STAFF REVIEW of Far Cry 3 (Xbox 360)

Thursday, November 22, 2012.
by Khari Taylor

Far Cry 3 Box art "Jason, what is it? Why aren't you laughing now like you did up there? You see, the thing is, up there, you thought you had a chance. Way up there in the f---ing sky...but down here...down here, you hit the ground." -- Vaas

So begins your adventure as Jason Brody in Far Cry 3, imprisoned and face-to-face with your jailor and tormentor, Vaas, who has captured you and your friends following a foolhardy skydiving excursion over the beautiful and mysterious Rook Islands. Facing certain death at the hands of Vaas once his ransom demands have been met, you break out with the help of your brother, and following a death-defying escape you ally yourself with Dennis, a member of the local Rakyat people, self-made warriors and sworn enemies of Vaas and his army of pirates and slave traders. Your mission is to free your friends and escape the Rook Islands together, but once Jason begins to learn the ways of the Rakyat and becomes a true warrior, can things ever be as they were?

Unlike the heroes of past Far Cry games, protagonist Jason Brody has no military experience, so he is even a bigger fish out of water than most seasoned FPS players who will be controlling him in this game. That said, Jason's journey from a scared and desperate victim to a fearless warrior is made all the more refreshing because of this, and his symbolic growth is tied directly into the game’s leveling system. Once Jason has allied himself with the Rakyat, he is given a "Tatau" by Dennis, a living tattoo that continues to grow and ink new symbols onto Jason’s arm as the player gains skill points and uses those points to unlock new skills and abilities. Naturally, skill points are earned through leveling up, and leveling up is done by accumulating XP through various ways in the game, such as completing missions and challenges, finding hidden items, taking out enemies in unconventional ways, and the like. But no matter what you are doing, it's almost guaranteed to be fun. When you first receive the Tatau, for example, the first skill you'll learn is the ability to sneak up and silently take down an enemy from behind by stabbing him through the throat, but much later you'll be able to perform a double knife takedown where you can take the first victim's knife from his holster (because your knife is still stuck in his neck) and throw it at a nearby enemy, killing him instantly. The move is incredibly Rambo, but the way it unfolds is contextually generated based on the second enemy's position, so it never gets old. It’s one thing to silently use this technique on a couple of hapless thugs on the side of a jungle road, but it’s a whole other experience to pull the same move off in the middle of a firefight while the surrounding enemies watch in horror, then escape their fire by running and sliding into the tall grass nearby to escape their line of sight and prepare for your next attack.

This does not mean that Far Cry 3 is all about stealth. Players can go stealthy, they can go loud, they can alternate between. However, the game's theme is largely focused on survival, and this is reflected in the game's mechanics. Just like the beautiful yet unyielding Rook Islands themselves, very little is given to you in Far Cry 3 from the outset. Everything you gain must be earned. Want to be able to carry up to four weapons at once? Then you're going to have to seek out and hunt the proper fauna to craft weapon holsters that will allow you to do so, as well as the extra pouches you'll need to carry your additional ammo and munitions. That pistol you started with not seeming so great anymore since every time every time you use it the animals you're hunting run away and Vaas' thugs come running when they hear the shot? Better do some side missions to earn some cash and put a suppressor on that thing, or better yet, save up and buy a bow and arrows from your local weapon smuggler so you can hunt prey (and enemies) silently. Oops, can't carry any more items in your backpack or money in your wallet because of all that side-stuff you've been doing? Better use some of those pelts you collected to fashion yourself a bigger backpack and wallet. Running low on health often or need some chemical enhancement in the fields for better hunting and fighting? No problem, just collect some of the local flora and concoct some medicines - - just make sure that you've already crafted a big enough syringe pack to carry enough of them. This is how Far Cry 3 rolls, and to the typical Call of Duty player who is looking for a straightforward campaign that they can blow through in a few hours, the game's crafting mechanic will likely serve as an anathema, but for players who are looking for the exact kind of experience that Far Cry 3 is advertising, a large, open-world, sandbox first-person shooter rich with opportunities for exploration and the chance of being hunted just as much as being the hunter, they simply will not be able to get enough of the feeling of empowerment as they along with Jason "earn" the badass abilities, skills and weaponry that other first-person shooters take for granted.

What is given freely to players from the get-go is freedom. From very early on in the game, players can hop into an abandoned car, jeep, jet-ski, boat or even a glider and venture to almost any location on any of the islands that they want. There are no invisible barriers between the islands, no inexplicable barricades, and no GTA Police helicopters to shoot you down. But just as avoiding hunting and crafting will seriously hamper your ability to progress in the game, exploring the islands without taking the time to repair the 18 radio towers scattered across them that Vaas and his men have jammed will leave the world map obscured and have you literally flying blind towards objectives. Conversely, removing Vaas' jammers from these towers will not only reveal the areas surrounding them, but will also make it easier for weapons smugglers allied with the Rakyat to move their goods, a favor for which will they will reward you with free weapons at their shops, removing the necessity to buy them with your own cash (though you'll still want to visit them to purchase ammo refills, weapon enhancements, health syringes -- if you don't have the materials on hand to craft your own -- and to sell both craftable and non-craftable items such as jewelry and pelts). "Supply Drop" vehicle-based delivery missions, which grant players additional cash and XP upon completion, are also unlocked when radio towers are repaired.

Also scattered among the islands are enemy outposts that Jason can go in and clear of Vaas' men, liberating it for the Rakyat and unlocking additional on-site safe houses (each complete with their own "weapon vending machine") as well as optional side missions and challenges from the Rakyat people. While the missions are optional, completing them will reward players with additional XP, cash and in select missions, rare pelts needed for making the "ultimate" version of Jason's equipment. And despite the Rook Islands being a hornet's nest of guerrilla warfare, players will encounter Rakyat civilians running high-stakes vehicle races on the beach or other secluded areas, as well as those who will reward cash for helping them repair their car that has broken down or rescuing them from a hostage situation. In other words, there is no shortage of fun things to do, even when not on a mission.

It would be remiss to review Far Cry 3 without taking a moment to briefly mention how cohesively its environments, characters, story and gameplay work together to create such a believably tense atmosphere. Having just returned myself from a vacation in the tropics, I can say that while Far Cry 3's Rook Islands may not be an exact replica of a real-life tropical island, it absolutely captures the essence, from how blades of sunlight glimmer and dance through the leaves of a rainforest canopy to the white sands of the beaches and greenish blue of the shark-infested waters. At the risk of overusing the word, the Rook Islands are simply gorgeous, and it's instantly understandable why Jason and his friends would have chosen them as the ideal vacation hotspot, even though it's still a mystery why they wouldn't have noticed the part of the brochure that discussed the islands' main economies: slavery, drugs and gun-running. The motivations of the characters are also highly believable and impeccably captured by the voice actors, particularly Michael Mando, the voice of Vaas, and Gianpaolo Venuta, who voices Jason. Vaas is easily one of the scariest, unpredictable yet irresistibly compelling villains to appear in a video-game, and even though most of the player's time will be spent fighting his forces rather than him directly, players will want to progress through the story just a little bit faster just so they can watch what will happen each time he and Jason meet. Meanwhile, Venuta's slow burn portrayal of Jason as he grows to adapt and embrace the insanity of the island to survive is so believable that when Jason sets a field of marijuana plants ablaze with a flamethrower for the first time and exclaims "This is awesome!!!", both the gamer and the cynic in you will nod eagerly in agreement. You'll also care about Jason's girlfriend, Liza, his captured brothers and friends, who all share their own unique interactions with Jason that hint at underlying tensions that have existed for years, even though the reasons are never mentioned. Meanwhile, villains Vaas, Buck and Hoyt, and allies Dennis, Willis and Citra are the true entertainment, running the gamut from true friends and mentors to psychotic madmen -- it’s never boring when they share the same space as you.

And then finally, there's life on the island, which takes place around you, not because of you. Leopards and asiatic bears will hunt and chase their prey almost oblivious to your presence, sometimes even only feet in front of you. Vaas' pirates and Rakyat warriors will encounter each other on the roads and engage in firefights, and sometimes even be wiped out by a wild boar, a tiger or a flock of cassowaries (think deadly ostriches), that they managed to enrage. Hostages being ushered off at gunpoint will occasionally make a run for it, offering the you the choice to come to their rescue by taking out their pirate captors, but players can choose the route of self-preservation and stay concealed to concentrate on their task without penalty. Always be mindful however, the random-rolling dice of the Rook Islands can roll over and crush you as well, so don't be completely surprised to find your almost perfect infiltrate-outpost- and- destroy mission getting ruined by that tiger you didn't see approaching from behind, or that your desperate dive into the river to escape your pursuers dropped you right into the waiting jaws of a ravenous crocodile. Jason Brody is just as much the hunted as he is the hunter, which is what makes Far Cry 3 so much fun to play.

Rounding out FC3's impressive package are multiplayer and co-op modes. At the time of this writing online play was still under embargo, but I was able to sample a bit of both modes during last week's Far Cry 3 Preview Event in Toronto and came away pleasantly surprised. Multiplayer controls are exactly the same as those in single-player, which in turn cribs heavily (and wisely) from Halo and Call of Duty, so players of those two franchises won't need to make many adjustments to get comfortable. Team Deathmatch and Domination played as one would expect, but with interesting Far-Cry inspired tweaks, such as Battle Cries, which through fighting players can earn and boost their surrounding teammates' health and abilities, as well as guerrilla warfare-style ordinances such as poison gas and firebombs. In co-op, 2-4 players take on the role of mercenaries in pursuit of a ship captain that has made off with their money and is taking refuge on the Rook Islands. Compared to the single-player campaign, the co-op plot seems incredibly paper thin, but who needs a believable plot to get together with friends and shoot stuff these days? A fellow journalist and I took on the first mission of the game and were quickly overwhelmed in the first chapter by pirates as we simultaneously tried to defend a train as we were moving it out of a tunnel that led to our next objective. After three attempts, we decided it was probably better to play with four players, or water down the difficulty, as it proved to be a real challenge. Both versus multiplayer and co-op modes were played via dedicated servers, so the play experience was optimal, with barely any latency. Hopefully when the multiplayer servers finally open up on Xbox Live, players can look forward to similar results, and if not, I have faith that Ubisoft will quickly provide a patch to rectify it.

To sum up, if you are a fan of the previous Far Cry games, you probably stopped reading this review about two paragraphs in and are already on your way to your local game store to pre-order your copy, because Ubisoft Montréal have nailed what those games were and/or should be about. If you are a fan of shooters and open-world adventures, then you should be out the door following the first group of people - - what are you, daft? And if you're concerned as to whether the game is worth taking your time away from CODBLOPS2 and Halo 4 this holiday season, just trust me, once you've tired of Forerunner installations, Future Cold Wars and zombies, Far Cry 3 will be your perfect virtual island getaway.

Overall: 9.4 / 10
Gameplay: 9.5 / 10
Visuals: 9.5 / 10
Sound: 9.3 / 10


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