REVIEW: I have been sitting here staring at an empty page for several minutes now, wondering where to begin.
Simply put, Far Cry 3 is just too damned big to encapsulate easily in a concise review, and I am unsure of how to get started.
First up, an admission: as of this writing, I have not finished the single player campaign, and I haven't even taken a peek at the multiplayer. This is despite sinking far more hours into it than I want to admit. Ubisoft's Uplay service doesn't seem to record the length of time played, but doing the maths I think I must have put in somewhere between 30 and 40 hours. This only places me around the story's halfway point, which gives you some idea of the size of this game.
So, what is Far Cry 3? In the most simple of terms, it's a sandbox-based first-person shooter. In more colourful terms, imagine Just Cause 2 and Skyrim had a baby; a beautiful, beautiful baby.
The setting is a small archipelago in the South Pacific, currently going by the name Rook Islands, but with a history that goes back many centuries. Time lies heavy on the land, layered like silt on a riverbed. Currently, the long-suffering native people plus a small population of refugees and associated oddballs live under the shadow of a gang of modern-day pirates, but it is clear that many others have occupied these islands previously.
Signs of attempted industry litter the landscape - a sawmill here, a small oil refinery there. Clearly, some have tried to establish honest businesses here in preceding decades, but they have never stuck around.
Before that, Japanese forces used the island as a base during World War II, with the most obvious signs of their occupation being the many hillsides forts and land-to-sea cannons that dot the landscape. Here and there are crashed Japanese fighter planes as well, and if you look hard enough you can find letters from the troops to their superiors and loved ones, letters never delivered. The story revealed when you read them is a heartbreaking tale of madness and obsession, and I hunted down every letter to learn how it all ended for the doomed soldiers.
There are signs of exploration and habitation even further back. The coast is full of shipwrecks, most of them modern steel, though now rusted hulks, but a few are tall-masted wooden vessels from longer ago, and some still hold valuable cargo if you're willing to brave the deep water and the ravenous bull sharks. The native people have left their own mark on the land, from small hilltop shrines to extensive temple and palace complexes, all built from carved stone.
The end result is a world that feels vividly real. Even the geology is believable, with logically placed lava tubes and eroded caldera rims indicating the sites of ancient volcanos, and most seabeds dropping sharply away from the shore in a manner consistent with a real South Pacific islands.
The wildlife reflects the archipelago's diverse history, and it is hard to know what is native and what is introduced. The usual feral animals are present, including pigs, goats, and rabid dogs, but there are also more exotic creatures, such as leopards, tigers, and even Asiatic bears. In the real world, all of the animals are native or introduced to either Pacific Islands or South East Asia, so it isn't impossible that all of these creatures could somehow have ended up in the same place, though things like Galapagos Giant Tortoises and Komodo Dragons stretch credibility a little.
The island itself is a thing of incredible beauty. After so many hours, I still stop and just enjoy the scenery from time to time, especially when I notice a particularly vivid sunset, or a gorgeous view from atop a creaky radio mast. You'll need the PC version to enjoy the full eye-candy experience, but it's still a good-looking game on consoles.
Into this mix of heaven and hell come a party of young American tourists, making a foolhardy parachute jump onto an island recommended to them by a friendly nightclub DJ. You play Jason Brody, the middle child of three brothers, all of whom are on the island together, along with a collection of their friends.
Jason is portrayed as an everyman, a regular guy who has never hurt anyone, let alone killed. Clearly the writer wanted to give us a character that the majority of the game's audience could empathise with, but he comes across as a little bland. Still, the journey he embarks upon, first to rescue his friends, and then to take revenge for those he couldn't save, is a dark and complex one.
The hero is upstaged in dramatic fashion by the game's primary villain, a mohawked psycho named Vaas. With his memorable (and endlessly quotable) rants, lectures, and homilies, Vaas steals every scene he is in, making him one of the best villains I have faced in years. While he seems completely unhinged, there is a bizarre internal logic to his insanity, and he even exhibits something close to a code of honour.
Alongside Vaas, the islands are packed with bad guys, starting from stock standard grunts with AK-47s and ranging through snipers, swift-footed maniacs with shotguns and machetes, drunk bombers with belts weighed down by molotov cocktails, and heavily-armoured troopers carrying major firepower like LMGs and flamethrowers. Atop the pile is Hoyt, Vaas's rarely-seen boss, who begins to make his presence felt in the game's second half.
There are plenty of story missions to propel Jason through his ever-darkening personal journey, with most of these being well-designed and fun, though there is a handful of exceptions. It is the stuff between missions that will keep you engrossed, though. Unlock sections of the map by climbing rickety radio towers and removing jamming devices. Race through the jungle to deliver urgently-needed medical supplies. Play poker, or engage in knife-throwing contests. Alternatively, just go wandering and see what trouble you can get into. (Spoiler: You can get into a lot.)
One of the main repeated activities is conquering enemy bases and claiming them for your side. You can do this in a variety of ways, such as via stealth, distance sniping, or just wandering in with guns blazing. The game is robust enough to make all of these viable options, though the stealthy option gives the best rewards in terms of experience.
Oh yes, there's a character advancement system. Experience points are earned by killing enemies, with bigger scores for tougher enemies and multiplier bonuses for taking them out well, such as with stealthy takedowns, accurate headshots, or catching multiple enemies in a single explosion. These earn skill points, which can be spent on three different skill trees: stealth, close combat, and ranged attacks. The new skills make significant changes to how you play, assisting with toughness and shooting accuracy, helping you more faster and more quietly, and building up a library of lethal takedowns.
Apart from the simple sneak-up-and-stab takedown, there are many others, including some that make use of an enemy's equipment. If you want to be quiet, you can kill one enemy, then steal his knife and throw it at the next. To make more of an impression, another lets you pull the pin on his grenade and shove him into a crowd of his comrades.
The game's violence is interesting. While it is definitely a violent game, I never felt that it was gratuitous. Rather than flashing violent images up in front of the player's eyes for the sake of it, this feels like a game that has created an unpleasant situation for the protagonist to be in and then refuses to shy away from demonstrating just how ugly and brutal it can be. Making it even harder, as you sneak around enemy camps trying to find the best way to kill everyone, you can overhear conversations between guards, making it clear they are people too, not just monsters.
Vehicles, as well as weapons and buildings, all have a rough, hand-made feel to them. Nothing on Rook Islands is new and shiny, and some of the vehicles are literally held together with wire and rope. The weapons are the standard range of pistols, SMGs, assault rifles, and shotguns, plus rocket and grenade launchers, a flame thrower, and my personal favourite, a high tech recurve box, used for silent ranged kills. The bow takes a lot of practice to master, but it is incredibly satisfying to drop a sniper from 100 metres away with a perfectly placed arrow.
It's not all fighting, though. There is a lot of exploring to be done, and many ways to do it. You can find quad bikes, cars, jeeps, and trucks to drive around the islands' crumbly roads, plus sea vessels ranging from jet skis to gunboats. You can even take to the sky by finding hang gliders perched on high peaks. Few games feel so alive. As you travel, you get a strong sense that this is a place that existed before you arrive, and will still be here after you leave, a brilliant illusion that is all too rare in games.
Hunting is given meaning by the game's simple crafting system. You begin with small containers for loot, money, ammunition, and weapons, and the only way to carry more is to hunt animals and make larger containers out of their skins. It doesn't make a lot of sense that you specifically need tapir skin to make a level two backpack, but it is a great excuse early in the game to explore remote corners of the island, trying to find the animal you need to make a larger ammo belt.
I could go on about Far Cry 3 for hours, and I have already written too long. Here's the short version: It's amazing, and you should buy it. If you like first person shooters and enjoy games that give you lots of freedom to explore a big open world, this may be your game of the year. It's certainly mine.
2012 has let us down over and over. Sequels to great series like Assassin's Creed and Hitman have been far less than they should have been, and it would be easy to dismiss Far Cry 3 as just another dodgy sequel. Just this once, though, Ubisoft has crafted a game that lives up to the hype. It isn't perfect, but its flaws are so minor they barely warrant mentioning. A slightly overbearing interface, somewhat dull enemy AI, an unwieldy inventory system, and the occasional physics glitch seem trivial compared to everything Ubisoft did right.
This is sandbox shooting at its finest. Jump into its huge, vibrant, living world and see where the current takes you. It might be somewhere beautiful, or dangerous, or both, but it will almost certainly be a lot of fun.