Far Cry 3 (PS3)

Far Cry 3 PS3 cover

Far Cry 3 cover, with surprisingly relatable poster boy Vaas. The protagonist is hidden in the sand, which speaks volumes of his stage charisma.

What is Far Cry? It is Ubisoft’s open world shooter series where you also explore a wilderness setting while having freeform firefights in the first person. First (2004) it was an unbearably pretty tropical paradise with thematically nonsensical, design-wise questionable content. Then (2008) it was an immersive, compelling depiction of war-torn Africa with hypnotic, if flawed systems powering a feverish descent into madness. And now (2012) it’s back to the tropical paradise.

On the surface, they’ve gone back and done a better job with just about everything they established in the previous games. The first game was too reined in, hinting at a larger world – now it’s wide open, with a textbook open world. The second game had a lot of very neatly intertwining systems with sometimes questionable execution, and those are now all refined to something very close to perfection. Both previous games have thematically been about a clash of Western values and worldview with a feral world, and here Ubisoft dives deep into the theme.

Or rather, pretends it does. The theme is a good place to start discussing Far Cry 3’s merits and issues. When you first load up the game, you’re presented with an animated butterfly icon as a loading symbol. It takes you a second to realize the image is formed from gun silhouettes, which also animate between various guns. Perhaps you see it the other way around, first making out the guns, but immediately it feels like the game is trying too much. The sensation continues on to the minimalist title screen with its distorted close-ups of different dudes and vaguely threatening electronica. It’s like the game is telling you that shit is going to get crazy. You sigh and cringe and press start.

You’re then presented with a cast of seriously obnoxious young Californians partying in a paradise archipelago. It’s like the opening of Dead Island without the softening effect of that game’s obviously B values, seriously off writing and over-acting, and interesting narrative. It’s hard to tell how much of the bad taste in your mouth is intentional. Being a generous kind of guy, I assume it’s wholly intentional and you are supposed to hate these idiots. It then turns out you’ve been captured by an insane pirate and his crew and whereas less worthy hostages are tortured and killed, you’re going to be held for ransom. The crazy pirate Vaas is immediately likeable and manages to make you pay attention until the college jock douchebags start talking again. You’re imprisoned with your brother and you’re both so worthless, you completely wish them ill.

Your privileged white youth is then thrust, whimpering, into a bloody escape from the pirates. Once out, you’re free to do what you want on the Rook Islands. You are immediately transformed into jungle superman, only falling back on your airhead days whenever you open your mouth, which is mercifully rare.

The supposedly profound contrast between the sad protagonist’s sheltered life and his new life as a noble savage wannabe (and I mean that in exactly the offensive manner) in the islands never works. To the developer’s credit, most of the time they’re not even trying to get you to care, but when they do, it’s cringe-inducingly bad. The only good bit is the hero’s weak stomach for the animal-skinning he’s doing all the time – his retching and expletive-laden distaste for the job never gets old.

Where the original game didn’t really bother exploring its everyman hero’s psyche, that was never a problem as all the development (or lack of it) happened in the player’s head. Here they’re trying to let you know how you should feel, and unfortunately that tends to be “would you shut up, please, nobody is listening”.

The problem is not at all what you’re doing. What you’re doing is awesome, in many ways a perfect distillation of what’s been best in the series. Far Cry 3, like Far Cry 2 before it, is great at making you tell stories. I fell in love with it the time I was hiding in the bush, out of ammo and limping back to a safe place, mortally afraid of the animal sounds around me as I was in no condition to ward off an angry tiger (or dog, for that matter) (let’s face it, a pig would’ve done me in), when I could hear a jeep closing in. There was nowhere to hide as I had foolishly wandered into the open. The jeep spotted me, slowing down, with the pirates shouting at me, climbing out, brandishing their AKs. That’s when the tiger leaped from the bushes where it had been following me, tackling both pirates. Blinking once, I ran toward safety and left the melee behind. That sort of stuff happens all the time, the various factions and mechanics colliding in unpredictable ways, and it’s sublime every time.

Far Cry 3 has almost all the great systems from the previous game, and they’re all working perfectly in unison here. You don’t get the interesting buddy rescue system, but pretty much everything else is here. You’re liberating outposts, except now they become manned by your guys. When you remove the pirate threat from an area, the islanders take over in a believable fashion, with civilian life thriving and patrols making sure no more pirates sneak in. As changing open worlds go, it’s surprisingly easy to buy into the fiction and it’s very gratifying to see your actions having such visible effect in the world.

Stealth is now both fun and functional, and my preferred way of taking out outposts John Rambo style is so much fun it’s hard to stop doing it, emerging unseen from the bush to stab someone in the neck, dragging their bodies into hiding, then proceeding to a tin roof to jump down on somebody else. It makes you feel like the hunter you’re supposed to be becoming in the narrative, with your magical tattoos.

Firefights feel more like a game of survival than before. Playing on “Warrior” (I guess “hard”) difficulty, enemies go down in a shot or two, and if you’re ever caught without cover, you’re basically done for immediately. It feels like the way the game was meant to be played. With inventory space and ammunition in short supply, you have to be careful and it increases the intensity and weight of consequences satisfyingly.

The thrill of checking out your map for the next thing to do never gets old. You want to do everything, because most of it is a lot of fun. (The driving bits are not fun, but they’re just about passable, too.) It’s like you’re in a tropical boys’ adventure Disneyland, except with guns, and you’re being ushered from this one thing to the next fun thing, typically almost within line of sight. All that’s missing are water slides down the mountains, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was one masquerading as a waterfall somewhere.

The game never cares about real world limits when there is a more fun option available. You can always fast travel to any of the unlocked outposts, all friendly buildings come with utterly ridiculous gun vending machines (which handily also buy your bloody animal skins and pirate knick-knacks) and there are lots of mini-missions available that are structured like arcade challenges; you’re transported to a custom level, given a set of weapons and asked to kill as many enemies as you can within the time limit, complete with exploding blue barrels of plus ten seconds. It breaks the already fragile fiction in an astoundingly straightforward manner, and the game is all the better for it.

It is all delicious fun, then, but it’s also completely at odds with what the narrative is trying to do. Some of the issues are on a mechanical level. You have a crafting system that’s supposed to make you feel like a jungle warrior in the making, but in practice you only harvest healing herbs for a couple of hours before unlocking an unlimited “heal for free” button that doesn’t require medicine.

You’re made to traverse the land and look for interesting stuff on the map, but the downside is that there is nothing else of interest going on. It’s a big, pretty world where everything is marked on the map for you. Where in Far Cry 2 you hoped for more stuff to do while wandering its epic empty stages, here you’re drowning in stuff to do but the world is just never that interesting.

And then, inevitably, you get to the really bad stuff. Continuing the positive, awkward Disneyland reference from before – imagine walking into Disneyland and instead of being able to head for one of the attractions you want to check out, you are assaulted by a couple of dudes who get up in your face, screaming at you about all the possibilities you’ve got in the park. This continues for fifteen minutes, the dudes highlighting every attraction and option until they are sure you have zoned out, leaving you covered in spit. You have no idea what they said after the fact, and you wish you could just punch them in the face and leave you be to figure it out. This is the experience of starting to play Far Cry 3 and it’s very bad indeed. For a game about exploration and discovering your own self, it is hysterical about not letting you take one step without guidance.

Thankfully you can go into the options and turn off pretty much all of the bullshit instructions you don’t want to deal with. The game becomes immensely better the moment you do. Everything is so user-friendly and so clearly signposted, you have zero chance of not figuring out how it all works on your own anyway.

The biggest issue with the presentation isn’t something you can bypass. A lot of the game happens in the menus and the menus don’t even try to maintain immersion. Far Cry 2 is still a shining example of how to do in-world orienteering and pretty much everything else, as well, but Far Cry 3 is content with chucking you out to spend some time in abstract blue screens every couple of minutes, whether it’s stocking up on ammunition, customizing weapons, organizing your loot or crafting stuff. Your immersion and buy-in into the world is broken every time. At least the menu experience is as smooth as everything else, going out of its way to make sure you get your stuff done efficiently and with all the information you might want.

Whereas the most offensive presentation migraine can be fixed, the technical side of things can’t. For the most part the game is pretty in the way a modern PC FPS with graphical options turned way down can be. Quite frequently, it’s shitty. They have some very questionable ambient occlusion going on that should’ve just been turned off, often resulting in comical stencil-style outlines for all characters. I could deal with the looks if it wasn’t for the framerate. Passable when you’re on your own, it plummets to at worst single digits in big fights or surrounded by lots of stuff – which is “all the time” you’re not in the jungle on your own. The performance is so disappointing I’m probably going to buy the game again on the PC one day. All told, visually it’s just not as nice as Far Cry 2 was on the PS3, no matter how enticing the tropical setting is. You never shake the feeling of being in a purposefully built tropical theme park, where the predecessor’s Africa was something you could get lost in and enjoy every moment of it.

It’s a really great game, an open world crammed full of fun stuff, with only good and fun mechanics powering it – if you take it as a game. If you start paying attention, like it sometimes – meekly – wants you to, it all becomes incoherent and borderline offensive. Which makes for an interesting game at the worst of times.

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