So, you have a gift card, you're excited to jump into a new game, you finally got an Xbox 360, or you just feel like blowing some cash on a recent release. But what should you play? We look into the surprisingly equal quality, but very different style of Far Cry 3 and Halo 4 to try to help you choose between these solid shooters.
Far Cry 3
Review by Seth Robison
Rama Rating 8 out 10
A linear FPS title in an open world's body; Far Cry 3 (out now for PS3, PC and Xbox 360 from Ubisoft) takes the franchise back to its tropical island roots with a new story that's a refreshingly M-rated take on the ordinary guy becomes killing machine trope and makes up for any small faults with a beautiful fictional game world filled with real human ugliness.
Jason Brody, his two brothers and a few other friends were living it up in Southeast Asia, one last alcohol and recreational drug fueled excursion before most of them, Jason not included, were set to go on to careers and lives. One last adventurer, parachuting onto a sparsely populated Rook Islands, goes terrible wrong when they are all kidnapped by slave-trading pirates led by the game’s surefire breakout star, a Joker-like creepily hilarious island warlord named Vass. In a tense sequence, Jason escapes, but to save his family and friends, he must embrace the history of the island, its mysterious traditions and most importantly, the brutality of his enemies.
The “Alice down rabbit hole” trope is one most chewed over ones in gaming for good reason; it’s an easy fit for game developers to ease real players into their unreal game worlds: A 'normal' person plunged into a strange world where the rules of civilization/biology/physics don’t apply. Far Cry 3 clumsily uses quotes from the Lewis Carroll original to introduce each new chapter, but gamers are best off ignoring those and a few other incongruent character development touches that is all but unavoidable in the sandbox game structure that might get in the way of the meta-story of Jason's rapid evolution from squeamish survivor to force of nature. This change is not only related in dialog but via an experience system that rewards clever and through gameplay with a literal marking of Jason’s transformation.Nature, surviving it and using it to your advantage, plays a big part in Far Cry 3. The Rook Islands are teeming with both wildlife and plant life, the former including beasts as benign as pigs or as hostile as tigers that can all be hunted by the player for their skins. Skins that are used to craft upgrades in a system that's more Red Dead Redemption than Ubisoft's own Assassin's Creed 3 (and that's a good thing). On the vegetative side plants can be harvested (again like Red Dead Redemption) to craft medicine or other drugs that improve your survival capabilities or your abilities at hunting man or beast.
When you temporarily bored with saving your loved ones from a fate worse than death, there are plenty of distractions on the Rook Islands, but first you have to clear up areas in the map for exploration by engaging in more of Ubisoft's obsession with forcing people to climb tall buildings (which will confirm for many that Ubisoft HQ is atop a mesa somewhere) to have a look around, in this case, cell towers. After than you can keep yourself busy collecting a bunch of different kinds of things, play poker, race dune buggies, play “Duck Hunt”, go on special hunting expeditions but most importantly: lower the enemies' presence in an area by clearing out one of their outposts.
This is where the game is at its most entertaining, each outposts is unique and filled with a set number of foes and can be cleared in a number of ways that you decide. Wade into their midst guns blazing and you'll face a few waves of backups too, or you can stealthy eliminate them by using the local wildlife, the spreading fire mechanic held over from Far Cry 2 or most usefully and unlimited supply of small rocks to toss as distractions. There are over a dozen of these bases to clear out and you'll miss them when they are all gone.
As fun as stealth kills are, and the enemy AI sadly really isn't bright enough to make them a serious threat, for good or ill, and since Far Cry 3's sizable arsenal of weapons will make choosing your favorite for wiping out enemies that truly deserve their fate an enjoyable chore. There are at least four variations of every conceivable class from handguns to SMGs to shotguns to assault rifles, sniper rifles, rocket/grenade launchers and LMGs. There is even a flamethrower that you use for one memorable mission, but because of the aforementioned spreading fire mechanic, you are more likely to set yourself ablaze instead. Most of them are also customizable with attachments like silencers, scopes and different paint jobs.
Despite the copious blood, mature themes and drug use, all the “ugly” things that make it an M-rated game, Far Cry 3's Rook Islands are an astonishingly beautiful place. Jungles, swamps, lagoons, bamboo forests and beaches are gorgeous by themselves, but with the light of a Pacific Ocean sunset, make you want to order a Mai Tai. Outside of Vaas and his voice actor's disturbing performance, the voice work is merely serviceable, while the audio is a clever blend of 'traditional' island mixed music with the kind of house music that the characters would have enjoyed before their fateful skydiving trip.
Far Cry 3 is technically competent controller-wise, though the real time weapon selecting is a bit awkward in action, making it hard to tell which one of the up to four are going to get when you do a quick swap or run out of ammo. Concurrently, the stealth takedown button is default tied to the “R3” button, not a reliable click when fractions of a second count.
The overall experience is augmented by a multiplayer mode that is heavy on the unlockables and visual tricks like ghost images of where your foe was standing when he killed you, but suffers from an extremely busy interface and balance issues. New to the franchise are up to 4 player co-op story missions that take place before the events of the core game with different characters. Unlike the core game, these take place on a linear map.
Far Cry 3 at the same time takes the franchise back to its roots and charts new ground with a mature storyline featuring true human ugliness and not a simple violence and adolescent super-soldier wish fulfillment.
Review by Seth Robison
Rama Rating 8 out of 10
Fans of the continuing adventures of a certain taciturn, green armor-clad space marine can breathe a sigh of relief, the transition in development from Bungie to 343 Industries is now complete with the release of Halo 4 (out now exclusively for the Xbox 360) and everything that made the franchise one of the most popular in the past decade is both intact and ready for the future.
Four years after being lost in space after the climax of Halo 3, the Master Chief is awoken from cryogenic sleep by his AI companion Cortana when the wreckage in which they are adrift encounters a hostile splinter faction of the thought defeated Covenant in orbit of a massive artificial planet constructed by the ancient Forerunner race.
Halo 4, being a first person shooter and not a game of interstellar diplomacy, has the situation quickly escalate into furious combat between the splinter Covenant, the Master Chief and a mysterious power that still lives inside the millennia old super-structure. At the same time a more personal story plays out between the Master Chief and Cortana as the latter is at the end of her useful life and is beginning to break down, forcing two beings whose ties to 'humanity' were tenuous to begin with to come to terms with very the human emotions of grief and loss.
Perhaps knowing that it didn't have to reinvent the wheel to sell a ton of copies, 343 wisely doesn't mess with that has worked for years, and that shows with things like the Covenant returning as a foe and an overall adherence to the basic mechanics of the franchise that adds little to the basic gameplay formula of clearing areas and crossing checkpoints solo or with up to four on-line allies.
The most significant and welcome change is the addition of a third faction, the Forerunner army. Though small in variety, each are developed with their own version of the enemy AI that had always made battles in Halo challenging. The way the Covenant Elites, Grunts and Jackals always seemed to work as small units is perfected with the Forerunner forces, requiring players to think their way through an encounter rather than just blazing away at the largest target with biggest weapon they have. Speaking of, the new faction comes with their own complete set of useable weapon types and armor abilities that complement the human and Covenant load outs and expand the game's arsenal by at least 50%.No doubt taxing and cajoling out the power of a console system that has reached cagey veteran status, Halo 4 is beautiful looking game with detailed character and weapon animations and vistas, though the individual combat environments quickly feel like 343 was driven by some purpose, perhaps to setup maps for multiplayer, to drive the player through a checklist of different surroundings like 'jungle area' 'lava area' and 'winter area' like an old-school platformer. Plenty of classic Halo chanting delivers an epic feel on the audio side, most of the voice work is stock and serviceable despite the best efforts to tug heartstrings over Cortana's looming mortality. That drama might land best upon the hardcore fans of the Halo lore, who though the core story and hidden videos are well rewarded with more of this science-fiction universe's backstory, which to their potential delight, can be considered nigh-opaque to the uninitiated.
Perhaps taking a page from the latter four Assassin's Creed games, multiplayer in Halo 4 is lightly framed around the exploits of the SPARTAN-IVs (two generations past the Master Chief) aboard the UNSC Infinity in orbit over the Forerunner world. The base multiplayer delivers the game types, leveling, unlockables and the Forge system of game/map creation that has made the franchise an online staple for years, but most pleasing is the new co-op multiplayer Spartan Ops mode.
In the episodic Spartan Ops mode you and up to four allies take on a string of story based missions on multiplayer maps or sectioned off pieces of the campaign mode's areas. Each of these, as of now five episodes in five parts each, comes complete with CG intro videos and custom audio in-mission (featuring as your commanding officer Jennifer Hale (Mass Effect's Cmdr. Shepard)) that further explores the Forerunner world that was at the center of the story campaign. Each Spartan Ops episode takes about an hour to complete, though that, and the story mode's duration really depend on skill/difficulty level and if you going solo or not; eight hours is a good base number for a standard play through.
Though it's been five years since third numbered entry, core fans of the franchise haven't really been lacking in the Halo department in the meantime with titles like Halo Wars and Halo: ODST. However, this title came not only with the added weight and pressure of being a numbered entry and the return of the series' star to the limelight, but also the tight scrutiny of the fans due to the studio switch. Halo 4 adds enough of the new and doesn’t mess up too much of the old to pass each of these tests, and reaffirms its place as one of gaming's appointment franchises.