Far Cry 3

For those of you just tuning in, my Assassin’s Creed 3 review had me notice several similarities in that game to FarCry 3 – similarities which I attributed to the two games being developed by the same studio, and released within a month pf each other. I haven’t been the first to see this, and I also won’t be the first to say that the latter game, and today’s subject, fares much better for its stint in the Ubisoft mixing bowl than ACIII did.

I haven’t played the previous installments in the FarCry franchise – in fact, my only previous experience with it has been a riff session with some friends of the Uwe Boll movie – so I went into it dry, not knowing what to expect outside of the accounts from reviewers, which praised the game for the joy that it brought to exploration, but didn’t like the near-complete lack of any story or structure to the game’s world.

This problem has been mitigated, but it still remains. There’s a whole lot of things to do in the game, and they‘re all satisfying and make for a coherent flow of gameplay, but quite a few of them don’t have any real incentive. The reason FarCry 3 is such a great game, though, is because of how effortlessly it manages to combine this varied gameplay with a tight, deconstructive and well-scripted story.

If you’ve played Dead Island, I shouldn’t have to explain the opening – our vacuous, WASPy American holidaymaker heroes do a bunch of callous and thoughtless crap in a tropical resort, getting the audience ready to accept the heaps of misfortune that will be piled on these people throughout the course of the game.

The first heap comes when they’re captured by white slavers, having sailed to a mysterious archipelago – the Lesser Ambiguities, or something.  Our player character, indistinguishable from all his other friends except by the camera in his face, gets an earful from the leader of the pirates, Vaas.

“Forget about your problems and your troubles for a little while… We are here to entertain you…”

Vaas is a great choice for the main villain. He feels a lot like the Joker in his faux-convivial speeches to the player, his obvious insanity and his prowess in combat. Unlike the Joker, though, he isn’t up against Batman, just some white guy who can jump. He utterly dominates you, in every sense of the word – right down to the suggestive way he searches you and your older brother (as both of you are cuffed and gagged, no less) for valuables. After he gets bored with this, your brother manages to twist himself free (Using some very advanced animation and simulated physics, I’ll note), and helps you escape the pirate’s camp under the cover of a stealth tutorial – he’s much more experienced than you at combat, which is never a good sign of longevity. He introduces the game’s take on first-person stealth, which I like, but note that this series is big on keeping the unity of perspective and having the player character as a cipher for the player, and so it’s sort of jarring to be surrounded by a flashy, brightly-colored HUD all the time. I won’t complain, because of how streamlined it makes the gameplay.

After escaping from the guards, you and your brother are caught by Vaas on the outskirts of the camp. Your brother sacrifices himself to Vaas so you can escape, but you’re unused to the terrain, and after you have the requisite first-kill freakout (cf. the new Tomb Raider, which I’ll review when the time is right), you’re saved from certain death by Steve Urkel.

I can’t be the only one who sees the resemblance.

When he grew up and left Chicago and the Winslow family, Urkel ditched his high pants and afro for a machete and a seventies-style huge silver medallion. After traveling the world for years, he found his true home among the natives of the Lesser Ambiguities and was accepted by them as one of the tribe. He gives you a magic tattoo (thankfully sparing you from an introspective drug trip sequence…for now, at least), welcomes you into the fold, and gives you the lowdown:  the pirates have taken over the entire atoll, and it’s your job to help the relatively peaceful natives take back their land. You aren’t really interested in any of this, though, so you try to focus on finding your friends as you’re let out to roam free on the islands.

The open world of Far Cry 3 is a masterstroke of combining story and gameplay.  Instead of the untidy sprawl of side quest-littered cities and forests we got in Assassin’s Creed, the ancillary missions here are elegant and straightforward. There are various targeted assassination quests and suchlike, but there are only two really integral side missions. You have a few dozen enemy bases you need to clear the area of hostile forces and allow for free exploration, and you need to climb various radio towers to reveal more areas of the map and establish your lay of the land. Both these ideas are ripped straight out of ACIII, but they work better here than they did there, especially thanks to the more varied layout of the enemy bases and radio towers, and because both of them have obvious, immediate and genuinely useful benefits. It sets a good example, and it’s sad how even Ubisoft doesn’t seem to know how to follow it.

Anyway, after some of this, you find that Urkel isn’t the only refugee from ‘90s television to have found safe haven on the islands: we’re introduced to Dr. Larry Erhardt, fresh from over two decades of drug abuse after his discharge from Gizmonic Institute. Though he’s been addled by untold amounts of narcotics, he’s a kind-hearted soul who has rescued one of your friends. He only agrees to help you further after you collect some magic mushrooms for him, though, which can only mean one thing – say it with me, folks – a drug trip sequence!

Though it’s only about two hours into the game at this point, we get all the classic video game drug sequence tropes – echo-y repetitions of previous lines, earlier locations twisted into physical impossibility, a reexamination of your ideals.  Considering how little we’ve actually done so far, it doesn’t really work as a look back. Pretty much the only thing of value to the story we see is that your character has a little brother, who went on the trip with him and is missing.

After your drugs get you into Dr. Erhardt’s good graces, his house becomes something of a mission hub, where your friends will stay and form an ever-starker contrast to you – who has basically become the hero from an ‘80s action movie. This comparison is particularly evident in the next sequence, when your character gets captured by Vaas, and is forced to escape a burning, centuries-old temple to rescue his hapless, preteen Asian porter and sidekick…wait, no, I mean his girlfriend. He does so in a very well-done chase scene as he and his girlfriend escape back to the drug den.

Once there’s some downtime, your friends start to question how gung-ho you’ve become at the idea of mass slaughter in the name of revenge. Though I once again applaud the attention to detail in character design and animation, I will say that the themes of alienation, insanity and family can be a bit heavy handed. It’s a bad sign when even the games loading screens are just a flashing series of words like “Brother – Kill – Tattoo – Insanity – Mom”. Spare us the Ludovico treatment, would’yeh koindly, and get back to the game.

The game does double duty, as a magic 8-ball!

I’ve talked about how much I like the animation work for the game, but I haven’t mentioned how great the visuals are overall. The design of the islands is done with a wonderful and vibrant color palette with an emphasis on bright blues and greens, that makes things like animals or enemies stand out. This can lead to some annoyances – if you’ve shot something far away, the knee-high grass that covers the entirety of the island makes it a chore to find and loot – but these issues are really minor things, and don’t take away a whole lot from the shooting experience.

After a pow-wow with your friends, you tell Urkel about your meeting with Vaas, who rambled to you about having to choose between his family and his passion – and Urkel picks up on a mention of Vaas’ sister, Citra. Citra is the leader of the native tribe, you see, and is sort of like the girl from Avatar if she were evil. She’s playing hard-to-get for now, though, and turns you away – but the brief glimpse of her you got was enough to make you a person of interest to one CIA Agent Jeffrey Lebowski.

As…well, the Dude, he’s the closest thing to snarky comic relief we get in this punishing tale of a descent into feral madness, a fact which led me initially to assume there was going to be a twist where he was crazy the whole time. He describes himself as a deep-cover intel specialist, gathering data on Vaas’ ring of pirates, with no contact with the US whatsoever. It just seemed like the perfect setup for him being a crazy American guy who went insane with isolation and xenophobia, believing he was doing everything in service to his country. This would make him a great dark mirror for the player character, and would have enhanced the message of the story…

But, whatever, he seems perfectly content to help you after you burn a huge farm of marijuana plants, in what is this game’s – for better or worse – signature level. The only really noteworthy thing I have to say about it is that it’s the only work I can remember seeing that uses dubstep expressively – something I applaud.

After you’ve gotten a good buzz (and a good rapport with the Dude), he tells you about El Chiffero – the leader of pirates on the island, and the man who, quote, “took Vaas’ mind from him”. El Chiffero does some evil stuff, and he’d be a decent ultimate villain elsewhere, but the problem is that being in the same game as the intensely quotable psychopath pirate means he gets about as upstaged as possible. I mean, Vaas is even on the box art, so de-emphasizing his villainy to make way for Chiffero’s like this is a really strange choice for the story. It would be like killing Darth Vader in the second act of A New Hope, and trying to get us all excited about Peter Cushing as the real villain – He just doesn’t have the same presence as his second-in-command.

Anyway, after this introduction to El Chiffero, you rescue another one of your friends from him. Unfortunately, the next one on your list is being held hostage by a haphazard mix of every single Australian stereotype ever: Beer-loving, English-hating, randy, and so on. He only consents to stop providing colorful descriptions of his non-consensual escapades with your friends if you agree to do the Indy routine and hunt through a series of long-buried catacombs to find some ancient treasure. This is another good example of how being tarred by the Assassin’s Creed brush has improved the game. It’s pretty much the same thing as Altair and Ezio’s tomb-raiding, but the deathly stillness provides a change of pace in the lively world of FarCry that’s been relatively absent from the series before.

“Hello, I believe this is Hell, is there a Mr. Kali at this residence?”

While we’re on the subject, I’ll take a moment to talk about the hunting mechanic. The Lesser Ambiguities are populated by various animals, ranging from domesticated dogs to harmless tapirs to feral leopards and bears – and all are ripe for the killing. This is a really fun experience that works within the rest of the FPS gameplay, adds to the story progression, and gets you experience, cash, and better equipment. My only problem is that after about a third of the way through the campaign, it just becomes unnecessary; the animal hides start piling at the bottom of your pack. After a while you have to stop at every store you can find to negotiate the piles of completely useless frippery you find from every dead body you kill, another of my little quibbles, but these sort of things pile up in every sense of the word.

The best thing about the hunting mechanic, though, is how far it goes to making the island feel like a real, living environment. The use of open-ended scripting coupled with the huge area means you can encounter a wide variety of NPC activities that are fun to sit back and watch. A clueless man being eaten by a crocodile.  A buffalo chasing some pigs. Two people teaming up to kill and skin a deer.

Did I mention you can see all of this from a hang-glider? There is no video game not improved by flying mechanics.

Anyway, after your grave-robbing shenanigans, you find yet another of your friends, leaving only your remaining? brother on the checklist before you can leave the island with the help of Dr. Erhardt’s tunnel to Deep 13. Unfortunately, he who? seems to have been shot to death (though I doubt anyone really believes that, since he got a high-res model and everything), so there’s nothing to do but continue your tomb raiding until you find the ultimate secret: A knife. It’s a sort of underwhelming prize, but as a MacGuffin it works fine in context, like the completely forgettable treasure in The Temple of Doom.

Now that you have the knife, Citra seems more amenable to making you one of the tribe – and don’t forget, this is after you’ve been reclaiming their land and doing their sidequests for almost the entire game. Her legends of ancient warriors who died, came back to life, fought monsters, and paid attention because this is obviously going to be important soon, is interrupted by an attack on the tribal village, by El Chiffero and his men. You go and defend the village, but you’re captured by Vaas – remember him? Y’know, the face of the game?

Even though he works for a second-rate Bond baddie, Vaas is a practical man. Though he can’t spare the thematic and quotable speech (A rambling, non-linear story about insanity, senseless murder and brotherhood), he eschews the traditional overly-elaborate death trap in favor of shooting you in the heart and dropping you off a cliff.

You still survive, of course. (This isn’t really dwelled on, though I like how afterwards you gain a sort of mythic quality among your enemies, Spec Ops The Line-style) You go back to Citra for the obligatory drug trip, and an out-there boss fight that feels a bit too much like a Metroid game for my tastes. You’re now accepted as one of the tribe – and since we’ve reached that point in the displaced-white-man-among-natives plot, you take your rightful place as a better fighter than any of them, leading them against the foreign oppressors.

You storm Vaas’ hideout and confront him in a quicktime event-cum-drug trip sequence. And I haven’t mentioned it until now, but this is how every single major character in the campaign is fought. I suppose it makes sense, as a deconstruction of drug use and regenerating health in games, but it wears down after a while.

“Okay, let’s see… are you a manifestation of the encroaching pressure of my environment, my fear of commitment, my guilt over the loss I’ve suffered, or should I put you under ‘miscellaneous’?”

That done, you meet back up with your friends and Agent Lebowski. Your friends are scared of what you’ve become, and want to go back home, but you refuse after learning from Lebowski that your brother is still alive, and holed up in El Chiffero’s secret island headquarters.

Well, I say “secret island headquarters.”  From the world map, it’s obvious that about a third of the game world has been closed off to us until this point, and that this third is an island with several suspect installations.  For all the emphasis on seamless integration of story and gameplay, they really drop the ball on keeping things a secret. Like, remember that point about Vaas and Citra being brother and sister, a while back? Turns out we weren’t supposed to know that until Vaas’ boss fight, despite the fact that he explicitly states the relation the second time you meet. They make an admirable effort to have a linear story with non-linear gameplay, and this is the only point in that area with any serious deficiencies.

Anyway, once you reach Bruce-Wayne-Is-Batman Island (named for that other horribly-kept secret), you infiltrate El Chiffero’s private army and get into his good books. To prove your affiliation to his cause, he has you torture a prisoner – who turns out to be your brother. Which one?? You’re forced to torture him in a hauntingly visceral scene, which leads to your character wondering how far he’s gone down Citra’s path of a warrior – and how far his conscience will allow him to go. To add to this, Urkel seems dismissive of his brother’s plight, saying that the tribe is his family now.

Eventually, after some more missions on the island, El Chiffero’s syndicate is damaged enough to risk taking him on. You do so at a fully-interactive poker game (Another feature ripped from Assassin’s Creed, though it falls just as flat on its face here), where you defeat him by – what else – a trippy series of quicktime events. What a just and climactic finish!

I kid, I kid… we get a just and climactic finish right afterwards, where you rescue your brother and blow up the entire secret lair a bit at a time from the open door of a gunship, as “Ride of the Valkyries” plays in the background. It’s an obvious Apocalypse Now reference, but I don’t really mind, because it goes back to the themes of the story, and creates parallels between a work you’re probably familiar with and this one. (This is how you do references right. Aspiring writers, take note!)

But the game’s still not over. Citra has returned with a vengeance and forces you to make a choice: to murder her and go back home, or murder your friends and stay on the island. The ingenious thing is that both alternatives are the logical conclusion to your character arc over the game. Depending on your method of gameplay and your temperament, you could either be a repentant sinner who wants to put the terrible things he was forced to do behind him, or a gleeful hunter who’s finally found his purpose in life and wants to stick with it at the expense of everything he thought he held dear.

Of course, the post-game sandbox mode pretty much nullifies the impact of both endings, so who cares?

FarCry 3 has topped quite a few recent lists of best games ever made. While I don’t deny its an excellent game, I feel that its mishaps are glaring enough to deny it the top spot, and its omnipresent cribbing from another proven series should be taken into account. But don’t let that turn you off – you’ll get a lot of fun out of the game, and you’ll leave it with a lot to think about, which is about the most you can ask for.

TWO THUMBS UP: The story and how it’s tied into the gameplay, the sparse side missions

THUMBS UP: The open-world gameplay and art design

THUMBS DOWN: The underwhelming boss fights

TWO THUMBS DOWN: Theft from Assassin’s Creed

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