Far Cry 3 is a delightful and harsh tropical wonderland, crawling with wildlife and threatened by the pirates and drug runners that disrupt its peace. The troubled paradise you explore is colorful and wild, enticing you to investigate its ravines and discover new ways to enjoy the open-world playground sprawling in front of you. This is a game that ignites the desire to complete every last challenge and check out every last icon on your map. You gradually journey across the entirety of two sunny and sinful islands, hunting for rare game, speeding medicine to needy communities, and skinning sharks so that you might craft new wallets with their hides. Far Cry 3 is an excellent game, marred mainly by some irritating design elements and an inconsistent story that often defaults to generic "tribal" cliches to make an impact.
When the story leaves those cliches behind for deeper territory, however, it does manage to communicate ideas of substance. It takes many hours for its themes to come together in a coherent way--yet in certain aspects, the incoherence makes sense. As protagonist Jason Brody, your initial quest to rescue your friends from a chaotic and truly frightful pirate named Vaas turns into a personal journey blurred by drugs, and fueled by the desire to follow a new and exciting spiritual path. Those friends are too shallow for you to care much about them, which keeps the story at arm's length for a good half of the game. But his friends' shallowness ultimately allows Jason to take a guilt-free look inward, as he grows further mesmerized by the customs of the local Rakyat tribe that takes him under its wing. You might see the narrative curveballs coming after a while, but the trippy manner in which certain events unfold effectively blurs the lines between reality and Jason's occasionally drug-addled imagination.
Nonetheless, narrative oddities stand out. Some of Jason's friends are strangely unaffected by the horrors inflicted upon them. The game quickly glosses over an event that would make most of us emotional wrecks, making Jason's proclamations that the issue was harder to deal with than he expected ring hollow. Some moments seem made to be shocking for the sake of shock alone--not because they develop the world or its characters--but Far Cry 3 isn't so much about story as it is about its world, and the ways you exploit it for your own personal enjoyment. Story missions have you navigating caves and holding off enemies in modern shooter fashion, but out in the wild, you have an entire paradise to tame.
And it's that lush and menacing world that makes Far Cry 3 utterly enthralling. The game is big, certainly, but where Far Cry 2 could feel aimless, its sequel feels more focused without ever losing its sandbox appeal. One core activity may sound familiar to returning fans: you shoot up enemy outposts so that you may liberate them, turning them into safe zones where you can load up on ammo and other supplies. These camps also serve as quick-travel points, lessening the tedium of driving from one objective to the next. Early on, freeing an outpost can be remarkably easy: you shoot down a handful of pirates, and the flag is raised declaring the camp as the Rakyat's. Further in, however, you must put Far Cry 3's diverse possibilities to intelligent use.
One consideration: you must be aware of an outpost's alarm. Should a pirate trigger it, reinforcements arrive in a matter of seconds, so you might want to sneak in and deactivate the alarm system. Or, you could snipe the individual alarms, though shooting one does not deactivate others. Caged leopards and bears can be freed with a single shot, granting you a temporary ally in your quest for vengeance. Consider using a C4 charge and luring a small group of pirates to an explosive demise, or using a flamethrower to char evil henchmen to a crisp. That same flamethrower can lay waste to vegetation and effectively create moats of fire that can keep combatants at bay. (Well, some combatants, anyway.) Near the end of the game, your foes can put up quite a fight, and be great in number, so Far Cry 3 doesn't just give you the tools to be creative; it ultimately demands you use them to survive.
You don't have to conduct your business so loudly and dramatically, however: Far Cry 3 gives you ample opportunity to be stealthy and sometimes outright requires it. Forced stealth, such as that seen in a later-game mission that fails you the moment you are discovered, isn't that enjoyable. Fortunately, sneaking about is usually a blast, because it pays off in a brutal takedown of your unsuspecting target. Such moments are even greater once you have earned certain powerful abilities, such as the one that allows you to assassinate a pirate and toss a blade into another's skull in a single, effortless move.
Liberating outposts is only one of many activities to pursue in Far Cry 3. To reveal more of the map and gain access to free weapons, you climb radio towers and hack their transmitters. The entire concept is clearly inspired by the Assassin's Creed series, and no wonder, considering both games were created by the same development studio. First-person platforming is a frequent frustration in shooters--but Far Cry 3 makes it a delight. The tower creaks and groans as you climb ladders, make a few well-timed leaps, grasp some ledges, and ultimately arrive at the pinnacle. After you make a few hardware adjustments to the transmitter, the camera zooms to several points of interest, and you can make a breathless descent to the ground via zip line.
There's so much more out there: hunting missions that give you a bow and arrow or a shotgun, perhaps, and send you after rare creatures. You can jump on an ATV or behind the wheel of a truck for a timed medicine run that showcases Far Cry 3's bouncy vehicles--and how they respond authentically to the bumpy terrain. Some challenges compare your performance to other players via the game's online leaderboards; others require you to murder a specific target using your knife. These activities are tied together in smart ways, with one task often leading you to another hunting challenge, a vehicle to race, or even a cave to investigate.
Mix in a vast array of role-playing elements, and you have a fully featured single-player game that lasts upward of 35 hours or more, depending on how much you want to do. Kills earn you experience, which in turn earns you upgrades (such as more health bars) and new skills (kill an enemy from the ledge beneath). Corpses and chests can be looted for cash and saleable items; you then buy new weapons and maps, and can replenish ammo at safe houses. Out in the wild, you collect plant life of various kinds so that you can fill syringes with meds that heal you, make you less vulnerable, or enhance your senses.
Some of those enhancements make it easier to hunt wildlife, which is not only a fine pastime in itself, but also rewards you with skins and hides, which you cut from their corpses in properly squeamish fashion. Expect your quarry to put up a fight, though; tigers apparently don't enjoy being riddled with bullets and set on fire. Wild animals are more than just targets, however: they are also part of the world's ecology. Leopards attack boars, leaving behind their carcasses for you to loot, and scaring off the remainder of the herd. You might merrily waltz into a run-down shack seeking loot, only to have a couple of Komodo dragons wander in and sink their teeth into you. Such moments lend Far Cry 3 an air of unpredictability; you feel like anything could happen--and that whatever it is, you'll probably end up bleeding from it.
A game doesn't have to be great just because it gives you a lot to do, but Far Cry 3 is good at most everything it does. There are a wide variety of guns to shoot, and each weapon feels properly hefty and powerful. Vehicles are fun to drive, but feel just rickety enough to remind you that you're speeding through the jungle in a run-down jalopy, not zooming along a highway in a Ferrari. Various quirks can get you frustrated, though. Certain missions feature respawning enemies, which can put a damper on things, especially when you see a small crowd of pirates spawn in plain sight. Dying and respawning at a checkpoint to find all the enemies you killed still alive, yet all the ammo you used to shoot them depleted, is frustrating, as is the game's occasional failure to sense that you're holding down the button that heals you. A phone call that drives you to the next story mission might repeat again, and again, and again. Far Cry 3 is wonderful when it gives you free rein…but not always when it tries to direct the action.
On the PC, the online DRM can also be a hassle, as the game can crash should the servers go down, even while playing the offline campaign. But most of these annoyances are minor blights in a game that does so much, and does it so well. Far Cry 3 is an impressive piece of technology that showcases large portions of its landscape at once, though PC owners need a powerful system to enjoy the vistas at their most glorious. The rolling hills and stone temples invite you onward, yet this modern Eden is defaced by dilapidated shacks and military compounds. The difficulties of this spoiled promised land are reflected in the behaviors of its inhabitants. Vaas' unhinged rants, Buck's dismissive cruelty, and Dr. Earnhardt's hallucinogenic ramblings all speak to the troubles that cloud the sunny skies above.
Far Cry 3 rounds out a sizable and quality campaign with a series of cooperative missions that have up to four players shooting enemies and completing objectives. With only two players, certain encounters can get frustrating, and gunning down bullet-absorbing heavies can be a real slog. But when the action comes together, the impactful gunplay shines, even if the more-structured levels might have you missing the freedom of the open island. Competitive multiplayer doesn't feature many surprises during the course of the match, though the back-and-forth action of Firestorm mode, in which teams try to set fire to each others' supply depots while protecting their own, gives rise to tight battlefield tension.
Outside of matches, character progression is home to some intriguing twists to the usual array of expected features. One twist is decoding, in which you earn electronic objects (CDs, memory cards, etc.) after completing matches, and then decode them--an automated process that takes place over a few minutes or longer. Another is the battle cry, which provides a bonus (such as a health boost) to you and nearby teammates.
The good times are even further extended by Far Cry 3's impressive multiplayer map editor, which makes it relatively simple to bring your ideas to fruition. You could lose many hours to this one feature, let alone the game's other facets, all of which make this one of the most robust shooters on the market. Yet Far Cry 3's bigness isn't a detriment: you rarely feel that the game's size led to individual elements suffering from a lack of attention or detailing. Stretches of unpredictable exploration and free-form hunting alternate with challenging pirate confrontations, sometimes culminating with a rocket blast to the helicopter hounding you from above. This is an ambitious and finely tuned adventure that gets better and better as you play.