Fools rush in. Numerous singers have told us so, over the years, from Shirley Bassey to The Morning Benders. And yet still we do, careening into a firefight with scant regard for our health bars. Sometimes we get away with it – we’re super-soldiers, Master Chiefs, grizzled grunts with more muscle on our thumbs than most men have their thighs. We’re bullet sponges. We’re strong enough to act the fool and win.
But Jason Brody isn’t special. He’s an everyman, made of blood and bones and barely enough guts to scamper headlong into a tropical jungle just seconds after witnessing his brother murdered, breathlessly scrambling to save his own life from slave-trading pirates. Brody isn’t Marcus Fenix. He’s not Samus Aran. He’s lost and terrified and desperate to make some sense of a situation that’s become entirely surreal, albeit not quite as much as it’ll get when his path crosses that of the local doctor.
This is how Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3, one of the most acclaimed games of 2012, raises its curtain. What comes next, across over 20 hours of gameplay, is in some ways standard: this is an FPS, and therefore you spend a lot of time pointing a projectile-discharging weapon at enemies, as both parties duck and dive behind patches of cover. As Brody, on a mission to recover imprisoned friends and family, we level up, learning more deadly methods of dispatching those blocking our progress. Soon we’re a stereotypically awesome killing machine, pumping shotgun shells into rushing NPCs and engulfing their stand-back colleagues in flames. During one moment of calm, Brody acknowledges how he’s changed – how killing now “feels like winning”.
It’s the atypical aspects of Far Cry 3’s DNA that make it such a special game, though – its luscious, open-world island setting, full of autonomous, organic fauna and plant life to harvest; its vivid palette, of sparkling blues and dazzling yellows; and its unpredictable, multiple-tangent approach to mission completion. Level up enough and you could roll right into an enemy outpost, gunning for the residents before they trigger the reinforcements alarm. Or you could scan the settlement beforehand, marking your targets and stealthily taking them down. Or maybe a tiger, a komodo dragon or even a (surprisingly lethal) cassowary will come between you and your quarry, interrupting best-laid plans and leaving you a grey-screened corpse in the dust.
Far Cry 3 is also a game that represents the perfecting of a formula first laid down in 2004, when the original Far Cry emerged on the PC. A showcase for developer Crytek’s CryEngine, Far Cry put the player in the shoes of Jack Carver who, unlike Brody, considered killing part of his day job. The connective tissue between the first and third game is evident enough: there’s the tropical setting, the questing to rescue captured friends, the nonlinear structure. But by casting the player as a former US Special Forces operative, Far Cry – presented in HD for new compilation The Wild Expedition – was communicating in conventional gaming language, clearly differentiating good guy from multiple bad ones.
By the time Far Cry 3 arrived eight years later, the dividing lines between protagonist and antagonist had blurred. Brody begins with good intentions, but his path – one he’s got to find alone, as he tells his concerned girlfriend – takes him in some truly dark directions. And the game’s most identifiable villain, the cover-adorning Vaas, changes from seemingly organised angel of death to an appealing evangelist of chaos. He never needs to tell us the definition of insanity because it looks like he’s living it well enough.
Far Cry 3 producer Dan Hay describes actor Michael Mando’s performance as Vaas as “lightning in a bottle”, undoubtedly the most memorable of any character to appear in a Far Cry title. “But there’s no question that the magic of that character was due to a unique combination of stellar acting, great writing, superior performance-capture tech, and fantastic artists to ensure the performance wasn’t lost as it was rebuilt, digitally,” he tells us.
No man is an island, though, and sure enough Vaas is supported by a wealth of impressively realised NPCs. “We cast actors and wrote situations with the very specific intent of filling Far Cry 3 with performances that would paint a mosaic of insanity,” says Hay. “Vaas was physical, in your face – but Citra [Vaas’s sister, who assists Jason] was much more calculating. And every single time I met Buck [a hitman holding one of Jason’s friends captive], my skin would crawl. Walking downstairs to his basement… it was chilling.”
Far Cry 3’s affecting story is the work of Jeffrey Yohalem, an award-winning screenwriter with credits on the Assassin’s Creed series. And what’s more impressive is how well it sits within the game’s structure – how it can be left to the side for a few hours, for Jason to undertake side missions and hunt the wildlife necessary for expanding his array of holsters, wallets and pouches.
“It’s not a science, it’s art,” says Hay of this writing technique, one that must be both engaging yet suitable to temporarily suspend at any moment. “It’s incredibly difficult to craft a narrative that encourages the player to go out and play for hours, and then return to the story in a seamless way. We rely heavily on the talent of people like Jeffrey and our other writers to craft that type of experience.”
While the first Far Cry’s story was relatively predictable, however well executed, 2008’s Far Cry 2 opted for something a little closer to its successor: almost a choose-your-own-adventure angle, but one anchored by a strong main plot. Edge 206’s Death Of The Author article referred to the game’s narrative as experimental, and the game’s creative director Clint Hocking spoke at length about the reliance on traditional narrative techniques.
“I think we should embrace the idea that games are reversible and malleable and fragmented and parallel and all of these things that other media aren’t,” he said, speaking of how one blogger was playing the game with a permanent death mentality – game over is just that, no continuing from your last save point. Nowadays, conversations about permadeath in games are everywhere, with the popularity of Spelunky and XCOM: Enemy Unknown making the mechanic a little more mainstream friendly. But in 2008 it seemed a weird thing to do in a much-played title: to just stop, dead.
Far Cry 2’s story was memorable, and like 3 it laid fictional foundations in very real horrors – where 3 tells of pirates and slavery, 2 focuses on civil war and the trading of weapons to both sides. The adversary at the blackened heart of this African adventure is The Jackal, and as one of a number of relatively blank-slated mercenaries the player must topple him from his perch by any means necessary. As with 3, morals are twisted as the game proceeds, good actions begetting bad ones, and vice versa. But the gameplay was hamstrung by a few niggles. The decision to incorporate degrading weapons and vehicles was met with a mixed reaction, and having to continually pass through guarded checkpoints, sometimes in bottlenecked parts of the map, could make progression from one part of the game to another a drag.
Refinement come Far Cry 3 was therefore at the forefront of Ubisoft’s minds when commencing the project. “We don’t always get everything right,” says Hay of delivering Far Cry 2, and the reaction to some of its more irritable quirks. “I can give you a bunch of producer speak on why we designed certain things, but it’d be bullshit. Luckily, we get a lot of feedback on what players like, and don’t like, and it’d be foolish not to listen. We make mistakes and we learn from them. Our simple goal [with Far Cry 3] was to lessen the distance between what you want to do and how quickly you can do it… and then surprise the shit out of you when you’re doing it.”
Whatever its eventual ‘wrongs’, Far Cry 2’s ambition could have broken it. In E263’s In The Click Of It column, Hocking writes: “One of the biggest hurdles we needed to overcome was to prove that we could deliver the goals of the project under the time and budget constraints we were given. We were pitching the idea that we could deliver a 50km-squared open-world firstperson shooter with about 100 hours of gameplay… [with] a team smaller than the one that’d delivered the 12-hour linear experience of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.” The bold risk paid off: sales ran into the millions by 2009, and the critical reception was, the occasional gripe aside, uniformly positive.
The (mostly) grounded realism of Far Cry 2 and 3 moved the series on from the first game’s sci-fi-flavoured mutated aggressors, the Trigens. But Ubisoft’s 2013-released standalone expansion for Far Cry 3 went way beyond the realms of common sense, of lifelike situations in open worlds. In Blood Dragon, things are at once retro, with the game’s garish neons and action-movie tropes recalling a host of ‘80s silver-screen smashes, and entirely bananas.
But the joke isn’t on the player – this is a seriously entertaining, quite wonderfully packaged release, weighing in at just 1.7GB but featuring more thrills and funnies than any number of boxed games. When you’re cast as a cyborg protagonist called Rex Power Colt, voiced by Terminator and Aliens actor Michael Biehn, the suspicion that tongues aren’t so much in cheeks as through them and lapping at the faces of total strangers settles in pretty swiftly – and it stays for the duration.
Blood Dragon’s director Dean Evans has claimed that the game’s frankly ridiculous premise and setting – it’s 2007, but not the 2007 you remember, with wicked ne’er-do-wells setting up shop on mysterious islands populated by laser-wielding monsters and bad guys resembling extras from a G.I. Joe cartoon – is a great deal tamer than what he was initially planning. But to Hay, what Blood Dragon became is out-there enough.
“Was the Blood Dragon pitch met with any trepidation? Of course it was! There were eyebrows raised. But what’s cool with Ubisoft is that people say: ‘You know what? Because it makes us uncomfortable, because it’s unique, that’s why we should do it!’ We knew it was the right thing to do, because not everyone appreciated it. That’s right where we want to live. That’s Far Cry.”
Yet Blood Dragon was another palpable hit, Far Cry “at its most charismatic”. The nadir of the story so far, 2006’s Wii-exclusive Vengeance (which we awarded a shocking 3/10), seems a long time ago, as acclaim has come to characterise one of Ubisoft’s more endearing, enduring series. No fourth game is on the drawing board as yet, at least not publicly, but one can bet that when it is, development will follow the mantra of the previous couple. Says Hay: “There is a freedom in forgetting the past, and not worrying about the future. That was the feeling we lived as children. Our job is to recapture that feeling.”
So go exploring with The Wild Expedition. Play your own way. Rush in, if you must, but remember: death need not be permanent, but loading screens can’t half get tedious when seen for the fourth time in as many minutes.