If insanity really is “doing the same thing and expecting shit to change,” as Vaas, psychotic killer and mohawk-sporting poster madman of Far
Cry 3 suggested during last year's E3 trailer, then Ubisoft are certifiably sane.
Far Cry 3 looks like the original Far Cry. It's got the island setting, it's blessed with the same shimmering blue water and silvery-white sand. Again, you are a lone soul, marooned somewhere that wants to kill you, and again you've got a suite of skills to stop the place doing just that. But dig under the idyllic facade and you'll find something new, something infectious. Ubisoft want to do something different with their third free-roaming shooter, and as our unhinged friend Vaas would say, shit has definitely changed.
To understand the changes, it helps to appreciate the things that have stayed the same. Sitting in a conference room full of journalists in Ubisoft Montreal's labyrinthine offices, my first sight of Far Cry 3 being played certainly feels familiar.
Blue sky. White sand. Our first-person protagonist comes across the rusting carcass of a boat, stricken against the shore many years ago. A voice in his ear tells him he must get to the top of the boat – the Medusa – and deactivate a radio mast.
Guards mill around at beach level, patrolling and chatting. On the boat's russet-coloured deck, another set of men swing their AK47s around as they sweep their designated areas. There's a hole in the prow of the boat, large enough to fit through. The back of the boat falls away into the water, perhaps concealing another entrance. Behind our hero, on a bluff next to his starting position, is an opportune vantage point: stand there and you'd be free to survey the scene at leisure. A room full of gaming brains are whirring at once. We're all familiar with this kind of situation – gun in hand, task ahead – and we've all got our favourite resolutions.
This scene is Far Cry as we know it – a series of fighty vignettes that players can come at from hundreds of angles. There's freedom, there's choice, there's the potential for things to go violently and delightfully wrong. On the surface, there's no change.
Later, I'm shown a second mission. It starts on a hillside, in a glass-fronted potting shed occupied by a wild-eyed man flecked with white paint. This is Dr Earnhardt, and he wants the player to find him some mushrooms. Our hero makes his way down to a submerged cave at the bottom of a shallow hillside, his journey speeded up by handily placed ziplines. Gaining access to the cave requires a swim, but once inside there's no obvious threat. Getting the required mushrooms seems to be a case of pushing forward: the cave is winding but linear, and seems devoid of any kind of hostile life. Our hero brushes past some mushrooms – not the ones the doctor wants – and suddenly his vision swims. Colours change, light swells and fades. Trees and branches seem to grow from the cave's rock walls, and, strangest of all, that glass-fronted potting shed has made its way inside and is now hovering just out of reach. Approaching it causes it to retreat, leading our hero deeper into the cave, until he finds the requested mushroom and a secondary route to the outside world. When he went in, the island was lit by the midday sun; on exiting, it's midnight. It's only when he brings the mushroom back to Dr Earnhardt that I realise our hero had his gun holstered for the duration of the mission.
This kind of directed, linear adventure is new for the series. It's also worrying: Far Cry games are characterised by the freedom of approach they offer. But Far Cry 3's producer, Dan Hay, is certain that these heavily scripted sections will add to the game.
“I think the best way I can describe it is a palette cleanser.” Dan wouldn't commit to a ratio of these kinds of missions compared to more traditional firefights, instead describing the former as “something that every once in a while surprises you. You go down the rabbit hole and then you come back to the game and then you start to see: I'm going to do some weird stuff and then I'm going to get back to shooting.”
Back to the shooting. On board the Medusa, our hero crouches low, ducking through the rusted hole in the boat's hull. He takes the first guard by surprise, yanking a knife from his belt loop and inserting it in his clavicle. In one quick motion, he yanks it out and hurls it full-force at the dying man's colleague, who'd turned round to investigate the gurgling. Both collapse, and there's silence. But not for long. This version of Far Cry 3's protagonist quickly drops the subtle approach, retrieving an assault rifle from one of his conquests and sprinting up the stairs to the upper deck. He takes potshots along the way, firing ragged-sounding rounds from the hip at guards failing to coordinate a response. From up high, he's got a clear sight on the agitated enemies below, and leans over the deck to choose his targets. There's the hint of a cover system: our hero raises his gun when he's behind the sturdy railing, sighting it again when he pops up to fire.
With the main throng of enemies now gently bleeding on the floor, our hero is free to pop up to the crow's nest and activate the necessary MacGuffin. Doing so triggers another wave of baddies. Our hero makes his way down to a mounted gun, turning it against the boat's previous occupiers. Over the rhythmic thud of the .50 cal bullets hitting sand and flesh, I hear our hero shriek: “that's for my brother, you motherfuckers!” There's a genuine sense of pain in his voice.
Our hero isn't a hero – at least not the way we expect our shooter heroes to be. He's Jason Brody, college student and backpacker, the kind of guy you unfriend on facebook because he won't shut up about how he found himself in Thailand. But rather than finding himself, Brody and his friends are found by the aforementioned Vaas, doolally leader of a gang of human traffickers, and taken to Far Cry 3's island.
Ubisoft Montreal want Brody to be an everyman, thrust into an extraordinary situation. Escaping his captors, Jason's story becomes part revenge fantasy – the kind of “I could do better” thoughts we have during horror films when characters drop guns or split up to hide in attics – and part pure survival. Jason wasn't captured alone, and his friends weren't necessarily as lucky as he was in his escape. It's this that keeps him on the island, rather than trying to make a raft out of coconuts to escape the place, as Dan Hay explains: “The recipe for us is: Jason, remember your friends and find them.”
Dan describes Jason as “pretty urban, pretty normal.” Playing that guy – someone who'd fumble a grenade and blow his legs off, or leave the safety on during a shootout – would be frustrating. The Jason I was shown in the first of Far Cry 3's missions was able to clear out corridors with one clip of ammo, was able to take bullets and shrug their effects off. Jason is changing. Dan puts it in context: “if he was to call his mom at the beginning of the game, she'd say 'my boy is safe, everything is good.' But if he was to survive this, she would hear something different in your voice, she'd know he'd been through something, and she'd recognise him as a different person.”
That change isn't necessarily of Jason's own volition. Dan suggests that instead, it's the island changing Jason. “Jason's got a tattoo. [A Polynesian-style set of symbols down his left arm.] Where did it come from? He didn't arrive on the island with it. The story of the island is being etched on his body.”
In game terms, Jason's growth means a wider range of ways to play. Killing enemies earns experience points, which in turn can be plugged into skills. Game designer Andrea Zanini wouldn't be drawn on many of these skills, but confirmed the knife-throwing double-takedown in the first mission I saw was the result of plugging these points into a specific place. You'll want to pick skills that augment the way you play: the knife-throw, for example, is ideal for players who want to get through the game without making a peep.
I asked Andrea if dedicated players could sneak through the entire game. His answer was careful: “We give you the choice to play how you want. If you want to play this mission stealthily, you can. But part of the theme and trying to survive on the island is keeping players on their toes. So every now and then we may switch it up. It's not, 'all of a sudden you're detected', but we increase that challenge level for you.”
Detection will be more organic than it was in Far Cry 2 – where laser-eyed eagle-people would spot you from a few miles over and lance you through the face with unerringly accurate sniper shots. Andrea elaborates: “We've completely rebuilt the AI, they're fully systemic and we really focused a lot on detection to make sure that it's clear to players when and where and why you got spotted.” The piqued interest of guards is now signified by a white circular pulse in the middle of the screen, with an arrow pointing in the spotter's direction. This system – demonstrated handily by a notably curious lizard chasing Jason down a hillside after he was eyeballed near its nest – looks both more forgiving and more sensible than Far Cry 2's inexplicable alternative.
The need to find his friends before Vaas and his cronies do their worst pulls Jason along through the story, but with an island's worth of secrets to find and places to explore, Dan gives players an excuse to put the main questline on hold for short periods. “After a while, you start to go a bit... wild. You start to go like the island is calling to you. This island made Vaas. And the question is, if you stay on it long enough, what's it going to do to you?”
Dan and his team speak of the island as a character as much as the humans that inhabit it. In the other Far Cry games, the world was important for its space, not its content. This time around, Ubisoft Montreal have worked at creating a place. Level design director Mark Thompson has some examples. “When you're on the Medusa there's a waterfall in the background. There's a little cave behind the waterfall.” Dan Hay picks up the thread: “In the pool underneath the waterfall there's something! You look around behind you to where Vaas is bringing in ships and stripping them.
What's in them? What do you have to swim down and find? What's he doing? Why?” Dan wiggles slightly at he describes one tiny section of his game from memory. Mark's got more details: “there are still old temples that can be found. The island was involved in World War II, so there's all that layer of history as well from that conflict. Then as the island was industrialised after the war, the western world came for its resources. They mined it, pillaged it, and when the resources dried up, they left again. There's all these layers of story that are embedded in the world. And the player is free outside of missions to just go off and explore. They'll find stories: the story of one soldier, or the story of a certain conflict.”
Vaas's madness isn't the only brand of lunacy the island breeds. Mushroom man Dr Earnhardt is under the influence of both his own brand of fungi fumes and the island, but it manifests itself in different ways. Where Vaas shoots anyone he doesn't like, Earnhardt paints his house white once a week – hence the white flecks on his skin. What an unusual man he is.
The island also has a native population, and unlike the previous game, not everyone wants to kill you. “In Far Cry 2 there wasn't a concept of a population,” Mark says. “We really wanted a living breathing world where not everyone was an enemy. I'm not going to turn a corner and see a suicidal jeep flying towards me. In Far Cry 3, perhaps it's going to be a friend. He's going to drive past and he's going to go to the village.”
Villages offer further distractions from Jason's quest to find his friends, providing a place for players to “go to the bar to drink, play poker with the locals, and hear about what's happening on the island.” The wilderness is still hostile, but it seems to have been dialled back from Far Cry 2's homicidal mania. The most obvious symptom of this change is the game's checkpoints. Infamously in Far Cry 2, enemy soldiers would respawn at the game's many crossroads. Far Cry 3 turns these into outposts. Once players have cleared one, it stays cleared, acting instead as a safehouse. Mark stresses the point:
“They're dead, they stay dead, you come back and it's yours.”
They'll also provide a bolthole for other useful friendlies: “Perhaps there's a store there, perhaps people come and start to live there, almost like a mini village. The pirates have lost their control, and they fall back a little bit. And the world around that area changes: you see more friends, you get more opportunities to do quests.”
The third and final mission I'm shown takes place on board a ship. Like the mushroom cave, it looks linear: small corridors and a heavy guard presence means Brody relies on his pump action shotgun to negotiate his way to his objective deep inside the vessel. The sequence ends with the discovery of a bomb and the slow sinking of the ship. As Jason swims to safety, he's on a one-way path. Light appears at the end of the tunnel – a way to safety – and a song starts up. It's timed to kick in as Jason's vision is greying out from lack of oxygen, orchestrated to give the moment the maximum emotional potency. “From time to time in the story, when we want to capture a certain emotion – put Jason through a certain experience, then we take more control,” says Mark.
It seems, by Vaas's metric, that Ubisoft aren't insane. They're working to change Far Cry, fixing mistakes in the previous games and directing players to avoid the failures that unbridled freedom can bring.
But even with all of its changes, Far Cry 3's developers would never be able to resist the lure of choice. It's in their bones. After the demonstration concludes, I ask Mark if there was any other way Jason could've played the final, apparently linear mission. Cheerfully, he tells me: “Definitely! You can stealth your way through the ship, for example. When you open the first door, a guy will turn around. Kill him silently, and then you can move through that room and kill everyone else in there without making a sound.”
As they'd say in Ubisoft Montreal's French-speaking home city, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same.