Far Cry 2 was one of those rare games with unique vision. It dropped you into a shattered African country controlled by warlords. Everyone with any sense had fled. Even the beasts had fled. The new beasts were the other men with guns. It was frequently quiet and vast in the same way that ruined buildings are quiet and vast. You were racked with malaria. Your guns were often broken. You were miles from where you needed to be. Your rides were rattling dusty jeeps that ran on regular gasoline and needed a tune-up. Your friends weren’t even your friends in the end. It was a broken world of fire, misfires, disease, distance, loneliness, and betrayal. Even the ending sucked.

Understandably, some people wanted a straight-up player-friendly game designed to deliver maximum thrills per minute. They fled Far Cry 2 in droves to enjoy their Saints Rows and Calls of Duty.

After the jump, Ubisoft makes Far Cry 3 for them

Far Cry 3, a pretty good open-world shooter, is a terrible sequel to Far Cry 2. One of the hallmarks of Far Cry 2 was that you never left the game world, even to check your map. But like many good games, Far Cry 3 is brimming with gamey stuff that takes you out of the world and into the gaminess. You will pause the game to check your map and teleport to a new area. You will pause the game to ponder where to spend your skill point. You will pause the game to shuffle through screens to see how many dingo skins you need to upgrade your backpack to carry more bear skins to upgrade how many RPG rounds you can carry. You will pause the game to make a medical syringe to heal yourself during a shootout. You will pause the game to see how many yellow flowers you have. You will pause the game to see how many more doo-dads you have to find to unlock the next signature weapon, which you don’t even really need considering how fast and furious and free the new guns come. You might never use the cool bow or flamethrower except for the missions where you have to use them. You’ll probably never even use the flare gun.

This nifty shooter is interwoven to a fault with crafting, exploration, collectibles, and activities. These are the resources you feed into the often artless gameplay progression economy. You will often have to dive layers deep into screens, as if the gameplay design got away from the interface design. Three skill trees will seem tantalizing at first, but they’re not very good skill trees. Why would I put a skill point in being able to fire a pistol from a zipline? There are perhaps five times in the game it would be useful, and it’s unlikely you’d have squandered a weapon slot with a pistol at any one of those five times. So naturally you spend the skill point on more health. Do you want to swim 25% faster — why are you even bothering with swimming? — or do you want to shoot more accurately? These are the kinds of faux decisions you make. These are the things that would have been tuned out of a better game.

The world progression is very Assassin’s Creed with the way you climb rickety radio towers to unfog the map. Once you reach the top, you get your vista with camerawork by Michael Bay, followed by a zip line ride where the swan dive would be. Now you can see where you’re going. By pausing the game to check the map, of course, because that minimap isn’t really cutting it for anything but picking flowers.

The awkward interface and questionable gameplay progression are just one aspect of how Far Cry 3 is no Far Cry 2. It is, instead, the Bethesda-ization of the series. Far Cryrim. The most notable example of this is how the world is densely packed with stuff to do, calculated to keep people from retreating to their Saints Rows, Calls of Duty, and even Assassin’s Creeds. Now over every hill there’s an animal to hunt, a kill quest to set up, a dungeon to explore, a tower to climb, an outpost to conquer. All you people who complained about the respawning checkpoints in Far Cry 2, a game in which you were not Rambo and therefore did not get to single-handedly defeat the entire military of a Third World country, will finally get the chance to stop bad guys from spawning so that you can depopulate your open-world shooter of meaningful content. Congratulations. I hope you’re also enjoying getting to hunt boars with an assault rifle, which I’m pretty sure is in there because people whined that there were no lions and tigers and bears in Far Cry 2. Also, Red Dead Redemption.

I don’t mean to be too critical of Ubisoft’s me-too decisions, because they’re effective at a certain level. Far Cry 3 might not be a good sequel to Far Cry 2, but it’s a good game with a suitably sexy elevator pitch: Skyrim meets Assassin’s Creed, set in the same place as Just Cause and Crysis. But the game Ubisoft has built doesn’t quite live up to its own goals, because it doesn’t understand the accomplishments of the games it’s imitating. Bethesda’s stuff has an epic sweep with rich social systems and extensive storytelling. Assassin’s Creed has crowded cities and ornate historical trappings. Just Cause 2 explodes into wild episodes of unfettered mayhem, often from a helicopter or jet. None of this is in Far Cry 3.

Far Cry 3 best mimics Just Cause 2, but the mayhem in Far Cry 3, as thrilling as it can be, is always earthbound and conspicuously fettered, limited to a handful of enemies at a time, select breakables in the environment, and yet another tiger in a cage for you to shoot open. Don’t forget to pause the game to go into the crafting screen to make another medical syringe, because you wasted your last one healing the single bar of health you lost when you jumped down from a roof. That, too, would have been tuned out of a better game.

The story draws from modern horror movies like Hostel or Turistas more than anything from the Far Cry universe. But whereas Hostel was trashy and disgusting — those aren’t compliments — Far Cry 3 is just coy and grating. Also not compliments. The lead character, voiced by a reedy Tom Cruise soundalike, is enough to make you long for another mute protagonist. He’s one of a bunch of privileged white kids who get kidnapped to be sold into slavery by a pair of villains, one of whom randomly tags in as soon as you dream-kill the other. Oddly enough, the horror angle is safely muted to avoid anything too uncomfortable. The only murder — besides the hundreds that occur in the course of the playing the game — is front-loaded before you get a chance to care about anyone. The only rape happens to a dude and we don’t talk about that. The only torture is performed by you. But by the time you’re holding A to shove your finger into the bullet hole, Far Cry 3’s story has gotten far too silly, juvenile, and tedious to be effective. It’s not bad enough that the ending, at least the one I picked two minutes before the game was over, is laughable. The ending is entirely ignored when Far Cry 3 drops me back into the world to finish clearing out the bad guys, collecting the doo-dads, and unlocking the guns. “You know that stuff that just happened?” Far Cry 3 asks. “Let’s pretend it didn’t happen so you can keep playing.” That sort of oversight would been tuned out of a better game, or at least one that bothered to care about its story.

The normal multiplayer, like the normal multiplayer in Far Cry 2, will likely wilt in the shadow of better multiplayer games soon enough. Then there’s the co-op multiplayer, which includes almost nothing that’s good about Far Cry. It’s a decent enough unlocking grind down long and mostly narrow canyons of bad guys, with an odd “decoding” bonus system that reminds me of waiting for my strawberries to grow in Farmville, complete with an incentive to gift-nag my friends by sending them special boosts I’ve unlocked. I suppose it could be worse. I could be buying temporary booster packs in Mass Effect 3.

The “it could be worse” philosophy is Far Cry 3 in a nutshell. This is a good open-world shooter, with plenty of satisfying open-world gunplay, and it fits neatly into the annals of the usual open-world games, even if it doesn’t quite understand many of them. But the most notable fact about Far Cry 3 is that it’s not a sequel to Far Cry 2. It is instead a response to Bethesda’s success.

3 stars
Xbox 360