By Brendan Caldwell on October 10th, 2012 at 5:00 pm.
We sent Brendan to play Far Cry 3’s single-player. Here’s his report.
I’m halfway through skinning a dead Komodo dragon when all my suspicions about Far Cry 3 come to a head. I’m standing on the overhang of a massive cliff, just going to town on this corpse. Bunching its bloodied hide into a bundle like a supersize tortilla wrap drenched in red chilli sauce. And I’m thinking: ‘Man, that was one grumpy lizard. But it’s okay. I’m safe.’
Of course, it took me a while to reach that point. Far Cry 3 starts off strong. Angry-ox-on-a-hot-day strong. You’re a spoiled Californian holiday-maker called Jason Brody and your journey to the islands of the east with a bunch of friends and family has gone awry. Somehow you’ve ended up alongside your brother in a bamboo cage, listening to a rambling psychopath pirate called Vaas and waiting to be ransomed. The escape sequence doubles up as the tutorial, naturally, and soon enough it’s ‘hold X button to save brother’s life.’ After you fail miserably at that (sniff), you get chased into the jungle and Jason kills his very first man with a machete in the neck. You can tell from all the swearing and trembling that he did not enjoy this. He escapes and is taken in by the Rakyat warriors – a modern-day tribe fighting against the pirates and Vaas – and this is where the real game begins.
It’s become a pattern for each Far Cry game to try and be distinct from the last in some way. And this game starts blowing the African dust of its predecessor off its shoulder right from the start. Vaas is unlike the Jackal – your Kurtzian semi-nemesis from the previous game – in that he actually feels like a person. As interesting as the Jackal was, his mumbling voice acting and quick-fire monologues meant his message was nowhere as near as profound as it could’ve been. With Vaas, Ubisoft are swapping out profundity for real character. He’s emotive, expressive and genuinely uneasy to watch. A mood-swingy hyena of a man, the kind of guy everyone knew in school and didn’t really want to hang out with because you never know when he’ll snap. He’s Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, if Joe Pesci in Goodfellas had been exiled to the South Pacific and shaved himself a Mohawk instead of becoming a ‘Made Man’ in that empty basement.
From what I saw the characters don’t stop there. Dr Earnhardt, the druggy with a medical qualification, visibly sways as he goes from being caring and attentive to dangerously delusional. The plan is for him to take care of your rescued friends but you can never quite trust that he won’t mess something up. Sadly, it’s Jason Brody himself – the guy you play as – that’s seems the most inconsistent from what I played. This is because of how ridiculously quickly he goes from being scared rich-kid to King of Murder. After seeing his brother kill someone during the tutorial, he almost panics. And he’s on the verge of tears when he first kills someone himself. But within 30 minutes of that scene you’re offloading an AK-47 into pirate heads and torsos without a second thought.
After this battle, I approached a poster – one of the many around the island that denote a bounty hunting side quest – and activated it. “The Rakyat are hunting pirates,” says Jason coolly. “This feels right. I’ll do it.” And that’s that. He’s totally fine with death now. It probably would have been more believable to ease him into the fighting sequences slowly. Or have him vomit after a fire fight, or uncontrollably break down in tears every so often, or something. But then, this is an FPS.
And as an FPS the idea is to let the player kill as much as they like. I don’t know how you reconcile that with a character that starts off so obviously afraid of things. But there we go. This is a game after all. And believe me, if Far Cry 3 was a food, it would taste like pheasant. Gamey. Between missions the world is open for exploration. It’s quickly established that there are some housekeeping things you have to do to make progress. Radio towers puncture the idyllic tropical landscape and you have to climb these and sabotage the circuitry at the control switch in order to wipe the shroud from your mini-map and reveal notable locations nearby.
There are plants almost everywhere with which to make medicine or ability-enhancing drugs. There are recipes that help you breathe underwater for longer, or follow an animal’s scent trail, or simply heal your wounds. Animals themselves can be hunted down and skinned, allowing you to craft wallets for holding more money, ammo pouches, grenade pockets, weapon holsters (you can only carry one gun at the start and have to craft more of these holsters to hold the maximum of four) and bigger rucksacks for carrying around more loot.
Passing missions and gleefully shooting people (or sneaking up behind them for a bit of the ol’ stabby-stabby) will earn you XP with which you can unlock abilities. Far be it from Far Cry 3 to eschew the trend of putting RPG elements into a shooter. There’s every other species of tree on this exotic island, so why not the humble ‘skill tree’? Admittedly, this does have a neat visual trick to it. Every time you buy a new skill, a small tattoo will appear on Jason Brody’s arm. As you acquire more and more skills the tattoos – said by the Rakyat to bring great power and blah blah blah – start to entwine. The idea is that you’re left with a sexy sleeve that allows you to use men as human shields, cook grenades, heal yourself without medkits and so on. As well as endearing you to tattoo-fetishists the world over.
For a while I indulged in these side-missions. I killed a family of boar and made a bigger lootsack from their skin. I chased some goats around the side of a steep hill and macheted them to death so that I could craft myself a pistol holster. In between these events I picked some flowers. They were pretty.
But it’s the story and characters that drove me on, really. I followed Dr Earnhardt’s directions and went to a sea cavern to collect some mushroom specimens he needed to help treat one of my friends. There followed what I hope is the first of many drug-trip sequences of the game, wherein walls breathe and vines waver like the tide. It’s gum-lickingly stylish. By the time you emerge from the cavern, half a day has passed in the space of ten minutes and this is remarked on by your character as being very “woah.”
It’s now that I spot the Komodo dragon. Well, first I hear it hiss, then I spot it. After I riddle it with more bullets than I could have expected a giant reptile to endure, I bend down to skin the beast. And I guess that’s when I do my best thinking – in the idle moments of a game, waiting for an animation to finish – because it struck me how bored I was of skinning animals. Of all these AssCreed-like interactive chores. If I had stopped to take the time to do this in Far Cry 2, I would have been somehow punctured in the chest with a rebar from an enemy hiding in a shrub one hundred feet away. Remember that? Remember how you could never really feel comfortable in the indeterminate African countryside? Not even for ten seconds. Because here comes a jeep, a posse of war-hungry militiamen. Remember how isolated and anxious you felt when you saw the last plane leave the country at the very beginning of the game? How oppressive it was to be surrounded on all sides, not by a pristine azure ocean, but by an unconquerable desert?
Well, I didn’t feel like that when I played Far Cry 3 for the first time. I didn’t feel under threat. I felt safe. And that’s probably the word I would use to sum up my first impressions of the game itself. ‘Safe’. Ubisoft have made a gorgeous, characterful and finely-tuned game. But in doing so they appear to have stripped out what was fresh and vital about its predecessor. I’m just going to out and say it: the buddy system is gone. The most memorable moment of Far Cry 2 for me was running out of morphine and being forced to put my good pal out of his misery with a bullet in the head. (It didn’t matter that he didn’t have a personality as such. So long as he rescued me from death, time and time again, he was my friend). All that is gone, replaced by your bog-standard ‘load-you-back-at-the-start-of-this-challenge’ death. More’s the pity, because it looks like the writers are fully capable of creating some really vibrant characters this time around. And that’s not the only thing they took out. Scavenged guns no longer jam, injuries don’t seem to happen as often… Don’t get me wrong, the second game was far from perfect (and I’m glad to see that when you clear a roadblock in this instalment, the road stays cleared) but it’s like some higher-up execushite walked into the dev studio and ordered them to rip out all the interesting design ideas in time for the sequel because the alternative – to try and build on these mechanics – was too risky. “Play it safe,” says the execushite to the creative. “Play it safe.”
All this isn’t to say Far Cry 3 isn’t a contender from the scant two and a half hours I’ve played. I still had a good time trekking through the lush jungle and hallucinating the day away. For an antagonist like Vaas and edgy allies like Dr Earnhardt, I’m more than happy to give it the benefit of the doubt. It’s a game that has obviously been painstakingly refined. But refined – I fear – in the wrong direction.
I didn’t really think all the above in the time it took me to skin a Komodo dragon, of course. I was just getting some hide to make a new pair of boots or something. But the feeling was there, you know? The suspicion that something didn’t feel quite right. ‘Man, that was one grumpy lizard,’ I thought. ‘One beautiful, lovingly-crafted, grumpy-as-grandads lizard. But I guess it’s okay. I’m safe. I’m standing by the edge of a cliff on an island full of pirates, with an AK-47 in one hand and the bloody remains of an endangered reptile in the other. And I feel safe.’
Far Cry 3 is out – in some weird reversal of the usual practices – on November 29th in the EU, 30th in UK, and on December 4th in the US.