Far Cry 3 review: The slippery corpse

Far Cry 3 likes holding your hand, but not in the clingy, clammy way committed by worrywart games. A more pedantic guide would have dragged you through a clockwork jungle, crushing the chaos that lies beneath brilliant moments of discovery and sudden warfare. What you get on the pirate-infested island paradise of Far Cry 3, with great relief, is a tug in the right direction, and tacit approval when you decide to frolic and fling grenades at goats.

Goats, by the way, are not to be trusted. They seem like innocent targets in their grass-chewing congregations, but there's evidence of an assassination plot burgeoning between the billies. One led me across the road, just as an enemy patrol car came rattling around the bend. I pursued another through a frenzy of gunshots and screams, amidst mercenaries and a ... collective noun of Komodo dragons. And the most evil of all goats had his revenge in death, sliding down the hill while I bent down and followed, trying to liberate his skin for a carrying bag. That's when I fell off the cliff, chasing a slippery corpse. %Gallery-172621% Though recovered weapons and your personal health have become more reliable since you visited Africa in Far Cry 2, the spirit of improvisation and clumsiness still vibrates in this playground of shooter variables. Animals will stalk and surprise you, unchecked alarms will rile pirate encampments (which can now be permanently cleared), and a convoy ambush is likely to go south if you don't bring equipment that suits your strategy. Then again, it's probably best to lug around an AK47, a sniper rifle, a shushed pistol and a flame thrower, because "ruin everything" is totally a strategy.

It doesn't start with an avalanche of choices right away. While Far Cry 3 envelops you in its gorgeous wilderness, it also grows your violent mechanisms through leveling and crafting systems. The two would seem to be in opposition, with your trek interrupted by constant video-gamey fiddling, and especially jarring in light of Far Cry 2's naturalistic approach, which put the map in your hand as a piece of paper. But there's a balance to be struck, between guidance and freedom, and Far Cry 3 does it well.

The elegance of design is underlined when you set your own objectives, and feel rewarded inherently and without fanfare. You're on a course of self-improvement, which translates to game improvement: Crafting quivers, ammo pouches, larger backpacks and additional holsters gradually swells your combat options on the field. The necessary materials come from killing certain animals, be it with silent bow or unsubtle shotgun, and the highest tier of equipment is usually derived from the scarier parts of the animal kingdom. The process may even encourage you to abandon your hang-glider over the ocean, dive in and seek out some shark skin. Now there's an act of bravado, exceeded only when you decide to wear the game's gaudiest accessory: the leopard-skin ammo pouch.

Collecting the local plant life, which all open-world game protagonists must do at least once, yields concoctions for your stash of syringes. In role-playing parlance, these provide temporary buffs that affect your senses and resilience to bullets and fire. Flowers can also go into explosive arrow tips, if you like being a hippie demolitionist.

Hunting and gathering may seem boring to read about, but these activities form the captivating basis of Far Cry 3. Each excursion can lead to new discoveries, encounters and ignominious deaths, and all are linked like nodes in a web that grows more complex as you uncover more of the islands. You're showered with experience points too, unlocking new ways to sneak, stab, shoot and seamlessly transition between all of the above. If that seems familiar, it's because the overt design is, in essence, signposting what made Far Cry 2 special, and aimed at those who missed it.

It doesn't necessarily make Far Cry 3 the superior game – there is a certain softening of its predecessor's rustic danger and boldness – but it is a smart, inclusive compromise, much in the vein of Assassin's Creed 2 over the polarizing original. Ubisoft Montreal's philosophy radiates from the top of the radio towers that litter the island and outline the glut of activities open to you, down to the grass you so often find yourself creeping through. The addition of a handheld camera to Far Cry 3, meant for marking distant targets, has two important benefits: it enhances your situational awareness in a visually dense environment; and it teaches you that a little bit of spying can give you control of how the battle plays out. Far Cry 2 knew this, Far Cry 3 shows it.

Being showy is something Far Cry 3 excels at, sometimes to a fault. You've gotten this far without hearing about the story, which halts until you're done blowing up bears with C4. The gist of it is that you must rescue your friends after a gnarly vacation lands you on an island torn between misogynistic human traffickers and an almost mystical endemic tribe. There's no failure of seriousness in the acting or presentation (save for the tasteless guard mutterings), leading me to think that Ubisoft's grim tale is just an uneasy fit for the game it's in.

Protagonist Jason Brody, who must have narrowly lost in the Dude-Tastic Name Championships to Brock Cody, goes from never firing a gun to reloading like a pro in an unbelievable spurt. You'll buy his inexperience and shock – just listen as he chokes up while relaying bad news in the beginning – but the rest is suspect. A friend, for instance, says he'll teach Brody how to hunt, which means guiding him to a navigation marker where a tutorial blurb tells you to kill an animal. The player is already ahead of Jason, who never receives a lesson in the fiction.

His trajectory is nearly in line with yours, as he finds existential meaning and alarming comfort in completing missions for his tribal masters, but we are already there at the start – we feel right at home looking through a scope and we're already having fun, which is why we're out in the jungle while the story's sense of urgency withers. (That's if you don't take another detour into the fiery multiplayer modes, or the co-op campaign that tosses out exploration for strict, coordinated shooting.)

The dilly-dally shortfall hurts the game's most prominent villain too. Vaas is a squirrelly, unnerving psychopath in an open world that doesn't allow for him to intersect with you very often or in an interactive way. He's a memorable presence, but Far Cry 3's reliance on cutscenes makes him into a serial kidnapper with a serious soliloquy addiction. Also, he loves testing you on your vocabulary as it pertains to mental illness, so study up.

The uneasy connection between story and game is a Big Design Issue for everyone, of course, and Ubisoft Montreal is certainly ambitious in its effort to make everything work well together. The open-ended, unstated and emergent elements of Far Cry 3 make it a unique shooter among this year's campaigns, while formalized character and equipment progression provide a directed thrust to your exotic antics. It has excellent, explicit design layered on top of system-based chaos – which is a fancy way of saying that just about everything in Far Cry 3 feels like a reward. Even a dead goat.

This review is based on reviewable code of the Xbox 360 version of Far Cry 3, provided by Ubisoft.

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This article was originally published on Joystiq.