A group of American tourists in Bangkok are convinced to visit the isolated Rook Islands, a beautiful tropical paradise off the normal tourist track. Unfortunately the islands are also in a state of civil war, with the native Rakyat tribe battling pirates and drug-runners who have taken over the area. The Americans are taken prisoner by the pirates, but Jason Brody manages to escape and find sanctuary amongst the Rakyat. He is trained in the ways of war, but as he seeks out his friends and tries to take down the pirate leader, Vaas, he risks losing his soul as the violence and conflict intensifies.
Far Cry 3 is the third title in the Far Cry franchise, though it is not a true sequel. It does not share any story or character elements with its two predecessors and can be played fully independently of them. What it does share is the same ethos: a dedication to providing a story-driven single-player experience within a sandbox environment, giving the player immense freedom in deciding how to proceed.
Far Cry 2 was heavily criticised for featuring a similar approach, but not doing enough with it. The game's annoyances - almost non-existent characterisation and of course the frequent road checkpoints with near-instantly respawning enemies which made travel across the map excruciatingly frustrating - overwhelmed the game's conceptual strong points, such as its 'buddy' NPC system and rich atmosphere. The designers of Far Cry 3 seem to have borne the previous title's problems in mind and provided a counter for every one of them whilst reinforcing those elements that did work. In short, Far Cry 3 finally fulfils the potential its predecessor squandered, and redeems the franchise.
The game employs a number of different systems which work in tandem to make it more engrossing for the player. There's a campaign story which you can follow, in which Brody rescues his friends one-by-one before trying to kill Vaas and his ally, the drug-runner Hoyt. However, at the start of the game Brody is a nobody with no combat training and no ability to carry lots of guns around. To improve your chances of survival, you can undertake training missions for the Rakyat or go hunting animals to improve your aim. Skinning these animals also allows you to craft holders, bandoliers and backpacks, allowing you to carry more ammo and gear. However, your map at the start of the game is almost devoid of any useful information: to open up more map information, you have to ascend radio towers and download information from them. Travelling around the islands is also hazardous due to enemy checkpoints and strongholds. To reduce the number of enemies roaming the islands, taking out these outposts is essential. Unlike Far Cry 2's instantly-respawning bases, however, the outposts in Far Cry 3 stay cleared once cleared. In fact, Rakyat forces soon show up and these outposts become havens for resupply and re-equipping between missions. Outposts also generate their own missions, with side-quests, further hunting challenges and assassination assignments becoming available.
In short, there is rarely a lack of something to do in Far Cry 3. It's up to you whether you pursue the single-player storyline to the exclusion of everything else, or put it on hold whilst clearing up all the side-quests first, or (more satisfyingly) mix and match as you proceed. There are whiffs of the Elder Scrolls and GTA series in the game's freeform structure, with the same potential for unintentional dark comedy: laying down a minefield to trap unwary enemies only for the mines to be detonated by a wayward crocodile, or standing triumphant at the entrance to a freshly-liberated outpost only to be run over by a jeep carrying your over-exuberant allies. The game's addition of upgradeable skills and experience points continues the franchise's evolution into a pseudo-RPG, whilst it is a huge improvement over both its predecessors due to its much stronger characters. I can't remember the name of a single NPC from Far Cry 2, but the likes of Vaas, Hoyt and Citra definitely rank amongst the more memorable characters from recent first-person shooters.
Graphically, the game is lush and even beautiful. Whilst not quite the equal of the still-astonishing Crysis in its depiction of a jungle environment, it is still a remarkable graphical environment. Combat is much more satisfying than its predecessor, with a pleasing mix of long-range sniper and close-up assault options. The 'magic binoculars' from Far Cry (and missing from FC2) return, allowing you to 'tag' enemies and keep track of them even through walls. Whilst still being completely nonsensical, they are nevertheless a vital and welcome tool to help plan attacks.
On the negative side, the game is tonally disjointed. The main storyline features a thematic element in which your character's evolution from urban city-dweller to mystical jungle warrior (complete with magical tattoos) is commented on, with a sideline in musings on the corrosive effects of violence on the soul. Whilst it remains interesting that a game which features shooting people in the head actually takes time out to dwell on the consequences of such violence, it's also the case that this element is not particularly developed very far. Also, every violent game of recent note has done this, leading to the suspicion that such an element is being thrown in as a sop to justify its violence rather than a genuine attempt at commentary. Less philosophically, the game sometimes feels like a bit of a mish-mash between a linear, story-driven adventure and an open-world free-for-all, with the two sides of the game not meshing as well as they could.
Ultimately, Far Cry 3 (****½) is a ridiculous amount of fun. As a pure first-person shooter, it's the finest example the genre has thrown up in several years. It's a careful and successful refinement of the best elements of its predecessors, with the negative factors mostly removed. Whilst not as broodingly atmospheric as the recent Dishonored, in terms of a game being a sheer joy to play, it's a triumphant success and one of the best games of the year. The game is available now on the PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA).