Far Cry 3 opens with a handy-cam montage of a few boorish jerks on a tropical vacation together. Before downing a shot of booze, one giddily proclaims, “I haven’t done Sambuca since I was 20 years old! Woo!” Here they are flipping off each other as they skydive. Here they are in a nightclub, fist-pumping and woo-ing some more. Should the bros-and-brews spirit be lost on anyone, M.I.A.’s punchy song “Paper Planes”—“everyone’s a winner, we’re making our fame”—drives the point home.
A terrible tragedy is going to befall these people. We know this because Far Cry 3 is a first-person shooter, so it needs any narrative excuse to wield high-powered weaponry. And we know this because this sort of self-indulgent behavior in 2012 must have consequences. No one parties this hard anymore—not in this economy—and gets away with it, bro. So of course the jerks are captured, caged, and held for ransom by modern-day pirates. The game wants you to fear for these souls (or at least be mildly concerned for them).
One member of the group, Jason Brody, manages to escape the pirate camp. Alone in the jungle, he engages in some Woody Allen-style hand-wringing. He frets that he’s not a killer, that he doesn’t have the sand to do the awful things he must do to save his friends. Five minutes later, he’s happily disemboweling pigs and wielding an AK-47 like he’s John Rambo’s star pupil. Far Cry 3 has plenty of work to do—the game can clock in at upwards of 40 hours—but articulating Jason’s transformation from coward to hog-gutting hero unfortunately isn’t work that the game is interested in doing.
The star of Far Cry 3 turns out not to be Brody but rather the unbalanced island-dweller Vaas Montenegro. With his Travis Bickle mohawk, thousand-yard stare, and constant patter—the guy never shuts up—Vaas feels genuine, a credible (if deranged) villain. Nothing about Vaas, voiced by actor Michael Mando, is predictable. His sentences are rife with leisurely starts, stops, and awkward pauses. “I just hope you two pieces of fucks are more entertaining than your friends,” he says to his victims. That sounds like a throwaway line, one that would have been cut amid the more hurried pace of Far Cry 2. But there’s an irreverent violence—and intelligence—in everything Vaas says.
The game is set on the fictional Rook Islands, a piece of real estate that would qualify as impressive if so much of it didn’t look exactly the same. A mountain pass on the east side of the map is identical to a mountain pass on the west side of the map. I never felt like I was discovering anything other than more palm trees, more ferns, more rock formations. Yet while the jungle itself eventually proves to be repetitive and predictable, its half-crazed inhabitants and their oddball psyches hold Far Cry 3’s most intriguing mysteries. Vaas isn’t the only memorable weirdo. There’s a temple queen, Citra, sporting a shaved head and startling blue eyes. There’s a daft pervert, Dr. Earnhardt, consumed by a fascination with the island’s psychotropic mushrooms. It’s a nuanced cast of characters, expertly written and acted.
Your primary objective is to locate and save your captured friends. This is an open-world game, which means there are plenty of diversions to distract you to stray from the main path along the way. Some of those diversions, like conquering enemy encampments or reaching those far flung radio towers, feel like inherent parts of the overriding goal. Others, like sitting down to play a few idle hands of poker with the locals, all while your friends are ostensibly being tortured to death, are ridiculous.
As I cobbled together my own personal list of objectives in my head, a seductive rhythm began to set in. Maybe tonight I’ll kill a shark, I would muse, then plunder all the loot from a particular section of the island. Or maybe I’ll finally get those four dingo pelts I’ve been needing to craft a new weapon holster. For the past week, I’ve had a note on my desk that says “x2 deer, x2 buffalo, x2 goats.” Any game that prompts me to find a pen and write something down is doing something right.
Far Cry 3, despite the fact that its hero is a jerk on a mission to save other jerks, does many things right. Drafting and executing these mental to-do lists feels like imposing your own personal vision on the world of the game—exercising free will.
Better still, there’s a poetry that organically emerges while playing Far Cry 3. You could, as I did, spend a not-unpleasant two hours hunting for those aforementioned goats—they live on the tops of mountains, making them challenging to hunt—only to realize that a leopard is also hunting you. You can miss a hairpin turn on a mountain pass, overturn your jeep, stumble upon a hang glider, and take flight above the ocean while a gentle rain begins to fall.
Or you might reconnoiter an enemy encampment with your camera’s telephoto lens—Far Cry 3 indulges our voyeuristic urges—and watch as a tiger wanders into the camp, prowling from tent to tent and whittling down your enemies’ numbers. The sensation is cathartic and forbidden at once. The game is often charged with the thrill of witnessing something you shouldn’t. It’s the slow accumulation of these personal digressions that make Far Cry 3 so electrifying.