Far Cry 3 Review: Entertainment for a Price

Far Cry 3 is a virtual playground for hunting, climbing, shooting, stabbing and looting. In contrast to its predecessor, the nuisances of realism do not apply in Far Cry 3. All that matters is whether you have fun.

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

Just so we’re all on the same page, I’m part of the cult that really liked Far Cry 2. So while I’d like to review Far Cry 3 as a separate entity, the reality is that I can’t separate my feelings about these two very different games.

Far Cry 2 was like cinéma vérité in video game form. Guns broke down over time. Fast travel was not an option, so traversing the African landscape meant battling through roadside checkpoints or sneaking around them in the tall brush. Just to keep players even further on edge, the game stretched save points apart by dangerous distances, and threw in an occasional bout of malaria.

By most video game standards, these were inconveniences. But what emerged was a feeling of being in a dog-eat-dog world, where everyone was implicated in the moral quagmire–even the player, as game critic Iroquois Pliskin once noted. Far Cry 2 felt real, but it was not always entertaining, so it polarized critics. No wonder its sequel takes a much different path.

Far Cry 3 is a virtual playground for hunting, climbing, shooting, stabbing and looting. In contrast to its predecessor, the nuisances of realism do not apply in Far Cry 3. All that matters is whether you have fun. And chances are, you will.

The game puts players behind the eyes of Jason Brody, an initially wimpy and spoiled twentysomething whose island vacation is ruined by slave-selling bandits, who take Brody and his crew for ransom. A hair-raising escape sets the stage for Brody’s re-awakening as a sort of island warrior, who becomes one with the jungle and at ease with spilling bandit blood.

The plot is not very good, but let’s set that aside for a minute.

The main attractions in Far Cry 3 are its gorgeous island setting and its clever approach to combat. Seeing as this is the jungle, the game encourages players to skulk around in the bushes, marking their prey and silently taking out enemies one-by-one. If you can get close enough to a bandit, all it takes is the press of a button, and Brody unleashes a deadly knife attack, dubbed the “Takedown.”

Jared Newman / TIME.com

The beauty of this attack lies in the way it breaks from tired stealth gaming tropes. It matters not whether the enemy is on alert, or looking in the player’s direction. As long as there’s an element of surprise involved–say, the player leaps out from behind a tree–the Takedown prompt will appear. With time, players can unlock even more elaborate versions of this attack, allowing them to chain a few quick kills together or begin a Takedown from midair. The rush of a successful attack doesn’t get old by the time the game is done.

Players have an incentive to be stealthy, because noisy kills attract enemies and can raise alarms that call in even more reinforcements. But whether by accident or by sheer bravado, full-on firefights are inevitable. Here, Far Cry 3 takes the role of a more traditional shooter, but it’s a solid one with a wide selection of firearms and enemies that do their best to sneak up on you and avoid getting shot in the process. I played on medium difficulty, and felt properly motivated to thin the enemy lines and disable alarms before falling back on guns and ammo.

Far Cry 3 asks players to split their time between the story missions and the open playground of Rook Island. While the story brings the most excitement–prowling through creepy ruins, or setting a marijuana field on fire, to name a couple of examples–it behooves players to explore the island on their own. There are towers to climb, enemy outposts to conquer and wild animals to hunt. Players can race around in rickety island vehicles, or go searching for ancient loot and letters that reveal some of the island’s history. Most of these activities provide a direct benefit to Brody, such as free weapons, checkpoints for instantaneous travel and the raw materials for crafting medical syringes or inventory slots.

I wish these side activities had a bit more depth. Hunting, for instance, is a shallow experience that consists of moving slowly to the general vicinity of an animal, then opening fire. Syringe mixology is so straightforward that it feels like busywork, and the benefits are often too fleeting to be of much use anyway. At times, exploring the island feels more like an obligation than a welcome respite from the story.

Usually, though, it’s easy to waste hours in the wilderness, leaving the story on hold as you find other things to do. And although Far Cry 3 offers competitive and cooperative multiplayer, they feel too much like bland derivatives of other games. It’s much more enjoyable to dive back into the main game, even if it’s just for the childlike pleasure of bounding through the forest.

It’s just too bad the plot fails to tie everything together. Far Cry 3 is too quick to rely on cheap stereotypes for its friendly island natives–I like Jim Sterling’s remark that it ‘veers dangerously into ‘Mighty Whitey‘ trope territory”–and Brody and crew’s dialog is saturated with eye-rolling lines. (The lone exception is Vaas, the game’s central villain, whose profanity-laced spitfire dialog is far more interesting than what Brody and friends have to say.)

Jared Newman / TIME.com

Far Cry 3 also tries, unsuccessfully, to turn the mirror back on its players, asking them to confront their violent urges. This might have worked if the game was convinced of its own argument, but too often the tone in Far Cry 3 waffles between a terrifying survival story and an over-the-top B-movie where not even the characters are taking it too seriously.

The story does have its moments. Both the opening escape sequence and the first time Brody rescues one of his friends convey some raw fear, which Far Cry 3 could have run with. But the game quickly and routinely casts this tone aside in favor of scenes from the Uncharted/Indiana Jones playbook. It’s not uncommon for characters to express spine-tingling terror one moment, and exchange witty banter the next. The jarring tonal shifts make the occasional commentary on Brody’s violent rebirth all the more hamfisted.

Still, there’s one subtle moment where Far Cry 3 drives its message home — maybe not even on purpose: It’s when you’re hunting wild game, seeking their skins to help Brody carry more gear. The defenseless goat wails as it makes a futile dash for safety, Brody running the animal down and plunging the knife in, a deep and ominous bass tone droning in the background. It has to be done, but it doesn’t feel right.

That sad and beautiful moment, where the horror of your actions is implied rather than spoken — oddly enough, it’s a lot like playing Far Cry 2.

And then Brody ruins it as he stuffs the skin into his napsack, saying, “Ugh. Disgusting.”

Score: 3.5 out of 5, reviewed on PC