What can I say about Far Cry 3? I can come up with a dozen reasons why it is shallow, lacking the emergent panic that Far Cry 2 was so good at generating or the narrative punch of Spec Ops or the thematic cohesion of Dark Souls. Yet I liked it enough to play all the way through to the end and complete every optional side quest, every collection-based achievement, every time trial leaderboard challenge. The core feedback loop that drives the player to feel good about mastering this beautiful, refreshing virtual environment is refined to within an inch of its life, always giving the player the benefit of the doubt and enabling them to play however they want, even if it's a sub-optimal decision.
Not many people liked Far Cry 2, which was a highbrow attempt to put you in the shoes of a mercenary in war-torn Africa. Everything about the game is deliberately unpleasant: the infinitely respawning enemies with armed jeeps, the randomized malaria attacks and constant gun jamming, the need to frantically look down at a paper map while driving, the interchangeable corrupt factions. The side quests took the form of requests from your buddies to commit war crimes, each more vile than the last, until by the end of the game you have devastated the entire country and even the arms dealer is more noble than you are. The most effective way to smoke an enemy out from behind cover was to set the entire jungle on fire, and the best you could expect from the local shop most of the time was an AK-47 in working condition, which was significantly better than what your foes were using. If you want to make a best-selling video game, regardless of how incisive your social commentary is, you need players to be enjoying themselves long enough to experience it. So Far Cry 3 erases or minimizes all those distinctive quirks, in favor of a more traditional open world power fantasy. Your guns are completely reliable, ammo and health are liberally dispensed to the point where you can whip up a half-dozen med kits and an invincibility potion in the pause menu, and there are not only civilians but an entire local resistance (helpfully color-coded) who will be pathetically grateful for any of the favors you grant, despite being able to mount competent sorties from their secret base even without your help. All the random odd jobs littered around these tropical island will shower you with money and skill points, and the only serious resource constraint is tied to how assiduous you are about hunting animals and skinning them for better equipment. Do you want to sneak around with a silenced sniper rifle? Do you want to barge in with a dozen grenades and a machine gun? Do you want to run around with a knife and a longbow? How about encouraging tigers and bears to attack your enemies? All these are joyful, easy, and actively rewarded by the game. Come on in, the water's fine, it says.
Simultaneously, Far Cry 3 has a narrative which half-heartedly calls all this into question. As an entitled rich white dude with no combat training, your mission is to parachute onto this remote tropical island and colonize it like the British Empire, in the name of saving your fellow spoiled buddies. Many interesting themes are alluded to here - there are frequent quotes from Lewis Carroll, allusions to Apocalypse Now, and all boss fights are replaced with mystical visions that are some combination of ancient forces, bad drug trips, and your player character being an unreliable narrator - but these themes all disappear after a couple lines have been said about them. Virtually every other named character is either a romantic interest or a double of your character, but the "good ending" simply leaves all those questions and themes hanging, letting you insist that you are not in fact a crazed killer who spends most of his free time hunting sharks with assault weapons, then go right back to doing so.
It is the very friendliness of the game that undermines its narrative pretensions, in fact. The villain Vaas, in a superb performance, points out that you have become just like him in your wanton quest for power at any cost - but almost every quest you undertake has a clear villain, a half-dozen remorseless killers in front of him, and a pure virtuous innocent whose bacon you are saving. Your girlfriend, another great character whose actress nails the line between horror and concern, worries that you are becoming a totally different person, but you rudely shrug her off, probably because whenever she calls you she is undercut by the presence of an impending mission whose urgency is undeniable. If she picked up the phone to nag you about how you spent the last two hours stealing ancient relics from the natives you were supposed to be saving so that you could earn those last couple skill points, it would strike a lot truer. There are 3 or 4 poker games in the plot, and a fully implemented set of poker games you can go to, but you never have to play the game itself because a scripted event will occur before you could possibly lose. The last third of the game showers you in new areas, weapons, and abilities, but you have already become an impossibly powerful death-dealing machine, so all you can think about is how much more boring this corporate villain and his mercenary band is than the flamboyant, scrappy pirates you were up against earlier. The center of gravity in the story is Citra, apparently the only eligible female on the island, who (of course) falls for the player immediately, providing everything from super powers to tribal tattoos to sex to an excuse to kill more dudes. You get the impression she does this act with every foreigner who parachutes onto the island, but only you the player are able to set events in motion. There's no reason to mistrust the patently unreliable narrator when it's clear that everyone involved wants Jason to do one of two things: (a) embrace the jungle and become an unstoppable killing machine, or (b) kill a hundred people to save five innocents and kick back with a Mai Tai. Nobody pushes back against you, so you have no reason to doubt yourself.
Still, the escapist fun of this game has a strong pull. Hunting animals, hang gliding and sky diving and exploring the wilderness, climbing tall towers and planning your assault on enemy outposts: all these things set the bar very high for an open-world game, be it Assassin's Creed or Grand Theft Auto or Elder Scrolls. The game is loads of fun, but it doesn't really mean anything anymore.