Actual new game announcements were thin on the ground at E3 this year. These days it's only Nintendo that routinely shows up with substantial headlines to make - and Ubisoft. Thank heavens for the French publisher's theatrical side, which ensures that its dependably daft press conference is always a highlight of the week. Whilst 2011's showing was noticeably less barmy than last year's, it did include the genuine debut of a long-anticipated blockbuster shooter: Far Cry 3.
Unfortunately for writers in search of a story, however, the impressive seven-minute demonstration at that press conference was the exact same one repeated, without elaboration, in a dark and noisy demo room at Ubisoft's sprawling booth on the show floor. It's also the exact same one you can watch on this page, which is the exact same one you have been able to watch on the internet since last week. Ubisoft will not be drawn on anything beyond the confines of this video.
It's lucky, then, that outside the demo room I am introduced to someone willing to chat just a little more loosely about where Far Cry 3 is headed. Whiskered and long-haired, accessorised with cowboy hat and cane, narrative director Jason Vandenberghe comes to Ubisoft Montreal's shooter from his work on Red Steel 2 - not that surprising, since he looks like he's stepped right out of the Wii samurai Western himself.
The demo dumps the player on a tropical island setting similar to the first Far Cry's, dense with sparkling emerald undergrowth and scattered with primitive, shanty-town pirate bases. We're not in Far Cry 2's Central Africa any more, yet neither has Ubisoft Montreal quite plumped for pastures new. It wasn't, Vandenberghe claims, a deliberate backward step, although he acknowledges that "it has that resonance with fans".
"Far Cry as a brand, as an idea, to me is about being in a place where if you see something bad happening, you can't pick up the phone and call 911... The tropical desert island is the perfect place for that," he argues.
We use a camera with a zoom lens to spy on a brutal armed gang as they abuse and execute their pitiful captives. The camera, Vandenberghe suggests, is a clue to our hero Jason Brody's background - but not all of it. Officially, we know nothing about him other than his boat has been destroyed and his girlfriend is missing, but as Vandenberghe says:
"You're a dude who is looking for himself, basically. There's only so much I can tell you. The camera's part of it. When you pick up an AK47, he's gonna go k-chhk and be ready to do. That needs to make sense. He can't go, oh, I was a photojournalist and suddenly I'm murdering 500 people, right? It won't be that."
But the camera will also be a gameplay tool used to inspire and reward curiosity and exploration, which the team sees as central to the Far Cry series. Far Cry 3 will, in the series tradition, be a relatively open game as shooters go; while Ubisoft Montreal is keen to repeat the "if you see it, you can go there" mantra of the free-roaming game, Vandenbderghe - very much a story man - prefers to introduce freedom gradually.
"So, there's a right way and a wrong way to do open world, right? You can say, 'Hey look, there's this big gigantic space, good luck!' That leads to confusion and frustration, we're not going to do that.
"The right way to do it is kind of layers of an onion, where you start in a guided experience and then you gradually open it up in chunks... You're going to have a staged experience where you get used to the mechanics, so that by the time we open the whole thing up and it stays open to the end of the game, you're ready and you know where to go."
As with Crytek's original game, the island harbours a dark secret. But this time it's no sci-fi menace. In Far Cry 3, everyone on the island is insane.
Captured in the demo, we are lectured on the nature of madness by an intense and frighteningly eloquent young Latino called Vaas. Amid all E3's violent bombast, this scene stood out for the quality of its writing and performance; direct, not too showy, arrestingly human. "Developers have a tendency when they talk about characters to think in terms of archetypes," says Vandenberghe. "He's the villain, this is the helper... What we did is we said, we don't want archetypes, we want people. We want real people."
Vaas is the head of a group of "modern-day pirates" and your primary antagonist in the first half of the game. His persona is a result of close collaboration with the actor who plays him - and naturalistic, credible characters are central to what Ubisoft Montreal wants to achieve with Far Cry 3. If Far Cry 2 was political, Vandenberghe says, Far Cry 3's themes are psychological; it's promised we'll meet several characters like Vaas, each with their own distinct brand of craziness.
"[Far Cry 2] was about factions and it was about political consequences, and life and systems. I think Far Cry 2 was making some pretty broad statements about war and revolution, or insurrection, the eternal strife that comes from factions going against each other and how that's unsolvable," he says.
"We're taking it down a level, to a human level. We're taking that idea and saying, yes, man is an animal - let's talk about it on an individual level. Let's talk about this person right here... When we talk about insanity, what we mean is, how would you behave if you weren't constrained by civilisation?"
You'd tie people to rocks and drown them, apparently. In the demo, Vaas heaves our hero into a deep underwater crevasse; after a panicky escape scene we emerge behind a waterfall, using its roaring sound and curtain of water as cover for a stealthy ambush on a patrolling gunman. Use of the island's natural environment will be a key strategy in Far Cry 3, especially water; later in the demo, we swim underwater in a stream to shake off enemy fire and resume attack from a new angle.
The second half of the demo is taken up with this assault on the pirates' ramshackle compound. It's an attempt to hijack a helicopter and escape, but between you and the chopper, there's a sprawling network of buildings, streams and alleys that present cover and vantage points and opportunities for sneaking, sniping or frontal assault.
This is classic Far Cry gameplay, and Ubisoft Montreal seems to have a good handle on what its players want: options for tactical improvisation combined with a survivalists' sense of cobbling your attack together from whatever comes to hand. You'll enter many situations without much equipment; what you need will be there, but you'll have to find it, and the more inquisitive you are, the more you might uncover.
"The core to this fantasy is that I don't have any resources, I'm on my own, it's the 'man alone' fantasy, right? I need to survive through my own wit, talent, skills - my actions will determine if I live or die. That feeling is core to why this context is so fun," Vandenberghe says.
"Because it asks you this question: what if your boat got blown up and you were cast away on this island, how would you do? Would you make it? We want to know, we want to test ourselves in that way."
We might want to, but we're not that used to it, after a few years in which the scripted fairground-ride shooter has reigned. How will Ubisoft Montreal encourage players to enjoy the freedom Far Cry 3 offers?
"It turns out that there's this weird psychological trick," Vandenberghe says. "You take away their communication. If you put a guidepost out there and say, here's where you should go first, everyone will go there. But if you have no marker, then it puts the player in a mindset where they are looking for the information that they will use to derive their own decision.
"The best way to do it is to create randomness in front of the player - and a clear objective. You do need to say, 'You need to get to the helicopter.' But between here and there, there's not a path. What happens in players' minds is that they look at it, they don't see a clear path, and then their style of play takes over."
Beyond confirmation that the game will have vehicles, that's about as nitty-gritty as Vandenberghe is prepared to get. But there's one critical question he hasn't answered yet. Far Cry 2 is regarded as a flawed classic, a game with great potential that was hobbled by a number of frustrating design oversights. What about Far Cry 2 would the team most like to fix?
"Actually, this is an easy question to answer. All you have to do is go online and search Far Cry 2 and examine the discussions, and four or five key points pop out as areas for improvement. It's unanimous.
"I had the same response. I would really like... to have some kind of fast travel, that would be great. It would be great if when I destroy a checkpoint, it doesn't come back. It would be nice if the checkpointing system was more friendly. I think it would be cool if I could hide and not be seen from a distance, if the enemy detection felt fair.
"Now, I'm really not supposed to use that language when I talk about it, but honestly, it's the elephant in the room, right? The list you have in your head for Far Cry 2 is the same list that every other journalist has. We all are carrying it. It was a great game, it was a fantastic game. Where we want to improve is the stuff that you want to improve.
"If we take away the pieces that were frustrating I think it's going to be great."
We'll cautiously agree, although we only have those seven minutes to go on. But for now, at the very least, it's new - and for that, we and E3 are eternally grateful.