So last time I spent most of the article whining that Far Cry 3 wasn’t Far Cry 2. And while that’s true, it’s not like the game is without merit. So I figured I’d spend part of this miniseries talking about what the game does well. To that end, I’ve attached the gameplay video above. What I love about this clip is that it’s 100% genuine – this wasn’t me setting up a planned event; this wasn’t take 43 of a series of attacks on this same base; this isn’t a highly edited and cobbled together “best of” compilation. It’s just me recording the taking of one random outpost (and a few humorous bits shortly thereafter).
And yet, aside from its stop-and-go pacing, it feels a bit like a promo video, doesn’t it? It highlights a variety of weapons and deployables, shows off unpredictable animal AI and the fact that enemy AI will call for reinforcements, and demonstrates several of the “we’re sticking to the first person perspective” tricks like the roll out of the car… it feels like a trailer trying to show off features. It’s a testament to the utility of the tools they’ve provided the player – every one of them useful in some capacity, and every one of them is interesting in some capacity.
The game may not care for memorable, accidental emergence like Far Cry 2 but it does so in the service of giving players the ability to express themselves in the game space however they want without interference from the game itself. Far Cry 2 is like Kid Pix – it gives you tools that are intentionally imprecise and faulty and the result is normally a beautiful mess that’s a compromise between the artist and the system. Far Cry 3 is more akin to Photoshop – a tool of precision and exacting specification where skilled players can take on a task however they see fit and make it work. Short of maybe Dishonored it’s the best game of this kind I’ve played all year.
Ubisoft Montreal has taken pretty much the entire library of weapons from Far Cry 2 and refined them down to instruments of the player’s will rather than implements of chaos. (The only notable exception I’ve found so far was the Fortune Pack’s double barreled shotgun, which is sorely missed for its heft and power but not so much for its utility.) The result is markedly more engaging for all play types than Far Cry 2 could ever be. To get anything of substance out of Far Cry 2 you needed to be willing to experiment with goofy loadouts and intentionally handicap yourself to trigger the most interesting mechanics or see some of the design’s hidden beauty. Far Cry 3 has no such restrictions – the game is as engaging and joyful to play with a genre-standard pistol and a sub-machine gun as it is to play with a flare gun and a bow. This (along with getting rid of the respawning checkpoints) is the lynchpin of what makes Far Cry 3 more approachable than Far Cry 2. There’s no “making your own fun” here – the entire system is littered with engaging play styles and activities. Indeed, it’s hard not to enjoy one’s self even in the most pedestrian of loadouts.
Of course, the vibrant tropical location helps.
I take it as a hopeful sign that we’ve reached the end of the grimdark gunmetal aesthetic that has plagued the medium for so long when even recent shooters have begun to eschew drab industrial desaturation. See: Borderlands 2, Halo 4, Dishonored, Tribes: Ascend, Planetside 2. And thankfully you can count Far Cry 3 among the ranks of 2012 shooters with brilliant (and in this game, I dare say bold) color palettes. The colors are almost super saturated – I suspect to give the whole game a surreal (and distinctly video game like) sense about them. Far Cry 2 was a little on the brown-and-grey side: ramshackle huts and adobe houses made of mud set against a savannah in the midst of the dry season’s drought. It wasn’t colorless, but it was aimed at being drab and dreary. Far Cry 3 takes the tropical settings of the first Far Cry and pumps them up with colors that pop off the screen as if to say, “You want a green forest? You can go to outside and get a green forest. How about an emerald encrusted veridian paradise etched from the jade heart of an envious lime treefrog dipped in guacamole?” The same could be said of the crystalline water, NPC clothing, or radio tower status lights.
Really, it feels like it takes a lot of its cues from Burnout Paradise’s attempts at using color as iconography for differentiating game objects. Where Team Fortress 2 used shapes and silhouettes, these games use RGB values – harsh reds and yellows to signify enemies that stand out from the crowd, green to inform the player of vegetation they can hide in, crystal blue water to dive away from enemies or to use as a stealthy approach, baby blue wife beaters to indicate allies. Even the flora is divvied up not by plant species but by color. The game uses color as a language to describe mechanics to the player, and it works quite well – offering players a way of immediately identifying what an object is and how they need to interact with it even from a distance.
And really, that’s what makes the game look so darned good. Color aside the main characters are sort of boring looking – especially the friends you have to save. Arguably this is intentional (but we’ll get back to that later), but the result is a bunch of boring pseudo realistic looking characters dressed in rote standard pirate/mercenary/tribal/’civilian’ outfits. But each of them tends to have one or more items that glows with a color that reveals their true purpose, and in that way the game paints not a picture of a jungle in chaos but of a game and its state. It’s utilitarian art design, but it also looks gorgeous.
Finally, as long as we’re bringing up the best the game has to offer, I can’t avoid talking about Vaas. Here’s a clip from the very beginning of the game:
There’s a reason Vaas is constantly discussed by players and marketing alike while, say, Hoyt or Buck aren’t mentioned much. He’s the clear standout character, performed with a detached menace and emotional instability that work wonders for the subject matter of the game. As people have said in the comments here and elsewhere: he feels like people you’ve known – or at least an exaggeration of people you’ve known. Self esteem issues that manifest in a short temper and an inability to not take things personally coupled with family drama and hint of meglomaniacal entitlement. People have compared him to Ledger’s turn as The Joker – but while there’s a lot of the manic mood shifts and impulsive violence that made Ledger’s Joker so threatening, Vaas doesn’t have the air of mystery Joker does. While you only interact with him a few times throughout the game you get enough hints to piece together most of his backstory – or at least enough to infer it. Interestingly he’s set up not to mirror the player but to mirror Jason, the player character. The game makes a pretty big deal out of separating the two – but thematic stuff can wait for the next part of the series. Suffice it to say that by linking Jason’s story with Vaas’ story in a number of ways it allows even a sociopathic murderer to come off as somewhat sympathetic by the end (especially once you’ve beaten the game).
But regardless of whether you think he skews too far towards the Joker or is a mirror image of Jason there’s no denying that he’s a character that excels at eliciting responses from players. He is in turns horrifying, tragic, antagonistic, sadistic, and cautionary. The player may be given adequate reason to hate Hoyt and Buck, but the emotional stakes simply aren’t there the way they are with Vaas. Which speaks volumes about the power inherent in motion and voice acting given that the character was created out of the blue pretty much on the basis of Michael Mando’s audition alone and none of the “planned” characters come anywhere close to feeling as real or as threatening. He was so successful they not only made box art based on the character but an entire series of live action shorts where Michael Mando tortures Christopher “McLovin from Superbad” Mintz-Plasse.
And it’s not every day I can say I’ve played a gorgeous game with memorable and emotionally affecting characters in a game that’s perhaps the second best at allowing for player expression this year. So it’s not like the game’s an unplayable mess – in fact, it’s pretty gosh darn fun for whatever goodwill that word buys you. But we’ve already established what thematic elements it’s removed from Far Cry 2 – so what, if anything, has the game replaced them with, and how successful were they? We’ll tackle that in the third and final segment.
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