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.