Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Far Cry 3.
Several weeks ago Seb Wuepper posted a critique of Far Cry 3's design at Gameranx that I did not find compelling. Wuepper's argument reads less like criticism of Far Cry 3's design per se than a complaint about the fact that this game is not Far Cry 2. I am sympathetic to his point because I also prefer Far Cry 2. However, I don't feel that not being some game I like more is a fundamental argument against design quality. One's opinion of the design's quality will depend on what one thinks the game is trying to achieve (or should be trying to achieve). The question then is whether the design appropriately serves those ends. With that in mind, it's worthwhile to examine three clear outcomes of Far Cry 3's design and how they relate to what the game is (a really fun open-world shooter) and what it's trying to be (a game that makes the player think about what he's doing).
The design encourages the player to prioritize the map over the landscape
This is an interesting and somewhat strange outcome, because I found Far Cry 3 to be much more interesting and pleasant to look at than Far Cry 2, yet my memories of 2's Africa are much more vibrant, more than a year after I last played it, than my memories of 3's Asian islands, which I last visited only one or two months ago. As Wuepper notes, the mini-map certainly plays a role. Loot, harvestable plants, and experience-granting treasures are all much easier to locate on the mini-map than on the world screen, so the game's various progression systems all provide incentives for the player to give much of his attention to the mini-map. Moreover, using Jason Brody's camera to "tag" enemies, or just bringing them into an aggro state, causes tactical information (location, facing) about them to show up on the mini-map. Of course combat requires the player to aim in the main playing field, but the "radar" provided by the mini-map encourages players to pay attention to it in combat operations.
That's not the only way that Far Cry 3 encourages the player to disregard the landscape, however. The oversimplified routing that results from the fast-travel system also contributes. Far Cry 3 allows the player to teleport in close to a desired point and then take a relatively short and direct route to wherever the mission will start. So, at any time that the player has a goal in mind, his first action will always be to look at the map and find the nearest fast-travel point. The map itself, rather than actual travel through the world, becomes the journey. The world effectively becomes discontinuous and only coheres when mediated by the map. Additionally, the density of fast-travel points means that the player doesn't have to really think deeply about the relationship between the map and the landscape, since the ease of travel mostly obviates the need for route-planning.
Moreover, a game like Far Cry 2 that has very limited fast travel forces the player to repeatedly traverse certain sections of its world. These places become fixed in the mind because the player sees them many times. Far Cry 2 provided another disincentive for looking at the map, in that doing so was an actual thing your avatar was doing in the game world, one that prevented him from doing other things like shooting at enemies. Viewing the map had an actual opportunity cost that is not present in Far Cry 3, where the map is a paused screen. Far Cry 3 even has very few punishments for the player who pays more attention to the mini-map than the world. Yes, an inattentive player will sometimes run into a surprise tiger, but the game's robust stealth system, array of powerful silenced weapons, and relatively forgiving set of checkpoints means that the player can safely cross the world while keeping his eyes on the mini-map indicators rather than his surroundings.
All these factors encourage the player to think of the game world as the map, rather than using the map as a guide to the world. I think this can be criticized because it distracts the player from the really beautiful work of the world design. However, the map-oriented play also captures some features of our device-oriented lives. Jason Brody belongs to a generation that constantly uses smartphones as a navigational method, so of course he's going to walk around Rook Island with his nose buried in a GPS app. The various incentives towards map orientation may be a bit of overkill, but going around the islands without really experiencing them is true to this character who is shallowly "doing the Asian thing" by visiting nightclubs and skydiving. In terms of the creators' intentions, this probably qualifies as good design.
The game design strongly endorses stealth play
There are a lot of factors that strongly encourage players to approach combat encounters using stealth, especially long-range stealth. This starts with the aggro model. Firing a gun within earshot of any enemy will draw it pretty precisely to that spot. The more firing that happens, the more enemies are likely to show up, and if this fight is happening near the road in a well-patrolled area things can get out of hand quickly. Critically, the enemy will come regardless of who did the shooting, so getting seen and shot at is just as bad as shooting. Similarly, unless the player takes the precautionary step of disabling the alarms, alerting enemies in an encampment to his presence will result in them calling reinforcements, who often appear in armed vehicles that can be difficult to deal with. All of this amounts to a game that becomes more difficult the less stealthy the player is.
The progression system also favors sneaky play. Takedown attacks, which generally require a stealthy approach and are silent so as to enable further stealth action, give enhanced experience relative to normal kills. The situation becomes more extreme when enemy encampments come into play. Taking over an encampment under any circumstances gives 500 XP, and taking it down without causing any alarms to sound gives 550. So far, this is reasonable, because the experience gained from killing reinforcements can actually outstrip the extra bonus for disabling the alarms. If, however, the player can avoid being seen, an encampment gives up 1500 XP. Now, a player won't always succeed at doing this, but the significant bonus for successful stealth encourages players to always start their encampment attacks using this approach.
The level design supports the stealthy player. Every encampment has high ground nearby that either has plenty of cover, or provides an opportunity for a player to slip behind a ridge. These spots provide a vantage point from which the player can tag enemies, rendering them visible through obstructions and detectable on the mini-map, and also gives the player safe cover to snipe from. Although enemies have a tendency to figure out exactly where the player is even when he's sniping with a silenced weapon, the landscape around almost every encampment is rough enough to prevent them from approaching. This is not to mention the frequently useful presence of dangerous animals in enemy camps, that can be released to accomplish some or all of the dirty work without alerting anyone to the player's presence.
Far Cry 3 also minimizes the opportunity cost of stealth. Many of the weapons in its arsenal take silencers, and the attachments themselves are not particularly expensive. The player therefore has a broad array of tactical options. Stealthy movement doesn't even really slow the player down—not long into the game a player can gain a skill that allows him to move faster when crouched than when walking.
All this is in notable contrast to Far Cry 2, where stealth was famously useless, to the extent that even if the player got the camouflage suit he would frequently take fire from snipers who seemed miles away. Far Cry 3 has a robust stealth system and a design that heavily endorses its use by the player.
I wouldn't say this is bad design. However, it doesn't feel like it serves any end. What does the pro-stealth bias tell us about Jason, or about the world? Why not provide more per-kill XP to reward the player for engaging in dangerous and difficult firefights? The pro-stealth design doesn't make the game more fun, or seem to serve any particular point. It's just there. So it's not bad design, but it's not particularly interesting design either.
I will say that the pro-stealth bias is bad for the narrative, because the script of the game has Jason running through enemy encampments shouting out the name of the game's big bad. In its own right that's an ordinary foolishness, but in light of a design that punishes the player for making noise it is very stupid in a particularly obvious way. Additionally, sniper engagements at long range don't have the visceral impact to support Jason's assessment of himself as a monster.
The player is the master of the system
One of the clearest features of Far Cry 2's design was that its systems consistently thwarted the player's intentions. The best-planned attacks would consistently fall apart—a weapon would break at an inopportune moment, or an unexpected enemy would show up, or the main character would suffer a malaria attack, or the player would just run out of ammo. If he took down a checkpoint, it would quickly be rebuilt and re-manned, and practically everybody in the world was hostile. The player could still win, but he was very much at the mercy of the system. System dominance also shows up in the ammo-driven weapon-swapping of Halo games, the infinite spawn points in Call of Duty, and the limited number of weapons the player can carry in both games.
Far Cry 3 takes the opposite approach. The player is in control. Weapons don't degrade, Jason has no illnesses, and unless the player chooses weapons specifically because they don't allow for a lot of ammo, he'll almost never run out. The camera and mini-map give the player a great deal of power to spot and track enemies, and even when these methods fail the forgiving stealth system provides the player quite a cushion. Rook Island seems to be becalmed—the winds aren't strong and they don't change direction unexpectedly. The player can easily make a harness that allows him to carry four weapons, minimizing the need for functional swaps. As a result, the player almost always has such a broad set of tactical options available that a approach suited to his preferred playstyle is practicable. In addition, that plan of attack, once made, almost always works.
For the game Far Cry 3 actually is, this is great, even though it means there aren't a lot of stimuli to encourage improvisational play. The fact that the player has almost complete control over what happens to him in the game very effectively creates an open-world power fantasy.
From the perspective of the game that the creators meant Far Cry 3 to be, though, this outcome of the design is a disaster. First, the freedom and power of the player in the open-world combat makes the constrictive and dictatorial gameplay of the scripted missions seem unbearable, as it did for Wuepper. Worse, by granting the player dominance, the design gives up its power to confront the player and force him to examine his choices. Player-dominant design reassures and supports the player, which is completely inconsistent with the stated narrative goal of getting him to question what he's doing. This failure to undercut the player makes the design a failure, even though it is the reason this game is so much more popular than its predecessor.
Whether Far Cry 3 is a great design or a bad one depends on what one perceives as the goal. From the standpoint of what the game's writer apparently wanted to achieve, I don't think the game is well-designed. It's too supportive of the player, and its encouragement of stealthy long-range combat makes its violence seem clinical rather than brutal. The design succeeds quite well at producing an open-world romp, however, and players tend to like a game for what it is, rather than what it was meant to be. From that point of view, Far Cry 3 is very well designed, it's just not designed to be what Wuepper, or myself, might like.