Far Cry 3 is nearly the perfect sandbox.
It's big, of course. Very big. The Rook Islands become a truly enormous playground good for dozens of hours of continued adventuring, stuffed with all manner of exciting shenanigans and unpredictable wild animals. It's well-crafted too, in that every square foot of terrain has been sculpted to make a fun and accessible environment for us to climb, drive and generally mess around in.
But Far Cry 3's greatest triumph lies behind the scenes: superbly versatile and unimpeachably solid core systems that constantly empower the player, making you feel like a consummate badass regardless of whether you're using stealth, cover, gunplay or fire to get the job done. What most games only let you watch in cutscenes, Far Cry 3 freely lets you do on a minute-by-minute basis. So long as you're good enough, you'll become a nightmarish jungle legend made flesh.
Protagonist Jason Brody starts out as a detestable Californian party boy. You know the sort: arrogant, vapid and self-indulgent, yet ultimately directionless. Going on a dream holiday to a tropical archipelago with his friends and brothers becomes an orgy of extreme sports, extreme drinking and and incessant picture-taking for the Facebook account, summed up by a montage introduction of shiny, smiling happy people having the time of their lives.
And then everything goes to hell. Captured by pirates and forced to witness all manner of cruel depravity at the hands of the mentally unstable enforcer Vaas, Brody begins a unwilling transformation from frat boy to a legendary revenge-fuelled warrior. Armed with the power of a mystical tatau (a magical tattoo that effectively grows with its user's strength) by the indigenous tribe, the initially-scared and useless socialite sets out to rescue his friends and escape the seductive call of the Rook Islands... but his pathological love for the setting and the inhabitants grows to match and mirror your own.
Loosed onto the islands after a sensationally visceral if slightly overlong tutorial, you'll quickly realise that Ubisoft have learned a few lessons from Far Cry 2. I personally loved that game's brutal authenticity (to the extent where I'd hold it up as a misunderstood masterpiece), but it turned many players off by the fact that it wasn't actually fun in the traditional sense. A criticism that can never be levelled at Far Cry 3.
The Rook Islands are a colourful and vibrant canvas for freeform fun, packed with bizarre and personality-laden characters to talk to, enemy outposts to raid for territory and optional activities to undertake. Wild animals, from tapirs and dingos to tigers, bears and leopards, cause unpredictable havoc for players and enemies alike. Though it's very much a traditional sandbox in the vein of Just Cause - story objectives sprinked around a large overworld with a simplistic territory control mechanic in place - Ubisoft have embraced 'fun' in every aspect of the gameplay experience. Ever wanted to set fire to a marijuana plantation with a World War II flamethrower while jungle music plays in the background? Punch a shark in the face as you swim through crystal clear water? Take some mushrooms and trip out at the behest of a tweaking drug-dealing professor? Steal a quad bike and drive it off a cliff just to see what happens? You've come to the right place.
You've also got all the mod cons, such as free fast travel and the ability to instantly retry a failed subquest. Whereas Far Cry 2 forced players to suffer to suit its setting, its successor goes out of its way to cut out the busywork. Leaving you free to approach the story missions (or randomly trek out for adventure) in any way you see fit. It's time to talk systems: the beating heart of Far Cry 3.
Far Cry 3's stealth mechanics are utterly brilliant because they're simple and consistent. You're basically invisible if you're hiding in foliage. If an enemy has his back turned, you can't be seen. You'll have a second or two to get back into cover if glimpsed. That's it. Whereas some games falter and fail due to overcomplicated and inconsistent NPC detection (Hitman: Absolution's disguise mechanic is a good example), Ubisoft's desire to keep things basic and unimpeachably solid turns what could have been a standard sandbox into something quite remarkable.
Remaining hidden allows you to perform takedowns, instant-kill stealth attacks that can be triggered on unwary foes from several metres away. A single click of the right stick sees Brody burst out of the underbrush to bury his machete into an enemy's neck. The first time you pull one off, you'll feel like an unstoppable demon god... and that's before you unlock the more interesting takedowns. Unlocking new skills grants you the ability to effortlessly leap off buildings and stab two guards, grab a knife from their belt to throw at a distant enemy or even pull the pin on their grenades to turn them into homemade bombs. The most useful ability lets you chain an almost unlimited number of stealth kills together, turning you into a horrifying land shark crossed with a chainsaw. Or something. I'm having trouble finding the words to describe just how unbelievably empowering this is.
Rather than using stealth to hide and flee, you'll use it to hunt. You'll become a true predator, armed with simple controls and abilities that would put Ezio to shame. Abilities that, frankly, we only ever see in cutscenes or one-off quicktime events. Assassinating people has never been more fun, Assassin's Creed included.
When stealth fails (or if you're a more straightforward killer), you can always rely on your boomsticks. Gunplay feels weighty and satisfying, with a range of pistols, shotguns, rifles, SMGs and more exotic gear on offer. As you gradually unlock more powerful weapons by earning money or disabling radio jammers dotted around the islands, your combat options increase exponentially. There's also a simple and effective cover system that you'll barely notice until it saves your life. When close to a wall, you can simply hold the left trigger to pop out and take some shots, then release it to return back into cover without any sticky awkwardness. Again, it's simple and solid. Brilliant.
Far Cry 2's dynamic fire makes a welcome return, meaning that stray grenades or explosions can end up burning entire hillsides to cinders. When used to your advantage, a well-placed molotov or flamethrower rampage can end difficult battles before they've even begun.
To survive in the jungle, you'll have to reap its bountiful harvest. Which means crafting, basically. Increased weapon and ammunition capacity, not to mention health syringes and buffs, all require you to head out into the jungle and collect ingredients. Far Cry 3's approach to crafting is as fun-focused and empowering as everything else, which is to say that you'll basically have to bring down massive bears, face ravenous tigers and swim with the sharks to get the skins and pelts you need. Some of the biggest upgrades require you to hunt legendary unique animals for their hides, and use a specific weapon to boot. These sections are incredibly intense, and rewarding to boot.
Brody's journey from peon to predator is literal as well as figurative, in the sense that player progression is underpinned by an RPG-like levelling system. It's the most traditional progression system to grace the franchise to date, with skill points doled out as you accrue XP through creative kills and mission completion. Though Far Cry 3 is still definitely a sandbox shooter, these roleplaying elements serve to give you a sense of agency over Brody's abilities, and allows you to connect with him as more than a storyline avatar. Plus, it's properly addictive.
Far Cry 3 uses these underlying systems as a foundation for its player-driven action, whether you're in a campaign mission or optionally attempting to liberate an outpost from its pirate denizens. When facing a well-defended position, one could hang back and snipe enemies from cover, drive a jeep through the front door and thump some 40mm grenades into the mix, sneak in and brutally eviscerate everyone without raising an alarm or even free a caged animal by shooting its bamboo prison, letting it run rampant. There's so much choice, all of which is accessible and exceptionally satisfying.
Besides outposts, Far Cry 3 features plenty of optional objectives to accomplish. Climbing and unlocking a radio tower in each area reveals a map packed with distractions, such as insane quad bike mercy runs, finding lost icons and loot chests ripe for the plunder. Finding all of the hidden items and ancient relics will take days.
That said, several of these activities feel incredibly contrived, as if Ubisoft started scraping the bottom of the ways to keep the player entertained. I'm not entirely sure how Rook Island's inhabitants find time to organise racing leagues in between desperately defending their homesteads from marauding pirates. Playing poker feels ridiculously anticlimactic after hunting down the biggest bear in all creation. Challenge stones whisk you out of the game to participate in leaderboard trials, making absolutely no sense in context and jarring uncomfortably with the setting. These events feel totally out of place in the insane, exotic Far Cry experience due to how over-familiar they are.
As always, Ubisoft are at their worst when they play things safe. Tooltips and GUI elements often clutter the screen, trying desperately to be helpful but in fact scuppering immersion by their very presence. Not a dealbreaker by any means, but annoying when you sometimes just want to enjoy the scenery.
Story missions, while usually sensationally visceral, also sometimes suffer from playing things a little too conservatively. There are plentiful instant-fail stealth and timed objectives to be found here, while leaving the mission area to look at something shiny on your map ends results in checkpoint reset rather than a fun diversion. A few clichéd sections also disappoint, such as following someone at a safe distance for what seems like an eternity. Thankfully the story itself is excellent, well-voiced and accompanied by some fantastic motion-captured character animations. Vaas becomes one of the most entertaining and surprisingly likeable villains in recent years, while the supporting cast enable your descent into darkness and insanity.
Critically, though, the majority of the campaign's missions provide explosive violent fun that can be approached in several different ways, and there's always something new and exciting to do outside of it. Far Cry 3's singleplayer offering is utterly remarkable and easily worth the price of admission by itself.
And yet, Ubisoft offers more. Cooperative players can throw down in a selection of maps designed to be as frenetic and frantic as possible, following a standalone storyline with all-new characters. With split-screen and online options available, you'll doubtlessly want to blast through it at least once. On top of that, a full multiplayer suite and map editor provides a huge amount of aftermarket value, though whether it will retain a large player base on consoles remains to be seen (I understand that some players are already using the editor to create islands full of land sharks and flying manta rays, which could be my favourite thing ever).
As a complete package, Far Cry 3 excels and astounds. Ubisoft have finally delivered a true sequel to the original Far Cry, something that even Crysis struggled to do. It turns out that one of the last big games of 2012 is also one of the best.
- Expansive, dense and rich sandbox adventuring
- Fun-filled missions balanced by a surprisingly thoughtful storyline
- Truly empowering stealth assassinations
- Solid and enjoyable gunplay, crafting and levelling systems
- Campaign worth the RRP alone... before you factor in co-op and competitive multiplayer
- Plenty of instant-fail bjectives in story missions
- Some hilariously contrived optional activities
- Too many tooltips and cluttered GUI, some immersion issues
The Short Version: Far Cry 3 is the king of the jungle, and one of the very best shooters of 2012. Of this generation, in fact. The Rook Islands are an enormous canvas for player-driven adventure, brutal stealth, satisfying gunplay and a gripping storyline. Fantastic core mechanics will turn you into a jungle legend: a predator, murderer and saviour without equal.
Did I ever tell you the definition of insanity? Not asking Santa Claus for Far Cry 3.