Without a doubt, Ubisoft Montreal is the most impressive developer of this generation. Few studios have amassed a portfolio of games that have been consistently great year after year. It transformed from a good studio to a transcendent one.

The fact that Ubisoft Montreal produced two AAA releases this year is a testament to that. The first, "Assassin's Creed 3," garnered all the hype. It has the bigger fan base and higher expectations, but it isn't the studio's best work. That distinction belongs to "Far Cry 3."

Surprised? I was. The series was rebooted with a sequel in 2008 and found its footing as an open-world first-person shooter, albeit one with a darker side. "Far Cry 2" sidestepped its sci-fi roots and focused on more serious matters, exploring the nature of violence in a war-torn African country.

With "Far Cry 3," those themes and gameplay elements carry over. Players don't save the world in epic battles. The campaign is about survival as they take on the role of Jason Brody. He starts off as a carefree 20-something who's more concerned about his next party than his goals in life. He's off celebrating with his brothers and friends in the South Pacific when their vacation goes awry.

Jason and his friends end up captured by drug and slave traders on the Rook Islands. With the help of his older brother, he manages to escape. The campaign is spent trying to rescue his loved ones. That switch from being the male equivalent of Paris Hilton to John Rambo has an effect on his psyche. It doesn't happen overnight, and the compelling part of the narrative is seeing that metamorphosis.

Fans will be glued to every mission and side quest as they mold Jason to their playing style. "Far Cry 3" incorporates a smart skill tree and a crafting system that invests the player in the world that Ubisoft Montreal beautifully crafted.

With the skill tree, abilities are divided among three categories and have a distinct effect on combat. Players who want to go in guns ablazing will want to focus on building up health and weapon abilities. Those who prefer a stealthier approach will choose powers that let them hide bodies or kill silently. It offers flexibility so that enemy encounters are like puzzles with several solutions.

The crafting system deals with gear that lets players hold more ammo or carry more weapons. Initially, the scarcity of ammo and guns is a big factor in combat and forces players to conserve resources. But as they explore the archipelago and hunt creatures, players will use animal hides to upgrade the gear. In addition, players can collect plants to build serums that heal him or give him advantages like being able to see animals in the brush.

Jason will need these skills to take on Hoyt Volker, the kingpin of this illegal operation; Vaas Montenegro, his psychotic right-hand man; and the mercenary army at their beck and call.

Ubisoft Montreal artfully meshes these systems together. At the beginning, it can be difficult, but as players learn how to plan assaults on enemy outposts, they will appreciate the intricacies of the stealth system. Further on, players will feel empowered as Jason acquires more abilities and new avenues of attack open up.

But the wrinkle that makes "Far Cry 3" special is the wildlife and nature itself. The team fills the Rook Islands with so much life, history and mysticism that players will want to explore it. They're often rewarded with some awe-inspiring vistas or hidden caves. At the same time, there is a sense of danger and randomness with wildlife. Bears can attack players while they stalk a foe, or tigers can walk in a camp and cause enough havoc that players can take an outpost.

"Far Cry 3" is full of these unpredictable moments. It's the surprise around every corner that will make players want to stay on the island.

Contact Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or gcacho@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read his blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei.

'far cry 3'
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Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Rating: Mature