Vaas is the most convincing psychopath in games. There’s something about his motion-captured acting in Far Cry 3’s opening scene that makes him feel eerily present and uncomfortably close. In other games his pseudo-intellectual bad guy twaddle about freedom and spirit and the nature of reality might sound like hackneyed script, but here it sounds like the genuine brain-nonsense of an unpredictable, twitchy idiot. A madman with a thesaurus.
Far Cry 3 begins with you and your brother imprisoned in a makeshift bamboo cage while Vaas monologues at length. There is a point to it all: he plans to ransom you and your pampered party of sexy young friends back to your stinking rich parents, but not before momentarily leaving your cage unattended, allowing you both to slip away using a convenient stealth tutorial.
What follows is a harrowing and painful escape through dense jungle, in which protagonist Jason kills for the first time in a reactionary, character-building panic. It’s an intense loss-of-innocence moment, dulled only slightly by it being the first of thousands of murders you'll eventually carry out on the island.
A few hours into the game, after you’ve reached safety, you’ll meet the predictably unhinged medic Dr Earnhardt. He mistakenly believes your poisoned friend Daisy to be his long-dead daughter, and so sends you on errands into the wilderness to retrieve medicinal, psychoactive mushrooms and jazz-herbs. Meanwhile, as you explore and progress and stab round after round of enemy, your tribal forearm tattoo becomes more elaborate and complex, marking new abilities you’ve unlocked. Your ailing friend spots the ink and - probably sensing that you’ve been out punching guards - eyes you with some concern. It’s a sad, first-person foreshadowing of a bigger change in the game’s protagonist, a nod to the widening gulf between his old self and the gratuitous murder-factory he’s becoming.
Again, there’s something strikingly effective about these characters and their movements - Daisy shoots you a meaningful glance when Earnhardt’s tragic wilfully drug-induced dementia becomes apparent to you both. There’s a wordless understanding and acceptance of the distorted situation, and of her assured safety too. Ubisoft have created some powerfully convincing maniacs in Jason, his allies and his enemies. Madness from without and within is the theme here. Far Cry 3’s stage is intelligently set, and its layered plot is ambitious. At the very least, it’s way better than all that weird malaria oddness from the last game.
Of course when it’s not being clever with its storytelling, Far Cry 3 spends its time being a clever open world sandbox shooter. At times it operates like a first-person Assassin’s Creed 3, in that wildlife can be tracked and hunted and their pelts used to craft larger ammo pouches, wallets and rucksacks. Tall, groaning, dilapidated radio towers must be climbed to lift the map’s fog of war from the surrounding area. Each of these towers is a self-contained climbing puzzle, with perilous jumps and balancing acts key to reaching their windswept summits and disabling the McGuffins kept there. Local vendors will then reward you for climbing nearby radio towers, showering you in free weapons and discounted items, such is their immense gratitude.
Back on the ground, there are mercenary-held outposts that can also be cleared and captured, permanently removing an enemy presence from that area of the island. At these outposts you can store weapons, fast travel and take on a series of side-quests. Wanted Dead, for example, is a collection of bounty missions that task you with assassinating a certain target under certain restrictions. The first of these had me hunting a pirate commander with a knife, which I failed by reversing a car over his legs. On my second attempt I used binoculars to mark enemies from a nearby hill, before methodically creeping close enough to the enemy camp to attack the commander from behind.
Path of the Hunter is a similar series of contracts, with animal targets rather than human. Here, I was tasked with tracking down a pack of rabid dogs and euthanising them with a shotgun. As you progress through both of these sets of missions you unlock tougher opponents, stricter conditions and rarer creatures, with greater rewards as you go. Some of the best items in the game can only be crafted using pelts from the rarest and most endangered animals too, so you’ll really want to start peeling the skins off anything that doesn’t look like it needs a skin any more.
There’s simply a daunting amount of stuff scattered around the island. There are lost World War 2 weapons and hidden relics left behind by the natives. At one point I dove into a vast, gaping sinkhole deep in the jungle, emerging from the pool to find myself in a cave surrounded by ancient ruins. There are race challenges and time trials and hidden vehicles. I was bitten by a snake and a Komodo dragon within the space of ten minutes. I found a dune buggy. There are dune buggies. A loading screen told me that there are flame-throwers later on. It’s highly likely that, much like with Assassin’s Creed 3, the main series of story missions will be neglected in favour of outright sandbox japes.
Successfully carrying out missions, however, rewards you with XP and the skill points needed to improve your character and unlock new abilities. These skills are broken down into three categories. The Heron is your long-range takedowns and mobility category, allowing you to do long-rangey things like cook grenades and fire weapons while ziplining. The Shark involves assault takedowns and healing, granting you the unique ability to pull the pin from an enemy’s grenade before rudely booting him away. The Spider is about stealth takedowns and survival, giving you the abilities like sprint sliding, “death from above” aerial takedowns and improved running speeds while crouched. Proceeding along these branching paths not only makes you a more effective killer, it transforms your tattoo, a physical, bodily marker of your progress in the game.
Stealth is satisfying in Far Cry 3. Enemies are dim enough to be straightforward to navigate around while still being canny enough to pose a challenge in groups. Foliage renders you almost invisible, and corpses and sounds can be used to draw guards from their posts. There's real benefit to be had in avoiding all-out combat, more so than in the previous games, though getting caught in a firefight brings with it its own emergent events as backup rolls up in shonky jeeps, dangerous wild animals attack indiscriminately and guards attempt to take cover (clumsily, in the preview build I played, with a few getting stuck or lost behind buildings).
There's also the triumphant return of gut-wrenching injury-porn, and while there was nothing quite as gruesome as Far Cry 2's 'very long shard of metal lodged in the kneecap' animation, there are some wounds and mutilations that will have you gritting your teeth. At one point, Jason held up a dislocated thumb before snapping it back into place with a hollow pop. Delicious.
The cross-pollinating feature-smear between Assassin's Creed 3 and Far Cry 3 serves both games well. Climbing towers to unlock chunks of the island and creating safe areas by storming compounds and strongholds makes sense in this game's world. Hunting gives that world texture and life, feeding into the economy of pelts and collectibles and forming a RPG-lite crafting system that makes Far Cry 3 as much about surviving as it is about shooting. They're familiar systems used intelligently in a game as rich in content as it is infested by insane bastards.
It's going to be excellent.
Far Cry 3 launches on PC on November 30. Here's a video in which the player is attacked by both a tiger and a shark.