Here's what happened: I was soaring above a gorgeous tropical island in a hang-glider when I heard gunfire below. Waaaay down on the road below, a gang of friendly islanders was going toe-to-toe with a band of ruthless pirates. I banked around and dropped in low, landing just inside the treeline. I pulled out my high-tech bow, then crept up to and took down one of the pirates with an arrow before another spotted me. Shouting and gunfire erupted from all sides.
Forty-five seconds later, burned bodies lay strewn in every direction; a deadly tiger had come roaring out of the jungle, and the grass and trees to my left were ablaze, deadly-hot flames spreading as fast as I could scramble. Cutting my losses, I sprinted toward a cliff overhang, violently jerking my dislocated thumb back into joint as I ran. In one smooth motion, I swan-dove into the open water a hundred yards below. A crash as I broke the surface, then silence. Sun-rays sliced into the murky depths as I regained my bearings. And that was when I saw the first shark.
That's Far Cry 3 in a nutshell.
Repeat the above encounter five times in the game, and you'll get five different outcomes. Maybe you take out all the bad guys without raising a ruckus. Maybe you stay high up on a hill and blow everyone up using rockets, only to get chomped by a tiger you didn't hear behind you. Maybe your allies win the firefight before you land, and you've got nothing left to do but clean up. Or maybe the fight spills over into an enemy outpost, and before you know it you're up against an army of troops, trained dogs, and helicopters. It's all possible, and every permutation is as fun as the last one.
Far Cry 3 is an open-world shooter through and through. The setup is simple: You're set loose on a massive island in the south pacific and tasked with gradually conquering it, one dead pirate/tiger/shark at a time. Here's a gun. Have fun.
There's also a story you can play through, though the distinction between the "story parts" of the game and the "non-story parts" is an important one: It's in the balance between the two that Far Cry 3 finds success. The game casts you as Jason Brody, a twentysomething layabout whose drunken island vacation is interrupted by pirates (the scary modern-day kind). They kidnap him, his brothers, and his friends, and set to ransom them and sell them into slavery. The story parts are a long series of mostly linear, welcomely varied adventures Jason undertakes in service of this rescue/revenge plot.
The non-story parts, on the other hand, are the emergent action that happens all over the island between missions. As with many of the best open-world games, the story parts are fun, but the non-story parts are what make Far Cry 3 special.
The tale begins with Jason narrowly escaping captivity, then quickly taking up with a group of friendly island dwellers called the Rakyat, who are led by a charismatic, bespectacled dude named Dennis and a sexy, mysterious (and kind of ridiculous) woman named Citra. Dennis believes that cowardly Jason is, at heart, a warrior, and the rest of the game follows Jason's (and your) quest to rescue his friends and take down the men in charge of the Rook Islands' slave- and drug-trading empires.
It's a perfectly workable setup, as these things go, but the character at its heart—Jason Brody—is little more than a party-boy nebbish. Despite the fact that he was likely cast because the highest percentage of young male players would see themselves in him, he's never all that relatable, and while his journey from zero to hero sure looks convincing as you're blowing apart enemy helicopters, it never feels convincing when he talks about it. He's an overwritten tryhard who frequently yells exposition in the middle of action sequences, just in case we forgot what was going on. "I have to find Riley, Liza and the others!" he hollers to himself, running through the jungle in terror. "I can't take any more of this heat!" he grunts, as a burning building collapses around him. At one point, he actually looks down at his hands and asks, "What have I become?"
But even though the story is something of a mishmash, it certainly has its moments. The motion-capture technology used to portray the rogue's gallery of quest givers—a paranoid CIA operative, a deadly renegade hostage-taker, a sultry island woman, a drug-addled scientist—is some seriously impressive stuff, in some ways even surpassing Naughty Dog's work on the Uncharted series. The primary antagonist, a pirate named Vaas Montenegro, is marvelously brought to life by actor Michael Mando, who gives a magnetic, menacing performance. Whenever Vaas was on the screen, I couldn't take my eyes off him.
The single-player campaign also contains a welcome amount of variety—a series of tomb-exploration missions in the middle play out like first-person Uncharted, and a number of hallucinated drug sequences are creative, pure goofy fun. The story missions are best thought of as a garnish, a way to break up all the sneaking, shooting, and exploring you'll be doing in between them.
That the story is inconsistent is perhaps Far Cry 3's primary failing, only because the rest of the game is so good that the story holds it back from true, we'll-still-talk-about-this-in-five-years greatness. The more compelling story is the one outside of the proper narrative, the age-old video game story of progression and mastery. As players earn experience points, Jason levels up, and his arm-tattoo grows more and more elaborate with each new armor-upgrade or takedown ability. The transformation from the start of the game to the end of the game is remarkable, if not as cleverly tied to the narrative as the writers would have liked. You'll begin as dead meat—a weakling with no health and a pistol, running for his life. By the game's end, you'll be a deadly predator, silently skittering through the jungle and dealing death with monstrous precision. You'll toy with your foes, and you'll like it. Rarely has progression in a game of this sort felt so satisfying.
The Rook Islands make for a spectacular video game playground, one part Ling Shan from Crysis, one part The Island from LOST. From the dense jungles and murky swamps of the northern island to the wide fields and sweeping overlooks of the southern, the whole map is jammed with fun distractions and rewarding stuff to occupy your time. And the most remarkable thing isn't that there's so much to do, it's how well it all works together.
The game revolves around five core mechanics, more or less: Sneaking, shooting, driving, exploring, and hunting. All five work well and are fun in their own right, and all five tie in with the leveling and progression system so that every time you do something, you feel like it's making you more powerful. It's that sense of seamlessness that elevates Far Cry 3—there's a feeling of "concert," of interlocking systems that have found a hell of a groove together. That encounter I described at the top of this review is a good example, and that sort of thing happens more or less constantly. The game encourages you to quickly hop between driving, hunting, hiding, swimming, shooting, and hiding again, all with astonishing fluidity.
The item-collection, experience/leveling, and crafting systems are all well-balanced, too. You're encouraged to go hunting because if you skin animals, you can use their pelts in the crafting system to make better holsters and containers for your gear. Animals roam different parts of the islands, so if you want to go hunting, you'd better explore. To craft better health upgrades, you'll need to harvest the best plants. To carry more plants and syringes, you'll need to hunt the animals to make the proper cases. To get upgrades for your gear, you'll need money, which is perpetually in short supply—so to get money, you'd better go looting, hunting, or undertake side-missions. It's all balanced, and the game maintains scarcity in its resources very effectively. The "gaminess" of it all might be a turnoff for some—Far Cry 3 exists in some middle ground between the complex micromanagement of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and the minimalism of Far Cry 2. The balance worked very well for me, and felt like something of a sweet spot.
Each of the islands' many non-storyline diversions net you experience points, money, and gear. Enemy bases are the most satisfying of these distractions, encampments of pirates that you can conquer and take for yourself. After you've killed everyone at a base, you'll raise up a blue Rakyat flag, and the base's bulletin board will open up with additional hunting and assassination challenges you can undertake. In a smart touch, the hunting challenges must be tackled with specific weaponry (usually the game's outstanding bow and arrow), and assassinations must be performed up close and personal with a machete. You can sit down and play a number of poker games around the island, or engage in fun, arcade-y "Trials of the Rakyat," which give you a specific challenge ("Shoot guys, and each time you kill a guy your gun instantly changes.") and then put your final score up against your friends. On top of all that, there are story-based sidequests you can undertake ("Take photos of dead pirates") that could have been filler but frequently feature funny writing and interesting challenges.
In fact, the biggest complaint I have about the side-stuff is that the signal-to-noise ratio can become a bit overwhelming. There is no way to turn off the mini-map, HUD, or objective markers, meaning that no matter what you're doing, the game is constantly throwing information at you, and constantly reminding you to get on with your next story mission. As the wubby soundtrack churned, and the hud popped up and nudged me back on track, it was hard not to resent the game a little bit for being so up in my grill all the time. Back off, game! I want to explore you! As an avowed fan of the notoriously HUD-minimal Far Cry 2, I found the lack of display customization somewhat dispiriting. I'd love to play this game with the HUD turned off, particularly on a second playthrough. Why won't you give me the option, Ubisoft? Surely it isn't that important to give me all this information if I don't want or need it.
The Far Cry 2 Question: This comparison isn't that important for the majority of people, but it matters a great deal to me. How does Far Cry 3 stack up to one of my all-time favorite games, Far Cry 2? Basically, Far Cry 3 is a mechanically fine-tuned, more-complex upgrade from Far Cry 2 that adds a crapload of very enjoyable, but very video-gamey junk to the the equation. Far Cry 3 lacks the dark, oppressive magic of Far Cry 2. You have a mini-map, and HUD data litters the screen. Your guns never degrade, they only get more powerful. The Rook Islands are lovely, but they lack the haunting grandeur of Far Cry 2's Sub-Saharan Africa. The story has much higher production values, but is less sophisticated. The music, while enjoyable in its wubby way, is inferior to Far Cry 2's eerie strings and hand-drums. But what Far Cry 3 lacks in focus it makes up for in functionality. Enemy AI is greatly improved. Stealth works. Surround-sound audio is more locational and useful, and hunting is easier. You have a reason to drive other cars than the machine-gun jeep. Hang gliders are no longer a cruel joke. I really like Far Cry 3, but in a more traditional way, in the way I like well-made, highly enjoyable video games. The majority of players, I sense, will vastly prefer it to its predecessor. And most of us who retain a preference for the second game will still have a good time with the new one.
Ubisoft has performed a smart lift from their own Assassin's Creed series by adding radio towers to Far Cry 3, which you must climb and activate in order to un-fog sections of the map. There are 18 of these strewn around the islands, and climbing them gets progressively more challenging as you go. The radio towers could have been rote or boring, but instead are delightful—perilous ascents that can be downright tricky, but almost never frustrating. It's not quite first-person platforming, more first-person climbing, with a focus on figuring out how to get to your next point of ascent. When you stand at the top, the tower lightly buckles and sways beneath you, creaking in the wind. This kind of attention to detail runs through most every moment of Far Cry 3.
None of this stuff is all that new, but it's amazing how well it all works, and how well it all works together. It feels great to play an open-world game where all of the systems are polished to this extent—the game is rarely buggy, and dishes out surprises on a regular basis. Cars handle with a realistic sense of physics and momentum. There's an organic first-person cover mechanic that works so well it feels like a revelation. Press up against a wall, and you take cover. Hit the "aim" button and you pop out to take a shot. Please, other first-person shooters, borrow Far Cry 3's cover mechanic!
The stealth is just as polished as the gunplay—taking down an enemy base without anyone spotting you is an exercise in caution, observation, alarm deactivation and enemy-manipulation. But full-on combat works just as well—on normal difficulty, enemies are deadly and will frequently overwhelm you, and you must play smart to win. Enemy types—chargers, shooters, snipers, heavies—all run varied and complementary routines, and force constant improvisation. And none of that's to mention the (truly) wild card: Those deadly animals. Cobras, tigers, leopards, boars, komodo dragons, sharks, and the world's most startling crocodiles—all will conspire to throw a wrench into your best-laid plans.
Talk to ten people, and you'll get ten different highlight reels of their time on the island. Shark hunting off the northern coast, fleeing from a collapsing Chinese ruin, zip-lining from the top of a rickety radio tower, or demolishing an enemy encampment with a ton of strategically placed C4. The one constant is that island, gorgeous and deadly, sprawling out before you. Running along the top of an open ridge, the sun setting in the distance, feeling for all the world like an extra on LOST… it's something that has yet to get old for me, even after around 30 hours with the game.
Far Cry 3 looks fantastic on PC—I played using both an AMD Radeon 6870 and a newer GeForce GTX 660Ti. Particularly on the GTX, with Directx11 enabled, this one's a real stunner. I would recommend that anyone who has the means play the game on PC—while I don't have final retail console copies of the game to compare it to, I was less impressed by the PS3 version at a recent press event I attended. The 360 version looked okay, but neither console comes close to the crispness and high framerate of the PC version. Far Cry 3 feels as close to a true "next generation" game as anything I've played this year, and it requires current hardware to run at its best.
(This video is from a preview I did of the game a little while back. My opinions are much more solidified now than they were then, but this gives a good sense of what the game's all about.)
In addition to its lengthy single-player campaign, Far Cry 3 also comes with separate co-op and competitive multiplayer offerings, though both are much harder to judge at this point in time. The game still isn't out for another couple of weeks in the states, and there are few people playing it on PC at the moment. I teamed up with some press friends to play around an hour of co-op and found it to be fun enough, if buggy, but not really in the same league as more polished co-op games like Gears of War and Left 4 Dead.
Co-op has its own story and characters, but they're mostly weirdly acted clichés, and it's all very removed from the events in single-player. Enemies in co-op are damage-sponges who can take what seems like 400% more damage than their single-player counterparts. Un-upgraded multiplayer characters move and aim quite slowly, and the levels are all linear. You won't be able to grab your friends and tear around the main single-player island, which feels like a shame—that's really all I wanted to do! I'll still probably play through all of the co-op missions, but so far I've found co-op to be much less satisfying and enjoyable than the single-player game.
I also had a tough time scheduling sessions to test out the competitive multiplayer. I played a few rounds of both "firestorm" and "transmission" modes, both of which are riffs on capture-and-defend. They worked fine, though in general they felt sluggish when compared with both Far Cry 3's single-player and with other popular first-person shooters like Borderlands 2 and Black Ops II. A lot of that could just be tied to my low-level character, though. So, the jury's out, and at this point, two weeks in advance of the game's release, it's just too early to say whether the multiplayer is any good. My sense? That it's fine, and that it'll find some longevity in the fantastic map-editor, but that it won't attract a huge multiplayer following. Far Cry 3 is a single-player game at heart. I'll play more multiplayer once the game is out, and will update this review after that.
Even if Far Cry 3 shipped with no multiplayer at all, the game would be a cinch to recommend. It's a smart, challenging, and polished adventure that does what it does very well. Some missed storytelling opportunities don't overshadow its fun, occasionally daring narrative successes, and the whole thing revels in a luxurious sheen of high production values and extraordinary design talent.
Far Cry 3 is an example of the rare ambitious, big-budget game that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do—chaotic yet controlled, with a brilliantly-balanced mechanical ecosystem that challenges and empowers at every turn. It's a wild ride, and one well worth taking. Just watch out for crocodiles.