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Over the boom-boom of M.I.A.’s Paper Planes, Far Cry 3 opens in the cheesiest way possible. It begins with a group of Santa Monica rich kids exploring the coastline of a South Pacific island. They cheer the trust funds that brought them to Rook Island, then swim with its oceanic wildlife and skydive from a plane. Rook Island is vast and untamed – and seemingly deserted. Yet in a flash the camera pulls back to reveal the glinting eyes of a tattooed, devilish visage with a cellphone pressed to your face. “I like this phone,” says Vaas as he stops the video. “I like this fucking phone.” He straightens and the camera pans to reveal your plight. You’re Jason Brody and you’re being held captive by a gang of pirates who sell tourists into the slave trade. So begins Jason’s nightmarish journey into madness to free both himself and his Santa Monica friends from the evil grip of the island.
Vaas might be the best bad guy to grace a game yet (though he doesn’t appear as often as we’d like) but Rook Island is the star of the show. Jason makes this primal land his home. But it puts him at odds with the friends he’s trying to save as he becomes enthralled and enchanted with the land. The people of Rook Island are divided by ideological allegiances and tribal affiliations but ultimately bound by the most primal urge of all: survival. Jason adopts this uncompromising attitude and similarly falls prey to Rook Island’s vice-like grip. Thematically Far Cry 3 owes a great deal to literature and cinema, from The Mosquito Coast to even Robinson Crusoe. In several instances it references phrases from Alice in Wonderland as Jason sinks further into a drug-addled symbiosis with the land.
All good games have a distinctive ambience and Far Cry 3 excels at giving you a world steeped in mysticism. To defeat Vaas, Jason joins a cult who uses hallucinogenic drugs to empower their soldiers. As you pillage the island tattoos start appearing on Jason’s arms. This not only lets you know you’re getting better at the game; it also ties into the lore of the island. Jason becomes emboldened and reckless, maybe even a bit crazy. Do you instruct him to retreat from the dangers that lurk on Rook Island? Or do you fight back? After a while the answer seems simple. And though it owes a great deal to books and movies that have dealt with this subject matter before, Far Cry 3 always feels especially unique. It is, after all, in the enviable position of presenting a world that can be both seen and experienced. In one sense it’s as far removed from its predecessor as possible: where Far Cry 2 gave you a selection of featureless characters in pursuit of an arms dealer amidst the arid African wilderness, Far Cry 3 feels mystical and ethereal and teems with personality.
Nonetheless, Far Cry 3 is still a sandbox game and its core plot can be unearthed at your leisure. And for the first few hours you’ll probably ignore it altogether as you get used to the island and explore Rook’s many diversions. Even the map, which is huge, requires hard work to open up. To do so you have to activate beacons at the summit of radio towers dotted around the world. But the radio towers are in a state of disrepair. As a result, you’re forced to find ledges and platforms to scale their summit. No first-person shooter does platforming well, but Far Cry 3 tries admirably and mostly succeeds. You might find that your gun clashes awkwardly with the camera in tight spaces, but the net result is the same: your hard work is rewarded with a map that gradually opens up puzzle-piece by puzzle-piece.
And as you explore the map you’ll come across enemy encampments that you’ll greedily seize. In Far Cry 2 you could expand a lot of energy taking out enemies at a checkpoint only to find they’d respawned when you returned. Thankfully this annoyance has been eradicated. Once an enemy encampment is in your possession you’re free to walk around it as you wish, while it also acts as a warp zone (and a source of munitions and supplies once you’re there). It’s a system that alleviates a lot of tedious travel and, best of all, does away with one of Far Cry 2’s most idiotic design issues.
Plenty to do, lots to see
There are also many more interesting things to do on Rook Island. Like Red Dead Redemption, the local wildlife can be hunted. But these animals are not only present for the sake of verisimilitude: they’re also a source of leather and hide that can be used to craft bigger wallets, munitions packs and bow pouches. Nothing in Far Cry 3 comes easy – should you wish to carry more money, or more bullets, you’ll have to be put the work in. Yet it never feels like a chore. It’s a game that rewards you for exploring and looting – and ties into a larger world designed to be tampered with.
Sadly, tampering with the world doesn’t always work. Far Cry 3 is rife with bugs. You might expect the odd blemish in a game this size, but when you come across human bodies that are simply transparent red blobs, or activates missions that simply won’t conclude, your enjoyment takes a dip. But perhaps the biggest issue is the interface itself. Every action in the game is context-sensitive. You can’t skin a leopard until the “x” pops up on the screen. You can’t scale a ledge until “a” permits the action to be undertaken. It’s understandable that to get the animation and the action itself to gel, the game needs to be in tune with what you’re doing. But in a game where fifty different possible actions are mapped to a controller with twelve buttons, you’ll find yourself battling the controls during important firefights. Certain buttons need to be held down while others only need to be tapped. But the game often does a poor job of recognizing what exactly you’re trying to do.
Taking in the view
Still, as an immersive experience, Far Cry 3 is unmatched. It all takes place from Jason’s point-of-view. Every gunfight, every conversation and every dip into the ocean further immerses you in the world around you. During story missions the camera snaps close to the face of the person you’re in conversation with. Vaas, for instance, is a colourful and utterly wonderful presence in the story. He’s acted wonderfully by the talented (yet unknown) Michael Mando with a voice that can go from a cheery singsong to a menacing growl in a split second. All the other major characters are similarly brought to life with startling detail, while the world at large also looks brilliant. You might notice an absence of real-world physics, but Far Cry 3 cons you into believing in its world. Brush past flora and you might only hear the rustle of leaves (rather than seeing them move) but this is an island you want to be fooled by. And with good reason. The varied wildlife (sharks, leopards, tiger, tapirs, crocodiles, boars and deer to name a few) all add to the experience. Look around in a 360 degree arc and you’ll spot spiralling smoke stacks indicative of enemy encampments that still need to be seized. You’ll grow to love the rise and fall of the land while virtually any landmark in the distance can be reached. It’s a great feeling.
Perversely, for a game that largely champions player freedom, the story missions all too often wrench control away from you and force you down a bloody storm of bullets. Midway through the narrative you’ll find yourself taking control of a turret for the umpteenth time and here your interest in the action might start to wane. But then a few devilish hallucinatory sequences ramp up the intrigue once more, like a boss fight reminiscent of the Scarerow encounter in Batman: Arkham Asylum.
For the multiplayer fan, there are further modes to pursue. You can tackle derivations of standard deathmatch mode or take part in co-operative battles against AI-controlled enemies. There’s even a map editor if you’re feeling creative. None of the multiplayer additions capture the core Far Cry 3 experience but you can’t fault Ubisoft for being generous. In truth, the multiplayer component feels like filler; necessary filler in this day and age perhaps, but filler all the same.
Yet, taken as a whole, there are few games that offer such good value for money. All told it’s a big beautiful world you’ll absolutely love exploring. Yes, the interface is at times finicky and the story missions don’t always do the world justice, but just as Rook Island draws Jason Brody in with its alluring charms, it enacts the same vice-like grip on you the player.
And when the game is at its best you’ll really believe you’ve taken a hit of something awfully strong.
Far Cry 3 was reviewed on Xbox 360