A few weeks back I did a short series of three write-ups on Far Cry 3 for Shamus Young’s Twenty Sided. They did well enough over there, but I figured I’d post them here for posterity’s sake.
I’ll be delving in to Far Cry 3 in the next few days, but before I go too deep into the thematic stuff I thought I’d talk about how the game compares to – and at times goes to great lengths to distance itself from – its predecessor.
While I’ve said my piece on Far Cry 2 already, it’s worth reiterating that it’s sort of a challenging game. I don’t mean that it’s challenging in terms of raw game difficulty, I mean that it challenges players trying to engage with the game itself. It’s a game where the center cannot hold – Ben Abraham has rightly pointed out that its mechanics all tie closely to themes of entropy and decay. Guns break down over time, fire spreads and consumes foliage, cleared checkpoints are repopulated, friends betray you, the political situation continues to rip the country apart, and even your own body is under siege by disease. The player is never really in complete control of his or her situation and whatever gains they make are always eroded and undone. Part of this is to encourage the creation of memorable emergent situations, but there’s a serious thematic subtext there as well.
This was compounded by a narrative quite intentionally nested in nebulous moral grounds. The player is caught between two sides of a civil war that’s never fully explained where each is willing to do more awful things than the other to win. As a foreign mercenary, the player tries to play the two sides against the middle in hopes that it will shake loose the arms dealer he was sent in to kill. It’s a game that lacks a traditional ‘good guy’ – just about every character is contemptible. Even the few good actions the player commits – smuggling civilians out of the war-torn country with forged papers – are done because a priest blackmails you for your Malaria medicine. This isn’t a game where a hero charges into battle and emerges victorious, it’s a game where you’re just as shady as the people you’re gunning down and whatever progress you make will simply vanish the next time you walk through that section of the jungle.
Far Cry 3 has run screaming from just about all of that. The only real returning ideas are an absolute dedication to the first person perspective and the fire mechanics. Everything else much more… streamlined. Safe, even. There’s no moral ambiguity on the island. Gone are two indistinguishable sides of a power struggle – Far Cry 3 has an army of drug trafficking, slave trading, murderous pirates and mercenaries on one side and a docile, fun loving, thankful native tribe on the other. And if that wasn’t enough, the bad guys kill your brother in the opening act while keeping the rest of your friends hostage. This probably would be more effective if the opening cinematic didn’t frame you and your friends as some of the most obnoxious, vapid, spoiled people alive, but hey – it serves its purpose. Whether it’s Megan in Human Revolution, Alice in Alan wake, or Grant and company in Far Cry 3, killing and/or stealing a person seems to be an easy (read: lazy) way to both motivate protagonists and generate at least a weak emotional investment on the part of players. We can debate whether this is effective, but it certainly isn’t being used to foster a sense of moral ambiguity.
This black-and-white mentality isn’t just in the narrative, though – is stretches out to the aesthetics. Where Far Cry 2 made it hard to tell who you were shooting or why to emphasize the irrelevance of the reasons for the conflict, Far Cry 3 conveniently color codes the sides of its battles. And guess what: the guys in bright red are the bad guys, the guys in blue are the good guys, and the guys in yellow are all unemployed mercenaries looking for work after Haze failed.
The themes of decay and entropy have also been removed in favor of giving the players a concrete and appreciable sense of accomplishment. Far Cry 2’s checkpoint mechanics may have made thematic sense, but they infuriated many players. After clearing an outpost enemies would respawn in short order, and it wasn’t uncommon to clear a checkpoint on the way to a mission only to have to clear it again on the drive back to town. Ubisoft Montreal seem so afraid of repeating this perceived mistake that clearing an outpost permanently eliminates enemies from the entire area. The result is that enemy territories are where the interesting emergent play happens. A convoy full of soldiers sees you while hunting deer; a peaceful hang gliding trip is ruined by machine gun fire from below; you stumble into a group of pirates sitting around a campfire while running from a bear and manage to use the bear to take out the pirates. This is the game at its mechanical best, but none of this happens in owned territory. Cleared zones are functionally hunting grounds that feature minigame compilations like poker and racing and sidequests. Players get their sense of accomplishment, but it comes at the expense of some of the most interesting ways mechanics can unexpectedly rub up against one another.
The other entopic mechanics have also been removed – ostensibly with the goal of letting players sculpt the play experience they want instead of having to compromise with the game. Guns no longer breakdown, ammo is now rarely scarce, and vehicles litter the landscape such that you won’t ever bother carrying a repair tool with you. The game’s almost bountiful in these respects. The game wants you to get where you want to get and shoot who you want to shoot with the gun you want to use without distraction. But that’s the problem – Far Cry 2 was as much about the distraction of an unexpected encounter or broken car as it was about the mission itself. Sometimes you’d have to improvise when you came out of cover only to double over due to Malaria, sometimes you’d have a rocket misfire and take out your getaway car, and sometimes you’d find yourself running out of ammo and falling back to a flare gun of all things. In Far Cry 2 things didn’t always go as planned, and that was central to both the game’s play and its thematics. In Far Cry 3 you get to coldly stock up on exactly the weapons you plan to use, drive to the enemy base almost uninterrupted, and use them to take the base. It gives players what they want, but in doing so it takes away much of what made the game work.
Far Cry 2 had its share of problems, and did itself no favors by making itself difficult to approach. But it did so because it asked a lot of those who played it. Far Cry 3 asks basically nothing of you – which is probably why I got so little out of it.