"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting things to change." That's how Vaas, Far Cry 3's psychopathic poster boy, introduced himself and Ubisoft's latest open world shooter back at E3 2011.
Given the context - one and the same line of dialogue begins and ends a brutally freeform shootout - it's hard not to feel like the writers are having a sly pop at the rest of the genre. All too often, the variety theoretically offered by an open world is lost beneath mindless drudgery, as designers replicate tasks and rewards to fill space. Far Cry 2 gave us many a Coppola-worthy sunset but, for some players, the tedium of gutting guard posts over and over was too much of an ask. Appropriately for a game modelled on Africa's inhospitable backwaters, it was a world that resented being explored, seeking to mire play in the same battle with the same, eternally cycling handful of goons.
Going by this definition of insanity, Far Cry 3 is remarkably sane. Ubisoft has put together a calculated overhaul which retains the second game's heavy-footed feel, psychologically fraught storyline and underlying structure - while rejuvenating the setting, upping the complexity of the mission design and kicking down most of the checks on exploration. The stylings (all Rorschach loading screens and Lewis Carroll quotes) suggest a trip down the rabbit hole, piercing the heart of darkness - but in practice this is simply the game Far Cry 2 was supposed to be. Better late than never.
Incredibly, it's also a game with a sense of humour. The 10-15 hour main campaign (pushing 30 hours, at a guess, if you're keen on collectables) charts fish-out-of-water Jason Brody's attempts to revenge himself on Rook Island's community of well-armed nutjobs, without becoming just another well-armed nutjob in the process. That's the kind of story that could have been conducted with an unrelenting po face, especially coming after the marble-hard example of Spec Ops: The Line, and indeed the urgency of the game's need to bury players neck-deep in horror is wearisome at times. Among other stand-outs, you'll claw your way out of a heap of corpses, stand to attention while somebody's cooked "till his skin crackles" and confront a disco hallucination of Vaas while he spreads his arms to receive your blade like a mohawked Christ.
But there are cunning stabs at self-referentiality. People are rarely what they seem, whether it's the wild-eyed human trafficker with an eerie knack for anticipating your movements, or the hulking Aryan privateer who later reveals himself to be a flamboyant play actor, more Bruno than Arnie. Contrary to what the trailers imply, not everybody's a screeching, gesticulating parody of craziness out to upstage Jack Nicholson either. There's also the ex-pat Dr Earnhardt, a damaged and kindness-prone man who, at one point, sends you on a drug-addled trip into the depths of the earth. Further in, meanwhile, there's the obsessed CIA agent Willis Huntley, a burned-out Sam Fisher caught in his own web of conspiracies. Sadly your own character, Brody, isn't among the star turns - he and his abducted friends are modelled a little too closely on the hateful, pampered tourists from Alex Garland's The Beach, and the introduction of some contrived tribal bromance only muddies the waters.
If these characters ever rub you the wrong way though, banishing them from consideration is generally as simple as heading over the nearest hill. Save for when you're locked into a story mission with a fixed completion criteria, the entirety of the island (in reality, two islands) is yours to explore from the get-go - providing you've got the tools and tenacity. Progress through the world is punctuated by busted radio masts, which are rudimentary but enjoyable climbing puzzles that, like Assassin's Creed's synchronisation points, reveal all the quests, key structures and treasures in the surrounding area. In a clever touch, ziplines then allow you to drop yourself directly into one of the scenarios you've exposed.