Far Cry 3: where the insanity lies

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Far Cry 3 is a disappointment. It is not the game it could have been or should have been nor does it deserve the perfect and near-perfect scores it has gotten from mainstream game review sites.

Let’s talk a little franchise history. I bought Far Cry 2 back in 2008 under the false pretense that it was made by the same folks as Crysis which I had an absolute blast playing. It wasn’t.

The Far Cry series was begun in 2004 by Crytek but Far Cry 2 was an Ubisoft product. Apparently the Crysis series was enough for Crytek so they sold the IP. Consequently I was initially very disappointed with Far Cry 2. It didn’t feature anything like the highly empowering Nanosuit of Crysis. It wasn’t even very much like the original Far Cry. In fact, none of the Far Cry games relate to each other at all. They don’t even seem to be set in the same fictional universe.

Over time, Far Cry 2 grew on me despite some glaring annoyances with the game design like the infamous respawning enemy outposts, guns that would jam on you at exactly the worst moment possible, the very limited fast-travel system, and the bland, repetitive mission design. Far Cry 2 was trying to be something that no other shooter was. Its themes were ambitious. Its immersive design was laudable but problematic. But I kind of like the game. I even surprised myself by playing it twice through.

Far Cry 2 was good and different enough to get me interested in the potential of a sequel. My excitement for Far Cry 3 grew when I heard director Dan Hay talk about the themes and story arc this game would tackle. Even better: they understood many of the complaints about the previous game and were taking steps to rectify them! This was going to be awesome: a beautiful open-world shooter with a dark storyline about the protagonist’s descent into insanity.

I wish they’d made that game. They got halfway there. Some of it works. Far Cry 3 is a good game, but like its predecessor, its design and storytelling flaws keep it from being a very good or great game. And it could have been.

Gameplay Flaws

Far Cry 3’s gameplay issues are particularly frustrating because some of them aren’t terribly difficult to fix. There are a lot of interesting new gameplay ideas the game brings to the table. Some of them work. Some are a mixed bag. Some are just plain bland. Others only weigh down the game.

There are, for example, the usual collection of time-wasting minigames you find in open-world games. You can do various kinds of challenges: knife-throwing, sharpshooting, poker, time trial racing, etc. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before in sandbox games. These don’t make the game worse by any means, but I find them all to be pretty resoundingly “meh.” I could honestly do without all of them.

Strangely there are some irritating control issues which is a problem Far Cry 2 didn’t have. The game is pickier than it should be about where you need to point your crosshair in order for certain context sensitive actions like getting into vehicles, opening doors, and looting bodies to become available. This is particularly annoying when looting bodies. You’ll be doing that quite a lot for cash and items. Often enemies will have dropped their weapons near them and you’ll have to look in just the right spot for the loot action to become available while also avoiding looking at their weapon. Many times I picked up the weapon by accident. It would have been better if you looted people by just walking over them. That’s how you pick up ammo. If your ammo is full you just don’t pick anything up. It could have been the same for items too. Nothing is gained by having to go around to every body, hunt for just the right spot, and watch a 3 second animation of Jason’s hands frisking the corpse.

Most interactions like this are done by pressing and holding keys (I’m of course playing on PC because I’m a PC snob). Why? Why can’t we just tap the key? Why do we have to hold the button? It takes longer for your actions to register this way. This might seem like a really petty nitpick, but it isn’t. It actively degrades the experience of playing the game.

An example: to heal yourself you hold the Q key. Here’s how that goes. I’m in the heat of battle. Moving, shooting, reloading, and – hey – look at that! My health’s nearly gone. Guess I’ll just hold Q to heal myself. Oh dang. I’m dead.

In the extra split-second between how long a button press and a button hold take to register I was killed. A lot. I died many, many times with my finger depressing the Q key. This was very, very frustrating and there is no reason it needed to be this way.

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Speaking of death: it’s really irritating in this game because of the save system. Most of the time the game will let you save anywhere and anytime. If you’re on a mission, the game reverts to a checkpoint save system. That’s fair enough, I suppose. It’s annoying, but I can understand why that choice was made. What’s frustrating is that saving anywhere outside of missions will save your progress but not necessarily your location. When you load the game again, you will start at the fast-travel point closest to where you saved. Why? There is no good reason for this.

Sometimes when you die you’ll reload near where you died and sometimes you’ll reload at the closest fast-travel location. I couldn’t exactly figure out how the game decided which it was going to do so I was wondering were I was going to come back after ever single death.

Open world games do this a lot and I hate it in every single one of them. For some reason it seems more annoying and offensive in a first person shooter. In a game with such a large world to explore and so many ways to approach a fight, this save system discourages experimentation which is a shame.

There’s no quicksave option either. Far Cry 2 had it in the PC version but not the console version. Lately it seems like the limitations of consoles have intruded upon PC gaming more and more. Quicksaving is a simple feature to include. I understand the argument that it takes the tension of out a game or makes things too easy, but it’s completely optional for those who want more of a challenge. For those of us who hate replaying the same sections over and over this is a real detractor.

The other annoying thing about dying is how long the game takes to load. I have a pretty beefy computer. It’s certainly more powerful than an Xbox 360 so I can’t imagine my system is the problem. This game just takes forever to load. All the time. Even when it makes no sense. I’ll be playing one of the bland minigames and I’ll decide I want to restart the challenge. Say I screw up the second jump in a jet ski race and now my time’s completely shot. The game still takes forever to load and all it’s doing is moving me 100 yards backward and resetting a timer.

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The game’s roleplaying elements are a mixed bag. On the one hand they give more meaning to your actions. You get more XP for skillful kills. You get XP, money, achievements, and unlocks for doing missions and gathering collectibles. You use XP to unlock various skills including advanced stealth takedowns, faster reloading, additional health bars, and better yields when gathering plants and animal skins. Actually, all of that is pretty positive.

What’s the bad part? Well you can’t access the best skills and weapons until you’ve done the requisite amount of story missions. This means you’ll likely be more than halfway through the game before you’re able to unlock the skills shown off in the trailer and demos. It’s a small negative, but it’s yet another way in which free choice is restricted in this game. The world may be open, but the best skills and weapons are withheld.

It would be cool if there was a “New Game+” feature that let you start a new game with all the skills and weapons earn from your previous playthrough. Sure, that would kind of clash with the story, but it would be a lot more fun.

Possibly the worst flaws in the gameplay are found in story missions. There are missions consisting entirely of boring, linear corridors; there are mandatory stealth sections; and even escort missions! Escort missions, really? When have those ever been fun? There are only a few story missions that let you choose your own approach and they only give you so much room in which to work. Most of them keep you on a tight leash.

Far Cry 2’s missions were pretty bland. They mostly consisted of “go here and kill people” or “go there and blow stuff up” with a few more memorable missions peppering the mix. The nice thing about that approach is that the game didn’t tell you precisely how to accomplish your objective. You could take whatever approach you liked. Stealthy or shooty or explody. This game is much more Call of Duty inspired set-piece fighting and that makes missions less generic but at the cost of being frustratingly limiting in a game that elsewhere allows such freedom.

Finally,  I don’t want to make too big a deal of this because the problem might not be widespread, but I had several very annoying bugs plaguing my experience. The game would suddenly glitch out with no warning and start looking like this.

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This problem necessitated that I restart the game several times which meant that I had to deal with the annoying save system not saving my location. I don’t often encounter bugs in games. Even my initial run through Fallout 3 was relatively bug-free if you can believe that (it has gotten buggier in the years since especially after my upgrade to Windows 7).

Storytelling Flaws

Merriam-Webster defines the word “insanity” in the following ways:

1: a deranged state of the mind usually occurring as a specific disorder (as schizophrenia)
2: such unsoundness of mind or lack of understanding as prevents one from having the mental capacity required by law to enter into a particular relationship, status, or transaction or as removes one from criminal or civil responsibility
3a: extreme folly or unreasonableness
3b: something utterly foolish or unreasonable

The game defines insanity using a quote often misattributed to Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, and Benjamin Franklin: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” The character who states this in-game is a lot more vulgar about it, naturally.

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It’s not good form to begin an essay with definitions, but I think it’s appropriate here since Far Cry 3 purports to be about insanity, an entire island of insane people and the protagonist’s descent into it.

The big trailer for this game hammered that idea in. The marketing for the game said it. The developers said it. And the game tries to make you think that. It even includes a few very out-of-place quotations from Alice in Wonderland to try and reinforce the idea.

Let me put this to rest. It is complete marketing garbage. Far Cry 2 had more to say about insanity and I don’t recall the word ever being uttered in that game.

We’re getting into spoiler territory now so don’t read on unless you don’t care or have already played the game.

The story of Far Cry 3 concerns protagonist Jason Brody and his friends who have their tropical island vacation rather rudely interrupted by pirates (more like Somali pirates; less like Jack Sparrow) who kidnap them with the intention of selling them into slavery. Jason escapes and embarks on a quest to save his friends.

He finds that he is on an island mostly run by pirates. The native population has been largely overrun. Over the course of the game Jason becomes a warrior. He takes back the Rook Islands for the natives and frees his friends.

So Jason ends up being a killing machine and even enjoys the fighting at times. But is that insane? Let’s look at our definitions.

1. No. Jason doesn’t have any kind of disorder (that we know of). He’s not really deranged either.

2. You could make an argument that Jason falls into this. Halfway through the game he tells his friends that he’s not leaving the island with them. He’s staying to kill one of the bad guys and because he’s “found his place.” He’s changed so much that he can’t fathom returning to America. Still, this isn’t an unsoundness of mind as much as it is a change of state. Soldiers go to war and kill people and it changes them in big, deep ways which sometimes makes it difficult for them to relate to others. But we don’t call that “insane.” Jason doesn’t become a wild, unstable killing machine. He’s able to relate to people and be social the entire time.

3. Nope. Not any more so than your typical video game protagonist.

What about the not-Einstein definition? That doesn’t work either. Your repeated actions bring results and get you closer to your objective. Everything you do is making you stronger and advancing your objectives.

Even the villains aren’t really insane. A bit unhinged, maybe, but not insane. You can understand these guys pretty easily. In this case, criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. It’s made clear that these guys are in it for the money and power. Who among us can’t understand that to a degree?

So if Far Cry 3 isn’t about insanity, what is it about? I submit that it’s about the clash of those in Western culture who live distant from real violence with cultures where violence is a part of everyday life. It has nothing to do with insanity.

I’m going to stop ragging on the game for a paragraph to compliment it. Even though the marketing was deceptive, the actual theme of the game is pretty good and it’s something we don’t often see these sorts of video games tackle. Typically the player character gets better at fighting throughout the game, but they’re generally born killers from the start. Having your character begin the game repulsed by killing and ending up a killing machine was a cool idea.

Okay, back to criticism!

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The other thing that’s really bothersome about the story is the Rakyat – the native tribe on the island. They have this warrior culture spoken of vaguely throughout the game. You have to “walk the path of a warrior” and do all this jungle magic stuff. We’ve seen this a million times. Some white outsider becomes part of a native tribe and somehow frees their inner self or some garbage like that. It’s dumb and stock. The encounters with the tribe and particularly its leader Citra are some of the worst storytelling sections of the game.

Citra is a completely bland and unappealing character who never says anything of consequence in the whole game. Her function is to spout mystical island warrior dialogue and be eye candy for the player. For some reason all the Rakyat love Citra. Why? This is never explained. Nobody ever talks about what Citra did for the Rakyat. One of the oft-repeated lines of dialogue by NPCs is “We will clean this island of pirates. Citra promised.” Really? She doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it. I’m the one killing all the pirates!

So much of the Rakyat and their culture just goes unexplained. The special abilities you unlock supposedly come from this magical jungle tattoo on your arm. How did Jason get that? What’s with the magic? None of that is ever explained or even addressed and it’s kind of important. They don’t even drop a lazy “Jason’s a half-native” explanation on us. This would be like if Nomad from Crysis wasn’t U.S. special forces, but rather a 20-something pizza delivery boy who got marooned on the Ling Shan islands and woke up with a Nanosuit. There’s no good reason for him to suddenly have it. It should probably be explained or addressed at some point.

But no. We’re just supposed to accept this native warrior culture. It would be find if they were interesting or cool, but they’re not. I liked the villains a whole lot more, actually.

However, Far Cry 3 saves the worst part of the story for last. The final mission comes down to a stupid binary choice.

You’ve killed all the villains and freed the islands from pirate rule. You’ve saved your younger brother whom you thought was dead only to discover that the Rakyat have taken your friends. You go to confront Citra, the leader of the natives. Citra does what she does best: spouts some dumb dialogue. She tells you that your friends make you weak and you can’t complete the path of a warrior without completely letting go of your former live. She knocks you out with some magical sleeping powder and you go through one of the game’s several delusional dream episodes designed to make you think the game is about insanity (did I mention that it isn’t?) When you wake up you’ve got a knife at your girlfriend’s neck. You can then choose to join Citra or save your friends.

This makes no sense at all. Just think about it for five seconds.

You’ve spent the entire game trying to rescue your friends and kill the people responsible for your brother’s death at the beginning of the game. Why would I kill the people I’ve been trying to rescue for the whole game? Even if they were innocent nobodies, why would I kill them?

The Rakyat have been your allies the entire game. They’ve basically been the Rebel Alliance to the pirates’ Galactic Empire. They’re underdog good guys fighting to retain their way of life. Killing innocents hasn’t been part of their M.O. until now.

Most reviewers didn’t like Jason’s collection of friends that much. I’ll admit I’m more forgiving of that sort of thing. I’ll buy that Jason cares about these people. While they weren’t the best characters in the game, I never disliked them and I can’t imagine who would hate them enough to slit all their throats. Basically this comes down to a popularity contest between a dumb tribal leader character who’s done nothing to help you the entire game – you’ve been doing her a favor – and a collection of characters who our protagonist cares about and has risked his life to save.

The choice should have been “stay in the jungle” or “leave with your friends” not “kill your friends” or “don’t kill your friends.” This is the dumbest ending to a game I’ve seen in a long time.

Naturally I chose to not kill innocents. Jason may have killed a lot of people and enjoyed doing it, but he’s not become a cruel, detached killer in the story nor did I want to play him that way.

If you choose to save Jason’s friends, Citra becomes upset with you for not finishing the path of warrior (which apparently requires slaughter of innocents.) Another character, Dennis, also gets upset with you for not following Citra.

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Dennis started out as kind of a cool character. He’s the first one to give you help after you escape from the pirates at the beginning of the game. He teaches you the basics and advises you for the rest of the game. But when you meet Citra and the Rakyat warriors for the first time, he becomes a prepubescent schoolboy pining over Citra: his unattainable crush.

Apparently not murdering your friends is cause for Dennis to murder you. He pulls out a knife intent on killing you for defying Citra.

You know what? I get it now. It isn’t Jason. It isn’t the pirates or their leaders. Citra, Dennis, and the Rakyat are the insane people in this game!

Dennis rushes at you but Citra steps in between and gets stabbed. Dennis gets all weepy over having accidentally killed his schoolboy crush. On the surface I guess I should be pleased with how this ending turns out. I avoided doing something really stupid and Citra wound up dead. That’s nice because I kind of wanted to kill her anyway.

Maybe this game is about insanity in a meta sense. Maybe I’m insane for expecting Ubisoft to get it together and release a game with a story I like.


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