I don’t know how accurate this is, but I feel like Far Cry 3 is the game which really put the series on the map. I have played bits of both the first and second games, and I can see why they’d be popular but it’s my recollection that the third game is the entry which really kicked the franchise into the sphere of popular mainstream games. It’s been a game which has nagged at me to replay for some years now but I’ve never gotten around to it; but now, it seemed like nearly a decade on was a good time to head on back to Rook Island.
Far Cry 3 (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)
Released Oct 2012 | Developed / Published: Ubisoft
Far Cry 3 certainly knows how to do an opening. The game begins with a cutscene of a bunch of rich kids enjoying the high life, parachuting, diving and riding jet skis around a gorgeous tropical island. However, it abruptly stops and pans back; we’re watching a video of ourselves on a phone, and a nasal, wheedling voice starts to mock us as it turns out Jason Brody (that’s us) and his friends wound captured by pirates who plan to sell them into slavery. Jason’s brother is killed during an escape attempt but Jason manages to get away, falling into unconsciousness as he takes a dive from a cliff into the waters below. When he comes to, he’s in a small village on the other end of the island, and a mysterious chap introduces himself as Dennis. He calls himself a Rakyat, a member of a warrior tribe who fight for the freedom of Rook Island against the local pirates and he claims that he sees a fighting spirit in Jason. To that end, he adorns him with the tatau, a symbol to mark him as a warrior, and tells him that he must rise up and take the fight to the pirates if he wants to rescue his friends.
Although the premise sounds almost banal, like the plot of an average Hollywood blockbuster action film, Far Cry 3 delights in ripping us back to reality and reminding us that Jason’s situation is grim, hostile, and dark. The game is a masterful exercise in mood whiplash; it’s content to let you revel in the freedom of the island, exploring its forests and peaks and launching attacks on the pirates as you attempt to liberate camps, but sooner or later you’ll need to take on the main story and suddenly the facade comes crashing down. Lesser games might not be able to handle this tonal whiplash but Far Cry 3 is a marvellously well-written experience; the harrowing and gut-wrenching moments are well-earned and serve an important narrative purpose beyond just emotionally toying with the player.
Central to that is, of course, the character writing. Perhaps this is my own bias showing, but Jason feels like a rare beast, an FPS player-character with complex emotional responses and development. Although his situation is dire, it’s easy to find oneself expecting to dislike him given he’s the epitome of the snot-nosed rich kid, a waster with an unlimited credit card (or, more accurately, his parents’ unlimited credit card) who spends life purely hedonistically, hanging out with his self-same friends as they cruise bars, take copious amounts of drugs, and generally fob off work and commitments. What makes him compelling is the way in which he is broken and reformed by the island and his experiences. Although he reacts with an understandable fear to Dennis’ introduction to the Rakyat and their way of life, he soon finds himself sinking into the violent world of Rook Island. It’s a process which is neatly mirrored in the emergent gameplay, as increasing Jason’s abilities naturally makes him more deadly in combat and stealth, and in turn we become the active player in Jason’s emerging brutality and the erosion of his former self, replacing it with a callous, bloodthirsty warrior.
It’s echoed in the narrative: as Jason begins to rescue his friends, even they comment on the difference between the naive party-boy who was captured, and the merciless killer who saves them; more than one wonder to him whether Jason isn’t enjoying his new role too much, and he even rebukes them at one point with a comment about having found his purpose in life. The further through the story you go the clearer it becomes that the writers at Ubisoft have adapted Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, or, if you prefer, Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness; all 3 are concerned with the reduction of man and morality, how even the strongest wills can be torn down and replaced by an animalistic cruelty. Indeed, Far Cry 3 is overt in its influences; it’s no accident that all 3 take place in jungles, requiring the protagonist to adapt in the face of the unrelenting and murderous nature of the wilds; they become predatory or they die.
The characters Jason meets are all designed to act as foils to his experience. His friends retain their humanity but are traumatised by the acts they have experienced, and although we see they lived the same prior life as Jason, we’re invited to view them sympathetically because they have a more sane reaction to Rook Island. The vast majority of the cast however throw sanity right out of the window and it’s a fair question to ask whether really any of the collection of folk you meet have any link to reality. Chief among these is Vaas. Easily the most famous character to emerge from Far Cry 3, the leader of the pirates which capture Jason and his friends, Vaas cuts a frightening figure. Played exquisitely by Michael Mando, around whom the character was completely redesigned, Vaas is genuinely terrifying, a completely unhinged madman whose actions are impossible to predict and whose cruelty seems boundless. If there’s anything that jumps to mind first for most people when thinking of the most notable features of Vaas, I’d suspect it’s his speech; Vaas seems to have almost no control over it, going from a menacing whisper to violent screaming in nanoseconds, and his cadences are all over the place, leaving you aurally stranded as you struggle to get a read on him. While he is by no means the last of the island’s denizens you meet, he is by far the most notable.
Once you get past all that juicy character writing and trauma that Far Cry 3 revels in, what kind of game are left with? Distilled down to the basest component, Far Cry 3 is a first-person shooter with an emphasis on stealth gameplay. You tend to need to be at least a bit stealthy given Jason dies pretty quickly regardless of what difficulty settings you’re playing on, but it’s not exactly what I would call a fully-fledged stealth game, per se. The rules of Far Cry 3’s stealth seem simple, but perhaps it would be more accurate to call them underdeveloped. By crouching amidst the thick brush and leaves of Rook Island’s jungles Jason is naturally harder to see, but he’s not invisible; however, where the threshold is between obviously visible and not is indistinct and ill-defined. Once enemies start to get a bead on him, a small metre appears which, when full, indicates that someone has definitely spotted Jason and knows where he is. Again however, what makes it fill or decrease is spotty at best, which isn’t ideal when dealing with a stealth system.
Far Cry 3 has a somewhat unique way of approaching player progression which I think helped form part of the love it experienced back on release as well as keeping it a relevant game to a modern, patient player. On the surface, it doesn’t seem that impressive. Jason starts the game as, naturally, a largely useless spod; he can’t take any hits, he’s got maybe a pistol in his pocket, and he’s utterly ignorant to the trials and life on Rook Island. You can mark progression in a couple of ways however. This is a videogame so naturally you can accrue experience points by doing basically anything (shooting baddies, finding secrets, uncovering the world map, etc) and eventually those points turn into skill points that can be spent to unlock new passive abilities that power Jason up. These fall into 3 categories based on what animal the Rakyat symbolically link them to; for example, skills in the Shark branch can involve learning how to carry out silent takedowns from the water, or just increase your swimming stamina. There’s a kind of role-playing thing that Far Cry 3 tries to do here, as it seems initially like you might be able to commit to one of the three branches, like a class system, but that’s not really how it works; parts of all 3 branches are locked off until you hit story milestones and if you only buff one branch then you intentionally hamper yourself. One thing I love about this though, aside from the theming, is that each of these skills form part of the tatau, and each mark on it reflect a person’s increasing mastery of the path of the warrior in that culture; each skill you earn then is accompanied by a new piece of the tatau getting filled in on Jason’s arm, and being able to watch its progress as it climbs up the entirety of Jason’s forearm is a brilliant piece of immersion.
However, you can’t get by with just skill points as Jason also needs to get better gear to take on Vaas’ pirates. Unlike other games where you might buy or loot gear, Far Cry 3 is all about hunting and crafting. Jason can make a wide variety of useful apparel, from extra holsters in order to carry up to 4 weapons, to bigger ammo pouches, larger wallets, and grenade slings. To do so, he must hunt the various wildlife of Rook Island and gather their hides. The hunting fits together in a very organic system; rough areas of where certain species might be found are demarcated on the map, so you can plod over more or less whenever you like and start trying to gather material. It lends itself to a fantastic sense of emergent gameplay as animals are a constant threat on the island and they don’t care that much about whether you’re busy doing something else; more than once I found myself getting attacked by tigers who, unbeknownst to me, had been hunting my through the undergrowth while I in turn had my sights trained on another wandering patrol.
What’s unique is how this fits together in the wider scope of the game. The first part of play is all about gathering strength, and then the latter half of the game is all about letting you just be a badass, and the progression mechanics enable this brilliantly. It’s also emphasised by the reactions you get from the various enemies you come across. I particularly like the fact that the pirates quickly give Jason the moniker “Snow White”; first it shows up as an insult but soon enough it becomes a name that they shout in fear, and that sense of becoming more of a danger goes hand-in-hand with the constant stream of progression.
All that said, the gameplay loop does feel dated. For a start, it’s very recognisable as an Ubisoft game with all the stuff that entails. You’ll almost certainly know what to expect: we’re talking climbing towers to uncover the map, clearing out constant bandit camps, and hoovering up random secret collectibles, all without any real sense of direction or reason beyond spending more time with the game. Missions with forced stealth and fail states also sour the experience greatly; stealth is a big part of the game but I honestly think it’s implemented very poorly. As much as I loved the game when I originally played it, it’s taken me a very long time to get around to wanting to play it again and as I did replay it for this review I began to understand why: Far Cry 3 might be a narrative triumph and I might love the concept of its progression, but the moment-to-moment gameplay has suffered with age.
Ultimately the question Far Cry 3 wants you to consider is about Jason’s inhumanity and whether or not it leaves him a redeemable person. Every character we meet, from Vaas and Dennis to Jason’s friends, as well as the others I’ve not mentioned, all experience the Island, and all come out differently. By the end you’ve already been invited to ask whether Jason’s actions put him alongside the villains in sheer barbarity. It’s a different brand of moral choice system, not one based on making banal and basic “good route” or “bad route” choices throughout the game. Instead Far Cry 3 understands that the most effective moral choice comes through the experiences we and Jason go through. It’s not a game about picking the nice path or the nasty path; Jason knows exactly what path he wants to choose, and the player, by engaging with the mechanics of the game, chooses it with him, and we can reserve the right to be privately horrified or not. The ending nearly undermines it all, however; I think most players, when given games with multiple choices, have in their head a “canon” ending for them, and that deviating from it can sometimes be difficult, and Far Cry 3 is one such game for me. I wish that, right at the end, Far cry 3 had been a bit braver and committed to its own message, but regardless it can’t reduce the experience of the game.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.