Now here's a surprise. The last big game release of 2012 was flying somewhat underneath the radar even without the difficulty of arriving after all the sound and fury of all those Call of Duties, Borderlands and Assassin's Creeds, but open world shooter Far Cry 3 turns out to be one of the best of the games of the year.
It's a series that's always offered free-roaming settings within which to shoot and skulk, but multiple changes of developer, a relatively quiet marketing campaign and a highly mixed reaction to 2008's Far Cry 2 had seemed to put this third game firmly in outside bet territory. Perhaps that afforded its creators a freedom they otherwise wouldn't have had, because as well as offering a wild, huge and gorgeous island to careen about on foot, in jeep or by hang-glider, Far Cry 3 does character and narrative well. Packed with darkness and snark, it might occasionally veer into unsavoury and potentially offensive territory, but it certainly works its way into the brain and starts affecting things.
Something of a hybrid of the first game (straight-up shooter on a tropical island setting) and second (territorial war and survival systems), it finds its own voice despite superficial similarities. The island, packed with vegetation and animal life as well as the inevitable mercenaries, is blissful enough to explore, but a clutch of roleplaying systems lends its more purpose than the usual routine headshooting. It is very much a shooter, so you won't be resolving any conflicts through conversation, but it does have crafting, skill trees and a sort of magic, presented as herbal concoctions that offer temporary buffs such as fire protection and a sort of second sight.
The crafting is particularly absorbing, as it requires combing the island for particular species of animal (usually rare) then brutally killing them for their skin. It's horrible. It's mesmerising. It's also more challenging than shooting soldiers - tigers are super-tough to take down, dogs will swarm you in hordes while tapirs and deer will simply leg it at the slightest sound. Once suitable beasts are skinned in suitable numbers, the hides are used to create an assortment of increasingly capacious pouches - e.g. to carry more weapons, more ammo, more herbs, more cash - and while the concept is openly ridiculous when any analysis is applied, it's nonetheless enormously compelling. This hunting sub-game is arguably more engrossing than the main campaign, and its tale of rich, young American tourists trying to escape from and turn the tables on psychotic drug-runners.
That core story is more well-told than might have been expected, however. While there's some discomfort from the fact that this is ultimately a game about a wealthy white guy mowing down legions of foreigners who speak only in swear words, interspersed with a spot of endangered species hunting and visiting magic quasi-voodoo tribes, it does go further too. Far Cry 3 explores, at least a little, the psychological effects of killing hundreds of people and offers some well-drawn and fascinating nutjob characters to spend time with. Crucially, and unlike its stable mate and similarly open-world action game Assassin's Creed III, the narrative doesn't outstay its welcome - cutscenes are few and far between, and its characters tend to have dark charisma and wit rather than simply spouting dry exposition.
Similiary, the raft of optional objectives scattered across the huge map offer satisfying conflict and spectular vistas rather than hollow collectormania. For instance, activating a fast travel point on the map involves storming (or stealthing into) an enemy camp and taking everyone out. This can be done with one of the wide selection of firearms, by silent knife or arrow takedowns, or even letting lose a caged animal and letting the carnage play out.
There's even a spot of light roleplaying, as you pick between skills in either open combat, long-range attacks or stealth when levelling up, as well as customising weapons to suit your playstyle. Essentially, Far Cry 3 is exactly what the more enlightened action game fan most desires - a huge and gorgeous setting, freedom of movement, a choice of ways to play and tons of content to devour in one's own preferred order. Perhaps due to the scope of what it tries to do, it is fairly buggy despite a day-one patch, but don't let that or the slightly iffy tone hold you back. In an age where shooters are often becoming ever-more linear and restrictive, Far Cry 3 offers a substantial glimpse of where things should go instead.