Climbing a radio tower in a picturesque island in the Pacific, looking down on a landscape that’s quite possibly the most stunningly gorgeous game world I have ever seen, I managed to forget I was still in my smelly, non-tropical living room. Far Cry 3 has a way of drawing you in to a compelling and believable world. It’s not our world, but it is a very real one. It’s a world that engulfs and surrounds you as much as Tamriel or Neverwinter. In other words, it’s an FPS game with a world that’s as fun to live in and explore as any RPG.
The two previous Far Cry games are quite different from each other, but they have one thing in common. They both immerse you in sun-drenched worlds full of lush foliage and bright colour. The antithesis of the modern, brown post apocalyptic worlds of third person shooters or urban environments of modern military FPS’s, the Far Cry games take you to worlds you might like to actually visit for a holiday. In Far Cry 3, the world is visually far closer to the original games pacific island setting than the Savanah of the second. For this installment though, the world has become open for you to explore from the start, and you will do many of the things you would in a modern RPG. From managing your inventory to collecting plants to make potions (syringes) and spending skill points, Far Cry 3 takes the shooter as close to RPG territory as it can without actually making it an RPG. It blurs the lines between genres, cherry picking the best parts of modern games while retaining its own identity. As a result, it’s a game that feels immediately familiar and comfortable.
The set up for the story is perhaps the most original aspect of Far Cry 3. There’s a curious but stylish opening that seriously runs the risk of making you despise the main characters. You watch a bunch of American thrill seekers enjoy their time on the remote island, playing football on the beach, jumping out of planes and generally acting in a typical “American bro’s on holiday” fashion. Its horrifying. If we’re learned one thing in modern horror movies, it’s that American’s travelling to an idyllic island always results in at least one of them being brutally murdered while a girl in a bikini says over and over, “This can’t be happening!” The whole set up is stylish and slick. It’s played out with M.I.A.’s – Paper Planes (All I Wanna Do Is `Bang Bang´And Take Your Money) for a soundtrack, and it makes you want to kill everyone you see. Thankfully, some insane pirates appear soon enough and fuck up everyone’s day and you very quickly have a good reason to start shooting people.
One of the great things about Far Cry’s story is the insane cast of characters you meet on the island. From the absolutely certifiable initial antagonist Vaas to the muttering, laconic drug dealer Dr Earnhardt, there’s a real diversity and life to the inhabitants of Far Cry 3’s world. At times the uniqueness of these characters and the quality of the dialogue reaches the same heights as the best Rockstar games. Vaas is brilliant as an enemy. He’s not a typical James Bond mastermind or a terrorist that hates America. He’s just a hyperactive thug; jovial and persuasive one minute then homicidal and cruel the next. In the story he questions the manhood of your avatar (the somewhat blank Jason Brody) and as a result much of the game is spent trying to prove that you are as tough as this terrifyingly realistic thug.
While Vaas is a great antagonist (albeit not the overall leader of the enemies you face) it’s the rest of the zany inhabitants of the island who add personality to the game world. As mentioned before, Dr Earnhardt is brilliant as a mad scientist combining drugs that may or may not be deadly, experimenting with them himself and generally helping you as best as he seems able. There’s a vulnerability to him, and the subtle story clues that he has developed a crush on one of your pretty American friends shows that the writers cared about motivation and character development. This is a world away from most game writing where characters are quest-givers whose personalties can be summed up in a few words. It’s not just Dr Earnhardt either, the cast expands to include other weirdly interesting characters, like the US spy who resembles a conspiracy theorist. It’s a shame that the friends’s that you spend most of the game saving are far less engaging as characters. Along with them, you are captured at the beginning of the game and you have to save them, and while your main character is a cipher (and that works to the games advantage) the characters who you should care about are non-entities. Thankfully, the desire to get your revenge on Vaas and shut him up is a strong enough motivation to make you care about the story.
The structure of the game owes a lot to the Assassins Creed series. Once you get out of the early story sections you are free to explore a vast world. While you will be able to get an idea of the size of this world with your map, you will need to find radio towers and shut them off to see the items and features on your map. In other words, climbing these towers and shutting them off serves the same function as the synchronisation points in Assassins Creed. In the same way, these towers give you some startling views as you climb them. Once you get to the top and shut them off, a little animated sequence will show you the key areas you will want to explore in the surrounding area. It’s the process of climbing them that’s most engaging though. These towers are almost all wrecks, made up of twisted and rusting metal girders that creak in the wind. They sway subtly as you climb, and the strain of the metal can be heard in every move you make. You often have to jump to clamber up overhanging walkways, and the game focuses on making you look down at where you walk, increasing the sense of vertigo and also immersion. Once you get to the top, the game uses a blurring effect for far off areas, but you can still see the game world in staggering detail. From here, zooming in on a distant town with your camera shows you how amazing a technical achievement Far Cry 3 is.
Once you start exploring this world you will realise there are a great many things for you to do in it. As you check your map, you will see it is absolutely crammed full of tasks, missions and activities for you to take on. As well as the main mission, there are the aforementioned towers to climb and enemy bases to clear out, which can then be used for quick travel and to stock up on items. While these are the main activities, you can also embark on mini missions that benefit locals on the island. There are also hunting challenges to find and kill rare animals, vehicle races, community challenges (where you kill as many enemies in a time limit as you can), numerous collectibles to find and activities in towns like playing poker or competing in knife throwing competitions. It’s very much a game in the open world template where you have one overall goals in mind, but will often get sidetracked as little side missions cross your path. For example, there were many times when I was on my way to complete a story mission when the one animal I needed to kill crossed my path, causing me to chase a leopard through the jungle for the next five minutes.
When it comes to the combat Far Cry 3 manages to be accessible but challenging. Early on most of the enemies you face will go down very easily. This is great. Firing off a burst from a semi automatic rifle is brutally effective. Hit reactions are cinematic and satisfying. If you hit enemies in the legs as they run they will stumble forward with momentum. Head shots are lethal. Later enemies wear body armour and heavies show up who carry LMG’s and take explosives or hails of bullets to kill. Still, you always have an arsenal that you can use to take these tougher opponents out. The game features a range of different types of enemies, from berserk machete wielding psychos who charge straight at you to snipers to the aforementioned heavies. As a result, combat becomes a puzzle to solve. If you hide behind a shed to avoid the slow moving heavies, you had better be prepared for an enemy to run round the corner with a shotgun. While you have lots of options when it comes to healing yourself, a shotgun blast at close range will still kill you in two hits.
Because the enemies are so aggressive you find yourself making plans about how to face them before they are alerted to your presence. This is encouraged through a number of game systems. You often fight enemies in their base camps, and scoping out these base camps is fun, and often essential. If enemies detect your presence they will run to set off an alarm and if you don’t take them out before they do (or if you haven’t already sneaked into the base and disabled the alarm system) then you will face a countdown before more waves of enemies start appearing in jeeps or boats.
Thankfully Far Cry 3 offers lots of options for stealth. Using a camera with a zoom (or a scope on a weapon) you can tag enemies so that you can see them on your map and even see their outlines through walls. Taking some time to tag all the enemies in a base from a distance will help once you start engaging them. Helpfully, this will also show the enemies type, meaning that you can differentiate the snipers from the charging melee troops and plan accordingly. You can also stealth kill enemies from behind, and levelling your character will allow these skills to be developed further so that you can perform some rather cool special actions, like pulling an enemies pin out their grenade before kicking them into their nearby companions.
While you start the game with a decent repertoire of weapons, the skills you have at first are limited. You will soon find yourself unlocking many new abilities as you play though because Far Cry 3 has a fairly comprehensive XP system that makes it resemble an RPG even more. Killing enemies and animals provides XP, with bonuses given for things like headshots or causing death by explosions. This XP can be spent on a huge number of different upgrades across three different skill trees associated with different animals. For example the shark skill tree includes some upgrades to your health and resilience, unlocking extra health bars. While this is a mundane unlock, other abilities are more fun, like chained melee kills, the ability to hide enemy bodies or brutal stealth kills from above. Along with the customisation of your character, you also customise your weapons with scopes, sites and silencers. As a result, the number different approaches you can take for a particular encounter varies greatly because of the tools and skills you choose to use. One player might enter an enemy base and knife every enemy to death stealthily, while another could drive a car into the middle of the same base and jump out, frying enemies with a flame thrower before remotely detonating explosives they have placed around camp to destroy the incoming reinforcements.
If the XP system makes the game feel like an RPG, the process of collecting plants to create “syringes” makes it even more so. These are essentially magical potions, giving you damage buffs, allowing you to track animals or withstand certain types of damage. While you might initially collect lots of these plants, you quickly realise that your limited inventory will only allow you to hold so many. This is where the next RPG element comes in: crafting backpacks and holsters. By killing and skinning animals you can create these, and they allow you to carry more item, loot, money, grenades and more. This might be one of the more divisive aspects of Far Cry 3. Finding that you need to craft wallets to hold more money might bring to mind rupees in Zelda games, but at least there are lots of things to spend that money on. If you’re already fully stocked with weapons and ammo, you can always buy maps to show the locations of treasure…. to find more money. Hmmm….
In truth though skinning animals is frustrating. While it doesn’t have a lengthy and annoying cut scene like in Red Dead Redemption, its often hard to find where the game wants you to stand, and you can spend a long time walking back and forward trying to find the right spot. This is especially bad when the enemy is underwater because the game is even more picky about where you need to be to skin animals when you’re not on flat land. It’s very frustrating when you need to skin a shark to make a nice new wallet, but you need to keep swimming to the surface for more air before you can find the right spot to actually skin the finned dude. Looting bodies is even more frustrating as you usually pick up the enemies weapon instead of taking their money or items.
There’s also some real issues with the games inventory and how it interacts with your controls. Even after fifteen hours I was still struggling to remember how to access certain types of weapons and assign them to my quick select slots. In combat I often found myself throwing a rock (used to distract an enemy) instead of pulling out my assault rifle. This is because changing items involves bringing up a wheel and using a thumb stick, while the D-pad can be used to map some weapons, but only in the left and down directions. With three different approaches to inventory (d-pad, selection wheel and a start menu inventory) its simply too confusing to access the right thing in the heat of battle.
And while I’m complaining there are one or two other issues. Some missions constrain you within a certain area, and a few times I found myself failing missions for leaving that area. Sometimes this was my own fault, but in one section where I had to explore a cave to kill a bear, I failed the mission as soon as I stepped in the cave.
A similar issue that breaks immersion is how the game handles side missions. Sometimes you start one and all enemies and object nearby will disappear from the world. It has the effect of taking you out of what is otherwise a very consistent environment and its not worth it. Equally jarring are the players gamer tags on rocks showing their scores for specific side missions. I don’t want to see “K1lla 8’s U 2” written on an ancient stone with their time trial score written next to it.
Finally, the game has some pacing issues. It has very fast paced story action at the start, but it quickly becomes a languorous trek through gorgeous scenery. While every cut scene and story event has an undertone of urgency (saying you must hurry to help your friends) you will spend great huge amounts of time searching out collectibles, swimming, jumping off waterfalls, racing and generally NOT saving your friends. Still, as both the exploration and the story as great, you don’t mind the incongruous mix of the two.
Despite the minor complaints Far Cry 3 is generally very well designed. As well as the fun of exploring on foot, driving is chaotic, terrifying and brilliant. You always feel like you’re losing control, but you can still generally get where you need to go. Every journey in a vehicle feels like a rollercoaster ride. While the driving gets you to the action, the health system cleverly keeps the pace of the game fast and visceral too. Even if you don’t have health syringes you can perform first aid on yourself. This can involve snapping dislocated thumbs back into place, digging out bullets with your knife or bandaging up cuts and bruises. It takes place quickly and means you don’t need to go looking for health packs which would break up the action. It looks cool too.
And finally the soundtrack is great. The game has a lot of style and feels modern, and this is reflected in its dubstep-influenced audio. It’s not all wub wub – there are some great orchestral themes too. When the action heats up though it does a great job of getting your blood pumping, and at quieter moments there were times when I just stopped and listened. It’s maybe one of the best soundtracks of the year.
So Far Cry 3 is the best Far Cry game ever made. It avoids the issues of the first two games. It doesn’t have the enemies who see you through cover from a mile away (or the terrible mutant enemies) of the first game, and it has far more direction and focus than the second. It’s not just the best Far Cry game though, its one of the best games of the year. I didn’t expect it to be this good. I don’t think many people did. I haven’t even mentioned the amazing weather effects, the ability to spread wild fires, the co-op game modes or the hang-gliding. The truth is, in terms of innovation, design and outright fun, this is light years ahead of Halo 4 or BLOPS 2. If you buy one FPS this year, it should be this one.
9 rare tiger skins, made into backpacks out of 10