The third game in the Far Cry series has arrived, bathed in sun, populated by sharks and murderers, driving too fast along a dirt track, with the grass on fire all around. But is this a holiday of a lifetime, or a trip to the wrong side of the tracks? I pulled on a scratched pair of aviators and scavenged a shotgun from the body of a fallen games journalist to tell you wot I think.
There's crafting in Far Cry 3. Crafting. This makes for some unexpected moments. I didn't expect, for example, to be collecting leaves, and to be accidentally killed by a cow as I fled from a “YOU ARE LEAVING THE MISSION AREA” warning. Yes. Unexpected. Especially when the mission was leaves. Nor did I expect to want to steal a car a drive around the island with the specific intention of finding a goat so that I could take its skin. But within about an hour of starting the game that's exactly what I was doing.
You see, Far Cry 3 allows you to carry up to four weapons, and your machete. But when the game starts you only have a single holster. Want another one? Make it. Make it out of a dead goat. That's where this game's mind is. Guns are basically free, with a bit of exploring, but the capacity to carry them, well, you have to gut that goat. Initially I couldn't believe it – this is a first-person shooter, not an MMO – but then after a while I realised that Ubisoft Montreal have basically followed my own advice about how to approach open worlds. Rather than take Far Cry 2's “it's all about the shooting” approach to the game, they've made it more of a place, more of a world. And despite a few stumbles along the path, it's dragged me in.
Sure, you still drive about an island, getting into gunfights. There are still baddies patrolling constantly in jeeps, and there are bases and checkpoints full of hostiles all over the island, but there's so much else going on, too. There are friendly NPCs, there are neutral NPCs. There are villages with people chatting and playing cards. There are pirates looting bodies on beaches. There are leopards hunting deer in the forest. There are bandits and boat patrols, there are hang-gliders and a magic mushroom merchant on the hill. This is a game which absolutely rewards exploration, which makes the most of its open world, and which populates it in a way which is absolutely ludicrous and unrealistic, and which makes it absurdly entertaining.
It's huge, it's silly, it's beautiful, and it's fiery.
What I am saying is, that despite the incongruity of the leaf mission, and despite some of the other design woes which I will outline later – despite, even, the bizarre mystic subplot – this is a marvellous game which understands how and why open world games are thrilling. It's also layered in skill trees, and a (largely superfluous) inventory, to make this game feel like it has a lot more going on than some other open-world shooters we could mention. The result might sound a little Skyrim-with-guns, yes, but no. It's nothing like Skyrim. In a Bethesda game I never caused two bandit jeeps to crash into each other, only to set fire to half of the jeep passengers with the flamethrower, and watch the other half be eaten alive by giant lizards. No, sir.
Far Cry 3 has kept me smiling. Hell, it kept me up all night. And it's been a while since a game has done that. [/Tired old man.]
More details, then. You play a Californian thrillseeker who has been skydiving over the Rook Islands with friends. As it turns out, this was a thrill too far, because the South Pacific island chain has been overrun by a band of pirates. The madmen who lead the pirates have captured your whooping Cali-chums and you are the only one manages to escape. The mission to rescue the surviving skydivers is the linear plot which drives through the middle of the game. Once you get past the obligatory linear tutorial hour, you are given quests which further this end, and in the time between them, or enroute to them, you have your run of the island. You can hunt, loot, sell random junk, buy stuff, and just cause mayhem. You can explore, and you are rewarded for exploring.
And I want to stress that the story is pretty good, at least if you delete the memory of the ridiculous Uncharted-like mystic bullshit section, narrated by the game's most annoying character, which is excruciating. Apart from that section of tomb-leaping awfulness, it's well told, with some interesting characters, and it even has a few touching moments. You are not a silent protagonist, either, and this gives is an odd feeling at times, watching yourself interact with other characters, muttering comments that aren't your own. It does work, though. And a couple of times it's really accomplished. Even with the absurdity of a random American kid being mystically inspired to be a warrior, and going from crying about stabbing someone in the first few minutes to not crying about burning people alive in their dozens just minutes later (and in fact being pretty pleased with the flamethrower).
It's a nonsense pulp fiction, of course, but aren't they all? This is just one of the better ones. Normally I would just be focusing on the achievements of a dev team working in sandboxy modes, but this isn't just about the open world, no. I genuinely wanted to see what happened. An all too-rare feeling in shooterland.
But let's get to that most important asset: the island environment itself. It's beautiful, huge, sprawling, and teeming with activity. Then there's the sheer value of exploration. As mentioned, you are rewarded for exploring. While the world is open to you from pretty early in the game, you need to unlock the map itself – and the delivery of new weapons – by switching on radio masts across the island. Each of these is a rickety structure which must be climbed, and then descended from via a zipline. They essentially constitute a mini-game of their own, and each one unlocked allows you to pick up some free guns from the merchant back in town.
Perhaps “mini-game” is wrong. It's more like “vignette”. In the way that console cowboy classic Red Dead Redemption filled its landscapes with little events that could happen to you – or be avoided entirely – so Far Cry 3 litters your path with things that might happen, or might be avoided. Some of them might be emergent – such as animals attacking bandits in the middle of a firefight – while others are more scripted, like the radio towers, or like the shakedowns and murders you'll stumble into as you travel around the island.
Missions, meanwhile, take two forms. Some can be picked up from billboards – a bit of bounty-hunting here, a little wildlife hunting there – or they can be followed in the main plot. It feels a little incongruous that the missions, when activated, have a mission area, and set limits – meaning you can fail and have to reload. But these are tight with the fiction, and have believable parameters for failure. For example, in one stealth mission you can't afford to be spotted or the data you want will be destroyed. If that happens, it's game over. Usually this sort of stuff feels unfair and arbitrary, but Far Cry 3 handles it admirably. Most of the time.
Admirable might be the best word to describe what's going on here as a whole. It feels right. The movement is right, the guns are right, the violence is spotless (and bloody), and the way it executes a balance between stealth and all-out megadeath is, well, admirable. Far Cry 3 is one of the most pleasing uses of an open-world structure I have seen in a mainstream game. It balances the need to have a plot with the freedom to mess about in the margins with the requirement for a detailed world that seems to be carrying on without you. The vignettes and happenings mean that you don't feel as if the world is revolving around you, while at the same time what is happening to you is the most important thing going on in that world. It's a tricky tightrope to walk, and Ubisoft Montreal have been dancing all over it.
There are some problems, of course. One, which is most worrying in a game that's just a couple of weeks from release, is that I have been getting a few hard crashes to desktop. I have about the most generic gaming PC setup you can get right now, so that's a concern. It's occasional, granted, but it is there, and it highlights the checkpoint-based saving system (although you can save at any time in the menu, too), which I had not otherwise paid much attention to. I think a checkpoint save largely works here – it means that a death is a big hit in terms of time (while at the same time you never lose too much) – but the crashes highlighted that I was being pinged back across the island to the last thing that had happened.
Not all the missions are particularly good, either. The lowest point probably being a “stealth” scene where I followed a man through a village. A man who, for no clear reason, didn't just walk home, but would stop every twenty paces of his excruciatingly slow stroll to have a look around. Teeth-grinding stuff, but mercifully a rare moment amid hours of lunatic driving and gunplay. Similarly there are escort missions and infiltration missions (where 90% of guards stand with the back to you, waiting to be stabbed) which do not impress.
There are other niggles, like the menu, which has a bizarre layer of extra clicking to get you to the stuff you want to look at. It's such a minor thing, but I found it a constant annoyance – if I hit “assault rifles”, I want to browse assault rifles, I don't want to have then “accept” that choice to look at them. (While I am on the topic of weapon grumbles, way too many of the bandits are armed with AKs. More weapon variety would have made combat a lot more interesting, especially in the early stages of the game.)
Then there are the constant notifications and reminders. These are so frequent, and so annoying that I assumed there MUST be a way to deactivate them in the options. I cannot find one, and now growl each time the game pops up a placard saying “DO THIS MISSION. Y'KNOW, IF YOU WANT.” Get out! GET OUT.
They get in the way. And perhaps I shouldn't mind, because it's such a gamey game, if you know what I mean. There's always a hang-glider ready to go when you want to fly off a cliff. The landscape is littered with things set up just so, as only a really artfully crafted game can be. It's heavily scripted and at the same time thrillingly free-flowing and open. Perhaps the signposts shouldn't annoy me, but they do. Such a big, stupid piece of UI to be constantly crammed into my awareness.
The PC port is largely pleasing. You can alter the FOV a bit, with a slider, and it's possible to play in a borderless window, making it easy to tab out and tell John about killing a crocodile with a landmine. It also looks pretty damned good, running well on my machine, and with plenty of detail turned up. And the detail options are wide ranging, with multiple options for texture detail, post-processing, and so forth. It supports MSAA anti-aliasing, and you can turn off mouse acceleration. All in all, a good showing from the options department.
Always-on UbiDRM is gone, of course, but you do have to activate the game through Uplay the first time you play the game, and you need to use Uplay to launch it, even if you are launching it in offline mode. Offline mode basically reduces you to just the story option, snipping co-op and multiplayer options out of the main game menu. Cloud saving and achievements vanish, too. It's pretty much as you'd expect from a modern game, and Ubi seem to be making it work for the PC. (Which I am certain, as I read these words back to myself, is a statement inviting this game to deliver a world of serious bugs, currently invisible to me, to the PC version at retail. But, hey, that's life. I've been enjoying myself, and I'm going to report that.)
Let's conclude, because I should wrap this up and go racing off down the beach in a stolen jeep. Last week we started to compile our end of year list – the games that will sit atop the site in December, as a reminder of what the year had to offer. As of this week I will be firmly entering Far Cry 3 on that list. In all honesty Far Cry 3 had barely entered my consciousness before now, despite the endless flood of trailers and preview jabber. In a year that contained Dishonored and Borderlands 2, I barely gave it a second glance. Perhaps it was residual disappointment from other “open” FPS games or perhaps it was just a baseless cynicism on my part – a feeling that Ubisoft wouldn't be able to do anything that really captured my imagination.
Far Cry 3 is a huge thing, and I am only really reporting on the lavish single-player campaign here. There's co-op and true multiplayer, too (although no dedicated servers, as our newsfeed previously noted). There's even a map editor app for multiplayer, as there was with Far Cry 2.
And let's make a note of something about this third game as I close: It's better than Far Cry 2. Whether or not you liked that game is, I think, irrelevant. Because it has kept what was good – the mad rallying of the driving, the fire propagation, the needlessly horrifying first-aid – and builds on everything else. For some people, I am sure, this will be game of the year. It's certainly the game I hoped Far Cry 2 would be back in 2008. This new game doesn't quite manage to clinch 2012 for me, but I have awkward tastes. For most people, I suspect, this will be cocktails and barbecues on the beach. Right as the year closes, we have another reason to be cheerful.
Far Cry 3 is released on November 29th in Europe, November 30th in the UK, and December 4th in the US.