Getting two games for the price of one would, under normal circumstances, be a difficult deal to criticise. But Far Cry 3 has a split personality. On one side is this enormous open world – joyous, begging you to explore, to conquer its outposts, to take potshots at its wildlife, to discover its treasure and its history, to go where you want and to do whatever the hell you want to do when you get there.
But it’s precisely because Rook Island is so free that whenever you’re funnelled into doing main story chapters they feel comparatively restrictive. The beauty and life of the game is throttled, and rather than plotting your next attack through devious use of the local wildlife or by starting fires or creating distractions or by climbing that nearby hill to recon the base before taking out its occupants one silent headshot at a time, you’re reduced to doing what you’re told, exactly when and how you’re told to do it. The usual corridor bullshit: stealth past these guys, don’t leave the mission area, must use this weapon, follow the man to point X and so on. Rules that strangle the life out of it, Ubi deciding that in whatever the particular instance the rules of the wider world cease to apply. And that makes us sad.
That’s not to say the main story elements of Far Cry 3 are bad. Quite the contrary, in fact. As a story, barring chisel-jawed, generic sun-shines-out-my-gym-fit-Californian-arsehole Jason Brody and his equally nauseating friends, it’s well told, dramatic and filled with moments that are inventive, surprising and affecting. Put alongside the latest Call Of Duty, it wins. But Call Of Duty doesn’t have this wonderful open world in its peripheral vision, and that makes it easier to accept the fact of running along a pretty corridor and killing things with neither thought nor deviation. Basically, the freedom of everything else in Far Cry 3 shines an awkward light on the rest.
But let’s talk about that open world for a bit. There’s a gigaton of stuff to do in it. Racing, knife-throwing, tower-climbing, cliff-diving, hang-gliding, treasure-hunting, point-to-point supply drops, shark-fishing, conquering enemy outposts, hunting, assassinating. It’s quite possible to spend about 30-odd hours among all that without even touching the story missions, and even though you can sometimes feel the sheer size and scope of Rook Island’s technical requirements scraping along the sides of the Xbox 360’s outer limits like an oil tanker on a coral reef, there can be no doubting its overall accomplishment. The wildlife alone is worth a pair of its own paragraphs.
Here they are: Wildlife is diverse. Too diverse, in actual fact, to pass for a real place on planet Earth, a fact made obvious by its list of place-specific animal species. Komodo dragons (from Komodo), Galapagos tortoises (from the Galapagos Islands), Sumatran tigers (yeah, you get it). Far Cry 3’s designers have picked animals that provide a challenge for both the player and for the enemy, are fun to hunt, and whose predator/prey relationships make a lot of unpredictable things happen, all without giving a second thought to any real-world ecosystem. And we’ll sum that up for you in a single anecdote.
We were looking for a Letter Of The Lost; one of the four discrete varieties of treasure available on the island. While looking at the ground, a pair of feet belonging to one of the local villagers came pelting it past us, closely followed by a Komodo dragon. Our breath wheezed out of us at the unexpected mirth of it all. You had to be there…
The chase veered off down a hill and we stayed at the top, watching the debacle zig-zag down it, Benny Hill-style. Too busy laughing to be necessarily vigilant, we were attacked by a Sumatran tiger. Tigers are tough, so we ran from it across a dirt road. It chased us and was hit by four guys in a jeep. The jeep stopped and the men got out, but the tiger wasn’t dead. It attacked them and they opened fire. When it was finally pushing up daisies, Komodo man came running along, now with two more of the enormous lizards in tow. Two of the guys at the jeep opened fire on the Komodos while the other one skinned the recently downed tiger. Yeah, it’s that kind of world.
Far Cry 3 has taken a decent shot at some of the things that crippled its predecessor. Were it not for a few unfathomable game design decisions, Far Cry 2 would probably still hold to this day as one of the finest shooters of this generation. For those who never played it or simply don’t remember that far back, Far Cry 2 included malaria, which needed to be treated with pills that could only carried three at a time and only obtained from one place in the entire game; weapon degradation, which had even the hardy AK-47 seize up after firing about four rounds; and respawning checkpoints, which ensured you’d have to fight the same guards 468 times per playthrough. All of which was exacerbated by a map that was far too big, and coupled to the slowest fast-travel system in the history of the open world.
In Far Cry 3, there is no disease; even snakebites just do a teeny bit of damage, so no problems there. Weapons stay fresh forever and enemy checkpoints are permanently occupied by friendlies once conquered. But Far Cry 3 is kind of a victim of its own success in this latter regard. It has certainly fixed what was such a huge critical bugbear in Far Cry 2, but once these outposts are conquered, no enemies are found in that area of the map ever again. A completely conquered map, then, leaves nothing to shoot but the wildlife, and completionists like ourselves found that to be rather dull. Far Cry 3 became an FPS no longer. It was just an FP.
It’s a terrible shame, since Far Cry 3 has beaucoup de gun, and manages that rare trick of making each of them feel unique. Weapons are bought at any of Rook Island’s intelligently distributed fast-travel stations. Most of them have attachments, too, meaning there’s fun to be had adding suppressors and extended mags and special sights and so on. It all costs money and money is something you’ll have to work for, either through hunting for treasure, looting corpses or selling skins.
Jason earns XP as he goes – of course he does, otherwise how would we know if we’re having fun or not? Unlike most shooters, however, the skill trees available to him are far more varied than we’re used to, offering everything from doubling the number of skins carved off each slaughtered animal, to whole new methods of attack. Even skinning animals has a function beyond just gathering loot. Jason can craft bigger and better ammo pouches and money wallets and so forth, which is just as well, since at the start he can carry a maximum of five sniper bullets. It’s perhaps the only place where the system fails: Jason has to start off so weak in order to make room for all his upgrades, we wondered if, in fact, he was not a man, but a mouse. A mouse can probably carry five bullets, can’t it?
So Far Cry 3 has strong, albeit a little forced, RPG elements. And during its better moments it feels more like Skyrim than it does a typical FPS. It may have neither Skyrim’s depth, nor its domino-like world events, but in terms of exploration, levelling – talents ingeniously displayed as Jason Brody’s increasingly complex arm tattoo – its weather, its day and its night and its all-encompassing sense of freedom, Far Cry 3 is almost a match.
Ultimately, though, not everyone is going to play the game to see that magical 100%. Some will play through its single-player story and be done with it, and despite some truly inspired characters and moments, it just feels so separate and so linear alongside the freedoms afforded by the rest of the game. It’s as if two separate developers worked on it independently, communicating scant details about tigers and caves and shark patrol patterns only during the lively games of charades they enjoyed together in the evenings.
We want to love it because there’s so much to love, but instead we just like it, and wish that the rules it set for its open world could have been carried across to its campaign mission structure. Freedom is not free, and if Ubi won’t throw in its buck o’ five, who will?