Far Cry 3 throws you in at the deep end. At a time when first-person shooters typically hold your hand through a series of carefully orchestrated and ostentatious set-pieces, Far Cry 3 instead hastily lumps you with a pile of information before thrusting you into the tropical wilderness, armed with very little to defend yourself against the swarms of violent pirates and dangerous wildlife.
It's initially daunting and more than a little confusing, but successfully mirrors the experience of protagonist Jason Brody, who is trapped on the archipelago Rook Islands after a vacation gone wrong. After being kidnapped by pirate leader Vaas, Jason escapes and sets out to rescue his friends in the deadly tropical surroundings.
Developer Ubisoft initially presents Jason as a young man struggling to find his feet in the world, but as he is tasked to complete increasingly risky objectives, he eventually becomes something of a one-man war machine. This steady transition from a binge-drinkin', fun-lovin' "bro" to a hardened warrior is helped along by a skill points system wherein the player can upgrade Jason's abilities, granting him new moves such as the ability to shoot a handgun whilst sliding down a zipline, to upping the amount of health slots available. It's a far more simplistic leveling system than that used in Fallout 3 and the like, but it does a good job of making you feel as though you, as Jason, are becoming more well-equipped to tackle the dangers ahead - and there are plenty of dangers.
There's rarely a moment for respite in Far Cry 3. If you aren't fighting pirates then you're fending off an attack from a tiger, or a bear, or a shark. It seems that everything wants to kill you on Rook Islands, and often simply wandering through its foliage and admiring its lush vistas can result in an impromptu shootout between you, pirates and a pack of rabid dogs. It's this spontaneity that makes the Rook Islands feel so alive, not to mention the beautiful surroundings.
Far Cry 3 is a pretty game. Playing on the Xbox 360 there is some graphical slowdown in some areas, but there are countless times where you'll be blown away by the vibrancy of the huge open-world environment. The tropical setting is what has always helped set the Far Cry series apart from its peers, and as the modern day shooter continues to favour the bleak grey/muddy brown colour palette, encircling the shore in a jet ski as the sun sets below the mountains is a joy to behold. While the majority of the time you'll be bathed in sunlight, there's also a weather system put in place that will treat you to a thunderstorm or two, which will drown out the sounds of approaching wildlife and leave you even more vulnerable to an attack. Exploring Rook Islands is unsettling and thrilling in equal measure.
As you progress through the story you'll encounter a host of comrades and lunatics, from the native warrior goddess Citra to the sexual deviant Buck, all of whom are voiced superbly and help transform a plot that could've so easily been dismissed as silly and throwaway into something much more engaging. There's a great distinction in the personalities of your friends that you rescue and the people whom you encounter on Rook Islands which, without giving too much away, makes it easier to empathise with some of the decisions Jason makes further down the line.
From your very first encounter with Vaas, you'll want to hunt him down and kill him, and although Jason may not be the most compelling of protagonists on his own merits, the increasingly difficult and oftentimes distressingly violent trials his enemies force him to face will make you root for him on his quest.
The story of Far Cry 3 is what will take up the bulk of your time. For those wishing to deviate from the main plot there are an abundance of side-quests, that will have you doing everything from hunting rare animals to racing against the clock to drop supplies off to friendly natives. 'Crafting' is another prominent feature, which sees players being tasked with hunting specific animals in order to create useful items such as weapon holsters and rucksacks to store loot in, which can be retrieved from the fallen bodies of enemies or in the various containers hidden around the island. There are also enemy outposts that can be controlled and radio towers that can be scaled, which have you taking part in some first-person platforming that surprisingly works quite well.
Outside of the story mode, Far Cry 3 also has both competitive multiplayer and co-op modes. The competitive multiplayer has a handful of typical 'capture the objective' game types that unfortunately fail to capture the imagination, and while neat flourishes such as the ability to choose whether to take mercy upon or punish your defeated rivals post-game are good fun, ultimately Activision doesn't have to worry about a new contender to its throne.
The co-op mode fares slightly better, placing up to four players in a Left 4 Dead-esque fight to complete objectives against waves of oncoming enemies, with the action interspersed by fun mini-games such as quad bike racing. It's a fun distraction from the main story mode, but nothing more than that.
The map editor also makes a welcome return, allowing players to create their own multiplayer levels that can then be shared online. However, those hoping to simply fill a small island with bears and tigers will be disappointed, as each map is required to go through a validation process in order to be playable online. While it's possible to include tigers and bears in your map, no game type allows for the use of enemy AI, meaning that you will not be allowed to upload your creation online. Considering that Far Cry 3's multiplayer is unlikely to spawn the creation of a thriving community, it would've at least been nice to have had some fun running away from volatile endangered animals with friends, so this omission is a mildly frustrating one.
But multiplayer is not the focus of Far Cry 3. It is the story that will have you hooked. Almost out of nowhere, Ubisoft has delivered one of the finest examples of an open-world game in history, presenting us with a lively world that is a pleasure to explore. Far too often do sandbox games present you with an under-populated world with too little to do, but you'll rarely experience a dull moment in Far Cry 3. Whether you're hunting sharks in the middle of the ocean or hang-gliding above the mountaintops, it's impossible to not be lured in by the beauty and charm of Rook Islands. Ubisoft have created a masterpiece.
The reviewer paid for one copy of Far Cry 3 for Xbox 360. He completed a large majority of the lengthy story and spent a few hours with the multiplayer modes. He also created his own map that he filled with tigers, bears and sharks.
Paul Tamburro is the UK Editor for Crave Online. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTamburro