Saturday, August 16, 2014

Far Cry 3 - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

After cleaning up the neon tropics of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon I immediately jumped into Far Cry 3, salivating for some more open world mayhem. I was stoked to run through a game that was bigger and more customizable than Blood Dragon's, eager to pick up my bow and get back to tearing the local regime a new one. Though a handful of the mechanics were quite different (there's a perk tree!), I felt right at home with a lot of it—even more than I did in its nostalgic cousin. And 40 hours later, what conclusion have I drawn after raiding every base and completing every side mission?

Far Cry 3 is a great game.

Most of my adoration for the series was pontificated on in my Blood Dragon review, but I'll briefly recap here—Far Cry is fantastic because it allows you to approach its world more or less however you want. When encroaching on enemy territory, you can snipe the guards from afar, plant mines along their patrol routes, go in loud with the shotgun, or just avoid the confrontation altogether (and more!). The sheer variety offered in combat keeps the game constantly entertaining; no matter what position you find yourself in, there's always a multitude of ways you can carve through it. Improv planning is a key component too, considering that enemies will fight with both the wildlife and resistance, leading to some unexpected interruptions in your best laid plans. But most importantly, the game rewards you for clever thinking with (besides XP) the sheer gratification that you're the king of this domain—this island is your home, and you are the most dangerous man on it.

You begin your journey to the top by being woefully underpowered, but soon you'll have a grip on the layout of the land, driving across mountains and hunting down wild animals. The fauna is far more valuable here than in Blood Dragon since you need their hides to craft better goodie pouches (with a reasonable number of pelts required), and some of the side missions throw you into pretty tricky situations (I played on the hardest difficulty so having an assortment of ability-boosting syringes on hand definitely helped). As you level up you can choose which skills you want to hone in on, though a few of became useless by the end of the game (why would you want improved pistol accuracy or to use a turret longer?). In the arms department there's a solid selection of weapons to choose from, and you'll definitely find favorites amongst the lot (like the absurdly dangerous Z93 with its sound suppressor attachment).

After I finished the main campaign I continued to explore the lush emerald paradise, yearning to test my skills further. The best parts of the game are some of the little moments you'll experience between destinations, like attempting to drive up a hill that is clearly not meant for vehicles and making long distance shots with explosive arrows. Perhaps because I enjoy the gameplay so much I'm more easily sucked into the world, but I feel that the Rook Islands are a fantastic, gorgeous setting that's never boring to run around in, striking a great balance between seaside coves and dense woods. Exploring this world is similar to that in an Elder Scrolls game, except it lacks the plentiful dialogue and slow pace, letting you mess around with the locale in a delightfully meandering-yet-meaningful way.

The game is fantastic but it isn't perfect. Like with Blood Dragon it falls apart when the story takes the wheel, unable to escape from becoming a disappointment by the end. I'm going to speak at lengths about the plot ahead, but keep in mind that the gameplay and visuals are so lively, elegant, and engaging that Jason Brody's adventure could've had no story at all and it still would be one of my favorite shooters.

The most obvious bummer is the loss of Vaas two-thirds through the campaign, resulting in Hoyt's ascension to the role of antagonist. The kingpin doesn't remain nearly as menacing as the pirate though, despite how often the game tried to peg him as such; Vaas commanded so much attention every time he was on screen while Hoyt only seemed able to mimic his creativity in somewhat boring, unconvincing ways. The plot shines with brilliance in a couple moments (like the dark nod towards Keith's sexual abuse and the infamous definition of insanity talk), but it does little to expand or develop those threads. Near the end, the game frantically chucks Alice in Wonderland quotes at the player in a Deadlight-esque attempt to add another layer of depth to the story, though all it amounts to is a simple "do you like killing dudes in the jungle or do you wanna go back to your inane life?". Honestly it's an intriguing question to ask (since it's essentially "do you like being a hyperactive killer in games or are you trying to play them realistically?"), but Far Cry 3 only touches upon this critique briefly in its cutscenes, instead being more concerned with scripted sequences and senselessly violent twists.

There's a myriad of other strange design decisions you'll wade through as well, consisting of missions that feel like bloated filler in a game already packed with content. All three expeditions to retrieve the golden compass pieces involve cinematic escapes that become terribly predictable, and the magical item is never seen again after Buck's death. Similarly, the entire Privateer's infiltration feels utterly pointless—you've spent the better half of the game shooting anyone that gets in your way, but suddenly it becomes best to curry favor with the bastard you're trying to kill? There's even a moment where you meet Hoyt face to face but can't do anything other than beat up your own brother in order to appease him (which, considering how bombastic the end of the game gets, feels very senseless). From a gameplay standpoint the last handful of missions are pretty abysmal as you go from turret section to turret section, throwing out stealth and forcing you to play it as a straight-up first person shooter. There were admittedly good ideas in the Privateer chapter, like the mission where you're allowed to walk around the enemy base and plan out your method of attack from within, but otherwise it largely feels like an insult after the great finale to Vaas' arc. At least Sam Becker was mildly entertaining, even if the only purpose his death served was just to shock the player.

If you jump into the jungle looking to write your own tales rather than listen to the ones told to you, the wilds of Far Cry 3 are certainly worth your time. I played it almost obsessively the week I bought it, enthralled the entire time by the beauty and massiveness of it all, the lows of the experience being overcast by the mountainous highs. I lost track of how many small, wild, unscripted encounters impressed me, and had a blast succeeding in my undetected base captures (in one of them I freed a bear to help me fight back against its captors, but then had to protected the bear from my allies in the resistance as they attempted to down it—all the while trying not to get mauled myself!). I was glad the game was everything I hoped for and more, and I'm genuinely curious if the other games in the series will outdo the precedent that Far Cry 3 has set.

I suspect if the writing is stronger, they just might.

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