Looking from the outside in, the Far Cry series appeared to have fallen on hard times. Whilst the first title was well received, its successor was a bit of a miss. Leaving the jungle for African savannah, Far Cry 2 was little more than an expansive landmass to explore. The lack of a strong narrative highlighted its middling gameplay and made for an unenjoyable experience.

However, it seems that having come full circle with a tropical setting, Ubisoft Montreal has found its way. By intelligently improving upon the core mechanics of its predecessors and wrapping it inside of a strong, tight narrative, Far Cry 3 is testament to the power a great story can have on the reception to a game, how it can transform the middling into greatness.

Far Cry 3 is a surprisingly strong open world first person shooter. Through a strict focus on the thorough characterisation of the world at large, Far Cry 3 creates an experience unlike anything else. Though the story may be underwhelming in stretches and the multiplayer may be a bit limp, the game delivers a strong narrative and unconventional experience.

Players control Jason Brody, an American adrenaline junkie on holiday with a group of friends and family, who are taken for ransom by a local madman, Vaas. After escaping from Vaas’ thatched and corrugated internment camp, Jason seeks revenge and the freedom of his friends. In order to take down Vaas’ deadly organisation, Jason is imprinted with the mystic tatau, a tattoo that grows as Jason grows more powerful. Together with a group of islanders, Jason seeks to undo Vaas’ psychotic grip on the island, free the local people and rescue his friends.

Far Cry 3 review
character-building exercise

The bones of the story may be well worn, but the strong characterisation of Jason, Vaas, and those he interacts with make it compelling. The strength of both the voice acting and the writing add gravity to otherwise predictable turns of events. Whereas few games dwell on the ridiculous body counts accumulated by protagonists, key dialogue sequences make it apparent that Jason is mentally unravelling. He is a weak, flawed character that undergoes a great deal of change, and Ubisoft shows welcome respect for its audience by not answering whether these changes are a good thing. There is a surprising depth to Jason’s outwardly clichéd character, something that makes the story beats that much more impactful.

To compliment Jason’s condition, the world of Far Cry 3 is constantly shown to be slightly off-kilter, a pleasant façade with a harder edge. Behind the tourist trap front-facing image exists a great deal of poverty, corruption, murder and sexual abuse. The game accurately recreates a seedy, unpleasant vibe throughout the various shantytowns across the archipelago, leaving the player never feeling truly comfortable.

The influence of Assassin’s Creed is evident throughout.

Far Cry 3 delivers on the promise of open world exploration admirably. Eliminating all the guards at an outpost will provide new safe points and fast travel locations. These are almost puzzles, giving the player a variety of ways to achieve goals. The influence of Assassin’s Creed is also evident throughout: going in guns blazing may free the area quicker, but guards will call for reinforcements to make life miserable. A strong emphasis is placed on stealth takedowns and sabotage to complete these scenarios.

Enemies can be “tagged” by locating them with Jason’s camera, providing a hovering icon over their head that can be seen on the overlay at all times. Taking over outposts efficiently means scouting out the opposition, and then discerning the best way to eliminate them without being noticed. It’s wonderfully challenging and deeply rewarding to infiltrate and liberate a base without being noticed.

Far Cry 3 review
Innocence and experience

Almost every action Jason undertakes is rewarded with experience points, from discovering the hundreds of collectibles across the island to eliminating enemies in a variety of prescribed ways. This progression feeds into a skill tree, unlocking new perks and abilities as Jason levels up. It’s a much stronger way to dole out new abilities than to simply tie them to story unlocks, but players will run out of meaningful upgrades before the end of the game. Each upgrade adds a new piece to Jason’s tatau, which will expand from a simple band to a full sleeve by the end of the game. It’s an interesting visual motif to choose, but the actual tattoo itself looks rather poor.

Decrepit radio towers also adorn the hills of the Rook Islands, creating a series of navigational puzzles to undertake. Successfully climbing to the top of each towering wreck represents a short, but not insignificant challenge, revealing the map further and unlocking new weapons. Again, this feature cribs directly from the viewpoint synchronisations of sister series Assassin’s Creed, but the unique navigational puzzle in each tower makes climbing to the top a rewarding task, and the views are phenomenal.

Far Cry 3 review

A relatively rudimentary crafting system manages the upgrading of weapons and items. Wild animals and plants are scattered throughout the world, and these can be hunted and harvested for raw materials to turn into upgrades. Ubisoft’s implementation here doesn’t go deep enough to remain engaging throughout the entire game. After a few hours, many players may have acquired the really necessary items and will discard the notion of attempting for the rest.

A 14-player multiplayer mode fails to deliver a compelling experience. The focus on stealth and approaching combat like a puzzle is immediately cast aside when dealing with other human players, and soon it devolves into a woefully generic first-person shooting experience. By discarding the elements that made the main campaign special, the experience feels dated and rote, something the rest of the game tries to avoid.

The four-player co-op mode similarly diverges from the core tenets of the experience in unsatisfying ways. The levels are far more linear and by making the journey shared and impersonal, the mode does away with much of what makes the campaign praiseworthy. Playing with less than four people becomes a frustrating grind due to poorly scaled enemy difficulty. Neither co-op nor multiplayer are horrendous, but by failing to push the boundaries as the solo campaign does, they feel out of place and antiquated.

Far Cry 3 makes some impressive changes to reinvent the franchise and create an experience that is not afraid to address thematic issues many other games shy away from. Watching Jason both grow as an individual and succumb to the madness that infects the Rook islands adds significant weight to the actions Far Cry 3 asks players to undertake. Ubisoft asks us to consider whether we’re just as mad as the rest of the Rook Island natives. There’s still room for other games to execute more deftly on these same themes, but for now, Far Cry 3’s journey is easily compelling and even easier to recommend.