I’ve done unspeakable things. I drove a machete through a man’s throat and watched his face wince in excruciating pain. I set a pack of dingoes on fire and watched as they ran headlong into a populated camp. I threw a few Molotov cocktails into huts made of wood and straw, witnessing the wind carry fire dynamically across the rest of the village. And I’ve enjoyed every moment.
Enjoying chaotic violence forms the dark heart of Ubisoft Montreal’s Far Cry 3, a game about becoming a force of nature with all the morality and lethality of a hurricane. The game actively encourages the player to tap into that atavistic monstrous side we all have but attempt to repress. You take drugs, hunt animals with bows and arrows, and mercilessly slaughter every pirate who stands between you and your goal. It is power fantasy concentrate, and it may be the most organic iteration of open-world game design I’ve ever seen.
The latest installment of the ever-changing Far Cry series has the player exploring the tropical Rook Islands, an archipelago with a rich and bloody history of British colonization, Japanese occupation, and piracy. It’s a land teeming with deceptive beauty and savage inhabitants (human and animal). The world is lushly animated with dynamic weather, water, and wind effects. It truly feels like a world that’s alive with opportunity and danger.
When a group of twenty-somethings embodying everything I hate about the Millenial ethos skydive during their romp across Asia, a group of pirates attempt to do the world a favor by capturing them. The protagonist, Jason Brody, witnesses the death of his brother Grant (the only member of the group I had a prayer of a chance at liking) at the hands of Vaas, a sociopath and one of the best video game villains out there. Jason escapes and is nursed back to health by a local member of the Rakyat people, setting in motion the events that lead Jason Brody to rescue his friends, liberate the island from pirates, and transform into the beast he was programmed to become.
Unlike the previous game in the series, Far Cry 3 is a narrative-driven experience with clear objectives, though they change in much the same way as the protagonist. While his initial goal is to rescue the remaining members of the trust fund brigade, Jason Brody starts to drift apart from his friends. They soon question his motivations, wondering if he’s losing himself in the jungle. Their fears are answered, of course, with a barbaric “yes.” The game helps facilitate this dissonance as the narrative missions involving Jason’s friends steer you along through linear, checkpoints–a system much more unappealing than the dynamic gameplay of the open island. Jason’s quest lies in the jungle, making the game more about becoming a Rakyat than rescuing people who become increasingly unfamiliar.
It’s refreshing to play as a character who does not begin the game with a set of survival skills, instead learning them and the environment as the player does. You facilitate Jason’s metamorphosis into a warrior at your own pace. In fact, the game actively encourages you to abandon the main quest and learn about the jungle by capturing enemy strongholds, hunting animals, and crafting supplies from animal skins and exotic plants. You can spend the first two-thirds of the main campaign just honing your skills and becoming as strong as possible, then spend the final third enjoying being a badass—truly adaptive game design.
Such a large open world comes with a fair degree of technical hiccups. There was some screen tearing on the PS3 build I played, and there’s significant texture pop-in. The worst I encountered was a glitch in which Jason’s bow began floating at his side throughout the game’s duration. At any point during the game, I would look down and see the bow permanently fused to his side. This glitch especially became troublesome in cutscenes (that all take place in-engine), and it really pulled me out of the experience, ruining the immersion the game goes to great lengths to cultivate.
These issues aside, mechanically, the game just works–though it should be impossible to ruin first-person controls at this point in game history. Melee kills are satisfyingly brutal, and there’s nothing quite like sneaking up on a group of pirates, chaining a few kills together, and then throwing an enemy’s knife into the final enemy. Stealth is simple, albeit functional. At times the HUD can be a bit busy, sometimes adding mission objectives on top of gameplay tips on top of an ammo counter on top of a mini-map. But these are relatively minor quibbles in a game with such scope.
It’s a shame, then, that the game’s ambition does not extend to a memorable multiplayer experience. The standard game modes that Call of Duty made so famous show up here, but there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before (and better). The co-op campaign eschews the open world for linear gameplay and a group of characters more annoying than interesting. All in all, the multiplayer is a lost opportunity, quickly forgotten but not missed. When your carefully planned stealth assault on enemy camp goes FUBAR after a couple of leopards attack you and your enemies, you will not think that the game needs anything extra (especially when you can set the animals ablaze and let them light the whole jungle on fire).
I had my fears about how the game could possibly negotiate Jason’s rise to leadership among a group of native people without becoming a jingoistic fable of white people’s inherent ability to become better than other races. After all, the game draws upon the tropes of Victorian adventure fiction quite extensively: an exoticized female of sexual danger, barbaric tribes, vicitimized white people at the hands of the sinister “other,” to name a few. Yet a quick look around revealed that the islands inhabitants are a mix of different races all pulled to this world by strange circumstances. The whole place seems like an Island of Misfit toys re-imagined by Quentin Tarantino, complete with a crazy German-American undercover operative, drug-induced freakouts, and sodomy.
In a recent review at Kill Screen, Joseph Bernstein calls Far Cry 3 the “first game about the Millenials,” positing that its central message of finding oneself in world built your amusement embodies that self-interested drive of today’s young adults who were raised on promises of gold only to become disillusioned at the lack of job prospects. While the dreams of the privileged may be the stuff of pipes, I find the game to be less about a young man regaining lost self-esteem and more about game worlds in general. We control a character who sheds his silver spoon American persona in order to survive, losing himself and awakening into something powerful and terrifying. These are not simply the dreams of Millenials; they are the nightmares of the stagnant and the fantasies the civilized are loath to admit.
Far Cry 3 imposes no moral system on the player, and it refuses to let him/her step away from a character who steadily becomes just as sociopathic as the monster he meets in the game’s opening moments. The more violent Jason becomes, the more fun and open the game feels. When I booted up the game, I felt like the entire island existed purely for my taking, and I’ve relished every spoil it has yielded. It dares the player to dive headfirst into a world of violence and cruelty, and become more barbaric than the environment itself–all the while enjoying your descent into savagery.