile, is context-sensitive; there’s no “tap space to hug the crates” here. Instead, to go into cover, you… simply move behind something that looks like it could be used for cover. Try to aim from there and Jason will peek over or around the obstructive object.
Early on, assaulting camps is really quite exciting. Low health, low ammo, and few weapons means that you have to grab the assault rifles dropped by foes and do your best not to get spotted. There’s a genuine thrill – reminiscent of Rocksteady Studios’ Batman games – to being both extremely vulnerable but extremely dangerous. Later on, when you’re carrying a battalion’s worth of ammunition and medical supplies, plus four of the best guns money can buy… well, the combat’s still deeply satisfying, but there’s a much smaller risk if you’re spotted and the tension is sapped accordingly.
There’s plenty of opportunity to hone those combat skills, too. The islands are stuffed with sidequests and things to do; radio towers take the place of Assassin’s Creed‘s vantage points, while enemy outposts can be “liberated” to remove the hostile presence from the area and afford you an extra fast-travel point. There are sidequests galore, minigames that can be played for money, and relics and WW2-era letters to find. There’s a lot to do.
It’s worth noting, though, that Far Cry 3 takes something else from Assassin’s Creed: a lot of these side bits are a tad repetitive and aren’t actually all that interesting. The game’s at its best when you’re either going through the story missions (which tend to be cleverly laid out and interesting to play), assaulting pirate outposts (which give you a nice big battle you can approach however you like), or simply exploring under your own steam. Doing repeated missions to kill a group of pirates with a knife isn’t the most exciting use of your time. Once you’ve finished the story and liberated all the outposts, you’ve pretty much dealt with the most enjoyable content of the game.
But doing that will take awhile, and you’ll likely enjoy almost every minute of the game until then. I have problems with the game – the “one autosave plus one fixed save” system is a tad rubbish since I’d like to replay some of the missions, the pacing dips on occasion, and the lack of difficulty later is a bit of a problem – but I was happy to bear with them while playing the game. It’s only now that I’m analysing the whole thing that I’m really picking up on them.
So yes, if you can deal with some rather heavy themes which range through drugs/murder/prostitution/domestic abuse/slavery/rape, then Far Cry 3 is something you should absolutely buy. It’s got flaws, but none of them change the fact that it’s a fascinating exploration (both physical and analytical) of a beautiful environment that hides a rotten core. And if you’re not into that, then hey, it’s also a really good open-world shooter.
Tim will also be discussing the game more in the IncGamers podcast/vidcast which will go live at 7PM GMT 21 November. Watch out for more Far Cry 3 coverage before release.