After exploring the African wilderness in Far Cry 2, Ubisoft decided to return to an island paradise with Far Cry 3. There's a bit of mysticism, but the heavy sci-fi aspect of the first game is gone. In its place is a story of drug-running pirates, a local resistance force and an unlikely hero. All of this is set in an open-world environment that pretty much allows you to explore at your own pace.
Starting off much like a feature film, Far Cry 3 tells the tale of a group of friends who are vacationing in paradise. That vacation takes a turn for the worse when they're kidnapped and held for ransom. Jason and his brother Grant make a break for it, but Grant is shot in cold blood by the maniacal pirate Vaas. Running through the jungle, Jason barely escapes.
The role of the reluctant hero isn't new, but Far Cry 3 puts it to good use. Since you play as Jason, having the character be an "everyman" rather than a trained military commando works well. The opening series of missions serves as a tutorial and walks you through the basics of combat. As soon as you complete those first steps, the game opens up, and the path you take is entirely up to you.
It's that freedom of choice that really makes Far Cry 3 shine. If you want to rush through the story missions, you can. If you prefer to explore the island, go right ahead. Feel like hunting? Not a problem. Just want to rush head-on into the pirate's den? That's an option as well. It's difficult to put a number to the amount of content available here. If you decide to do it all, Far Cry 3 will keep you busy for hours.
Although the order in which you do things is up to you, the decisions you make have a noticeable impact on the island, as the different systems interact with one another. For example, when you take out a pirate stronghold, it clears the immediate area of their influence. This makes it safe for you to wander around and explore. It also provides you with a safe house, which doubles as a fast travel point.
If you choose not to clear out a base, then the pirate presence in the local area will be noticeably stronger. They will patrol the roads and pursue you if you're spotted. Not everyone you encounter is an enemy, so you do need to be aware of your surroundings.
Animals are an important part of Far Cry 3 because they provide the necessary materials to craft item upgrades. They can also double as potent weapons if you use them correctly. For example, in one area, we slid down a cliff and ended up trapped behind a guarded outpost. A carefully thrown rock attracted a komodo dragon that attacked and killed one of the pirates. In another area, an antagonized leopard was used to distract a pirate stronghold. On the more whimsical side, we scored an achievement for killing a shark with a jet ski.
On top of the more traditional activities, Far Cry 3 also offers up poker, racing and sharpshooting. Playing the cards can be a decent way to make some extra scratch should you find yourself in need. There are also collectibles to track down, which reveal some of the island's storied history.
Visually, Far Cry 3 looks sharp, if a bit oversaturated. Running natively at 720p on the Xbox 360, the game looks like it's pushing the limits of the hardware. Though we never had complaints about the frame rate, Far Cry 3 does suffer from visual tearing. It's not enough to detract from the experience, but it is noticeable.
Ubisoft's level designers did an excellent job with the geography of the islands in Far Cry 3 as what's here both feels natural and looks beautiful. In your first time through the game, you'll want to find a high vantage point (or a hang glider) to take it all in. A regular day/night cycle and a dynamic weather system add to the beauty.
Outside of the main game, Far Cry 3 supports both competitive and co-op multiplayer options. The competitive multiplayer is fairly straightforward, though it makes one big stride that most console games don't manage — it has a fully featured map editor. Manipulating the landscape will feel familiar to anyone who played From Dust; the land even deforms in the same manner.
Summary bars at the top of the screen keep track of memory usage, the number of objects in use and the estimated performance of the map. Designers have access to a number of settings including buildings, weapons, weather and more. You can drop into your map for a test run at any time. Once perfected, custom maps can be uploaded and shared. While the relative size is small (you're not going to be making anything on the scale of the single-player world), the sheer amount of customization is impressive. It'll be interesting to see what the community can produce.
In keeping with the "kitchen sink" approach, Far Cry 3's co-op option has nothing to do with the single-player adventure. Rather than try to force a second character into a single-player narrative, co-op presents you with a completely separate campaign. It's focused on action and set six months before the main story. Two players can jump into co-op locally via split-screen, while four can do co-op over Live. Oddly enough, you can't play the co-op missions solo, so if you want to check them out, you'll need to track down a friend.
Packed with content, visually stunning and simply fun to play, it's difficult to find fault with Far Cry 3. Once you step into Jason's shoes, the urge to explore takes over, and you'll find yourself wasting hours wandering the island and trying to complete "just one more objective." Don't say we didn't warn you.
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