West Texas is an interesting region. It’s very much full of amazing things like the Guadalupe Mountains, the Monahans Sandhills, and Caprock Canyons. The problem is that they are pretty much Mewtwo-levels of rarity. They are Loch Ness sprinkles on a very flat and boring sundae. Unless you are into arid climates, pumpjacks, and massive irrigation equipment, there’s just about enough to keep you interested for a grand total of four seconds (which, coincidentally, is the amount of time it takes the average person to realize regret).
Flat, for the most part, is boring. If West Texas isn’t proof of that, look at music. There’s a reason why dynamics are lauded and stale vamps are derided. It’s why musical snobs generally hate on pop music; it’s all constantly at 11. It’s the same with movies. Michael Bay might as well be the LMFAO of cinema. Always loud, always ostentatious, always flat. There’s no drama because from beginning to end; you can see the clear path of the story because there are no obstacles hidden by the hills of the rising tension. It’s boring! It just so happens that the explosions tend to make up for the storytelling shortcomings.
Far Cry 3, on the other hand, is anything but flat. I don’t mean from the story side of things. Sure, it has some twists and turns (and eventually sputters out), but I’m talking about the actual topography of the game’s setting of the Rook Islands. Far Cry 3 is just lousy with mountains and hills and waterfalls and long-dead volcanoes hiding huge underground springs. And below the water’s surface, you’ll find shipwrecks, hidden treasures, and tunnels leading to more tunnels leading to who knows where.
The simple act of exploring the world of Far Cry 3 is interesting because of how varied its landscape is. It is the exact opposite of West Texas. Invert the ratio of flat to neat and you have the Rook Islands. Very rarely will you come across a flat, open expanse, and that is normally occupied by an enemy outpost or something equally unique and man-made, which makes sense. If you were inhabiting a wild island, where would you build your village? On the side of a mountain? Of course not. You’d build it where it’d be most stable, so even in the boring parts of the map, there is still stuff to be done.
All of the features of the Rook Islands feed into the fun to be had with actually playing the game, too. Much like how Uncharted 2‘s multiplayer introduced verticality to what would have otherwise been another standard fare shooter, Far Cry 3 takes usual flat plane shooter layouts and makes them interesting. You can go above enemies and below enemies (certain skills even encourage and reward doing so). You can go over them just to get around the side of them before ending up behind them. The wide open landscape of the tropical setting makes the natural layout open to your every whim. You can Bethesda your way up a seemingly insurmountable slope just to get a vantage point the designers hadn’t thought of. You can hide behind a tree high in the hills above an outpost before raining fiery terror on the fools below. You can even dive off a waterfall to sneak into a camp from behind. The topography of the world plays into every outlandish circumstance you can dream up.
Contrast this with other shooters where every path is deliberately placed before you. There’s the main corridor with two side hallways. Or maybe there’s a single walkway but with catwalks above and below the railing. This may seem like the same kind of variety, but it isn’t. It’s still linear. All you are doing is adding extra highways that still lead out to El Paso and Lubbock. When you just need to get from Point A to Point B, it doesn’t really matter how many roads you add to the infrastructure; they’re still roads.
The example from this past year that I like to bring up is Mass Effect 3. Don’t get me wrong; Mass Effect 3 is easily the best-playing Mass Effect of them all and definitely is a good game, but its shooting sequences are so linear, it’s almost painful. Well, it’s not the linearity, per se, that is afflicting but rather that it tries to disguise its flatness, but its facade is easily broken. In many instances, you’ll come across ramps that lead up to other singular pathways. Why is the ramp there? No real reason. It just happens to make you feel like there’s some topographical variety to the maps.
You’ll also often encounter instances where you’ll be walking along a catwalk and find a ladder. Where does this ladder go? Just to a second level that parallels the first one. It’s almost pointless to even include that.
Mass Effect 3 does have its moments, though, such as when you are clearing out side mission bases. That’s when you don’t really have any particular place to go or do except survive, and it seems like that’s when the level designs really shine. There are platforms over trenches leading to bunkers that open up to ladders so you can look out on the main room where you and enemies will funnel into choke points and so on and so on. There is such great variety in these missions that it boggles the mind that no one bothered to try extending it to the rest of the game. I mean, I understand why they didn’t, as you have to move the player from place to place for story progression, but it still makes the relative drops and jumps in battle arena qualities all the more apparent.
Far Cry 3 rarely has that problem. Only in some of the story missions where you are locked down to indoor scenarios and straightforward cave tunnels does the open world fail, and it fails simply because it stops being an open world and those combat and traversal options evaporate. That tall pitcher of iced tea has dried up to faded glass with cracking Disney character decals on the side. Otherwise, the expanding glens and rolling hills and sheer cliffs make for a topographical puzzle. Now you can set up the chess board as you want before you dive into the battle. More than any single skill or weapon, your ability to utilize the world is the single greatest advantage you have in Far Cry 3.
Flat is boring. No matter how many roads you add to West Texas, they cannot make those windy, dusty, cow-smelling flatlands any less flat, and that’s what most games try to do. They’ll take their plane, add some extra streets, and call it good. Far Cry 3 does more than that. It takes all the amazing Guadalupe Mountains and Monahans Sandhills and Caprock Canyons and makes an entire map out of them. It takes topography and makes it a toy—a puzzle, even—and shows that flat is boring.