I'm going to describe a game and I want you to guess what it is. You're an out-of-water American stuck in a civil conflict set in an archipelago of tropical islands in southeast Asia. You fall on the side of the insurgency against a corrupt, oppressive regime that dresses in bright red and sports a white star for a logo. The world is a sandbox, allowing you to tackle objectives in any order, including knocking over and claiming enemy outposts, vehicle races, and a series of scripted story-based missions that feel out of place compared to the fun you're having out in the jungle. If you guessed 2009′s Just Cause 2, you'd be right. If you happened to guess Far Cry 3, you'd also be correct. Far Cry 3 lacks the over-the-top zaniness of zip-lining and parachuting through a tropical paradise, but where it lacks that game's comic fantasy, it's a far more intimate, more tightly structured game that improves on the gaggle of systems introduced in its predecessor.
Breaking In To The Island
As Far Cry 3 opens, you and your Black Card-carrying dudebro posse are acting like douche bags on a vacation to the aforementioned tropical paradise. After a skydive, you're captured by some vicious natives who are happy to hold you captive and sell you off to the international slave trade while the sadistic Vaas taunts you outside your cage. You and your brother escape the camp, but he meets a grisly demise early on and it's up to you, the naive brother who's never fired a gun before, to man up and rescue your crew. You're quickly adopted by the insurgency and they spin you on a spiritual (read: drug-induced) journey to acquire an antique blade and defeat the evil of the land. Of course, you'll end up turning the island's sphere of influence in their favor along the way.
The world is detailed, gorgeous, huge, and more importantly, dynamic. Oh, sure, it's not the behemoth that was Just Cause 2′s play box, but you'll be hard pressed to exhaust Far Cry 3′s content. These jungles are very much alive and fraught with danger from enemies both human and fauna. The world is always moving and you're always mere seconds away from some unscripted conflict that will blow your mind. Sure, it's not fun when a Jeep pulls up with a payload of bad guys, but it's worse when you're casing an enemy strong point through thick vegetation and a leopard decides to make you its next meal. Or, in trying to assassinate a hidden warlord, a pack of feral dogs just happen to rush into his camp and maul everyone while you look over the hill. Okay, that's actually pretty hilarious. Landscapes are picturesque, plants fold against your push, and there's a cool little dripping sound you make when you ascend from water. It's a myriad of little touches that make the game's presentation so wonderful.
Far Cry 3 is a far more tactical shooter than any you may have been playing recently, requiring you to be a little slower and think a bit more about your approach. I made the terrible mistake of rushing into scenarios (or really, just ten feet beyond the starting village) like some kind of super soldier and subsequently murdered by every single danger over and over. The game encourages you to tag your enemies with a provided camera or a long scope which highlights them, allowing you to easily manage groups of foes at a distance. Coupled with foliage that doubles not only as pretty landscaping but as a handy stealth aid, you'll find yourself planning each assault and executing to incredible satisfaction.
Can't Eat Your Pudding Unless You Eat Your Meat!
For all its shooting, Far Cry 3 offers plenty of role-playing elements as well. Those animals hopping around hungry for your precious meat aren't just villains, but part of a simple crafting system. Want to carry more weapons, syringes, grenades, or even money? You'll need to hunt specific animals for their hides to upgrade your capacities, leading you to seek out wildlife amongst the dense of the jungle. Unfortunately, if you're like me, you'll blow through these quick, leaving you to never mind one of the coolest systems of the game unless you're being attacked by it.
You'll also build your character by choosing new skills across a trio of talent trees representing skills better take downs, health, or whether you can reload your gun while running. The game uses this skill system as a bargaining chip, however. If you're going out purging the land of villainy a bit too long, you'll find yourself accruing many of these skill points, unable to delegate them. Various branches of the talent system are locked away until you advance to various points in the story, requiring you to dive between both halves of the game to build your character. It's an interesting compromise, but as someone who put nearly seventy (yes, 70) hours into Just Cause 2, I was more interested in battling in the game's playground on my own terms than I was moving through the narrative.
It's not even that the narrative's bad or even average, it's actually pretty decent. This is obviously the portion of Far Cry 3 that Ubisoft is pushing in its ads, but I found it uninspiring at points. Sure, you get cut scenes, sure Vaas is an interesting character, sure your character's arc is probably the best I've seen in years, but it's all that game in-between that got me antsy. Pushing through "kill corridors" and pushing latches in giant underground caverns or in giant boats, shedding most of what I enjoy topside with how I dissect and destroy groups of enemies, is a bit droll at times. Still, there aren't limitless outposts to tackle and there aren't tons of races to do, so you'll eventually come to the whim of the storyline, as I did.
A Tropic Thunder
Despite my knocks on the game's main quest line, Far Cry 3 is a well-produced game that has plenty where it matters most: fun. It's unfortunate that many of the systems and fun bits the game has in store can be tackled like a bag of candy that the fat kid found. But it's too much to ask for more from Far Cry 3, which is already a fantastic package chock full of diverse content and knick-knacks. The game's multiplayer options are decent, but for those looking for something substantial in their gaming life that won't blow over in a half-dozen hours, like, well, a tropical Skyrim, then your game has arrived.