Far Cry 3 is an enjoyable little mess, despite itself.
Its precursor Far Cry 2 was admirable in its intention. An open world first person shooter with an emphasis on emergent free-form stealth and gunfights, facilitated through non-dictatorial missions that let you approach the situation how you saw fit. Its combat was excellent, especially with the damage-increasing Dylan’s Realism Mod which I highly recommend. Its failings were primarily technical; the engine wasn’t able to handle persistent NPCs, which S.T.A.L.K.E.R. had impressively showcased the previous year. Once the player had left an area, it would be reset to its original state; this led to the notorious problem of the player having to constantly clean out the same road checkpoints for the entire game. The confining of most enemies to said checkpoints made the world feel oddly desolate and eerie, at odds with the civil war that was ostensibly the basis of the setting; a distinct lack of predators in the wilderness exacerbated this emptiness. The repetitive structure of the missions also limited the variety of possible situations in the game, and it’s easy for one to feel like they have experienced everything the game had to offer 12 hours into a 25 hour game.
Far Cry 3 addresses some of these problems. Once a checkpoint is cleared it becomes ‘captured’ and remains in a friendly state. Friendly and enemy NPCs roam the map and are likely to come into conflict, with friendlies financially rewarding you for intervening. Wildlife plays a far greater role, with predators attacking herbivores, the player and NPCs alike. The environment is generally more detailed and varied, giving the player more reason to explore off the road.
Unfortunately, Ubisoft decided that a good way to give variety to Far Cry 3 was to turn the main missions into a compilation of every overblown linear FPS set piece ever made.
Complete with jumping puzzles, quick time event boss fights, forced sniping segments, rail shooter turret segments, escort missions and forced stealth missions, playing a main mission in Far Cry 3 often has the same effect as playing a mission in GTAIV; it strips the game of its sandbox element in favour of a linear format that is more conductive towards feeding you a traditional narrative. Its utmost worst moment was ironically featured in the early promotional materials, where you slowly escape a burning building through the power of quick time events and a one-off mechanic of shooting glowing pipes to douse flames.
It’s particularly jarring because, until that point, most of my playing experience was involved with crafting and checkpoint takeovers. Jumping from player-initiated and somewhat emergent non-linear experience to this felt like the game had suddenly handed over development to the makers of Homefront, and an alarming number of missions show the same problem.
It’s such a shame too, because the core combat and stealth mechanics are very good. It has a fantastic dynamic first person cover system that makes aiming over ledges and around corners feel intuitive and natural. There’s a large range of explosive weaponry for you to play with. The AI is complex enough to handle very satisfying stealth gameplay, even allowing you to engaging in a form of ‘combat stealth’ where the enemies are aware of your presence but not your location, laying down suppressing fire whilst you attempt to gain a new flanking position. There’s a takedown system, addressing the notable lack of silent melee kills in Far Cry 2, but it’s also extended into a range of special moves, like throwing your victim’s knife, or pulling the pin on his grenade and kicking him into a crowd. This is a far more interesting approach to takedowns than the basic and overtly cinematic system seen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where you just wish you could just use a Thief cudgel. Raiding checkpoints is where these mechanics really shine, and indeed would have been my only interaction with the game if it weren’t for the following problems.
The game introduces to the series a number of RPG elements which universally undermine themselves through some poorly thought-out design decisions:
- Killing people and completing missions give you XP to spend on skills on three separate branches, but specialisation is impossible because the ends of these branches are locked down to plot progression, and you’ll fill out every branch before more of the branch is unlocked.
- There’s a cash economy, but climbing radio towers (which you need to do to unlock your map) gives you weapons for free, so there’s very little to spend your money on.
- There are loot chests, but they only give you junk items to sell. This gets very silly when a hidden chest in the ancient temple – guarded by snakes and komodo dragons – contains $23 and a ripped teddy bear.
- There’s a crafting system, which for medicines is admittedly pretty nifty. Problem is, their method of encouraging you to use it is through placing arbitrary limitations on your character until you skin some animals. For instance, you can only carry one gun until you’ve scoured the island for some (oddly rare) goats.
- The menus that you use to interact with all this are a terribly cumbersome mess of massive UI elements, confirmation boxes and a constant maddening barrage of unavoidable tutorial tooltips. Accessing these menus also makes the game run at 5fps for some reason.
“Like Skyrim with guns!” quotes the box blurb, displaying Ubisoft’s cynical attempt to attach itself to such a well-selling franchise. Despite my misgivings with Skyrim, focussed primarily on the weakness of its combat and stealth systems, Skyrim (and all of The Elder Scrolls by extension) at least showed a minimal degree of depth and forethought in its RPG mechanics that just isn’t evident in Far Cry 3. The Elder Scrolls had always allowed you to ignore the main quest in favour of other activities you may find more interesting, yet Far Cry 3 forces you to complete the main missions if you want to unlock the vast majority of your abilities. Ubisoft seems too cowardly to commit to a system that could potentially shake up the difficulty balance, in a way acquiring a powerful gun could in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and thus kept mechanical progression strictly tied to narrative progression. The most annoying aspect of this is that the best mechanic, a freely deployable BASE jumping wingsuit, isn’t available until 2/3rds of the way through the story.
Far Cry 3 can be a very fun game at times, especially in the heat of combat, but there’s just so much… bullshit you have to work through to get to this fun. The fact that they put so much time, effort and money into creating The Bullshit, with no less than five development teams, is perplexing. Loading my post-campaign save to tackle a few checkpoints and assassination missions gives me more enjoyment than any moment within the campaign. I can’t help feeling that the game would have benefited from stronger direction and more pre-planning to determine exactly what kind of game they wanted Far Cry 3 to be, instead of a bloated combination of every popular modern gaming trend, despite how incongruous it makes the whole design.
Around the same time as Far Cry 3’s Australian release, a little gem called Miasmata had popped up on Steam and GOG.com. A first person survival game set in an open world island, playing the game is a much slower, but also far more considered and rewarding experience than the entertaining but bombastic Far Cry 3. Your role is to simply explore an island, seeking plants as ingredients for medicines, with the ultimate goal of curing the plague that inflicts you.
Unlike nearly every other open world action game, Miasmata understands the primary appeal of such an environment; exploration. In Far Cry 2/3 and even S.T.A.L.K.E.R. to an extent, one has their destination explicitly drawn for them by the game map. Such games then put it upon the player to traverse the landscape to their destination as efficiently as possible. This has two effects; it absolutely kills any immersive sense of exploration, and it also makes any stopovers or detours during your journey feel like a distraction, a very strange feeling when you’re playing a videogame. Miasmata doesn’t give you any clear indication of where to go. You’ll find some clues written in the journals you find in outposts, then using your (mechanically complex) cartography skills, map out the island in order to find your way around this strange land. This is the most pure exploration experience ever seen in a videogame.
There is only one enemy, a giant cat ‘creature’ that stalks the land, running on some pretty impressive autonomous AI. Most of the encounters consist of stealth, hiding in the grass until it moves on. When discovered, one can either try to flee, or intimidate it by throwing rocks and flaming branches. The creature isn’t always a constant threat; as he wanders around independently, he may be on the other side of the island. This leads to an odd tension where you’re peacefully walking through the wilderness, but always aware of the inevitability of the creature’s return and ruining your temporary lull in stress. Because such encounters are generated emergently by the AI, the threat is less predictable than the scripted encounters of Amnesia.
What you won’t pick up on the promotional materials for Miasmata is that the creature isn’t even your main threat – it’s physics. The game’s incredibly realistic walking physics simulate inertia and the dangers of steep, treacherous terrain. Run too fast or drop off a ledge and you’re in for a tumble. If you’re lucky you’ll get right back up again, if you’re unlucky you’ll sustain some damage and drop your items, if you’re very unlucky you’ll keep tumbling and fall off a cliff. This is also what makes nighttime threatening; night is pitch black, and you only get a metre of illumination with your lighter – three with a burning stick. This makes it incredibly easy to take one step too far off a cliff and die, and in an inspired conflation of mechanics, makes fleeing not an option if the creature is around.
The presentation is sparse, with all of the interface existing as objects within the game world, inspired by Far Cry 2’s map and standing in stark contrast to Far Cry 3’s terrible interface. The journal system is far more sophisticated than what’s seen in most RPGs. This sparse presentation extends to the story. You arrive on the island seeking a cure for your plague, only the find the scientists who reported such a cure to be dead. You’re given some clues as to what plants are needed for the cure, and then the rest is left entirely to you. There is a mystery as to what happened to the scientists for you to uncover, but it is only tangentially related to the ludonarrative by virtue that the backstory materials also contain navigational clues. There is wealth in such minimalism; it doesn’t so much supply a story as it offers a rich tapestry for generating emergent, anecdotal stories unique to your own experience. One of my earliest experiences was fleeing from the creature, tripping, tumbling down a mountain and off a cliff, landing in a lake, nearly drowning trying to swim out of the lake, feverishly stumbling around the forest at night looking for an outpost, dragging my corpse into a bed before I died, then waking up to myself completely lost, but finding within the hut some vital clues as to where another cure ingredient may be.
Such a forceful delineation of my progression was a revelation. This is truly an open world. This is exactly what other open world games should aspire to be. Not some little sandbox that you wander around in between your linear missions, but a game that is properly integrated into its open environment, where exploration is paramount and memorable events are emergently generated. Miasmata is easily my favourite singleplayer game of this year, in a year that’s been comparatively decent for modern gaming, and I hope it becomes an influential touchstone for future designs of open world games.