Over the past few days, we’ve been going over the trends of the year from crowdfunding with Kickstarter to emerging stealth staples to callbacks to a sub-genre of games once long forgotten. But let’s take a break from all that. That broad overview is fun, but diving into the minutia of particular games is often a much more interesting proposition. In this case, we’ll break down one of this year’s best in Far Cry 3.
We’ll be doing so with the help of one of 2008’s most overlooked and most underrated titles in Far Cry 2.
An obvious choice, sure; sequels and franchise buddies often are used to compare one another. If lacking any other contemporaries, sibling entries into a series can often provide relative viewpoints from which you can quickly and accurately describe and compare new titles. Like how instead of taking a few hundred words to properly describe Batman: Arkham City, giving a quick summary of “it’s like Batman: Arkham Asylum but in a perpetually night-addled open-world city” works just as well (and probably better) if you go into the conversation having already playing the first game.
The problem—relatively speaking anyways, since this is only a problem in the fact that it becomes hard to use this summary shortcut—is that Far Cry 3 is about as similar to Far Cry 2 as chili dogs are to corn dogs; in the same vein and mostly using the same ingredients but also so vastly different that you can love one and hate the other without coming across as a lunatic.
Which isn’t really all that surprising given the massive departure Far Cry 2 was from the first Far Cry. The original game is so far the only Far Cry game to be developed by Crytek while the sequels have been developed and published by Ubisoft Montreal, so the absolute hard left made from FC1 to FC2 should inform the lack of shock going into FC3. In fact, Crysis is basically considered the flagship franchise of the CryEngine developers, not to mention the one that plays most heavily into the Cry-pun shenanigans (2013 will feature the first titles from the studio that don’t do that with Warface, Ryse, and, strangely enough, Homefront 2).
So why bring up FC2 at all? Because despite all of its differences, FC2 and FC3 are strikingly similar games. Chris Remo of the Idle Thumbs podcast/Double Fine Productions described it best: it’s like they’re both the same dish but made with completely different recipes. So say you and I both set out to make pancakes, but you throw in some blueberries and granola and top it off with a fruit compote and whipped cream while I make mine chocolate chip with strawberry chucks and drown it all in syrup and butter. Both are still pancake dishes but so vastly different and appeal to completely different people.
For all its faults, FC2 was severely ambitious. It aimed so remarkably high in so many ways that I’m surprised it even came out as cohesive and compelling as it does. Everything about it screamed one word at you for its 25-hour run: oppression.
Nothing ever felt easy because nothing ever was easy. You are dropped in media res with a mission in Central Africa to assassinate a gun runner known as The Jackal. Well, you never get around to doing that because you pass out from malaria, only to awaken to find The Jackal standing over you, quoting Nietzsche and waving around a menacing machete. He eventually lets you live, but this opening sequence sets the mood for the whole game: you are not in control.
The Jackal is quoting Nietzsche’s Beyond Good And Evil, a book by the famed philosopher that introduces his “will to power,” the concept that the single most prominent drive in human beings is ambition and the desire to impose superiority and dominion. It rejects knowledge, truth, and free will and instead accepts a place beyond good and evil.
And that’s where you live in FC2; you live beyond good and evil and simply exist in this world that doesn’t care about any of that. The land is dusty and empty yet full of life; you are afflicted with malaria, introducing a controlling construct in your life that is beyond your command; weapons degrade with use, forcing the notion that your grasp of the world weakens with time down your throat; and fire is an enemy unseen until it springs up in your face, uncontrollable and unquenchable so that it destroys without prejudice. You are in the most desolate, depressing, and manically oppressive world you’ve ever been in and you are choking, drowning in an arid wasteland of death and flame without a single drop of water in sight.
The mere act of loading up FC2 requires a moment or two of psyching yourself up, preparing yourself to be overpowered and overrun with problems, but it’s such a cohesive and amazingly realized milieu that it’s impossible not to admire and, on some masochistic level, enjoy it. Everything is out of your control and you rely on so much else in the world to survive (new weapons, medication, etc.), but at the same time so many people are relying on you to fight the oppression and fight The Jackal. It is Nietzsche’s will to power in video game form. There is no right and there is no wrong, two constructs of a fabled universal morality, and instead there is just you fighting for agency in this world.
And all of that heavy gravitas somehow came from the same studio that has turned out FC3. By most counts, FC3 is a better game. What that means in the definitive sense is obviously up for debate, but it works for now to say that it is a lot more fun to play. The guns shoot better, you move better, getting around and doing stuff is less frustrating, it looks better, the story is more coherent, etc. In essence, FC3 is much more what you would expect when you say “video game” to someone.
It is also the complete opposite of what you had experienced in FC2. Whereas that was depressing and nigh difficult to even consider playing, this sequel is a splendid breeze. Guns don’t degrade, you don’t have to deal with malaria, you seemingly run at Doom-like speeds, stealth actually works (and can be quite tense), enemies don’t respawn the moment you turn around, outposts unlock fast travel and weapons lockers, health items can be crafted and used in an instant from commonly found plants in the world, weapons loadouts are yours to customize, and so on and so on.
Not only is FC3 the complete antithesis of FC2 in terms of how it treats the player with its gameplay, but it also is the thematic counter as well. While FC2 was about making the player push himself in the face of adversity to gain power and gain influence over this crumbling spit of Central African land, FC3 is all about losing yourself (via a Lewis Carroll quote, the second from Ubisoft Montreal of the year!) as that power is placed in your untested hands. It is about earned—scratching and clawing as you are dragged down to grab on to anything that will save you—versus given as the Rakyat Tatau grows and grows on your previously unmarked arm. Your knowledge and abilities are gifted to you through the supernatural connection of the native people and native lands. Simply compare the environments, a hopelessly dry, cracked, landlocked mass instead of a lush tropical island, and you can intuitively understand the difference.
Along with the vehicles for the delivery of these themes (gameplay versus narrative), this presents the most striking comparison of dread against wonder. In FC2, there was never any wonder, never any hope. Around every corner was dread and a sense of despair. Driving to the next mission location was never an inspiring moment and instead every second was another spent considering turning around and hanging out under that nice shady tree. Regret and doubt fueled every move, but fuel like sugar in a gas tank would drive a car, it doesn’t really help anyone not looking for catastrophe, and that is all FC2‘s barren lands has to offer.
But everything in FC3 inspires wonder. Every road leads to a hidden cave or underwater treasure. Every hill reveals a greater mountain cresting into view. All you do is discover and mine for joy. Nothing poses a challenge to you (well, save for those god damn tigers, but I suppose that’s fair) and everything is available to you. If you want to take over that outpost, you do that and it’s yours. If you want to see more of the map, you climb that radio tower and you see it all. If you want more animal skins, if you want more weapons, if you want to carry more ammo, if you want this or if you want that, it’s all possible. Hang gliding? Sure. Jet skis? Why not!
Needless to say, I have a lot of love for both of those games (and a little for FC1, but that’s a different story altogether), but the reasons for loving one is so vastly different from the reasons for loving the other. They’re both the same dish of a first-person, open-world shooter, but their recipes are so insanely opposed that I wouldn’t even consider eating one after the other; it just wouldn’t make sense. But the contrast makes Far Cry 3 stand out all the more, from the sublime way it plays to the odd, interesting turns in the narrative. From oppression to empowerment, Far Cry makes the jump. But will you jump with it down that rabbit hole?