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Games of 2012: Far Cry 3

Paradise through a rifle sight.

In Far Cry 3, I'm always driving to distraction. Rook Island has come to feel like a special kind of freedom, its looping roads and bumpy dust tracks criss-crossing with breadcrumb trails, always suggesting unplanned stop-offs. Freedom does, nevertheless, feel like an odd word for this achievement. What, in a virtual world, does freedom even mean? The freedom to execute a pre-programmed action? To take a road less travelled, but one built by a team of hundreds for just that purpose? The freedom to switch off?

Far Cry 3 comes from a series that has sometimes torn itself apart trying to answer this question. The original's awesome scale and visuals, not to mention the unique setting, eventually turned in on itself and became a B-movie. Far Cry Instincts is best left unmentioned. And Far Cry 2, the most ambitious and capricious of the lot, presented a Savannah of flaming beauty and then doused it again and again with gritty, pedantic mechanics. It is a series, in other words, that has sometimes been a tiny bit too clever for its own good. Far Cry 3 chooses an alternative path; it puts the brains into its menu text, sticks enthusiastic jock Jason Brody front-and-centre, and fills Rook Island with more baubles than a fat piñata.

The way you gradually map out this world borders on genius - it's obscured at first, then exposed in chunks as you climb its eighteen radio towers. These landmarks are great vertical streaks on the landscape, visible from miles around and a mini-game all to themselves; the frames increasingly ruined and twisted, eventually to ludicrous extremes, and the route up less obvious every time. Reaching the top nets a panoramic payoff, the camera swooping by local points of interest, before a thrilling zipline descent drops you at the beginnings of a driving 'supply' mission.

The glorious radio towers can always be seen from miles away, and act like magnets when you move into uncharted territory.

This is how Far Cry 3 works, leading players onwards by the nose but always surrounding them with options. The supply missions became something to look forward to, a high-speed joyride through newly-mapped terrain that, once again, always ends at something interesting. Maybe it's just a few trinket-laden boxes, a relic or a letter, but there's always something there. These little mission chains may be too close to a guiding hand for some, but they illustrate Rook Island's tremendous richness of... well, stuff. The mini-map, Far Cry 3's partner in crime, always has an unassuming little icon somewhere.

Everything I love about Far Cry 3 is that stop-off to check out a cave, or explore an abandoned shack. The campaign backbone sometimes forgets itself, the missions too often mere shootouts or set-pieces that cramp your agency into its half-baked take on Jarhead. There are great missions, of course, particularly the ones that don't blow your cover, but you'll love Far Cry 3 for very different reasons. Silent knife-in-the-neck ones.

Far Cry 3's enemy camps are its highlight, glowing red flags on the map that exert influence (in the form of random enemies) on the surrounding terrain. You can try to take them back at any point, which is a simple matter of killing every baddie. Killing people is easy when they don't know you're there - a click of the right stick, which can be chained into further moves - but this mechanical ease is balanced beautifully against visibility; it's not about firepower, so much as timing.

This is always how I get caught. Sneaking around in the long grass and dashing across gaps is no problem, but when the time comes your situational awareness must be perfect. Assassinating an enemy leaves Jason exposed for the time it takes to slam the knife home and silence his victim. The act lingers over long, languorous seconds. I have silently shivved luckless goons so many times, only to hear the shouts of the unseen.

The grenade launcher, my special metal baby! Should be a permanent feature of exploration, mainly because a direct hit will stop a bear in the face.

This is the magic of Far Cry 3, the genuine 10/10 sequences where a quiet fight around a ramshackle hut turns into World War 3. My weapons loadout is always geared towards it, eschewing silenced tools in favour of shotguns and the greatest grenade launcher I've ever used - each shot popping with a tinny thunk before the distant bodies go flying from the boom. There's nothing better.

All of Far Cry 3's weapons are great, especially the flamethrower that carries Far Cry 2's combustible soul. Few other games do fire quite like this, an unpredictable mistress that can peter out as easily as it can engulf huge swathes of land, bottlenecking escape routes and crisping anything it catches. Later hunting missions use this brilliantly, making you kill rabid dogs or tigers with the weapon in long grass; once hit, the animals streak off aflame and light their surroundings, a simple task turned into escalating inferno. Jack yourself up with a flame-resisting shot and it's like the Pyro's escaped Team Fortress 2.

The shots are part of a huge tapestry of supporting material around the core action, from the plaintive letters of lost soldiers to snarky item descriptions that read like the ramblings of a bitter alcoholic. This grazing material gives Rook Island a far more interesting and substantial texture than the narrative built around Jason Brody's stop-start delusions. He's almost a great character. The change from Stiffler-esque beginnings into a cold-hearted and obsessive killer does mirror your own increasing mastery of Far Cry 3's world and, if not exactly psychologically convincing, is at least more interesting than the usual unthinking mass murderers we inhabit.

Far Cry 3's story is ultimately unsatisfying, however, with its moments of dissonance far too siloed from the experience of actually playing. The truth is that its biggest success is Jason's half-empty vessel of a character, delusional or not. You begin to enjoy exploring with Jason, the way he gees himself up in a scary temple by channelling Indy and, occasionally, panics as everything starts collapsing. The truth is that every fibre of Far Cry 3 exults in Jason's fantasy, and so do you.

Drug use is a side-theme, not least because Jason's constantly injecting himself. The best sequence is a flamethrower jaunt through pot fields, which gets him stoned to a surprisingly great Skrillex song.

I wonder why Far Cry 3 feels like freedom, when it's just a big bundle of options and rules. Perhaps it's because it's so nice to pick and choose between them, following one trail so far and then heading off in the opposite direction just for the hell of it. In no other game can you drive up a mountain listening to bhangra, then paraglide off the top and crash-land on a speedboat to start machine-gunning sharks like Hemingway. That is my kind of fantasy.

But what really makes Far Cry 3 feel like freedom is the escapism. People are sometimes sniffy about games being an escape from the real world, seeing it as a kind of backhanded praise that devalues the subject. I don't see it like that; sometimes you want an escape from normal life. When you do, a game like Far Cry 3 is a portal to another place. Its freedom isn't about what you can do, or the choices to be made, but about how convincing its illusion can be. It is a world that can draw you in utterly for hours at a stretch, almost to the occlusion of personality. Far Cry 3 is a rare game because it offers something very special; the freedom to forget yourself.

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