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Far Cry 3 review: Stunning shooter could be the year's best game

Small problems don't ruin open world sequel

"Go!" the native islander says to you. "Return to me once you have mastered the jungle." "Wait, what does that mean?" Jason Brody replies. It means, as you'll soon discover, 25 hours of death-rolling in a crocodile's maw and impaling unstable mercenaries with a sniper-sights-equipped bow and arrow.

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It means 25 hours of mid-air assassinations following ripping hang glider rides. It means lurking after man-eating tigers in heavy undergrowth. It means moonlit buggy rides along water-lapped coasts. In Far Cry 3, the seductive open-world-shooter sequel to 2008's ambitious but flawed African outing, it means the next 25 hours will be amongst the best you play this year.

During that time, your in-game alter-ego Jason Brody turns from tourist to tribal warrior. After he and his college-chic friends skydive onto what looks, from the air at least, like a tropical paradise set deep in the Asian-Pacific - only to find a band of killer mercenaries waiting at the bottom - there's only one way he can get everyone out alive: become a killer himself.

It's an epic tropical playground, exhilaratingly open from the off

Apt for a tale of wavering humanity, Rook Islands is the perfect place to lose yourself. A vast archipelago, it's crisscrossed with deep blue bodies of water and winding crystal streams; punched through with pitch black cave systems; chequered with verdant forestry and grassy plains (nicely flammable when the flamethrowers come a-knocking); lined by white sandy beaches; and also liberally scattered with forces both foe and friendly. In short, it's an epic tropical playground, exhilaratingly open from the off. Panoramic views from towering peaks, or indeed, one of the many hang gliders liberally perched atop them, attest to that.

Such scale, though, comes at a price: flickering, screen-tearing and stuttering framerates are sometimes hard to ignore. While a non-issue on PC's powerful enough, where the game looks predictably jaw-dropping, they're a distracting console bugbear. Don't let it put you off. Far Cry 3's ambition, scale and ideas far outweigh its technical wobbles.

PURSUITS YOU

Take the pursuits, of which there are literally dozens. The most fruitful involves scaling radio towers to reveal portions of map, each of the 18 a self-contained climbing puzzle. Some require balancing on rusty beams, others are launched onto by zip-line. There's more: you could take part in buggy races or knife-throwing contests; beat a time limit to deliver supplies; gamble over cards; collect bounties on wanted men; compete in leaderboard-enabled all-you-can-kill challenges; sell scavenged trinkets like passports and lighters; sniff out tombs hiding ancient relics (they're worth a little more); pick plants to make syringes of a medicinal, fireproof, or animal-repellent effect; hunt for secret letters found on the bodies of Japanese WWII pilots; intervene in whatever random event comes your way, say, an execution or roaming chain gang; or just make your own fun. (Chasing a herd of deer on a quad bike at sunset comes highly recommended.)

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This is certainly not the bleak wilderness of Ubisoft's last epic free-roam, Assassin's Creed 3, but a setting as lively as it is large. Joining smaller and more incidental creatures like crabs, snakes, bugs and birds of paradise are over 30 animal species - sharks, crocodiles, komodo dragons, cassowary, bears, monkeys, big cats, dingos, manta rays, buffalo, boars, turtles - all co-existing in a thriving food chain and a boon to resourceful adventurers. You can put a tapir's hide towards a larger inventory, carve up to four gun holsters from deer, or make an arrow quiver using shark skin. Stabbing a pig just to add an extra fold to your wallet may tip into tastlessness for some, but beware, you can become dead meat just as easily.

Animals are a welcome third-party, an unpredictable agent of chaos

You'll come to know this well through Path of the Hunter challenges. Starting off simple - kill the wild dogs that have been terrorising livestock- they end with you scouting powerful and even mythical beasts, like 'undying' bears, albino crocodiles, golden tigers and man-eating sharks (your guns won't function underwater, so you'll either have to lure it to land or smash it with a jet ski). In combat, animals are a welcome third party, an unpredictable agent of chaos, and brilliantly effective against enemy outposts. Thirty-six posts litter the island, and ridding them of occupants allows friendly forces to permanently set up shops, fast-travel stations and quest boards.

Of course, you could clear them using the smart stealth play, where a new detection meter offers crucial readability into the alert status of guards, enemy-marking with a digital camera lets you track through walls, and thrown rocks act as distraction devices - but it's always more fun to shoot the lock off a bear cage and watch its rampage. Animals inform the Rook Islands of both beauty and peril, a new diversity in sound, colour and life.

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As well as the roaring, biting and snarling additions to the setting, it's less overt improvements that make Far Cry 3 all the fun Far Cry 2 should have been. Weapon degradation's gone, as are the invasive effects of malaria, self-applied surgical procedures are quicker (though it's still odd to see a bullet wound remedied by popping a dislocated thumb back in), enemies won't magically spot you a mile off, checkpoints don't respawn, and given conquering and camps and radio towers is a running goal, your presence on the island makes an encouraging visual impact.

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