The alternative subheader for this article was “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Radio Tower”. In a way, it would have been more fitting (along with providing me with personal amusement). I lost sight of what Far Cry 3 wanted from a very early stage, and the resulting few hours were a revelation.
That’s not to say it doesn’t try to capture your attention. Starting with a POV cutscene with you and your brother being sneered at by bad man Vaas behind the bars of a bamboo cage, your subsequent escape is a suitable launchpad for some open-world vengeance. It’s also worth noting that the voice acting and mo-cap is truly exceptional, raising the pirate leader above clichéd baddie tropes into something genuinely unsettling. Being spat headlong into the jungles of Rook Island with your brother’s gruesome death still ringing in your ears would be an obvious point where you grab all the guns you can carry and fight back along leafy linear forest corridors.
The designers of Far Cry 3 had different ideas though, and this deviation in structure is the first clue as to how the next few hours might play out. Your character is quickly taken under the wing of a local community leader who suitably outlines the Quest for the Hero and places the first gun – a pistol, of course – firmly in your hand. Once an initial test is passed (which might as well be referred to “THE TUTORIAL” by everyone involved), your new leader points you towards the house of a doctor where you can meet one of your friends. There’s also some mention of hunting and collecting and crafting but it all gets filed away behind the predicted promise of bullets and bloodlust.
It’s at this point I tried to stock up on weapons – buy what I could, note prices for upgrades, gear up for the road ahead – but soon found that I just couldn’t carry anything. Almost literally. The space in your pockets makes way for one gun, a couple of syringes (read: health packs) and flowers, but that’s it. All the things I would take for granted in an FPS such as weapon slots and ammo pouches were held back, each instead showing requirements based on one vital ingredient: animal skins. Pigs, goats, tapirs, dogs, sharks…it was a menu that demanded I go off and get lost, explore, kill, skin, and craft. I could absolutely head to the next mission marker, but it soon became apparent that I would need to expand in order to succeed.
Jason, your character in the game, is established very early on as Just Some American College Douchbag. Does this make him more relatable than a grizzled super soldier? I’m not so sure, but I was certainly maintaining this naive inexperience in my first few attempts at hunting. Shooting at pigs wildly as they scurry away doesn’t exactly carry Bear Gryllis levels of success, especially when you find yourself running directly into an enemy encampment, stabbing some guy through the neck in a panic before leaping off a cliff to escape his comrades. The Monty Python style of predatory strategy. Finally running out of bullets, I resorted to throwing a remote charge in the path of a deer before removing his skin with fire and flame. Overkill? Maybe. Effective? Definitely.
This need for skin of various types led me to a wider use of the map, searching for their silhouetted shapes in various habitats. Much of this is obscured by blackout, a result of the radio jammers similar to the one you briefly visit in the tutorials. These towers are styled very much like the high structures in another Ubisoft title, Assassin’s Creed. Once you ascend and pull out the important wires from a red box, the camera completes a wide pan and the area is added to your map. The map, once cleared, becomes either the green of free movement or red to show that an enemy camp controls the area. Often these camps are placed between you and the next radar tower, meaning their removal becomes a logical next move, and they invariably consist of small compounds with a selection of enemy types that you conveniently identify and track constantly, even through rocks and foliage. The icons that appear magically stuck above their heads tell you of their predisposed attack routine – snipers, grunts, chargers, armoured heavies; dangers that are immediately recognisable by anyone who’s ever played another FPS. These patterns become a puzzle, your attack strategy forming on the basis of how they will each react.
And so this pattern emerges, of movement, analysis, exposure, and attack. A radio tower exposes the position of an enemy camp which, when cleared, leaves a quick-travel location close to the next tower, and so on. The odd hang-glider – kindly deposited on every mountain edge by a militia group obviously into their airborne pleasure trips – merely amplifies this idea of moving against the scripted tide that normally sweeps you towards the campaign markers. As you discover more towers, it’s quickly obvious that their collective order has a combined difficulty curve. Ubisoft rightly holds back from making it too tricky (few things are more frustrating than poorly designed first-person platforming sequences) but the sequence of moves required takes on a maze-like quality that actually reminds me of Portal. The enemy camps also become harder, with alarm boxes, animal cages and spread-out enemy types calling for a carefully planned sequence of attack. Of course, there is your growing arsenal as assistance for when this all goes wrong and you have reinforcements snapping at your hells whilst being chased by a tiger, but it doesn’t give you the same sense of freedom and accomplishment.
It was after a night of just going through this pattern that I realised how well Far Cry 3 fits being played purely as a spacial puzzle. The layout of the towers and camps directly reflects their complexity and it’s very easy to fall into the trap of “just one more”. It also helps that death is totally meaningless, with a liberal checkpoint system dumping you back either at your most recent fast travel location or just outside an enemy camp in the seconds before your first shot. However, where FPS puzzles hold your attention by changing the rules after carefully setting them up, Far Cry 3 eventually falls into the trap of repetition. The island is detailed and expansive, but it starts to feel that you are completing the same actions in every scenario, albeit in a different order. It doesn’t help that Jason is apparently a “normal guy” yet can yield a sniper rifle with pinpoint precision. Even with the numerous Alice In Wonderland references pointing to the whole game being a childish fantasy, there is never any chance to connect with a protagonist who is such a superficial cypher.
The obvious move is to head back to the campaign, but this only serves to exacerbate the emerging issues. Each mission is tightly scripted and suitably bombastic, but they ultimately feel frustrating and restrictive after many hours of roaming. Unfortunately, it’s at this point where the free movement around the island reveals itself to just be smoke that conceals the cast-iron linear structure of the game’s heart. With no reason to push on solving the puzzles and no compulsion to guide your sudden action hero through his paces, Far Cry 3 becomes more about what might have been.
For the latter hours of the game I was unable to stop myself comparing it to Just Cause 2, wishing that it could somehow absorb that game’s amazing sense of freedom and exploration. Along with Crackdown, JC2 used its game world to lure players into fun endeavours that had nothing to do with the story but existed purely to have fun. It allowed us to journey outside of the usual structure of following a set path and gave us the sense of adventure so absent from many games today. I would not be able to tell you how many hours I spent in JC2 attempting to carry an enemy to a remote mountain peak with a helicopter, or line up the perfect jump in Crackdown.
Far Cry 3 shows you down a path of humid jungles and creaking towers before bringing you back and saying, hey, there’s a way you need to play this game. It’s a shame as there’s so much potential for it to become the free fantasy it constantly teases. I wanted to get lost and have an adventure in the tangled secrets of Rook Island, but in the end, the game kept finding me and bringing me back.