I'm calling it: Far Cry 3 is probably going to take Game of the Year. It's ambitious but approachable; satisfyingly challenging, yet still casually fun. It's an excellent game, and that's why I'm going to tell you all about ... why you shouldn't play it.
Listen: everybody and their mother is going to tell you all about the myriad awesome reasons you must play this game -- I'm even going to do that as well, right here at the bottom of this article -- but it is nowhere close to flawless, and some of those flaws that nobody is mentioning might absolutely break the game for you. They damn near did for me. I'm not saying that it's bad, or even anything short of good. I'm just saying: $60 buys a decent bottle of whiskey and a small python -- and, brother, if you can't figure out a way to have a hell of a lot of fun with a bottle of whiskey and a python, then some measly video game certainly isn't going to fix the giant black hole in your soul.
4A Huge, Beautiful, Dense, Forgettable World
Far Cry 3 is a very, very pretty game ... but it's no Skyrim.
Hear that? That's the sound of a thousand custom gaming keyboards being simultaneously hurled through a thousand 36" plasma monitors all across the world. Let me explain: graphically, Far Cry 3 is like little else you'll see this year. It's visually stunning -- jaw-dropping even. But that only matters to the people it matters to: high-end PC gaming nerds who not only understand what a v-sync is, but also have, on occasion, manually synced the v's when they found the official options lacking.
"Ugh. Look at those v's. Totally unchoreographed."
What most of us mean when we say a game is "pretty," or "looks amazing," is that it had a great designer. Whoever conceived of the things the graphics engine is modeling knew how to impress human beings, and it wasn't with sheer pixel count or dynamic sand integration: it was through setpieces. Skyrim wasn't graphically the best-looking game, but it had moments where the player would stumble onto a setpiece somewhere in the open world -- a mountain path framed so that the player came upon a dramatic overlook just as the aurora flared into life; a snowstorm that raged into existence just as a dragon launched from its cliffside perch; a beautiful sunrise just as your horse glitched into an eternal backflip and sent you clipping into the nether-dimension between mountains -- and it took your breath away. I'm not arguing that Skyrim was the prettiest game or anything (for my money, nothing's ever beaten Okami), it's just the latest, most prominent benchmark in design over raw computing power.
"But how can you say that? Look at the v's flying around, willy-nilly! It's hideous!"
Far Cry 3 is beautiful -- it's a technical marvel -- but the islands it takes place on feel empty and flat. They're neither of those things, of course: It's a densely-packed world, and the terrain does vary, but you get the feeling it all could've been randomly generated by a computer. There's no sense of place, as there is in less-impressive, but better-designed, worlds. You don't intrinsically understand a road or where it leads just by walking down it. Amanaki Village, the game's "hometown," is no Whiterun, and Rook Islands are no Liberty City. The world of Far Cry 3 is not technically inferior in any way, but it lacks cohesion and grandeur. You don't build a mental map of it like you would your own neighborhood, and you don't stop to marvel at the crumbling jungle temples or stepped waterfalls. Oh, sure, you'll memorize where things are, but that's familiarity, not intimacy. In short: you can build many houses out of the bones of the sharks you've hit with your jet ski, but it will never feel like home.
3A Story So Generic It Crosses Over Into Bad
Far Cry 3 does a few things remarkably well. The character designs are excellent. They all have a unique look, but it's accomplished through a series of subtle, simple details, rather than extravagant flair. Sure, fantasy and sci-fi games have more iconic or easily-distinguishable characters, but they get to slap giant swords and flaming panties on their characters. Far Cry 3 manages to stay well within the realm of realism, but it doesn't feel like every major NPC is just a palette swap of some enemy model. The solid designs are complemented by some pretty good voice work and motion capture. The speech patterns are distinct without being obnoxiously overwrought, and the characters all seem to move and carry themselves differently. When you first meet Dr. Earnhardt, the drugged-out island medic, you immediately notice the unfocused eyes and awkward, disconnected movements of a junkie. As opposed to say ... the unfocused eyes and awkward, disconnected movements of every single character in a Rockstar game.
"Ehh! Niko! I will hug you by karate-chopping your shoulders!"
Which is why it's a bit sad that they're all saddled with a story so bland and unoriginal that I'm pretty sure it was lifted from a Roland Emmerich film. It's so cliche that it actually crosses the line into offensive -- if only it could make you care enough to be offended by it. We start off with possibly the least-likable protagonist in the history of video games, Jason Brody, whose only previous work experience was as an Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirt tester. His distinguishing personality traits are "having white guy tribal tattoos" and "possibly wearing shorts." I know personality seems like an odd thing to focus on in a first-person shooter, where the protagonists are traditionally mute and essentially invisible to the player. But silent characters like Link, Master Chief, Samus and Gordon Freeman get their personalities from the people reacting to them, and the way people react to Jason Brody is to humbly cup his messianic balls for having the graciousness to show up on their savage, backward island with all of his beautiful whiteness.
Far Cry 3 Wiki
"Please! Save us from our island paradise! We know nothing of Homeland or 401ks! It's hell!"
Far Cry 3 adheres to the story archetype of the Aryan Savior, as previously seen in movies like Avatar and The Last Samurai. Jason Brody shows up on a tribal island to party with his white friends, assuming, by virtue of his birth, that the whole world belongs to him, and here's the game's narrative twist: it totally does! Rich, entitled white people rule, bro! After they get into some richly-deserved trouble, the natives take Jason in, instantly adopt him as the king of their warrior clan, and bestow their mighty native secrets onto him so that he, in his whiteness, might save them from the failings of their own society. If it sounds familiar, that's because it's the exact same plot structure as the British Colonial Empire.
"Thank you for saving us, Mighty Whitey!"
Now, to be fair, the lead writer for Far Cry 3 has gone on record as stating that this was intentional -- that they meant the game to be a kind of parody of these white-guy-saves-the-world stories. But at no point do you get that impression while playing. Yohalem, the lead writer, says the "clue" that you shouldn't be taking these cliches at face value is that the game starts with an Alice in Wonderland quote about going down a rabbit hole. Which is possibly the most cliched "you're about to go for one hell of a ride!" way to start any story this side of "we're not in Kansas anymore," or Sam Jackson's philosophically-complex "hold onto your butts." If you go into the game thinking it's a parody, you'll spend the entire runtime wondering when the turn is -- when it suddenly starts introducing new and novel observations that lay bare the framework of the hackneyed story you're accustomed to. But it never really happens. Repeating a cliche with an ironic tone of voice does not make it less cliche. That's what hipsters do, and it's why we feel justified in slapping the Kombucha Lattes out of their hands outside their pun-based coffee shops. Sometimes, irony is just a way of deferring responsibility for a subpar effort.
"Psh. I liked this place better before it got electricity and sold out."
Without getting into spoilers, supposedly the "bad" ending is the big plot twist that ties it all together -- but I've seen that ending. It plays out like another one of those "shit happens" moments that we've been getting in every single shooting game since CoD4:MW first nuked its protagonist. That kind of plot twist was powerful the very first time, but it loses something with repetition, and it's not jarring enough in Far Cry 3 to retroactively subvert all of the blatant tropes and banal cliches that came before it. I really hate saying anything negative about somebody else's creative work (especially since, from the Penny Arcade article, it does seem like Yohalem and his team were trying to do something worthwhile), so I'll just leave it at this: it is highly possible that I just don't get it. The same story can mean the world to one person, and nothing at all to another.
That being said, it is not only my job to over-analyze media, it is my curse -- it's the thing that has driven countless potential mates and the occasional impatient dog out of my life; it's the reason I can't enjoy Back to the Future anymore, and the reason the nickel arcade won't let me anywhere near the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles machine (something about screaming Freudian schema into the faces of any child foolish enough to play as Donatello) -- but I did not get anything out of Far Cry 3, save for that white people are way better at being your race than you, other races.