Hands shaking, I plant the explosive device. Timer starts: 15 seconds. Whirling round, I burst out the door - straight into a guard. I whip out a knife, and stab him in the chest, but not before he fires off a couple of rounds. Now his friends are onto me! Bullets hailing around me like angry dickhead bees, I sprint down the hill towards the river, that timer ticking down all-too fast. As the last digit clicks to zero, I hear the groan of wood, and leap off the pier, bullets still pinging around me. Still in the air, the explosion smashes around me, in a moment that is almost too bad-ass. I land with a splash in the water and the 'mission complete' logo appears, confident that I have pulled off the most fucking brilliant base attack ever. Then a crocodile tears into my arm so I wrestle it to death.
This anecdote from Far Cry 3 is one of the most exciting gaming experiences I've had in years. And it was one of many. It's the result of that ineffable balance between scripted events and free-form gameplay. I could have screamed full-tilt into the base like a man with machine guns for arms, doling out grenades as if they were sweet sweet pyrotechnic candy, but I chose to sneak. I could have run up the hill, away from the water and its waiting boatercycle (though probably into a waiting tiger's gob). But who in their right minds could resist imitating the slo-mo leap into the river as destruction rained down around their ears? No one I want to have round for dinner, that's for sure. I suspect the developers knew this, thus deviously positioning a crocodile just waiting to munch on anyone getting too cocky in victory.
Far Cry 3, if you can't be bothered to read the rest of this review, is brilliant. Go and play it. Go on. Now. For the rest of you, here's why:
1. Its story suits the game. Really well.
Practically all FPS games have you slaughtering numerous dudes in the name of enjoyment. Usually for an eye-rollingly token reason: they're part of an evil organisation; your girlfriend has been taken (yawn); or worst of all, they're foreign. (Ahem. Uncharted). Such motivation dealt with, you're then plonked into the shoes of a largely unstoppable killing machine, sent on your way to murder thousands of people. Far Cry 3 addresses the fact that we really shouldn't care about such hypocrites. You play an average pampered white bread American (Jason Brody) who's beach holiday-ing with his chums on a remote island, when they get captured by pirates. Fairly standard motivation, but notable for the fact that Jason starts off, obviously, having never killed anyone. You (and him) have to learn. Admittedly, to get into the meat of the game he learns ludicrously quickly, but there is character development here. As his journey progresses, guilt at the enjoyment of all this carnage is brought up, as well as estrangement from his friends who are witnessing him becoming a blood-loving, animal-slaughtering murder-machine. This makes sense.
2. A sense of empowerment
About 2 hours into the game, I was sliding down zip wires, liberating bases, and stabbing sharks in the face. By starting from a point of weakness, Far Cry 3 does a great job of allowing you to grow into something bigger. You start to explore, and then own the island, scouting out areas with radar towers, solving local problems, and mercilessly thinning out the wildlife for your own selfish needs. Also, by about halfway through, you're given just about all the tools in the game, which gives you a chance to massively tit about with them. This is no Half-Life 2 final act gravity-gun revelation. The game allows you to play.
3. The missions are good
My second favourite Far Cry 3 moment involved a flamethrower, Skrillex and weapons-grade quantities of marijuana. Much has been said about this mission, but it's such a ludicrous, over-the-top, action-movie/shooter moment, you can't help but smile as you merrily 'bun dem. I won't spoil this any more. It must be played. The point is, once you do tire of exploring the island under your own steam, there's a largely strong array of scripted missions for you to work through, which keep the engine of the game running when you get bored of hangliding into bears.
4. Character character character
They're interesting. Lessons have been learnt from Rockstar here, but almost every character you meet in Far Cry 3 is worth chatting to. The psychopathic Vaas is magnetic (so much so that he features on the box art, instead of Brody), but even the supporting characters have believable motivations and behaviours that make you care about them. The ongoing contrast between the now blood-covered murder-prince Jason Brody and his terrified American buddies is both realistic, moving and sometimes funny, most notably a particularly badly-timed phone call from Jason's girlfriend.
Ultimately, Far Cry 3 has been built from the ground up to make sense as an FPS. The developers knew they were going to make a game about a guy killing a bunch of pirates on an island, so they got writer Jeffrey Yohalem to weave a believable story about what that might actually do to a guy – what he would hate about it, but more importantly - what he might be enticed by. It still allows for freeform gameplay, the sandbox events to emerge, and for the game to be played how you want.
It's bespoke game writing, and belies far more understanding of the craft than simply whacking a plot onto an existing game, and churning out some cut-scenes. Far Cry 3 succeeds because it knows how to tell a story, and it knows how to serve up great gameplay, but most importantly: it knows how to combine the two.
Just watch out for the crocodiles. They'll getcha.
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