This isn't the first hands-on we've had with Far Cry 3. At E3, we played through a half-hour scene from the middle of the game. At this point, Jason Brody had risen from nervous recruit to the rabble-rousing inspiration of the Rakyat warrior tribe. He'd cemented his sexual relationship with Citra, the sister of his psychotic nemesis, Vaas. Then he jumped off a cliff and swam to take on Vaas.
It was empowered stuff, but it didn't give a proper measure of the game. There was no sense of how you got there. We hadn't earned the powers, or had a taste of Brody's opening powerlessness. We hadn't learned to hate Vaas properly. And the only whiff of the open world was a gun fight in a compound that could be handled in a dozen different ways. Hell, we hadn't even had our duck-jump tutorial.
Having played through the first three hours of Far Cry 3, we can confidently rev the throttle on the office thrill-cycle. If the rest of the game measures up to the atmosphere, visual impact, satisfying exploration, and downright pace of these opening chapters, Far Cry 3 is going to be obscenely special.
The game begins with a scene of extreme holidaymaking. For anyone picked last at games, it's an eye-rolling orgy of extreme-sports dudery. Despite being a fundamentally humane person, with entirely decent levels of empathy, it's very easy to think "God, I hope these smug pricks get kidnapped soon."
Ubisoft Montreal hasn't just anticipated this feeling, it's deliberately created it. The scene lasts just long enough to serve as an introduction to your friends, before they're transformed into your primary objectives. Pull back to reveal that this big fun adventure is actually a video on your phone being waved in your face by your sociopathic captor, Vaas. Turns out we're in a bamboo cage with our brother, Grant, whose military training has already set in motion an escape attempt. As far as escapes go, it's a 50 per cent success.
Quick on the draw
When you wake up, you've been claimed by the Rakyat. A friendly warrior tribe who see your escape as a symbol of destiny, they took it upon themselves to give you a gnarly ink sleeve while you slept. The right arm's a freebie - the left, you'll have to earn by levelling up and completing mission chains.
Every kill gives you a basic amount of XP, but that's not particularly satisfying. Headshots are better, but with the first skill in the Shark skill tree (see Sum Tatau), you unlock the ability to earn 30XP for getting close and silently bringing down an enemy with your machete. Later on, you'll learn to deliver less subtle kills, leaping from buildings, and chaining these kills to take down small crowds.
The return to a tropical climate doesn't mean that this looks like the first Far Cry. The colours are so bold that it occasionally feels like a cartoon, which matches the chilling but exuberant psychoses of Vaas. But this is an island of brilliantly executed madness, and Vaas is just one flavour.
You meet Dr Earnhardt very early in the main story. He's a phenomenal character - every bit as lost and demented as Vaas, but while Vaas is fuelled by fury, cruelty and showmanship, Earnhardt is haunted by loss, fear and kindness. Even over the first three hours, his story unfolds intelligently and rewardingly, for anyone who's interested enough to look.
For example, the inside of Earnhardt's house is strangely decorated for an old man living alone. But the reasons are there, if not obvious: in his deluded state, Earnhardt refers to your friend by a strange name - a name you can find another reference to in his bio. Suddenly the house, as an extension of his state of mind, makes sense. "Show, don't tell" is standard storytelling advice. But "give your audience the chance to find out" is even better, creating a real sense of conspiracy between the audience and the storyteller.