This piece was originally published in the now-defunct Limitless Magazine. It’s a good piece, so in order to let people read it, I’m reproducing it here.
The gun is too heavy, too loud. I’m carrying it out of politeness to the man I killed for it. He was a big guy, covered in armour, and I crouched behind a shipping crate as he hunted around the dock for me. I’d already killed seven of his friends with my machete, and he was angry.
I stood up and emptied the last of my meagre supply of bullets out of my AK47 and into his face, cracking his helmet wide open, sending him sprawling. He was carrying this PKM; a Russian-made light machine gun. “Light” is strictly relative; it’s 7.5kg unloaded, and this thing is fucking loaded. It’s slowing me down. I can’t run properly when I’m carrying it, and I need to be as fast as I can.
But shit, when I pull the trigger? People notice. This thing holds 100 rounds in the rusty box mag strapped to the side of it, which is more than I can stuff in my pockets. I can keep that trigger held down all day if I need to. Big bullets, too, big as your finger. Kicks like a mule and sounds like thunder.
I can’t leave a gun like that behind, even if it’s all I can carry, now. But I can’t afford to fire it. I can’t find bullets for it. And, more importantly, if I have to pull that trigger, things have already gone wrong.
Far Cry 3 is a game about power, and I’m trying to change that.
You play a man on a quest, at first, to rescue his captured friends from the hands of pirates and mercenaries on a tropical island; as the game progresses, it becomes clear that you’re only really interested in saving your friends because it means you get to kill people. There’s some satire and some social commentary in there, but it misses the mark; the payoff, the smart bits, don’t come until the end of the game. It’s a lot of drumroll for not a lot of fanfare.
But it’s a game about power, in that you start off only able to carry a single weapon, and by the end of the game you are swaggering around with four modified and upgraded pieces of destructive kit strapped to your muscled body. By the last quarter of the game I was swanning around with a semi-auto shotgun, a tiger-print Desert Eagle, a silenced high-calibre sniper rifle, and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. I was out-gunning everyone on the island. I was unstoppable. I was bringing C4 to a knife-fight.
It feels good, of course, to grow in power, to master a world and achieve. In a way, it feels too good; by the end of Far Cry 3, the difficulty curve plateaus out and you’re left a wandering god of war, looking for something big enough to hurt you. I guess the designers would probably say that was intentional.
So I started again, and I made three rules. They were:
ONE. No additional weapon holsters – I would carry one weapon at a time.
TWO. No upgrading or purchasing weapons from shops or vending machines – I would only use weapons that I found in the field.
THREE. No additional ammo pouches – my bullet stockpiles would remain low throughout the game.
I was going to live off the land.
I’ve only got seventeen bullets left in the PKM, so I hide in some bushes by the side of the road and wait until the enemy convoy goes past. I don’t want to have to take on the next outpost with an empty machine gun, and I’m not leaving this thing out in the jungle in exchange for some crappy knockoff AK47 with a single half-full magazine. Getting hold of it was a nightmare.
I have to be careful. I go off-road, crashing civilian cars through the undergrowth, because it’s risky but it means I avoid the patrols. More than once I end up in a river and have to claw my way out of the rapidly-sinking car and swim to the water’s edge, but it’s better than getting into a gunfight.
I use my machete, instead, when I can. My machete is my best friend. My machete is perfectly quiet, so long as they don’t see me coming, and I do my best to make sure they don’t see me coming. When I get into their bases, I’m like Jack the Fucking Ripper.
Far Cry 3 is some of the most fun you can have if you think killing virtual people is fun. It is perfect.
There’s the story missions, of course, but they’re fairly linear affairs – go here, shoot these men, find a thing, leave. The outposts are the real joy of the game. The islands are littered with these outposts which are full of men you must murder for the good of the Rakyat, an island people who are following your lead for little reason other than the fact you are the main character in an FPS. These outposts are all puzzles, littered with guards and multiple lines of sight and alarms and wild animals in cages, and the solution to the puzzle is always murder.
The game rewards you for taking a stealthy approach to the murder by giving you extra XP, and XP is vital for earning more and more ways to stealthily kill people. There is always a back door, a hole in a gate, a low fence you can vault over to breach the outer defences and get into their midst; from there on in, it becomes a game of timing and distraction, of luring guards inside shacks and slitting their throats, of quietly disabling alarms and placing landmines to cover your tracks in case you’re discovered.
Of course, if it all went wrong, I could always shoot my way out of there; Far Cry 3 never lets you engage in a stand-up fight without punishing you, but carrying a full range of guns at least made you more flexible. Now, with only an oversized light machine gun to my name, I had a much harder time of it.
The first one goes down easy. I always clear out the sniper towers first, because they have the best lines of sight, and I don’t need red-dot lasers dancing over my position if and when this all goes to shit. I sneak up the stairs and burst into a run at the top, and he’s facing me as I push the machete up through his belly and into his heart. He slumps to the ground.
I pat over the body for something useful – I find nothing, just some dog tags I can sell for money that I can’t use – and scan the rest of the outpost for information. Two other snipers. A heavy with a machine gun. A lunatic carrying molotov cocktails. A whole bunch of guards with assault rifles and shotguns. A killing zone in the middle of the base. Cover at the sides.
I could take up the rifle and kill one, two, maybe three of them if I’m lucky, but that’s too dangerous. I’ve only got one exit up here, unless you count jumping off the side of the tower and breaking my ankle. I’ve done that before and it didn’t end well.
(Once, I snuck into a base and killed the sniper only to sneak back out, set up shop on a nearby hill, and shoot the lock off a tiger’s cage with his gun; it escaped and mauled everyone in the camp to death before I drilled its brains out with a second shot. It was clever, but I feel that using tigers like that is cheating, almost.)
They’re all tagged, now, so I can sense where they are through walls. I’m a hunter, after all. It makes perfect sense that I can do that. It’s probably something to do with their scent. I don’t like to ask too many questions about it.
I leave the sniper rifle in place – it’s there if I need it later – and tiptoe down the stairs, getting into position for the next kill. There are two of them, which is no problem. In some ways it’s better, quicker. I get in behind the first one and slash his throat open while I cover his mouth to stifle the screams, and then while he splutters and dies I pluck the knife out of his belt and throw it into the back of his friend’s head.
But I’m too cocky by far, and that guy with the molotovs spots me and I know I’ve got around four seconds to get the hell out of there before everything around me catches fire. I drop into a run, low to the ground, and dive behind a hut. Alarms sound. The men shout and I see them move in to surround me.
Can I get back up to the sniper tower, kill a couple of them from up there? No. It’s on fire. Typical.
With a full suite of weapons and explosives and body-armour, you can afford to plan for every eventuality; sniper rifle for silent wetwork, shotgun for when things get up close and personal, desert eagle for showing off, and rockets for vehicles. If the rocket launcher’s too unwieldy, you can pack a grenade launcher instead. If the sniper rifle is too impersonal, you can buy a compound bow. If you find yourself suffering at medium range, swap out the desert eagle for a top-of-the-line assault rifle. The world is your oyster.
My world was largely on fire. Once a fight kicked off, I could afford to plan around 15 seconds ahead and no more. The enemies drop an extremely limited selection of weapons, with the vast majority of them carrying one of two designs of assault rifle. My options are limited to killing things with my machete and then frantically trying to use a bargain-basement gun to perform any task I need of it. I am a Swiss Army Knife with one attachment; a blunt instrument.
I would have liked to use shotguns, more, but only around one in a hundred enemies carried one and I would frequently find myself with only four shells spare. Still, whenever the chance came up, I’d grab one and immediately charge into the nearest group of enemies with little to no regard for my own safety. They were a sudden spike in destructive capability, contrasted sharply by the way that I’d inevitably run out of ammo and find myself stranded in the middle of a group of understandably angry armed men.
I love that feeling, that icarine ascendancy and subsequent crash. It’s like hot fudge on cold ice cream. We need more of it in games. Let us get in over our heads.
Two men make a break for the left side of the hut; the first is too close to me by far, so I swing the machete into him a couple of times and he goes down. The PKM that’s been slowing me down for all these hours finally comes into play on the second; I bring it up and fire off all seventeen rounds at the second guy in the space of a second or two. He slumps to the ground, and I’m moving, I grab the AK off the first guy and strip the ammo out of the second, jamming a fresh clip in there.
I have 30 shots, which is an improvement on none. My cover catches fire while I am reloading.
Bullets clip me in the arms and legs and my vision swims with the pain so I stagger out of cover, into another building, and wrap bandages around my lacerated forearms. I lob my grenade, my last grenade that I should really be saving for the vehicles when they arrive in thirty seconds or so, to buy me a little more time.
I dig a bullet out of my right forearm and begin to hyperventilate while my enemies run in fear.
I find a back door and run out of it, bullets thudding into the earth around my feet, and throw myself into the undergrowth. It’s harder to find me, here, harder to draw a bead. I throw a rock to distract a guard who thinks he’s seen me, except he’s not quite sure where, and shove my machete into him up to the hilt before pulling the pistol out of the holster on his hip and shooting one of his friends dead with it.
Everything is on fire. I have one molotov of my own, and the technicals carrying reinforcements have arrived, so I decide now is as good a time as any to throw it. It cracks open on the hood, covering the truck in fire, sending the driver and the machine gunner flailing around in fear as they are burnt to death.
I am not the master of my domain; I am some grubby trickster bastard. Every single second of combat is a frantic dash for survival, an ever-changing equation based around how many bullets I am currently holding (not enough) and how many men are on the horizon (too many) and how long it will take to heal myself (too long).
But the technicals are clear, which only leaves the heavy, stomping around with his machine gun. And, as it turns out, a tiger.
It’s a testament to the design process behind Far Cry 3 that it’s still fun when you ignore a vast swathe of content. It’s more fun, perhaps, more a series of difficult choices based on challenging circumstances than an exercise in forward planning and wise investments of weapon upgrades.
Late-game combat in Far Cry 3 is about building a machine gun that means you no longer need to think tactically. Isn’t it a better story to use what you find on site, to take the tools of the enemy and use them for your own ends? To emerge battered and bruised and singed but victorious, after all, at the end?
It plays out like a 3D version of top-down neon murderfest Hotline Miami, although it’s a bit more forgiving; you’re left with this sensation of being both brutal and cunning when you succeed, a cocktail of desperate violence and split-second decisions.
It’s still about power, but that power is transient. When I’m inside an enemy outpost, when they don’t know I’m there and their backs are turned, I’m all-powerful. I can kill six men in as many seconds. When one of those men sees me before I can end his life quietly, I’m almost powerless. I spend the entire fight running away.
It’s not quite a trend, yet, but there’s a pattern shown in games like Tomb Raider and The Last of Us that speak to an audience hungry to be rendered powerless, to have their skill-set strictly determined by situation (stealth, for example, or positioning or lines of sight) and to have the game repeatedly push you out of that situation.
Far Cry 3 transcends the limitations as an illustrative point; by the time you “win” the game, by the time you upgrade everything, it’s barely fun anymore. You got what you wanted and you ruined the game. What you were fighting for, your end state, ruins the game.
That’s all well and good when we’re viewing it through the lens of satire, but satire doesn’t play as well as it could. (Look at Spec Ops: The Line, for example, a game so devoted to mocking military shooters that it ends up falling into its own genre stereotypes, often without comment) By removing that element of Far Cry 3 you stay in that flip state; you stay equally powerful and vulnerable, you maintain that knife edge.
It doesn’t say anything about videogames when you play it this way, but it’s a damn sight better.
The heavy is closing in on me. I’ve got around seven bullets left and I need at least 30 to take him down, so I go for the sanest option currently available; I shoot the door off the tiger’s cage and run like hell, hoping the liberated tiger will take him down for me.
I crouch in a bush, bandaging my wounds and watching as the tiger knocks him onto his back and rips his throat out. The base is liberated. I have won. The flag of the Rakyat is raised.
Now all I have to do is rip the PKM out of that’s heavy’s warm, dead hands, and I’ll melt back into the jungle. Friendly troops drive up to the base and fire AK47s fruitlessly at it as it tears through them; they’ll either beat it or prove an useful distraction. I sneak through the bushes at the side of the camp, back to the sniper tower, back to the rifle, and steady my aim over it as it claws some poor bastard’s face off.