By John Walker on December 3rd, 2012 at 9:00 pm.
Far Cry 3 is a game of enormous juxtaposition. Overall it is undoubtedly an absolutely stunning game, ridiculously fun and utterly engrossing. And in there are some real extremes. I argue that Far Cry 3 contains some of the features for which we’ve spent our years screaming at the sky, a real understanding of why fun can be more worthwhile than realism, emergent play, and angry, angry tigers. And I also argue that Far Cry 3 contains some of the stupidest mistakes imaginable – in fact, beyond imaginable, because there’s no understandable way they could reach the finished game unless it were in fact coded by angry, angry tigers. I argue the first half of this below, with the second half tomorrow.
The problem with listing what a game gets wrong is it can start to look like an attack. I really don’t want to attack Far Cry 3, because I bloody love it. I’m the third person on RPS to report it’s caused them to stay up way past their bedtime, as it gobbles time and ensures there are always seven other things you need to do before you can stop. But of course there’s also that perennial issue with something when it’s great: the bad bits show up more. Like sneezed spaghetti on a Schelfhout painting, it’s all the more clear what shouldn’t be there. I wanted to put what’s wrong first, so I can finish on the positive. But it doesn’t work that way around. I can’t criticise the narrative before I’ve put that in context, for instance. So instead today I bring you what’s right with Far Cry 3, and tomorrow I’ll say what’s wrong with it.
What’s Right With Far Cry 3?
Clearly you need to go read Jim’s review if you haven’t. There’s no point in my repeating why it’s such an all-round successful game here, or I’d just be writing a review. So I want to pick out little details, the counterparts to those globules of spaghetti that make all the difference. It’s partly a passive-aggressive act – these are also the things I would lament other games not doing, and highlighting them here, hopefully it makes the point how important they are. And it’s partly because I like celebrating good stuff.
I can see people immediately disagreeing here. I do too. I disagree with me on this one. And that’s not surprising, because the thumbnail of the story is slightly beyond problematic: a group of white kids land on an island of brown pirate savages and magical natives, who begin to celebrate/fear one of those white kids as this new force of mystical power to liberate/destroy them. That’s not exactly great. But then at the same time it can be read differently, and I think that while I recognise the former, this latter is my real experience. A group of wretched white rich kids arrive on an island for a holiday of self-indulgence and thrill-seeking, their fear of leaving adolescence exposed by their need to jump out of aeroplanes rather than move on with their lives, privilege protecting them from needing to be anything other than vacuous. But the island on which they’ve chosen to do this turns out to be lawless, and under the control of murderous pirates, and quickly their faux-idyllic lives are destroyed. Kidnapped, threatened, and beaten, a brutal reality instantly crushes them. And you, your character, he sees his own big brother murdered right next to him. He’s changed.
And yes, as Jim pointed out, there is a somewhat dramatic shift from the first time you stab a guy to kill him, to mowing down crowds with machine guns. It is jarring. But I also don’t know how they could have done it differently, without artificially limiting both your freedom and the game’s free-form fun – i.e. controlling how many people you encountered, and when you could shoot them. And Far Cry 3 absolutely isn’t Modern Warfare. But what’s really important here is that the change is recognised, and that’s almost unique among the murky world of FPS plotlines. Sure, the ordinary work-a-day chappie is thrown into the crazy situation, but I can’t think of many examples where other characters stop him hours in and say, “God man, you’re murdering loads of people. Why are you okay with that?” Even your character himself is torn by this, admittedly only in cutscenes, but in many ways that’s the point of the meta-commentary.
So while I can’t pretend the serious concerns aren’t serious concerns, either there’s more going on here or I’m a massive racist. Because as I play, what I experience is controlling someone whose entire life has fallen apart, who is experiencing the same sense of satisfaction and pleasure as I am when I successfully clear out an especially tricky enemy camp (read: kill lots of strangers), and who is being a hero after bring a prick. The locals on the island are the race they are because they’re, er, from that island. And the mystical voodoo bullshit? Well, it’s a crappy story element whether it’s playing into lazy racial tropes or not, but at least it’s an attempt to explain why I’m suddenly so much more brilliant than I was 20 hours ago.
Oh sweet merciful joy. You can run! Run! Run I tell you! Unlike every other game in the history of humanity, running a bit faster than a slow jog isn’t something that can only last for three seconds. And that’s not “every other game in the history of humanity” style exaggerating. Literally, three seconds – that’s what most games give you to run faster before your character becomes a doubled-over, heaving wreck. Even I – an unpleasantly lazy blob – can run for more than three seconds without having a heart attack. Maybe even seven. But here this fit young man can run indefinitely, because FIT YOUNG PEOPLE CAN RUN A REALLY LONG WAY. There are even perks to allow yourself to reload a gun while running. Goodness me, what a massive difference this makes.
Like the hum of an air conditioner in an assembly hall, the problem with every other game’s diving wasn’t something I noticed until it went away. When you jump into water in Far Cry 3, you keep going down for a bit. Like, jumping into water. Every other game has you remarkably buoyant, but Far Cry 3 has plunge. You plunge in, and you have that odd moment where you feel like you need to stop going down now please. Diving is also absolutely splendidly realised, and something well worth doing off the side of a waterfall. Oh yes, you can dive off waterfalls.
I know most of the internet disagrees with me, but there’s a good looking section that’s on my side about wanting games that let you feel more powerful the more you play. Games that actually let you get better, such that they get almost slightly easier the more you play. Games that get more interesting instead of more difficult. If there’s one game that broke that rule to its own devastating shame, it was Just Cause 2. The constant ramping up of the opponents meant there was never a moment of feeling like you were becoming the world’s best. And of course the nature of RPGs and MMOs is to scale the world around you, if not just make later sections level off any improvements you’ve made to yourself. Midway through Far Cry 3, no such thing is happening. I’m getting incredibly powerful, and while the world is constantly getting more interesting, I’m getting markedly better. I’m so much more skilled at clearing out an enemy village now, with far more abilities and weapons, and it’s great! I get to feel great! It’s not scaling to keep me in my place, remind me that I’m a hamster in a wheel. What a real pleasure.
I’ve never played a hunting game. Not even to see if they’re as horrible as I imagine they are. And I’ve certainly absolutely no desire whatsoever to actually go hunting. I went fishing once, and it felt like a warcrime. I’ll have my animals arrive magically dead in packaging, thanks. But wow, I’m loving the hunting in Far Cry 3. I’m loving it partly for the reasons I fear I’d probably actually find enjoyable about a good hunting sim – the thrill of the chase, the successful aim, the application of reflexes and skill – and partly because it’s so damned wrong. Chasing bears through the jungle with a bow and arrow is ridiculous. Being chased by bears through the jungle is hilarious. Having my ankles brutally bitten by komodo dragons is terrifying. And shooting wild dogs is about as heinous as I’ve felt when playing a game.
Most of all, it’s the killing endangered species. It’s dirty, it’s wrong, it’s morbid. It’s very exciting! Tigers are real bastards when they decide you’re food, and also they make for lovely purses. That’s I think my favourite aspect of it, when combined with the game’s crafting. I NEED to kill that incredibly rare leopard! It’s the only way I can make a bigger backpack to carry my inane shit in! I’ve turned into a 1970s lady with an arctic fox slung around her neck. “I needed it to die, for otherwise my neck would get a frightful chill.” So I’m pootling around in boats, killing anyone with red clothes on for sport, waiting for sharks to turn up, because my wallet has run out of space for money. Just take that sentence in. It’s hideous. It’s glorious. What have we become?
Although it’s funny how functional it is for me. When shark hunting I was swimming in a gorgeous lagoon, and spotted a vast manta ray. It was beautiful, and I swam underwater with it, us both flitting about, neither threatening nor threatened by the other. And then I got on my boat and shot it to death, to see if it could be made into anything. And it couldn’t. It was just a dead manta ray lying on the bottom of the sea. And I felt gruesome. It really got to me. Fuck those sharks – they’re holding my many, many dollars together. But that ray? He didn’t have any reason to die. I’m sad about the manta ray.
And those tigers. I never want to kill the tigers. They’re so magnificent. And there is nothing better in all of gaming than deliberately causing one to enter an enemy village and kill the lot of them. The game still recognises it as a victory to you, but it was all the tiger. Gosh, those are the best moments. I can’t not sit back in my chair, put my arms in the air, and shout, “TIGER WIN!” The problem is, they also want to eat me, and it really is self-defense when I blow their brains out.
When it wants to be Tomb Raider, it manages to be Tomb Raider. Huge temple interiors, difficult almost platforming paths to find, hidden secrets, and ancient artifacts. And when it wants to be Just Cause 2, it delivers it. Ridiculous supplies of vehicles and ammo, huge explosions to trigger, large-scale chases, and paragliding onto the roofs of buildings. If it chooses to be a cover-based corridor shooter for a short while, then it absolutely provides that superbly, with enemy AI that doesn’t just pop up where it ducked down, and excellent indication of your visibility. When it wants to be an open-world, emergent battle (which it opts for most of the time) then it doesn’t fuss you, try to control you, lets you approach a situation as you see fit. And if that makes it incredibly easy or ludicrously difficult, because of your actions, it allows it.
Missions let it comfortably wander into the realms of Uncharted, while there are oddly personal interactions that give it a feeling of Skyrim. And it does all these things without ever forgetting that it’s a giant fun machine, for churning out fun and not pissing you around.
There’s so much more I find myself wanting to celebrate about this one. I want to champion the extraordinary nature of the exploration, rewarding you for going far, far off track with ancient ruins, expansive caves, amazing waterfalls leading into crystal-blue pools, crashed aircraft at the bottom of the sea, or perhaps best of all, a hangglider at the top of the highest mountains, letting you take it all in as you float back down. But I have to stop somewhere, or the internet gets too slow. Tomorrow, the negatives.