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Far Cry 3 preview: Down the rabbit hole

by Kat Bailey, shacknews.com, Oct 10, 2012 9:00PM PDT

Everything you need to know about Far Cry 3 is bound up in a quote from Alice in Wonderland that appears near the beginning of the adventure: "For some minutes Alice stood without speaking, looking out in all directions over the country -- and a most curious country it was."

The Alice in question is Jason -- an American frat boy who, according to producer Dan Hay, "jumped into the rabbit hole without looking." Soon enough, Jason and his friends are kidnapped by pirates planning to make a killing on the slave trade. To survive, he has to transcend his soft upbringing and learn to make his way on a dangerous island.

"Certainly Jason's experience is very much, 'I'm going to literally get in a plane, I'm going to jump out, I'm going to go to this island, and I'm just living adventure.' And the reality is that life isn't always like that," says Hay. "Jason probably comes to the island with a bit of entitlement, a western sense of right and wrong, thinking he knows everything. And he quickly learns that he has a great deal of knowledge, but no experience."

That Jason is really in over his head becomes apparent when he tries to make a break for it with fellow prisoner Grant -- a military vet who is able to guide him part of the way out of the camp. While Grant coolly works his way through the gauntlet of guards, Jason is quietly squealing in the background, terrified out of his mind. He is, in other words, reacting like any sane human being who goes from being on vacation to being in mortal danger. Eventually, Grant takes a bullet to the head -- a grisly scene that has you holding A to try and staunch the wound -- and expires, leaving Jason to stumble blindly into the jungle.

What happens next? In real life, Jason would probably get eaten by tiger. Or maybe he would get completely lost, having no idea how to feed himself, and quickly die from exposure. That would make for a very short game though, so he eventually wakes up in a sort of bohemian village of rebels who have taken up arms against the pirates, which is when Far Cry 3 really gets going in earnest.

The story that unfolds is very much 'white man gets in touch with nature ... with guns.' Early on, the main base of operations is the aforementioned village. Jason learns to hunt wild animals; and when he unlocks a new ability in Far Cry 3's extensive skill tree, he earns a tribal tattoo.

It would be an incurably cheesy premise if not for two things. First, by making pirates the main foes, Far Cry 3 retains a certain a real-world edge that helps keep it somewhat grounded. Second, it has drugs. And the hallucinations that follow are actually pretty well realized.

What's interesting about these particular sequences, which are a big part of Far Cry 3, is how personal they feel. It's not easy to pull off a drug sequence in a movie -- it requires a certain mastery of the camera and convincing performances to avoid inducing laughter in the audience. Drug sequences are equally challenging in games, but for different reasons. A game like Far Cry 3 must convincingly blur the lines between fantasy and reality and make the player question what it is real -- not an easy task by any means.

Far Cry 3's first drug-induced experience takes place on a hunt for some medicinal ingredients to save one of Jason's friends. He stumbled into a handful of mushrooms and they explode in his face. Soon after, the world starts wavering dangerously. Jason goes from climbing to just sort of floating over the cave rocks. A house appears, but when Jason tries to go inside, it keeps moving further and further away.

It's probably not a shocking revelation that much of this is the product, in the words of Hay, of the Far Cry 3 team's own "deeply personal experiences" involving "certain psychological experiences." According to Hay: "The reality is that we had some crazy stories that I don't even know we could put into Far Cry. We had some really interesting characters. And we had a need. The need was that we needed to show what Jason's life was before. We needed to show what's coming. We needed to show that not everything is physical and maybe not everything can be solved with a gun."

He continues: "What's really cool about the [mission with the hallucination] is that it's almost a memory. You're actually experiencing it. And when you go through it, you're not using your weapon. You're using your mind. We want to have moments when you're fighting people with a gun or hunting animals or harvesting the jungle, but we also want to have cerebral moments where you're having a memory or a hallucination. It gives us a chance to show you the big picture."

It's certainly a departure from Far Cry 2 -- a game that styled itself as a modern update of Heart of Darkness. Where Far Cry 3 tries to be a spiritual journey of sorts, Far Cry 2 mostly strove to be uncompromising in its depiction of a mercenary hunting a weapons dealer in the heart of Africa. There were times when it was a little too uncompromising -- as when a malarial fever flash abruptly sent you careening off a bridge -- but it has developed an exceptionally loyal fan base in the intervening years. Looking at Far Cry 3, one wonders how they'll feel about an adventure that openly quotes "Alice in Wonderland" in baroque font and sends the hero on drug-induced flights of fancy.

Hay, for his part, feels that Far Cry 3 isn't quite as different as it might appear: "If you liked Far Cry 1, and you liked falling out of the boat and enjoyed the technical tour de force, we give you that. If you liked the idea of being a warrior in Far Cry 2, and I really like Far Cry 2, we build on that. You'll recognize some of the weapons, you'll recognize some of the procedural fire, you'll recognize elements of the open world. But as we build on it, as we give you a suite of different experiences, as we give you outposts that you can take over and they're yours, I think those are the things that people will really respond to."

Of course, while Far Cry 3 is indeed relatively pragmatic in its depiction of an ongoing war between local fighters and a vicious pirate group, it also features magic tribal tattoos that become more and more pronounced as Jason unlocks skill and becomes one with the island. Try and describe a premise like that to someone sight unseen, and they will almost always raise an eyebrow. That's the challenge Far Cry 3 faces.

It's interesting to hear Hay talk about the pillars of the series though. To wit: "[Far Cry] is not regular society. It is off in the middle of nowhere. It's pretty modern, but there's no sheriff, no law, no sense of right and wrong. It allows you to deconstruct people. It allows you to send them on moment-in-time stories. I personally really like that because it gives us opportunities. If we wanna put him on an island, have them be insane, we can because there are no rules."

In that, it's possible to see the connection between Far Cry 2 and Far Cry 3. One is unrelenting in its pursuit of telling a realistic story; the other takes players down the rabbit hole into a world of tribal tattoos and drug-induced hallucinations. Both take players to places they haven't really gone before in videogames. And like Far Cry 2 before it, Far Cry 3 may well prove to be a fascinating addition to the usual crop of military shooters.

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