It's getting a full release in a few weeks' time but for owners of the Far Cry 5 season pass, Far Cry 3 Classic Edition is available for download right now - and to say it's garnering mixed reports is something of an understatement. On the one hand, it delivers a night and day improvement in every regard compared to the original Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 console releases, but on the other, the reality is that it's essentially a straight port of the existing PC game. And perhaps there's a reason why this is dubbed the Classic Edition as opposed to, say, Far Cry 3 Remastered - because as far as I can see, the only actual changes made to the core content seems to be restricted to adding the work 'classic' to the logo.
In theory at least though, a straight PC port isn't necessarily a bad thing - for two reasons. First of all, Far Cry 3 itself as a game still holds up visually in the current-gen era and it plays extremely well. A spectacular improvement over its predecessor, it was the first Ubisoft Far Cry game that truly delivered an open world (Far Cry 2 was constructed more as a series of play areas linked by 'corridors'), its gunplay, melee and hunting mechanics worked beautifully, and while the sandbox is there to do with as you will, the narrative thread and variety in the tasks asked of you remains compelling - even today.
Secondly, Ubisoft Montreal pushed the Dunia Engine hard with this game - too hard, perhaps. Performance was sometimes shocking poor and the wobbly frame-rate and constant screen-tearing of the last-gen console releases is the stuff of legend. And that's despite the development team using every trick in the book to somehow downsize a vastly superior PC game onto those machines. A range of techniques was deployed to claw back resources, from slightly reduced resolutions for better memory management, lower resolution alpha effects, and plenty more.
Even with its pared back settings, the end product still fell short of course - but that's actually a good thing for the Far Cry 3 Classic Edition. It means there's a wealth of LOD upgrades, vastly superior textures and even an improved global illumination system to tap into, producing a Far Cry 3 experience never seen before to this level of fidelity on a console system. It's also an opportunity to rid the game of its badly dated ambient occlusion solution, which has a habit of surrounding everything in thick, black, ugly halos.
By and large, the Classic Edition does a good job of mining the PC version's enhanced feature set for a much improved presentation, but the lack of effort in going even one step further is frustrating. It begins with the intro movie - originally a highly compressed 720p asset, no doubt encoded at a very low bitrate in order to fit onto an already-crammed Xbox 360 DVD. It's identical in Far Cry 3 Classic Edition, meaning that despite running at a higher resolution, the start of the game looks really ugly. A lack of care and attention also extends to the bitmap elements of the game, such as text and button prompts. They too are 720p assets that look far from pristine at full HD and even uglier at 4K - surely a small amount of art resource could have been made available to improve these aspects of the game?
Going into the rendering basics offered by each console, PlayStation 4 delivers a native 1080p, rising to 1440p on PlayStation 4 Pro - a little disappointing on the latter bearing in mind that Far Cry 5 managed a higher pixel count, but in line with a slew of Pro titles. Meanwhile, the resolution situation is harder to fathom on Xbox One. The standard machine delivers a mere 900p, while Xbox One X with its vast pool of bandwidth and six teraflops of GPU compute also appears to renders at just 1440p. It's been noted that the X version isn't 'officially' an X-enhanced title, so maybe something will change, but right now, it's essentially a smoother version of the Pro game. Something that is quite bizarre is that of the quartet, only the Pro release has anti-aliasing right now - a baffling situation that surely needs to be addressed.
Performance-wise, Xbox One frame-rates simply aren't good enough, with intrusive hitching and stuttering, plus minor tearing at the top of the screen. It's by far the most unstable release of the lot (Xbox 360 back-compat performance on Xbox One and One X is actually smoother), followed by the base PlayStation 4, which can struggle noticeably in the game's prologue but improves greatly once you're past that initial section with only minor dips. PlayStation 4 Pro adds further refinement, while Xbox One X takes that one step further, though as times it feels like the simulation isn't quite in step with the rendering, producing a touch of judder that our frame-rate tools can't detect.
The fact that the Classic Edition doesn't deliver 60fps has upset many, but the fact is that the original release remains a game that sucks up system resources. Maxing it out on PC at 4K60 required an i7 7700K paired with GTX 1080 Ti-class hardware, and further to that, MSAA needs to be pared back to just 2x. And even then, there are occasional dips - this is a demanding game for PC users both on the CPU and GPU side. The lack of CPU power on the current-gen machines almost certainly accounts for the decision to target 30fps in a world where in certain scenarios, even a Ryzen 7 CPU can't sustain 60fps on the original PC release.
And that's essentially what Far Cry 3 Classic Edition delivers - a basic, barebones port. On the plus side, the feature set of the PC game ensures we get a much richer world with improved lighting and artwork that by and large holds up even at 4K. The developers have also swapped in a better ambient occlusion effect, meaning the removal of the black halo SSAO effect that blighted the original game. And based on the comparison shots and videos, the console editions do retain the vast majority of the PC's best settings. There are some reductions in shadow quality (and the shadow cascade sometimes doesn't look right on Xbox One and even the X) and perhaps the most extreme far-flung LODs aren't quite as fully fleshed out, but other than that - and the MSAA support, of course - we're looking at a close match to PC's best.
In the final analysis, Far Cry 3 Classic Edition has a lot going for it, simply by virtue of the fact that the original developers built a game that just couldn't be fully accommodated on PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. In effect, a simple port offers a lot, lot more than a last-gen console conversion running at a higher resolution. But it is a threadbare PC port, and the lack of remastered assets and poor performance on the standard Xbox One are undoubtedly disappointing. But perhaps the Far Cry 5 season pass version we have here is due a day one patch tied into its full retail release? At the very least, we'd expect to see the anti-aliasing solution exclusive to PlayStation 4 Pro rolled out to the other systems, and maybe Xbox One X can handle something a bit more ambitious in terms of resolution?
On a more general note though, the Classic Edition is clearly a missed opportunity, bearing in mind the quality of the game and what Ubisoft could have done other than a basic port. During this generation we've seen some decent remasters and remakes of titles that don't have quite the same quality, reputation or profile of Far Cry 3 - and perhaps the deepest disappointment here is that Ubisoft didn't push further to make the most of the potential here. A Far Cry 3 remake based on the latest game's revised Dunia engine? That could have been something really special.