This fall season has seen the release of several high-profile first-person shooters in the latest instalments of the Halo and Call of Duty franchises. Both are likely to break sales records, but neither is a good indicator of where the FPS genre as a whole is heading.
In a future where player choice and agency will be of paramount importance, the largely linear experiences continually being delivered by these two franchises will seem increasingly constrained and archaic. The genre is ripe and ready for a shakeup.
Far Cry 3, one of the best games of the year, may just be the game that does it.
It may sound hyperbolic, but the game really is that good. Although it's ostensibly the third entry in the series, Far Cry 3 is a brand new take with an entirely original story and participants. It propels the FPS concept forward in directions that have been tested in games such as last year's Rage and even hinted at in the likes of Call of Duty and Halo, but which have never been done as well or as comprehensively.
The destination is a future where FPS games are set in giant open worlds that can be roamed at the player's discretion. A well-crafted story with engaging characters lies at the heart of such a game, but its true beauty comes from a high level of agency afforded to the player where choices matter, and less a cramped and narrow storyline that is watched more than it is experienced. As the cherry on top, those choices come back to affect the main story in concrete ways. Put all that together and you have Far Cry 3 .
The game begins on a jovial note, with young Jason Brody and his friends partying it up in the Pacific paradise of the Rook Islands. One of them has just got his pilot's license, so the gang is whooping it up with drinks, jet-skiing and skydiving.
The mood changes quickly as we cut from the festivities to Brody and his brother Grant helplessly chained up in a bamboo cage, where the psychopathic Vaas Montenegro is verbally torturing them. It's clear that mohawked madman likes to play with his captives before he and his boss Hoyt Volker plan to ransom off back to the siblings' wealthy parents.
But Grant is former military, so he's able to engineer an escape for himself and his hapless brother. The duo creep quietly through Vaas's camp and, just when they think they've made it, a bullet zings the elder Brody in the neck. A frazzled Jason cradles his dying brother in his arms as the villainous psycho taunts him: "Run Forrest, Run!" And the frenzied hunt is on.
The first few hours of Far Cry 3 are impeccably tense. The unskilled Brody is clearly a bewildered fish out of water, a fresh-faced co-ed with no business in the wilds of a tropical island, much less fleeing from a demented psychopath and his goons. Not only are the bad guys out to get him, so are the wild boars, tigers and bears inhabiting the island. It's no wonder he's scared out of his wits.
Fortunately, he comes across help in the form of a mysterious man named Dennis Rogers and the indigenous Rakyat people. The Rakyat are at odds with Volker's invading forces, who want to use the island as their own private den of inequity, so Dennis offers to help Jason find and rescue his friends by giving him tips on how to survive the wilds and take on the villains. The innocent Brody thus begins a long journey, wherein he transforms from hunted into hunter.
Far Cry 3 is built around an archipelago of islands, with the main story taking place on two of the bigger ones. The islands are a giant open world, primed for exploration and discovery. Jason can get around by walking, but it's often more fulfilling to jump in an abandoned jeep or idling jet ski, or even better, one of the hang gliders lying around.
Exploring the beautifully lush islands is a jaw-dropping experience in and of itself. Booting up rivers on a motorboat often rewards you with astonishing waterfall views, or hidden caves where loot is stashed. Flying overhead on a hang glider, meanwhile, yields astonishing vistas of the entire archipelago, while the sound of wind soothingly rushes by. It's serene moments like these that you never want to end.
Eventually, Brody must come back down to earth and get his hands dirty. The main story has him searching for his friends, who have been captured by Vaas and are being kept in various locations. Discovering new sections of the islands also unlocks fast-travel options; while trekking around in vehicles is often breath-taking, it is sometimes nice to skip all that and get right down to business.
The main missions offer a wealth of variety, with Brody sometimes surreptitiously tailing Vaas' men, sometimes charging into their encampments all guns blazing, and on one occasion, torching drug fields with a flame thrower.
It's the rest of the open world, however, that is so excellent. Far Cry 3 takes some definite cues from Ubisoft Montreal's other big franchise, Assassin's Creed, in that it requires its protagonist to scale tall heights – in this case, creaky old radio towers – to open up new parts of the map. Doing so unveils enemy encampments, treasures and other hidden locations and items.
Climbing the towers is thrilling. No two are alike, aside from all being impossibly tall and, thanks to some amazingly realistic sound design, feel like they can fall over at any time. Once Brody has made it to the top, he can zipline down. Finding and scaling the towers also unlocks new weapons, which can be picked up at gun shops in the various villages.
The two islands are littered with fortified enemy camps patrolled by a number of armed guards. Before liberating any of these for the Rakyat, their immediate areas are relatively dangerous. With groups of goons patrolling around on jeeps, Brody must often dive into the bushes to avoid being spotted and gunned down.
Liberating the camps is easily the most fun part of the game. After scouting each out from a distance, the player must then decide how to proceed. Going in all guns blazing usually results in someone raising the alarm, at which point heavily armed backup arrives from another nearby outpost.
The smarter route, then, is to proceed quietly. Taking out guards in watchtowers with a silenced sniper rifle or bow before coming in close. Once Brody is in the camp, he can stalk guards individually, ideally taking them out one at a time. If stealth isn't your style, you can hop into a jeep, drive right into the middle of the camp and blast away with its gun turret. It's noisier, but it gets the job done just as well.
Perhaps the best way for to overtake these outposts is to let someone else – or more accurately, some thing else – do it for you. Vaas's men are just as sadistic as their leader, so many of them keep caged animals in their camps. Shooting the lock off one of these cages from a distance can instantly unleash an enraged tiger or bear into their midst. It's truly a hoot to watch them get mauled through your sniper scope.
Needless to say, not one of these camp liberations went the same as another for me, which was thrilling in its unpredictability.
Brody's transition from hunted to hunter, meanwhile, is both literal and figurative. While he starts with virtually no gear, his inventory is improved by hunting the islands' various animal inhabitants for their skins and pelts, which are then fashioned into ammo belts, wallets and backpacks. The improved goods allow him to carry more looted money, items and ammunition, all of which contribute to him becoming a better hunter – not just of animals, but of men.
Also helping in this regard is the experience system, where accomplishing tasks earns points that can be spent on skills. Brody can choose from new abilities, such as holding his breath longer to chaining knife kills together, all of which are manifested in an expanding tattoo on his left forearm. The advanced skills and gear reflect his growing ability as a hunter, as well as his growing penchant for revenge and violence.
Even some of the hidden collectibles strewn about the islands feed back into this evolution. As a former Japanese base during the Second World War, the Rook Islands are littered with the skeletons of long-dead Axis soldiers. By finding letters to loved ones on these bodies, Brody also unlocks new combat items.
All together, almost everything you do links back to the central theme of the game, which is the evolution of the protagonist into a warrior that is every bit as fierce – and perhaps crazed – as his two nemeses. While other open-world games such as Assassin's Creed offer plenty of side quests and distractions, few have made such seemingly unimportant options so integral to their main narratives.
Far Cry 3 culminates with several choices for Brody. Does he embrace his newfound wild side or does he try to go back to his old, innocent life? The story and characters are engaging enough to make you want to go back and replay it all over again, just to find out where the other path leads.
But wait, that's not all. If the engrossing story of Jason Brody weren't enough, Ubisoft Montreal also throws a fully-baked local and online co-operative mode in for good measure. In a completely separate story, up to four individuals can band together on the islands to pursue the captain of a ship who sold them out to pirates.
The mode is great fun that involves a variety of play modes. There are simple run-and-gun parts, while other sequences require one player to guard another while he or she places bombs on a bridge. There are also vehicle sections, including one where players race against each other on ATVs in a quest to clear their path of rubble.
With an enticing storyline of revenge at its heart, it's a co-op mode you'll want to see through to the end, which adds to the already deep and lengthy play time provided in the single-player campaign (I didn't count, but I must have spent 40 hours on it).
Far Cry 3 wouldn't be a proper first-person shooter without an online multiplayer option, so it's got that too. While not as fluidly-paced or well-polished as Call of Duty or Halo, the effort is serviceable, with players taking each other on in standard modes such as team death match and domination. It would have been nice to see the single-player campaign's vehicles incorporated here, but that's perhaps something to hope for in Far Cry 4.
Last but not least, the multiplayer mode also has a Halo-like editor, which lets players create and share their own maps. It's a very cool addition where you can easily create forests, lakes and other terrain within which to shoot it out. It's a safe bet that such editors will become standard features in first-person shooters going forward.
Far Cry 3 packs in an incredible amount of game. The excellently realized and incredibly deep single-player story will keep you occupied for a long time, with the co-op mode adding on to that considerably. If you're ever done with that, there's the endless tinkering possibilities of multiplayer and its map editor.
Not only is it the total package as far as shooters are concerned, it's also an excellent template for all such games going forward. Let's hope future games of the genre are this good.