And so our journey comes to an end. Santa, King Of Hell, has been slain. And all that remains is for us to divine the game of the year from his black and smoking entrails. But what could that be? And what is love? Haddaway didn't know. But we do. Read on for enlightenment.
It's... Far Cry 3!
Jim: Well, I did say I liked it. But how much? Enough to take Game Of The Year? That seems like a lot. I couldn't have imagined that being the case at the start of the year, and yet here I am going back to blow up sharks and run over gaudy pirates in a stolen jeep. And there I am arguing the case for Far Cry 3 in the RPS advent calendar meeting. And what's that? I am playing Far Cry 3 until the sun comes up? What does it mean? Well, it means that Far Cry 3 was a far better game than anyone could have predicted.
2012 has been a magnificent year, and yet the majority of games that have disgorged their gameplay into our leisure-time digestion seems to have come with some kind of issue or related difficulty that has left us indignant and hissy. Not all, perhaps, but most And that's true of Far Cry 3, of course - there's a myriad of wonky or downright ugly bits under the hood, not to mention all that mystic bullshit - but, somehow, miraculously, that hasn't dulled its edge. It's a rich, noisy fanfare of a game. It's a razor-sharp cleaver, lopping off the end of the year for itself. It works hard to make an open world actually mean something, and to really let us make the most of what huge horizons and seething jungles can offer.
It's also absolutely an antidote to so much else that I've played this year. It's as if the bright beaches and absurd fire-propagation were dissolved in a glass of tropical fruit juice to clear the hangover of a prodigious and sleepless year at the keyboard. It's not grimdark, but it does have sex and gruesomeness. It's ultra violent, and still manages to give us comedy bear-attacks. It's unflinchingly unrealistic - with tigers fighting Komodo dragons, and it has hang-gliders parked at pretty much every location where it might fun to fly off the edge of a cliff, and genuinely terrible hallucination sequences - but it remains electric and terrific fun throughout.
I think it's the pitch and structure of it that impressed me most of all. It's a broadly mainstream, accessible shooter, and yet unlike anything else this year.
The idea that games are theme-parks is often used as a criticism, but I think here it is a positive analogy. Far Cry 3 is as moronically dumb as the experience of theme-parks, and just as clever in the construction. It knows, and it enables us. It's an engineered marvel, and at the same time nothing more than a wide-open shooting gallery. It's never real for one moment. It's seriousness only underlines how much the game can't actually be taken too seriously. And that's a good thing.
I've waited a long time for a game to throw me quite this much rope. Time to do something stupid with it.
Alec: I respectfully disagree with everyone else. The protoplasmic, Shoggothian mouths of the RPS hivemind often bite each other in disagreement behind the scenes, but this site's democratically-chosen game of the year was perhaps the first instance where I felt alienated by the honorifics of my esteemed colleagues. It's not so much that Far Cry 3 is so troubling in terms of how it depicts race, how its only notable and openly non-straight character is also a rapist, how its cast are so unlovely, how it uses magic as a crutch, or even how all this was made so much worse by the discovery of the cake-having-and-eating, failed subtext to such unpleasantness. That aspect of the game troubled me indeed, but frankly I know from long years of eye-rolling that the noisier end of the videogaming spectrum ritually fails to be smart and sensitive even when it isn't also trying to be some perverse, indulgent experiment in browbeating the player.
No, what for me keeps Far Cry 3 from deserving this pedestal-placement is that it's so damned shallow. Beautiful open world filled with activities and open to a choice of stealth or steroidal frenzy it may be, and this is certainly something I enjoyed immensely, but beyond that it's just box-ticking. Complete all the subquests, kill all the animal species, collect all the memory cards, climb all the radio towers... Click on icon, click on icon, click on icon. That's entertainment, yes, but no more. It's the traditional MMO grind with tight, flexible FPS controls applied to it - again, I do not mean to brand that a negative, but these are temporary distractions that speak only to compulsion, the burning need to complete and collect.
I admire that Far Cry 3 has made these lizard brain-pleasing activities look and even feel so spectacular, but I felt no lasting resonance from the icon-collecting it ultimately was. It gave me no stories to tell, and when it all finished, even aside from my distaste about those arrogant, addled ending sequences, I felt so hollow. I'd collected all those things, visited all those icons, and for what? Others, including my colleagues here, presumably took far more from the minute-to-minute experience and action than I did. I enjoyed it for sure, especially the flexible chaos of conquering enemy guard outposts, but it was always driven - undermined - by that great need to check off another box on the game's great to-do list. The game could never surprise me - in what seems to be the Ubisoft studios' design attitude now, I would know full-well what to expect at each of those icons. In fairness the story missions were the exception, and they did take me to unexpected places and sights, though I had to accept those unskippable and unpleasant cutscenes as the sacrifice for this.
Many compared Far Cry 3 to Skyrim, but for me it was much more akin to a leaner and more satisfying Assassin's Creed, which has so often been so guilty of boiling down to a series of shopping lists. That map overflowing with activity icons seems to be a Ubisoft staple now, and even though it can of course be ignored, I still find it - and the structure that it is simply the surface-level herald of - robs these games of all the joy and adventure of organic exploration and discovery. I did not ever feel I was having an ad-hoc, unexpected journey in Far Cry 3, save perhaps for the earliest hours when a bear or tiger attack was still terrifying and not yet the perfunctory engagement it would become once I was armed with a couple of decent weapons.
I am grateful for Far Cry 3 and very pleasantly surprised by how much it did and so slickly too, but in a year that has given us so much I cannot possibly consider this to be its highlight. It's a far cry from the best of 2012. Esteemed colleagues, I wag my (bony, RSI-plagued) finger at thee. Humbug!
Also it didn't take long enough to collect all the bags. Put some rhinos and elephants in there and then we'll talk.
Nathan: Warbird, I will never forget you.
Our paths only crossed briefly, but that was enough. No, scratch that: it was perfect. I was raiding an enemy outpost - my silenced sniper clicking and clanking as I darted into position behind some gigantic ruin of a WWII gun emplacement - when I first saw you. You were barely visible behind the bars of a ramshackle cage, but even then, I could tell you were different. In part, it was because I could sense something within you. Some kind of quiet ferocity, perhaps. But also, it's because I still don't know what the fuck kind of bird you were. Some kind of peacock emu? The offspring of an ostrich and a penguin?
But then, they noticed me.
I'd gotten too close. I popped from cover and picked off a couple as they closed the distance, but others flanked me. I fled into the tall grass nearby, nursing both my wounds and my sniperly pride. I'd taken too much damage to re-engage immediately, so I waited until they began to cautiously creep back toward the outpost. Then I circled around the back to begin my counterattack, and that's when I noticed you. Like, I mean, really noticed you. You looked all puffed up, full of feathery avian rage. And that's when I realized: we were the same. You wanted vengeance too.
Then a stray bullet caught your cage, and you got it. Slowly. Methodically. I watched in awe as you gracefully waddled into position and - just as soldiers turned in bewilderment at the inhuman screeching machine slaying their eardrums - pounced in a flurry of beak, claw, and gangly limbs. But only after that did you legitimately surprise me. Because you just let me be. We were mere feet apart, and you chicken-danced away, stage left. To this day, I haven't harmed a single one of your kind, because who knows? It might be you.
Yeah, that mostly sounds silly, but there's a kernel of feeling to it. I get to own these moments - whether they're rife with unbridled, tigers-and-fire chaos, bizarre intimacy, or both. And I can set them off by running in guns-a-blazing, meticulously scouting and sneaking, or meeting somewhere in the middle. No, it's definitely not the first game to take the power fulfillment fantasy route, but it might just be the best. Each and every element is weaved together into a glorious tapestry of player-controlled chaos. It's a world that's so obviously designed just for me, and it spares no expense to show its affections.
In that sense, Far Cry 3's the anti-Far Cry 2 - a game which was, in turn, unabashedly anti-player. Totally dominating a shootout? Oops, your gun broke. Having a nice morning stroll? Never mind, bad guys everywhere. Breathing? Haha, malaria. And admittedly, I loved Far Cry 2 precisely because it wasn't like other shooters at all. It despised me. But there's room enough in my heart for both approaches, and - like its predecessor - Far Cry 3's penchant for generating amazing stories is completely magical.
Truth be told, I don't talk about games with my friends all that much. I mean, don't get me wrong: I love games more than just about anything, but they're my job. I guess I want to be more than simply Mr Videogames or something. But I could not shut up about Far Cry 3. Pretty much everyone who knows me now knows Warbird by extension. That story's been spread around enough that it's probably due for a major motion picture adaptation any day now.
It's a bit odd, too. I could definitely be accused of a bit too readily ragging on most Shooty McMacho games in general, but I'm drawn to one that's about merciless killing, tattoos, and colonization. And yeah, it's allegedly a criticism of some of those things, but it's certainly not a graceful, well-articulated, or even particularly apparent one. But in some ways, Far Cry 3 feels like the end of an era. It's the big, dumb, loud, vaguely offensive cartoon shooter cranked up to 11 million. This is the game countless developers have been trying to create for years. The arms race is over. Far Cry won. Maybe now - finally, mercifully - we can all move on and make something brand new.
John: Sure, you're annoyed. You liked Game Y and Game X better, and it doesn't make sense when we've been so critical of it on a number of occasions. I've only published two truly confrontational interviews this year, and one of them was with the writer of this game. I've written a post titled "What I Loathe About Far Cry 3". But I can assure you, it's the game of 2012.
None of us was expecting it. To be honest, I wasn't even aware it was due to be released this year, so far off my radar was the third game in a series I've never much cared for. Jim's review encouraged me to install it, but I figured it'd be one I saved for the Christmas break, when I had the time. Instead I found the time by not sleeping much for a few nights. I'm old now - 35 - and it turns out staying up until 4am playing videogames isn't a thing my body finds particularly endearing any more. But Far Cry 3 insisted. The older I get, the more capable I am of playing in sensible portions, stopping a game when it's time to meet someone for coffee, acknowledge the existence of my wife, or indeed, go to bed. Far Cry 3 bypassed all that, and I just had to keep playing.
That's enough for me. Right there, that's enough to seal a GOTY title. It's so compelling, so engrossing, and so balls-out fun that why would I want to stop when I can see the next village to clear out over a hill, which will likely offer me a new hunting challenge, and wait, is that a cave? The main quest may have been a bemusing confusion of an attempt to do something clever by doing a lot of things stupid, but it was only an occasional interruption to the real game I was playing. And you know what - a lot of those main plot missions were great! No, they wouldn't have been great if they were the whole game, but they were lovely intermissions - suddenly the game was Uncharted for a bit, then it was Tomb Raider, then it was Just Cause 2. But you always promptly returned to the wider world, and its adventure-playground.
And absolutely crucially, it's a really great shooter. That's too easy to overlook in the fuss. The movement is utterly brilliant, the sliding into cover, the skidding down hillsides, the swift, generous sprint. The gunplay is fantastic, different weapons handling very differently, with broad variety and adaptability, so you can create the four-part arsenal that perfectly suited you. And damn, that bow is incredible. Adjusting for trajectory, boosted with skills, taking out a deer from 50 feet makes you feel amazing. Silently taking out a guard on a tower makes you feel like James Bond meets Hawkeye.
There's no other game this year that I've found as fun, as compelling, and as absorbing. Until Far Cry 3 came along I was going to be pretty miffed that I wouldn't have something like 1000 Amps or Scribblenauts Unlimited as our goatee choice. But now I'm extremely content with this in the top spot. XCOM may well have deserved it too - it's outside of my territory - and Dishonored was a very special game from 2012. But Far Cry 3 grabbed me harder, pulled me in further (despite its mad narrative), and just let me have the freedom to run around and have all kinds of fun.
Adam: These are the first words I’ve written about Far Cry 3 since I actually played the damn thing, or at least the first seen by anything other than the unblinking eye of the hivemind. I’m unabashedly infatuated with the moments that the game produces so there’s a strong temptation to describe some of those moments and leave it at that. The time I drove a jeep over a cliff edge, twinkling green and blue stretching to the horizon, dived out of the driver’s seat an clung to the scree as the vehicle toppled down, end over end. The slow, careful descent that followed. The gunshots in the distance.
How about the first time I saw a Komodo dragon, after hearing the panic of its prey, who were also my prey, the mighty white hunter killing man and animal alike. I’m not entirely convinced by the deconstructionist nature of the characterisation but even before John had spoken to the game’s writer, I found the means by which bags and holsters are fashioned from carcasses comical, intentional or not. This is an island on which it’s possible to buy enough ordinance to equip an army but there’s not a single person willing to sell me a carrier bag.
I’ve got a magical tattoo. I’ve killed hundreds of people. I’m carrying grenades in a pouch made out of a dog’s hindquarters. The whole thing is bonkers, a hallucinatory holiday with a b-movie horror beginning and a bewildering sun-kissed beauty. The story is the setting. Impossible islands that would be paradise but for the murder-birds, poison-dragons, leaping tigers and angry men. There are so many endangered animals, all of which exist to be turned into some sort of satchel, that nothing is endangered anymore. What a joy that there are actually still so many tigers in the wild, I think to myself as one chases me over a waterfall.
Almost everything that I loved in Far Cry 2 is here and there was so much to love in that game. It was a failed experiment, an inspired confusion that should never have been abandoned. There are many games that fall by the wayside because they fail to live up to their promise, their best features forgotten and apparently abandoned. Spore comes to mind. Far Cry 2’s attempt to alter what we expect from a first-person shooter could have been similarly dismissed and the great surprise of Far Cry 3 was the willingness to learn and to improve rather than to jettison and forget.
I think it goes too far, replacing the endless respawning with none at all and providing a playground that can be too quickly emptied of its playthings, yet it’s an open world game that offers so much to see and to do that I frequently experience a sort of gratitude that I can load it up, to live and die in its emergent episodes. The problems that it suffers from are far more severe than those of other games in the calendar but that it provides so much joy in spite of them still has the power to shock, even after weeks of play.
For almost every blunderingly off-key note, there’s a performance and sliver of characterisation that deserves acknowledgement and appreciation, and for every scripted, hand-holding mess of a mission there are a hundred possible scenarios waiting in the undergrowth. In a year where Spec Ops: The Line demonstrated the power of a sand-shrouded yet blatant assault on the brutality of gaming’s warface, Far Cry 3’s landscape of colourful, cartoon brutality is peculiar. Every foray into the grim and the ugly feels like an uncomfortable insertion, a striving for a meaning or impact that is at odds with the playful world, where hunting, gathering and exploring are all possible precursors to moments of Looney Tunes calamity.
Ducking into a guardpost to hide from a patrolling vehicle at night, only to see it pull over as its occupants declare war on a pack of rabid dogs can be tense, unnerving and eventually hilarious as I drive away, leaving the red teeth and claws of nature to feast on the stranded gun-bastards. I construct scenarios, utilising every stage that has been set to enjoy an ambush, a gun fight, a car chase or a spot of sniping. Almost everything that I attempt feels right, even when it goes horribly wrong.
If someone had suggested in November that I’d spend more fulfilling hours with Far Cry 3 than Dishonored I would have raised an eyebrow and talked to somebody more sensible instead. If that same person had said that Ubisoft’s game would make the act of moving through a world feel anywhere near as smooth and solid as Arkane’s I would have spluttered an incomprehensible dismissal. And yet those things are true.
When I played Dishonored, I realised that no game since Mirror’s Edge had made me feel as if there was a physical entity behind my window on the world, leaping, slamming into walls, climbing, sliding. Far Cry 3 doesn’t have Arkane’s architecture to clamber across but the sense of being in a physical body is equally impressive. It does the seemingly simple things – the shooting, the falling, the running, the swimming, the driving – so well that it makes their actual complexity clear.
There have been tighter, more cohesive and more efficient games this year but Far Cry 3 does two things that I never expected. It’s a blockbuster first-person shooter that I actually enjoyed and it’s an open world game that everybody can and should learn from. I’d be happy to praise it effusively simply because opening it is like opening a toybox or visiting a park, but what seals it for me is the evidence that its designers are willing to learn from and elaborate on accidents and mishaps. Far Cry 2’s sequel could have been a bid budget exercise in cowardice, forsaking what had come before, but instead we have, at least in part, a fulfilment of a grand idea.