Start your story in the middle, they say. While Far Cry 3 doesn’t go quite that far, it does establish its premise with brutal economy. Its Rook Islands are a paradisal warzone, with the native islanders now on the losing side of a protracted conflict with the pirates and privateers who have established a heavy presence on their shores. Pirate commander Vaas is a psychotic murderer. And Jason Brody is the run-of-the-mill everyman thrust into the midst of the insanity.
Well, sort of. Jason’s only as much of an average Joe as the game, and its open world, allows him to be. And while Far Cry 3’s story tells a good tale of an ordinary guy finding his inner warrior in extraordinary circumstances, its mechanics do not. Jason starts the game remarkably proficient with both firearms and explosives, and ends it incredibly proficient with them. For every well-observed moment of conflict between the mundane urban lifestyle he’s leaving behind and his warrior’s calling – including one exquisitely timed phone call from a concerned girlfriend that happens to intrude on him doing something time-sensitive with C4 – there are moments that shatter the illusion.
The game tries to start Jason off slowly, sending him off foraging in its forest during the second mission. It’s a nice idea, and a deft introduction to the game’s crafting mechanics, but that doesn’t change the fact that our playthrough saw the novice action hero take a dip in a nearby river to harvest some aquatic plants and emerge having wrestled a crocodile to death. After Far Cry’s sci-fi and Far Cry 2’s politics, there’s a spiritual, mystical theme running through this third game that seeks to support Jason’s apparently superhuman abilities. While this does help suspend disbelief, it can’t change the lack of a meaningful journey for him.
Of course, if Far Cry 3 had hobbled players from the start, there’d be no sense in giving them a whole island to explore. And the Rook Islands are a beautiful slice of paradise, a postcard-perfect mixture of green forest, open beach and soaring peaks, run through with river routes and dotted with lagoons. It offers less varied terrain than its predecessor’s unspecified chunk of Africa, however, which offered lush pockets not too dissimilar to this as well as wrapping a desert or open grassland around them. But while the Rook Islands’ flora doesn’t look quite as ready for the tinderbox as the savannah’s yellowing grass, you can rest assured it responds just as eagerly to a flame.
Indeed, view Far Cry 3 as a postmodern neocolonial critique in which a western explorer alights upon a remote tropical paradise and razes it to the ground in the name of benevolent intervention, and you’ll be surprised how well it all holds together, not least because progression is marked in terms of territory claimed as much as distanced travelled. Far Cry 2’s checkpoints were nuggets of emergent possibility – unpredictable assortments of guards, supplies, vehicles and terrain that could be approached however you saw fit. Far Cry 3 has Outposts – similar stations that could have been plucked straight from the African plains but for one crucial difference: they no longer respawn.
An outpost cleared in Far Cry 3 becomes a position controlled by the Rakyat, the local militia aligned with Jason. You can save and fast travel here, as well as purchase or upgrade your guns and take on sidequests. More importantly, however, the takeover will have an effect on the surrounding environment, dramatically lowering the incidence of pirate activity in the region.
Far Cry 2’s civil war existed in rigid stalemate, with little direct contact between its two interchangeable factions. There’s a greater sense of conflict in Far Cry 3, where the colour-coded pirate and native patrols can stumble across one another and engage in unscripted skirmishes. Add in the island’s native animal population (which is surely large and aggressive enough to qualify for third faction status), and you have a recipe for some beautifully emergent chaos and occasional comedy. So a simple shootout between Jason and an enemy patrol could get gatecrashed by some overly keen islanders who, in their rush to lend assistance, inadvertently attract the attention of small pack of komodo dragons. At one point, we were bought precious seconds to heal and find cover when a tapir, rest its soul, unwittingly strolled into the path of a reinforcement-packed jeep.