At some point in making video game sequels, developers must ask themselves, “why are we making this?” Is it to advance upon and evolve ideas from the previous game? To change things up, offering players something different under a familiar banner? Or to simply offer more of the same? Far Cry 4 displays all three approaches: it’s a sprawling first-person action game that will feel very familiar - comfortably or otherwise - to players of the franchise’s previous entry.
Far Cry 4 is a game of systems: dozens of interconnected gameplay loops that progress your skills, reveal the map, and unlock new weapons and abilities. If you played Far Cry 3, you know the drill. Capture an outpost and gain a base nearer to a bell tower. Liberate the bell tower and reveal more locations to run off to. Enjoy a throbbing electronic soundtrack and weird mysticism as you explore a map loaded with things to see and do and kill. It’s the Ubisoft way. This is more of a shooty wilderness sandbox game than a traditional shooter, and the series has now embraced that to the extent that the story is just another part of that sandbox.
Far Cry 4’s story is more a backdrop for adventure than something that works as linear storytelling. Which is good, because like the last game’s laughably, offensively awful storyline, the plot is sort of bollocks, a thin framework on which to hang a wide variety of mostly well-designed missions. You are Ajay Ghale, an uninteresting American visiting his dead mother’s native, fictional country of Kyrat to scatter her ashes. Along the way, he’s captured by the charismatic tyrant Pagan Min, rescued by the rebel Golden Path, brought into a civil war and turned into a mass murderer in the process. All in the name of scattering Mom’s ashes.
The ever-present state of civil war is one of the more successful elements here. The stakes feel higher, civilians’ suffering more entrenched with a military dictatorship than with the previous game’s motley pirates. It’s not just window-dressing, either. Capturing outposts isn’t a permanent act in Far Cry 4, as the Royal Army can strike at any time to reclaim what was once theirs. As you roam the countryside, you’ll encounter little scenes of oppression by Pagan Min’s forces that you can interrupt for experience points and the ability to live with yourself. All this creates a compelling atmosphere of oppression.
Pagan himself is a fun character: debonair, sarcastic, and ruthless to Bond-villain extremes. His vicelike monarchy stands in contrast to the Golden Path, whose leadership fluctuates between the traditional Sabal and pragmatic Amita, depending on whose orders you follow. There are interesting power plays in effect, both in cutscenes and in the game’s narrative structure, which hint at a fascinating game of political upheaval and unrest (though this isn’t it).
As grim as Kyrat is, Far Cry 4 isn’t without humour, as it’s shot through with bizarre and “hilarious” characters who give you quests or assistance or loot. These folks’ characterisation is mostly tone-deaf and insensitive. Some characters border on Saints Row levels of cartoonishness - like the mincing “House of Chiffon” fashion designer who sends you to collect animal pelts, or Hurk, a thick-as-pigshit American gunbro who may be a satire of the “rawrr, destruction” mentality Far Cry - certainly its marketing - has been nurturing. Add the fact that Ajay, though technically part-Kyrati, is functionally yet another American swooping in to save a bunch of ethnics with ultraviolence (“Glad to see you again,” they say, after witnessing you murder a dozen people), and you’ve got yourself a tone problem.
That tone problem is exacerbated by its setting. Kyrat is a beautiful, fictitious Himalayan portmanteau of Nepal, India, and Tibet, borrowing piecemeal from the landscapes and cultures of each. Similar to the Rook Islands’ blend of Hawaiian, Southeast Asian, Pacific Island and Maori influences, it’s uncomfortable to play around. I honestly cannot decide whether the fact that Kyrat is fictitious (as opposed to just being straight-up Nepal, say) makes it less offensive - how is Kyrat any different to a sci-fi world inspired by a range of cultures? - or whether its haphazard appropriation makes it more offensive. Far Cry 4 has enough respect in its blood not to approach the full-blown racism of the Just Cause games, but it doesn’t sit right exactly, either.
To Ubisoft’s credit, the Himalayan setting was a terrific choice from a gameplay point of view. Kyrat’s imposing mountains and canyons provide a great range of scenery and verticality, which adds additional tactical elements to play. Movement around the map is, by necessity, slower and more methodical, but the new terrain also brings new ways to navigate it. There’s much more reliance on the wingsuit; you find cute little rinky-dink helicopters scattered around; cars can auto-drive around the serpentine cliffs to reach objectives. In a neat nod to Himalayan climbing culture (and industry), you also have a grappling hook and rope that can be used to rappel up, down, or across sheer rock faces. The sections of the map that encourage creative climbing are exhilarating, puzzly fun.
Wildlife, too, is an integral part of the Kyrati landscape. In one of many attempts to change up the rhythms and difficulty of the game, Ubisoft have doubled down on animals and the ways in which they interact with the player, NPCs, and each other. Kyrat is home to yaks, leopards, killer fish, boars, eagles, and for some reason, rhinos and elephants - a menagerie that generates often-hilarious emergent events. Better yet, their gameplay function has also been beefed up. Certain enemies (who, it must be said, are bastards) can communicate with animals; you can throw bait to attract or distract predators; you can even hop on an elephant and ride it into battle. It’s not efficient, but it’s fun, and is the closest Far Cry 4 gets to bonding with animals.
That’s the second uncomfortable hurdle between me and Far Cry 4. Most of its animal population is out to get you, which means the only way you interact with animals is by shooting them. Many’s the time I’ve run up to an animal to pat it, only to be mauled to death. But it’s not only a self-defence thing: there are tangible in-game rewards for killing animals, which makes machine-gunning endangered species mandatory in order to gain certain perks. It never feels okay, even if the animal in question is at your throat. Hell, casting these animals purely as threats and crafting-material vaults is in itself insulting and heartless. It actually feels worse than, say, rampaging through a Grand Theft Auto game, or even this one - at least you know humans aren’t in short supply. The soldiers you shoot here tend to be nasty people - but animals are just animals. Playing this game made me acutely aware that it won’t be long before we, in the real world, have no tigers or rhinos or elephants left. But hey, at least we’ll still be able to hunt them ad infinitum in Far Cry! Depressed party horn.
Many new features in Far Cry 4 sound good on paper but end up redundant next to the core game. The co-op play, for example, is well-executed (despite some connection issues), but you end up playing the game alone most of the time despite its availability. I did, anyway. This is a game that sucks away your hours, so powerful is the urge to capture one more stupid outpost, craft one more stupid bag. That was bad enough in last time, but the added activities - like fortresses, essentially super-powered outposts - only exacerbate the addictiveness. Ubisoft knows where the fun’s at in Far Cry 4, and they drip-feed it to you such that you inevitably end up realising it’s 4am and you’re still playing.
Far Cry 4 doesn’t rock the wheel or reinvent the boat; it tries a few new things, but is mostly content to rely on its proven formula, as alternately thrilling and problematic as that is. And unlike Assassin’s Creed or Watch Dogs, the core mechanics are compulsive and fun. It’s hard to criticise the game for borrowing so heavily from its predecessor when its predecessor was one of the best shooters around. Whether Far Cry 4 is worth it to you depends on whether you’ve played Far Cry 3 and are keen for more; or failing that, whether the changed-up setting and handful of new gameplay mechanics make it worth another suckle from that Far Cry teat.
Me? I’m sucklin’.