I woke up groggy and sweaty in my safe house, an island beat and delightfully deluded voices clamoring outside my hut. Kicking open my door and hauling my rocket launcher and silenced MP5 over my shoulder, I looked down at my map as the other villagers greedily snorted their cocaine and smoked their joints. They ignored me and continued their conversation.
“You’re looking good, girl.”
My destination set, I jogged past them and down the path out of the village. There, my trusty ATV was waiting for me. How many times did my story start like this? Far Cry 3 may be the last major release of this year, but it may prove the most memorable of 2012.
Today, I wasn’t looking to face Vaas, Ubisoft’s insanely violent villain. Instead, I followed the winding path up the hill to my favorite hang-glider. The yellow wings sprawled out in the setting sun and pointed lazily into the horizon. From here, I set another waypoint deep in the red on my map. In order to expand my grasp on the Rook Island sprawl, I had to unveil the landscape first. Selecting a radio tower icon, I took flight. Passing over a steep, cragged cliff face, I dove and gathered speed to make it over an expanse of shimmering sea water.
Night fell and I dropped to the ground and rolled into foliage. My glider collided softly with the trees I would use for cover as I approached the pirate encampment near the radio tower. Darkness shrouded the wooded area outside the pirate camp and my SLR camera let me capture the opposition I would face in the coming moments.
A shotgun, a sniper, an assault rifle: any of these could stand up to my MP5. Caution is a virtue Far Cry 3 had trained me in from the start. Enemies will quickly raise alarms or call for reinforcements if you don’t deal with them efficiently. Every engagement requires planning and speed. In this case, I snuck closer to disable the alarm system and line up a head shot on the overwatch sniper.
Despite your best intentions, things can often go wrong. In this case, the shotgunner turned tail and ran for reinforcements. As the jeep loaded with pirates sped towards me, I stood calmly in the road and switched to my RPG.
These are the moments that make Far Cry 3. Ubisoft Montreal has crafted a sprawling, gorgeous open world full of stories only the player can tell. What’s more, none of it is locked from you. From day 1, if you want to exterminate pirates, do it. If you want to race other islanders, do it. If you want to test your hunting skills, craft medicine, hunt for bounties, or even practice your hang-gliding, you can do it.
You want to fight a shark? Take your knife and dive in. It was the allure of an expanded inventory that had me swimming along a pearly white sand ocean bottom looking for the king of the sea, but the moments leading up to that showdown were nearly as compelling as the actual fight. Ubisoft and the team at their Montreal studio have redefined speed and mobility in a first-person game. Even stumbling over a short drop or diving into the warm salt water of the Pacific add to the immersion.
What’s more, aiming, turning, and more importantly shooting are tighter than any other first-person shooter in Ubisoft’s portfolio. This is better than I could have expected from the French publisher.
Even the skill trees develop in interesting and comfortable ways. If you want your home-brewed toxins to last longer, you have to learn and use the drugs frequently. If you want to become a master hunter, you’ll need to dedicate the time and patience to predatory walks that can quickly turn you into prey. Leveling up isn’t a chore, it’s a delight, no matter the activity.
Still, things aren’t perfect in the heat of this island paradise. To be frank, the protagonist and his cadre of trust-fund-wielding misfits are stupid as hell and suitably get themselves into trouble for it. Much marketed antagonist Vaas is colorfully crazy, but also a one-note fiend of violence and neuroses. When you’re tasked with retrieving your friends they reflect the harsh reality of their environment in desperation and cries for help. The voice behind your rifle laughs and predictably exclaims how awesome the last generic action set-piece was.
In one campaign sequence, players are instructed to shoot the pipes conveniently resting over a growing blaze of fire. You’ll quickly transition to an on-rails sequence where you fight off pursuing pirates with a grenade launcher. Far Cry 3‘s campaign hits all of the now-cliched beats because it has to, not because it wants to.
Instead, the bulk of Ubisoft’s masterful brush strokes are in the open-world, the moment to moment gameplay, and the push to eradicate the pirate menace. Far Cry 3‘s campaign isn’t so much a travesty as it is a speed bump on your road to Island domination.
If all this isn’t enough for you, there’s also a fully fledged multiplayer mode and a complete cooperative campaign. Four players can work together to hunt down a villainous captain who makes Francisco Schettino look like Santa Claus, or you could all just try to shoot each other instead. Competitive multiplayer modes on hand here might not have the staying power of a Call of Duty or a Halo (blasphemous, I know), but they serve as a welcome distraction and an excellent use of the shooting mechanics built in here.
Far Cry 3 improves and expands on everything the series has offered so far. The sprawling open world, drop dead gorgeous environment, and freedom of moment to moment choice make for an experience everyone has to try at least once. It can grow harder and harder to justify the praise heaped on mega franchises like these, but Ubisoft makes it easy by fixing what’s broken and building out what’s already amazing.
Early in the campaign, the few friends you’ve rescued begin to repair a boat for escape from the Rook Islands and the insanity they’ve found there. As I climbed an adjacent hill and looked out over the expanse of tropical beauty and excitement around me, I dreaded continuing the campaign. I dreaded the day that boat began to pull away from the island. I decided my friends could wait. I was still having too much fun.