Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (version tested)
Open world games and plots are often uneasy bedfellows. You see, while the freedom of player choice combined with a detailed and intricate world can provide the basis for numerous player-driven, emergent narratives, the nature of open world games, and indeed the scale of the worlds such games provide, mean that delivering a focused plot can be a trying task. Rockstar have struggled with consistency in this area, delivering a sweeping Western epic in Red Dead Redemption and ultimately falling short in GTA IV. Skyrim offered up thousand of anecdotes, personal tales, and memes galore; Just Cause 2 let us live out our action-movie fantasies in exceptional style, set in a gargantuan tropical paradise; lately Dishonored gave it a damn good stab (forgive the pun), though not quite truly an open-world title. But all of these, the last one included, fell short when it came to a crafted story - the personal journey of how you found and made your way through the game providing the most telling memories.
Far Cry 3 is looking to change all of that.
"Those two things don't have to be mutually exclusive," Lead Gameplay Designer Jamie Keen tells me. "We're fully committed to the open world experience, that's something that's very much at the heart of Far Cry as a series, that freedom of choice, and the feeling of you stalking your prey - human or otherwise - through the jungle. But we wanted to be ambitious, we wanted to deliver an incredibly engaging singleplayer experience in amongst that. And you can go off into the jungle and do your own thing at any point, and there'll be plenty for you to do, but occasionally there will be some more crafted, scripted moments, some slightly more linear setpieces. But you can have it all in this game, and that's what we wanted to bring across."
Having spent three hours with the game a few weeks ago starting from square one, it's easy to see what Keen is talking about. The game opens with you, as the fresh-faced, carefree Jason Brody, on holiday with your brother and a few fellow twentysomething chums. You've gone on holiday, wound up in this beautiful island paradise; young things, running free.
"We certainly wanted Jason to be a blank slate, and something that people recognise as well. So he's this twentysomething West Coast American guy, out travelling with his friends, and really makes the Wrongest Turn Ever, and ends up in a world of pain. But also, coming off of the back of Far Cry 2 where you have this grand-scale narrative all about warring factions and conflict in Africa, we wanted something immediate, something feels a little more personal as if it's happening to you."
That World of Pain comes in the form of the crazy-eyed Vaas and his piratical associates. Not the rum-swigging, yo-ho-ho pirates of Romanticism, but the machine-gun -toting anarchists of the modern Tropics. Somalia comes unbidden to the forefront of your mind almost immediately. One minute you're enjoying your vacation, the next you wake up in a cell with a mohawked aggressor sneering at you through the bars. Thankfully your brother is a military man and helps you free your bonds and escape the pirates' camp, sneaking behind the backs of your guards, ignoring the shrill screams of other captives. But it's all in vain. Just as you think you've reached the road to freedom, a shot is fired, and the only character to show you any kindness is gunned down right before your eyes. Vaas bids you run, palpably excited at the prospect of a manhunt. It's the only option you have.
The linear slog to escape is a rapid rush to safety, beset with fizzing bullets, exclamatory whoops and yells from your would-be captors, with Jason panting, snivelling, muttering in disbelief. When things finally fade to black with exhaustion it can't have been more than five minutes from the game's opening, but it feels much longer than that.
Far Cry 3 explodes into life, shocking you into attention and delivering much of what you'll need to know about the game within those opening moments: instances of stark, brutal violence; enemies who view you a little more than fresh meat; an unfamiliar landscape that is hardly friendly. When you wake to see Dennis, your saviour, brandishing a machete in your face, the message is clear: trust no-one but yourself.
Thankfully Dennis proves himself capable. He patches you up, reveals the ongoing conflicts between his people - later shown to be followers of the Rakyat tribe - and the pirates, and presents you with a vision of relatively safety in this exotic and lawless hell. The village in which you find yourself yields shops and sanctuary, but first you must learn more about Rook Island itself.
Pirate comms towers provide points of reconnaissance, and must be climbed and deactivated before your world map can be uncovered, in similar fashion to the eagle-topped View Points of Assassin's Creed. After taking down a nearby radio tower, Dennis instructs Jason in how to best make use of the natural resources that the jungle provides. The flowers that grow in the wild can be combined to form medicines, and the hides and pelts of wild creatures used to upgrade practical things like carriage limits for weapons and items. There are items strewn across the giant map waiting to be purloined and sold, and the game will indicate the best uses for the trinkets you pick up. Some may have practical uses, others may simple serve best as goods for bartering.
Of course, once these brief lessons were out of the way, we jumped in a nearby vehicle and decided to go exploring, ignoring the fresh new icons that had popped up. Dennis had wanted us to check out a nearby pirate outpost, having gotten wind of a suggestion that one of Jason's friends was being held there. But that could wait, the jungle was very pretty, after all.
It wasn't long before we'd taken out another radio tower, become rather competent at archery thanks to a few boars who selflessly gave their lives to furnish us with targets to hit and hides to skin. We upgraded our carrying capacity for arrows and loot, and proceeded to investigate an artefact icon close to a nearby shoreline. Of course, then some pirates showed up in a 4x4. Far Cry 3 is a game that will let you burst out of cover in a cloud of gunfire and riddle your enemies with bullets. But the AI is smart, and you're always outnumbered, and often lacking in huge amounts of ammunition. Pleasingly, crouching in the long underbrush of the forest will shield you from detection. If you're spotted, it's often a wise choice to run for the safety of verdant ferns, and plot your next move. It also allows you to perform some rather visceral stealth takedowns with a knife.
After brutally murdering some pirates, we invested in Jason's abilities a little, having earned some rather sweet experience points. Just as you become more familiar with the game, so too will Jason become more familiar with his own capabilities, and you'll be able to unlock skills that allow you to take down opponents in any given, heal yourself without medicine, increase your athleticism, and make more of your surroundings.
Speaking of which, we eventually decided to go back and help Dennis liberate our friend, but not before stopping in on a small outpost near an old WWII cannon. A cage full of ravening beasts - jackals and wild cats - stood at the far end of the little encampment, so we freed the animals from afar with a well-placed shot and let nature take its course. The starving creatures promptly attacked the handful of men, and we crept in to mop up the stragglers, making sure that we killed all of the animals as well. PETA would complain, but it's literally dog eat dog on Rook Island.
Taking over outposts solves one of the many little niggling criticisms that Far Cry 2 attracted: endless journeying. In this third game, if you take over an outpost, you get to stick a flag in it and use it henceforth as a fast travel point. Better yet, every outpost can be tackled however you choose. Want to drive a truck laden with explosives into the middle of the camp, dive out at the last minute, and blow everyone to kingdom come? Go for it. Want to sneak in, ninja-style, and deliver the mortal message personally? By all means. Want to try and persuade a herd of buffalo to go stampeding through the camp and do your job for you? Make it so. But mixing it up in an old-fashioned FPS frenzy is equally viable too. The mechanics are taut and satisfying,, the sound effects rewarding and impactful. It really is up to you.
On the evidence of our hands-on experience, Far Cry 3 has it all locked down pretty nicely. There are the RPG elements that come with Jason's growing Rakyat tattoo, and the upgrades it brings, allowing players to tailor their character to suit their own style of play. There's the freeform approach to the open world itself, and the fact that nature will do what it wants regardless of your presence. And then there's the story itself: gripping, harrowing, filled with interesting, compelling characters, and unafraid to send you on a (quite literal) mushroom trip to save your friends, before gifting you with a hang-glider and inviting you to forget about the story and have some sandbox fun once again. We know we barely even scratched the surface in three hours, but if Ubisoft can deliver on this promise, Far Cry 3 might just be the first open world game that genuinely refuses to compromise, and maybe even makes us think a little bit too.
Ambitious doesn't even begin to describe it.
Far Cry 3 will be released on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 on November 30th here in Europe, and December 65h in North America.