Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar—sometimes you just want to play a vidya game that’s good-ole-fashioned pure entertainment, something like Blood Dragon or the Shadow Warrior remake. Other times, you may be looking for a more cerebral experience; there’s been a growing trend of first-person shooters that deconstruct or subvert the usual cliches (Spec Ops: The Line comes to mind) or otherwise offer a more intellectual approach (such as the multi-layered mindfuck of Bioshock: Infinite).
Far Cry 3 finally answers the long-standing question, “Can a game where you shoot pirates and set fire to dangerous animals also have a complex psychological element?”
The game subverts the standard shooter experience through its protagonist, Jason Brody. No hardened badass here, Jason is a rich-kid layabout from Los Angeles who came to poverty- (and pirate-) stricken Rook Island looking for cheap thrills. He didn’t expect to be captured by drug-smuggling thugs, nor to see his brother die in the escape attempt. “I’ve… never fired a gun before,” he tells his tutor, a drunk from Liberia who replies with, “There’s a first time for everything.” But before the credits roll he will fire many guns, and stab a lot of people, and blow up a wide number of vehicles; “I’ve killed a lot of people” Jason states bleakly in the end narration.
This is the rags-to-riches equivalent in the shooter world: a scared rich kid on vacation who rises to become a bloodied warrior. You start with no knowledge of guns, no skills, and only one weapon slot, but your rise to power will change all of that. The natives latch onto Jason as their hero, seeing in him the salvation to their oppressive pirate problem. Yet something’s not right with Jason; his friends express apprehension at what he’s become: covered in tattoos (representing unlocked skills and powerups) and loaded down with weapons (purchased with the ill-gotten gains looted from dead pirates). He undergoes several long dream-sequences through the island’s many narcotics, even fighting back an ink monster reborn from native legend.
And Jason may be something of an unreliable, self-aggrandizing narrator—a twenty-five-year-old kid who’s blowing his deeds out of proportion, lost in a haze of blood and drugs and the Hollywood hero he’s become. We see the game through his eyes, watching his simultaneous rise as a warrior and descent from civilization, see his take on his white-man’s-burden experience… and it subverts a lot of the old cliches by becoming them. He almost single-handedly frees the oppressed natives—for example, his native allies only arrive conveniently after he’s cleared out an enemy encampment. He wins the heart of the native princess who becomes his lover, the “white boy” saving the poor hapless natives… until you take the second of two endings, where you realize she was neither as helpless as Jason depicted her as, nor did she need his help as much as he needed hers.
Meanwhile, the gameplay is what Far Cry 2 should have been—the respawning enemy encampments are no longer annoyances but central game elements; the vast wilderness is no longer barren, instead teeming with flora to harvest, fauna to hunt, pirates to kill, and interesting vistas to discover. There’s a smattering of local NPCs giving out quests. And no more of that malaria malarky. Gone, too, are degrading weapons. It’s a game you can get lost in—out of immersion and a desire to explore, as opposed to getting lost in Far Cry 2 due to the empty wilderness and repetitive missions. One of the reviews compared Far Cry 3 “like Skyrim with guns,” and the description isn’t half bad—if future games in the series welded more RPG elements to such a solid story, we’d have pretty much my ideal shooter. As it is, it ranks as one of the best buys of this era of electronic gaming.
In and among the pretentious Alice in Wonderland quotes, which lack a frame of reference in-game aside from Jason’s recurring drug trip flashbacks, there’s a deep and layered plot about postcolonialism and “going native,” perspective and unreliable narrators, the ethical perils of becoming a bloodstained hero in a shooter game, and the possibility of redemption after you’ve slain fifty thousand pirates. It’s also a game where a side-quest is to hunt a pack of feral dogs with rocket-propelled grenades; another has you incinerate three man-eating leopards with a flamethrower. So, pretty much made of win.