Far Cry 3 has a great opening. Sneaking through a smuggler's camp, you're accompanied by your older brother, a US Army reservist with tonnes of experience.
It's a first-person setup familiar to anyone who's played Call of Duty; like in the ghillie suit mission from Modern Warfare, you're led by the hand by an avuncular, confident macho-man. But then Far Cry 3 wrong-foots you, in a way that we won't spoil, and you, as inexperienced backpacker Jason Brody, are left to fend for yourself.
This is what Far Cry 3 wants. When we spoke to writer Jeffrey Yohalem, he described Jason's time on the island as a coming of age parable, a bildungsroman for the iPad generation. That opening is a great start.
A preening, irresponsible man-child, who spends his parent's money on snowboarding and skydiving trips, Jason stands in for the millions of unemployed graduates who are struggling to find their own feet in a double-dip recession.
At the very beginning of Far Cry 3, Jason is just another directionless gap year kid, but once the rug of his older brother is pulled from under him, he's forced to face reality.
That reality comes in the form of Vaas, a jittering psycho who's in charge of the smuggling ring. He's a presence that forces Jason's hand; his army of pirates is destined to rule Rook Island unless somebody takes action. But once you're in full control of Jason, once you're left to roam the island and kill whoever you like, his transformation is pretty much complete, and Far Cry 3's narrative starts to unravel.
At the start, Jason can't face killing, but 10 minutes in the player's hands and he's a consummate murderer. Once you rack up your first 20 bodies, Jason's transformation from boy to man has come full-circle and there's not much left for him to do.
That leaves a lot of narrative slack, which the rest of Far Cry 3 doesn't pick up.
The rest of the characters are 1D archetypes - a shambolic doctor, a gung-ho CIA guy - and although the voice acting is uniformly brilliant, most of the people you meet in Far Cry 3 are just variations on the same fast-talking eccentric.
That's likely intentional; given its subversive opening, Far Cry 3 seemingly wants to start a discussion on videogame tropes. But the moments of parody in Far Cry 3 are too rare and muted to really be visible, and the characters come off as bland rather than satirical.
No Country For Old Men
There are still standout moments. Jason's deteriorating relationship with his friends feels familiar, and the hallucination sequences which psychedelically dredge up his past are superb. In short though, the writing in Far Cry 3 feels uncertain and gutless, like it's stepping around too many toes.
It makes cursory attacks on computer game conventions, capitalism and youth culture, but they feel obvious and teenage rather than truly biting. The whole script needs more punch; the writing clearly has subversive ambitions, but they're not the best suited to a big shooter franchise like Far Cry 3 which at the end of the day, aims to be a crowd-pleaser.
It's a brilliant shooting game; the violence in Far Cry 3 has a solid feel, not unlike Crysis 2. Guns are incredibly loud, their reports echoing for miles around. They're appropriately weighty, too - you really have to lug the assault rifles with the Y-axis.
It has a great No Country For Old Men vibe, where you constantly have to watch your ammunition and check your surroundings before making a move.
There was a fantastic moment between missions where we got chased by a rival car full of baddies. Pulling onto a dirt road, we accelerated ahead a half mile before taking position behind the bonnet and reloading our handgun.
A few minutes went by before they caught up, and then it was a case of squeezing off a few chest shots, collecting the supplies from their car and checking our equipment before heading off again. The fights in Far Cry 3 are often like this, low-key skirmishes between a few people that last a long time and are fought over a wide area.
It's not a corridor shooter with a leafy backdrop; Far Cry 3 really makes use of its space.
And what space. This might be the best looking computer game ever. Time after time you'll find yourself in awe of Far Cry 3's vistas, the nevertheless deadly Rook Island illuminated by green leaves, glistening sunshine and shimmering moonlight.
Find a hill around dusk and climb to the top. The resulting view is something you could stare at for hours. The characters are superbly detailed; the landscape is colourful and picturesque; and in combat, the enemy's animations are smooth and convincing, as they slide into cover or sprint towards you.
Far Cry 3 features the kinds of graphics that make you stop, look around and nod to yourself about how far computer games have come.
So, it's a shame that Far Cry 3 does a really bad job of leading you around the island; the game's pacing is completely shot. Like Assassin's Creed III before it, Far Cry 3 drowns in side-quests, collectibles, mini-games, diary entries and menu screens.
It's not like they aren't fun; liberating enemy bases, disabling radio towers and doing odd, Red Dead Redemption style jobs for strangers is part of the enjoyment in Far Cry 3. But they're piled too thick and too fast, with the whole island and everything on it dropped at your feet from the word go.
It gives you lots of freedom, and, like Jason, a lot to learn. But Far Cry 3 really lacks structure and you spend far too long trawling through menu screens or wandering between objectives. Boring is completely the wrong word - even when nothing is happening in it, the world of Far Cry 3 is still an amazing place to be.
It's exasperating, more than anything. When you win a random skirmish against 12 or so guards, only to walk 50 metres down the road and get into another big fight, the thrill of the game is kind of diluted. The makers of Far Cry 3 seem to be labouring under the same misconception that dogged Capcom, with Resident Evil 6, whereby more "content" equals a better game.
Not so, and Far Cry 3 could use more restraint.
In the presence of these overbearing map icons and experience bars, the survivalist aesthetic falters, too. Far Cry 3 feels cold and numerical - kill two deer to make a holster, score a headshot for 10 XP - and that doesn't really sit with the grubby, ad-hoc Bear Gryllsiness it's going for.
You can still pick bullets out of your arm with a scalpel, and there's a focus on hunting and gathering, but these things feel very mechanical, the on-screen furniture lessening the need for your own survival instincts.
Colourful, quick and satisfyingly violent
But Far Cry 3 is a very good game. The action is rock-solid, the world is absolutely beautiful and there are some really big ambitions behind it. It's let down mainly by a complete lack of structure, with tasks and characters entering and exiting at unintelligible pace.
It's baggy and directionless, and really needs a visionary to come in and cut a lot of it out.
The exact same can be said for the game's script, which has highfalutin ideas but no concrete sense of how to transmit them. It's angry at...something, but not sure what, like a first-year student who's read the preface of a few social science textbooks.
Far Cry 3's literature feels uncoordinated and scattergun, never coming together and managing little except a few snarky, ill-informed remarks.
Beneath that, and all the baggage of side missions and menus, Far Cry 3 is a wonderful first-person shooter; colourful, quick and satisfying violent. Flaws and all, it's a game that has to be played.
Far Cry 3 is not quite the marriage of art and entertainment that it wants to be, but it's nevertheless packed with ideas that are unique to games, while still being lots of fun to play.
- Gameplay: 7/10 - Absolutely fantastic shootouts, hampered by bad pacing and too many stat bars and icons
- Graphics: 10/10 - Staggering, beautiful. Far Cry 3 is a watershed moment for how games look
- Sound: 8/10 - Great weapon and ambient noises, with superb voice performances across the board. The music is a little too bombastic and occasionally gets intrusive
- Replay Value: 8/10 - There's plenty to do in Far Cry 3, too much in fact, and the whole island is massive. You won't get bored quickly
- Overall: 7/10 - A really good game that's let down by several narrative missteps and a patronising fixation on "content."
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