Ubisoft has been on one hell of a hot streak since last holiday season haven't they? Two well received Assassin's Creed titles, the return of Ghost Recon, the release of Rayman Origins on every platform, and they've even got us salivating for what's to come with their tantalising peek at Watch Dogs they teased at E3. After playing Far Cry 3, it's easy to say that this game edges out all those titles (except for possibly the unreleased Watch Dogs) as one of the phenomenal gaming accomplishments of this hardware cycle, let alone Ubisoft's own catalogue.
In Far Cry 3 you play as Jason Brody, a young slacker with a greater need for adrenaline than ambition. While vacationing in a tropical paradise, Jason and his friends decide to go skydiving over the beautiful Rook Islands. In a stunning jumpcut during the opening introduction that would make Stanley Kubrick applaud, Jason and his friends are taken hostage by a cadre of bloodthirsty pirates that want nothing more than to either put a bullet in their skulls or sell them into slavery, and either option seems to appeal to these fanatics. It's during this sequence that you're introduced to FC3's fascinating villain, Vaas. Vaas is a likeable villain who is just as quick with a verbal jab as he is with executing a victim. Vaas is only the tip of the villainy iceberg that you'll collide with during your journey to escape the pirates, save your friends, and help a rebel faction take back Rook Island.
Before long, you'll be traversing the seedy underbelly of not only Rook Island, but of the human psyche. Before your time is done with this game, you'll ally with a motley cast of island dwellers including a paranoid CIA agent, a mushroom addicted doctor, an Australian accented "capitalist" with an insidious agenda, and tons more memorable characters. The story missions are very well designed and paced as well, always giving you something new to do and places to see. From intense boat chases to silently infiltrating a tanker ship to bizarre drug induced dream sequences, you never quite know what the campaign will throw at your next. My personal favourite was the mission where you send a statement to the pirates by torching their marijuana fields with a flame thrower. By the way, in case it wasn't clear, don't let the kiddies play this one.
Rook Island is a huge, open place, and within an hour into the game, you have the opportunity to explore all of it at your leisure from a first person perspective that never waivers during either gameplay or cutscenes. In one of the few faults in this otherwise stunning title, FC3 falls into the same trap that almost every other open world game does, which is a complete lack of urgency in the plot. After the introduction in which Jason is saved by a rebel faction, you're instantly set on the "path of the warrior", and the rebels trust you to lead the charge on any number of their important missions. The game prods you to go an rescue your friends as soon as possible, but I was too busy going on hunting missions, assassination missions, climbing radio towers to unlock new parts of the map, trying out the dozen or so vehicles, harvesting plants, doing island league races, playing online leaderboard-enabled arcade-style score attacks, and taking out enemy encampments to turn them into your own. I'll get into more detail on some of these in a paragraph or two, but the point I was making is the disconcerting disconnect between the interesting storyline and characters you'll meet, and what you're actually doing during gameplay. Case in point, Jason is presented as a normal everyman who reluctantly kills to survive and save those who he cares most about. In my first two hours with the game, I had skinned over 30 animals, and killed 97 pirates, many of them stealthily through the underbrush. It's almost like being rewarded with an episode of an unrelated TV show when you finally decide to move the sometimes kooky story forward. Trust me though; this won't stay an issue for long, because you'll be having too much fun. The story alone will take at least 20 hours, and bump that up to a good 30-40 hours if you want to see all the single player has to offer.
When I talked with Dan Hay, executive producer on the game for Ubisoft Montreal, he described the entire experience as Skyrim with guns, and I'm at a loss to come up with a more apt description for the game than that. This is an action RPG, through and through, albeit an adrenaline charged, action packed one. By doing side missions, story missions, and just plain killing enemies, you'll gain experience to place into one of three skill trees, each focused on a different play style such as stealth takedowns, long range stealth, or the guns blazing approach. Maxing out the trees isn't all that difficult, and you're welcome to level all three up to suit your play style. You'll also use money to purchase new weapons and upgrades, and even hunt down various animal skins to create new pouches to carry more weapons, ammo, money, and consumables.
Starting with the hunting, FC3 features an entire eco system of both predators and herbivores for you to hunt. Each animal behaves realistically and seem natural in their environment. Dogs will hunt you in packs, pigs will waddle for their lives, tigers will stalk you from the bushes, and bears won't differentiate between you and your enemies when under attack. Blasting animals is pretty much required to be able to carry more items, and hunting them remains fun. Certain quests to poach rare animals add another dimension to the hunting. Never mind the fact that I felt worse about skinning an endangered tiger than I did mowing down groups of pirates. Don't forget, animals may be stalking you at the same time, meaning that while you're silently checking stuff out, a bear might come up right behind you and lay all your plans to waste, which is never frustrating.
Taking a page from their own Assassin's Creed series, new parts of the map are made visible by climbing radio towers in a bit of mild first person platforming and climbing. One you reach the top, you're rewarded with a sweeping vista in addition to your newly updated map and new quests in the area. There are 18 towers in total to climb in the game, and I never once minded that I was doing the same thing that I was doing in Assassin's Creed III two weeks ago. Hidden items can also be revealed by buying maps at any store. Once the map is revealed (or before hand if you're feeling adventurous), you can hoof it on foot, drive a variety of cars and ATVs, hit the water on boats and jet skis, or take to the skies in a hang glider that controls beautifully. If you don't feel like driving, an easy to use fast travel system allows means that whatever part of the island you want to be in is only a loading screen away.
Once you've revealed the map, sections controlled by pirates are highlighted with a red fog on the map. To take these areas back from the pirates, you'll have to attack enemy outposts and take them back from the rebels. Once you've taken these outposts, they become safe houses that you can fast travel to, upgrade your weapons, and get new quests. These are by far the most compelling of all the side quests in the game, because it truly highlights the varied approaches to gameplay that the developers have packed into the game. Want to observe the enemy patrols for a silent approach, taking out your enemies one by one with your bow and arrow and machete? You can do that by tagging your enemies with your DSLR camera (which then allows you to see them through walls). Want to lead some dangerous wildlife into the camp to attack your enemies for you? You can do that? Want to disable the alarms and then torch the whole camp with Molotov cocktails and a flame thrower? Why not? My personal favourite was loading up a jeep with C4, making a beeline for the centre of the camp, diving out before I hit the gate, and then blowing the whole thing up. No matter how you decide to tackle it, the game won't punish you for any approach outside of common sense. For example, if an enemy manages to sound the alarm which you can disable beforehand, reinforcements will pour into the camp to help their allies. It's during these moments that the organic nature of the world really shines. Sometimes the rebels will simply beat you to the camp and do the work for you, just like shooting the lock on a bear cage will cause panic in the pirates. Not since the old Hitman games have I felt such freedom in how to tackle some objectives.
In general, while you can play FC3 using any sort of approach, you're certainly rewarded more heavily by using stealth effectively and killing with style. For example, emptying an entire assault rifle clip into an enemy will yield minimal experience, but dropping on top of one from a rooftop and then using his knife to take out his unaware partner will yield ten times as much experience. It's great then that the stealth works beautifully. Enemy awareness is shown by an on screen indicator showing the direction of the detection, which turns red when you're spotted. Breaking line of sight by stalking the bushes or hiding behind cover works every time, but your enemies aren't stupid. They'll search the area that you were last spotted, and won't fall for your distracting rock throwing antics once they already know you're there. They'll hunt you in groups, notice dead bodies, and hear you running. The AI got the drop on me more than once, and I thought I had seen it all in stealth games at this point.
Far Cry 3 also ships with a slew of co-op and competitive multiplayer modes. The four player co-op mode was certainly fun while liberally borrowing from the co-operative antics of Left 4 Dead. In a nice touch that is becoming increasingly rare these days, you can play co-op as split screen multiplayer. When you play this mode online, you gain experience to customize loadouts, but oddly, this feature is disabled while playing split screen with a friend, forcing you to pick from four pre-determined loadouts. The co-op is more linear and streamlined than the single player, forcing you to eschew stealth far more often in favour of protecting your teammates while completing objectives from dozens of pirates at once. Therefore, the co-op mode forces you into a more generic shooter experience, while fun, doesn't nearly approach the sheer brilliance of the campaign. Still, it's hard to complain when Ubisoft not only gave the co-op its own storyline, but included it in such a robust gaming package overall. Would you complain about free peanuts with your three scoop hot fudge sundae? Of course not, you can simply choose to not eat the peanuts.
The competitive multiplayer certainly fares well, great even, dividing its focus between team based objective modes, deathmatch modes, and plain old fashioned mayhem. It definitely does nothing wrong per se, it's just that aside from the tropical setting, we've seen this all before. Killstreaks, experience points to unlock new weapons, and the weapons and objectives have all been done before in other titles. Since as of this writing, the game is still a week and a half away from its release, we couldn't test the online stability, but we did manage to play some at the launch party to get a feel for it. Competitive multiplayer supports up to 14 players.
As a technical achievement, Far Cry 3 is a flat out marvel. Rook Island is beautifully rendered, from the insane draw distance, or the up close foliage. A full weather and day/night cycle keeps things fresh visually, and it's nice to play a hardcore shooter with an actual color palate. The frame rate generally stays buttery smooth, with one exception where I found a field with all out animal warfare between bears, tigers, boars, and even peacocks. Character animation and especially the facial animation is simply stunning, playing a big role in connecting you to the motley characters, both friendly and not. Lighting also plays a huge role, and whether it's the smooth glow caused by setting a field on fire at night or sunlight poking through the canopy, video games simply don't look any better. I played the game on the Xbox 360 for this review, so I can only imagine how gorgeous this game looks on a high end PC. I did encounter a few minor bugs, but far fewer than I would expect in an open world title, as evidenced by my time with Bethesda's open world games and the recent Assassin's Creed III. The most hilarious one I found was when I accidentally hit a person who gives out a mission with my car, only to have 3 cars worth of rebels pour out and start shooting this poor guy, who simply wouldn't die, I had to go an entirely different section of the map and come back to actually activate the mission. I also encountered one crash bug while hang gliding from one end of the island to the other. That's right, just one. It's nothing to really complain about, but worth mentioning.
Sound is not only very well engineered in FC3, but essential to the game play experience. Keeping an ear on the goings around you is important, especially if you're playing the game stealthily. A good surround system will definitely help. Gunshots, vehicle engines, animal calls, voice acting, and a slew of environmental effects all sound natural and fantastic.
In conclusion, I pose a question beyond whether you should or should not play Far Cry 3. That's an easy one to answer, and it's an enthusiastic yes, definitely, for sure, absolutely. Well, unless you're able to handle the stomach churning violence on display. The real question I'd like to pose here is whether Ubisoft Montreal is now officially THE premier development house in the world. With an enviable stable of series include the Tom Clancy games, Prince of Persia, Assassin's Creed, this crown jewel of a title, and the upcoming Watch Dogs, it seems that whatever game these French Canadians set their mind to, they knock out of the park. But I digress; I need to wrap up this review, because Rook Island continues to call to me.