With "Far Cry 3," the assembled teams working under Ubisoft Montreal have created a sprawling, dangerous, living island and an exciting sandbox for their latest open world shooter. Case in point: during my time on Rook Island as protagonist Jason Brody, I've hunted and skinned bears, stalked pirates, and stalked pirates who were then attacked by bears on the hunt while everything was burning around me. More than anything else, the game is a thrilling mayhem simulator.
It's unfortunate that this game--the closest we'll get for the time being to a FPS "Just Cause"--is wrapped in a painfully rote Tarzan fantasy by way of bro-y "Heart of Darkness." By the time I'd finished the campaign, I didn't want to leave Rook Island, but I was more than ready to get away from its tatted-up chosen one.
Rook Island serves as the home to a band of pirates and sometimes slavers, lead by the ruthless, maniacal Vaas, a simultaneously magnetic and repellant figure who keeps the rest of the island in check with a mix of fear and abrupt violence. Jason his two brothers, and friends end up in this lunatic's clutches after skydiving onto Rook Island with the promise of a libertine's haven where they're told they'll be able to do whatever they want (if they have the cash). This is just a lure to get a group of white kids into the hands of some nasty pirates, but they don't expect Jason--the aimless middle child--to become killing machine when he escapes and sets out to free his friends.
From a Liberian expat named Dennis living on the island, Jason learns of the Rakyat, rebels led by the slinky spiritual leader Citra who have turned their arms against the pirates. In order to find his friends, Jason embarks on the Rakyat's path of the warrior, receiving sacred tattoos which mark the many combat abilities he'll pick up in his quest. This framework allows "Far Cry 3" to dabble in light RPG elements, with three separate skill trees to fill up based on your activities on the island.
And you shouldn't have trouble building up new abilities like additional stealth kills, quicker reload times, and additional health slots since there's so much to do on Rook Island beyond the campaign. Besides going to war with the pirates, you'll also be hunting the local wildlife for and chopping down plants for crafting materials, exploring and scaling antenna towers to reveal more of the environment, seizing enemy bases for the rebels, finding lost tchotchkes, racing, going on fetch quests, hunting quests, assassination quests--suffice it to say, there's a lot here.
The level designers responsible for "Far Cry 3" should be commended for finding the sweet spot whereby their open world is so packed with little pips on the in-game map, that a compulsive explorer and collector like myself can't not check out that nearby tower or search around a WWII bunker hunting down lost letters from Japanese soldiers. "Far Cry 3" is filled with so many points of interest making it that rare open world game where you might avoid using the included Fast Travel (which takes you to newly-seized bases and key story locations) simply because you want to clear out the map.
As a shooter, the weapons may not have the tight aiming or more tactile feel of those in something like "Black Ops II" or "Halo 4" but they get the job done. Scaling the perilous, decrepit towers unlocks new guns in the in-game store while seizing bases will make those same guns available for free at the stores and automated lockers. There's a healthy arsenal available for Jason in his fight against the pirates (and whatever else wants to kill him), from the compound bow with explosive and fire arrows, to SMGs, LMGs, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, mines, C4, and grenades that you can either buy or pick up from slain enemies. The economy is a little wonky in the back third of the game, after you've likely collected most if not all of the guns, and you may see yourself simply splurging for attachments you may or may not use and body armor for a little extra protection.
Head-on combat isn't advised, though: Jason can't really soak up all that many bullets (or fire--you will get set on fire a lot), so you're better off going in stealthy. Moving in slow and quiet behind an enemy allows you to execute a takedown, with new skills allowing you to take out chains of closely grouped enemies. Or, if you want to attack from a distance (or simply plan your attack), you can use Jason's digital camera to spot enemies and mark their positions as well as their their style of attack (sniper, charging beserkers, etc.).
It might be easy to fall down the crafting hole here: for instance, Jason starts off only being able to carry one gun at a time, but to create holsters for a second, third, and fourth weapon, he needs to hunt and skin specific animals for each expansion. The same goes for additional ammo and the loot pouch he uses to carry around all of the salable bric-a-brac he finds. Harvested plants will also provide temporary ability boosts like being able to spot enemies and explosive barrels by scent. You can also craft medi-kits which will quickly restore bars of health although if you run out, Jason can bandage himself up just as effectively, albeit with a much slower animation that leaves you vulnerable.
Where "Far Cry 3" falters is in giving all of these cool abilities and an excellent playground of destruction to its mostly milquetoast protagonist in service of a story that almost threatens to have some depth of meaning but really ends up being another instance of "when bad brown people happen to thrill-seeking Caucasians" (see also: "The Beach," "Turistas," and any other work where ugly Americans end up on the wrong end of a local's knife). It doesn't help that Jason at the start of the story isn't set up to be any kind of badass and nothing in the plot really establishes how or why he becomes so hard to kill (or why Citra thinks he's the chosen one to save her people). A couple of boss battles hint at drug-fueled mysticism and the marking of the Rakyat do magically appear on Jason after he chooses a new skill, but by the end of the story, it's clear that's simply a gameplay conceit and has nothing to do with the actual narrative.
Once you're done with the campaign (and exploring the island), there's the obligatory competitive multiplayer options including team death match, domination, and a capture and hold mode complete with killstreak bonuses for up to 14 players. "Firestorm" is a new mode where you must set fire to enemy fuel dumps and then keep the fires burning by taking control of the radio. Up to four-player co-op missions are also available, but again, "Far Cry 3" isn't a great shooter, it's an excellent exploration game where you happen to shoot things.
Smaller complaints about the game can be leveled at its visuals on the 360 (the version I played) versus the PC counterpart. By no means ugly on the console, there's still a lot of abrupt draw-in and some not-great textures. Also, I have no idea why in 2012 any designer would think that there's any value in a QTE-based boss battle built around a lengthy conversation that you'll have to repeat from the start if you miss a step. The narrative information in the final "fight" is almost next to useless until the final moments and it's built around the worst, most oddly-timed game of Simon Says.
For all of its many narrative failings and minor technical drawbacks on the console, Ubisoft has built an excellent survival experience in "Far Cry 3" (as well as in "ZombiU," but that's for another review). I may have my issues with the (criminal lack of) ideas in the story, but it plays so well that I can't recommend the game woven in and around the mindless, shallow plot enough.
"Far Cry 3" is available now on the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.
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