After spending over 30 hours liberating outposts, intercepting armored convoys, hunting animals and helping to liberate the nation of Kyrat from the iron grip of flamboyantly camp dictator Pagan Min, The end is in sight. Mission givers Sabal and Amita have stopped talking about their desperate struggle for freedom, and have instead taken a more confident approach when it comes to doling out mission objectives. Pagan’s grip on Kyrat is weakening, they say. Now is the time to strike. For a while, I think that I’m at the end of the game.
How wrong I am.
After blowing up a gate and giving the freedom-fighting force calling itself The Golden Path access to Northern Kyrat, I expect a swift rush to Pagan Min’s Himalayan fortress and a conclusion. What I get is another 30 hours of missions and side quests, as the game reveals one of the final tricks up its sleeve – that the map you’ve spent so many hours exploring is, in fact, just half the playable area in Far Cry 4.
You have to feel a little sorry for Ubisoft Montreal, a studio which has become – for better or worse – identified with continually pumping out game after game following the same open-world formula. Beleaguered with sorting out the problems with Assassin’s Creed: Unity, working on The Division, a Watch Dogs sequel and Far Cry; all of that would take its toll on any studio – even one which spans 5 floors’ worth of staff. Impressive, then, that they’ve managed to deliver one of the standout games of the year – albeit one which simply expands on its predecessor, rather than reinvents it.
As much as players complain about a feeling of by-the-numbers game design when it comes to open-world Ubisoft games, that sense of familiarity has led to no small degree of expectation with each title they release. Players know what to expect when they pick up a new Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed. They’ve come to expect that bits of the map will be revealed after unlocking certain locations; they’ve come to expect looting corpses for valuables, only to spend the profit on new weapons, upgrades and improvements to the player-owned base. And they’ve come to expect a sprawling map covered in icons signifying momentary diversions from the main narrative. If they changed too much, Ubisoft Montreal would soon find itself in the unenviable position of being forced to defend why they deviated so far from the blueprint which made their previous games so successful. So they play it safe – delivering a fantastic game, but one that never feels as though it’s truly attempting to break new ground.
Bearing this in mind, it’s difficult to play Far Cry 4 and not think that the developer was all too aware of the need to deliver a familiar experience, following on from the tremendous success of its predecessor – a game which won numerous awards and sold by the bucketload. The result is that Far Cry 4 offers the same experience as Far Cry 3, only writ large. The concept of “less is more” has not so much been ignored, as it has been thrown off the peak of Mount Everest. Far Cry 4 is highly enjoyable then, but it does start to overstay its welcome by the time you reach its (rather anti-climactic) conclusion, thanks to an overriding sense that you’ve seen it all before, and no small degree of padding.
Still, improvements have been made to the core experience, even though they’re not as radical as you might hope. The protagonist, Ajay, is immediately more likeable than Jason Brody – mainly because he doesn’t fucking talk very much. Brody was an insufferable prick, a High School jock with an ego that made Howard Stern look positively humble, and his personality tarnished what was an otherwise-accomplished game last time around. Ajay, by stark contrast, is more likeable. He doesn’t talk much, but when he does, his dialogue is more grounded in reality, and less prone to eyeroll-inducing bouts of self-aggrandisement.
It isn’t just with Ajay that Far Cry 4 successfully improves on its predecessor, either. The writing is a welcome improvement across the board, and while its story of civil war and revolutionaries isn’t going to win any prizes, Far Cry 4 does occasionally manage to throw out genuinely touching moments, and moral quandries that give you cause to stop and think before considering your next move.
Ostensibly, for much of the game you find yourself torn between pragmatism and idealism. Thrust into the center of the rebel faction Golden Path’s conflict with Pagan Min, you find yourself repeatedly asked to choose between advocating the approach of the traditional-but-zealous Sambal, or the progressive-yet-ruthless Amita, who are locked in open conflict for dominance over the movement. Neither side presents a case without questionable morality, and choosing who to side with over the other is something that will make you stop and think on numerous occasions throughout the narrative. Far Cry 4’s characters don’t occupy the same kind of moral grey area inhabited by, say, the colorful cast of freaks in The Witcher 2, nor do its choices feel as weighty; but there’s a subtlety to the writing here that simply wasn’t present in Far Cry 3.
That’s not to say that Ubisoft Montreal has lost its sense of fun, however, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the outrageously camp, pop-culture-referencing Bond Villain that is Pagan Min. Whereas Far Cry 3‘s Vaas Monetenegro asked you to consider the definition of insanity, Pagan just wants you to enjoy the Crab Rangoon and share his appreciation for chiselled cheekbones. Even when you’re tearing down his empire around him, Pagan seems to delight in the anarchy in your wake, gleefully congratulating you for ripping apart his army with a well-placed grenade. Ubisoft Montreal doesn’t overplay Pagan’s existence – in fact, aside from his dramatic opening, for much of the game he’s little more than an occasional voice interjecting over an intercom. But his presence is felt throughout in a way which Vaas never managed, aided in no small part by the fact that he isn’t killed off two thirds of the way through to be replaced by an antagonist with all the personality of a dump truck.
Improvements have been made to pacing, too. In Far Cry 3, you had to wait for up to 30 hours before the game saw fit to hand you the wingsuit – one of the most liberating and useful tools in the game. In Far Cry 4, Ubisoft Montreal effectively hands it to you on a silver platter from the start. You still have to purchase it, but the cost of entry is so low that you wonder why they even bothered giving it a price tag in the first place. A rickety gyrocopter allows you rain down fiery mayhem from above; outposts get crushed underneath the heel of a rampaging Elephant; and this is probably the only game in existence that allows you to perform drive-by shootings from behind the wheel of a Tuk Tuk, something which even Rockstar North hasn’t managed yet. It may well be an iteration on an established formula, but Far Cry 4 knows its audience, and its greatest success is in handing you a litany of tools with which to wreak havoc across its expansive map.
Visually, Kyrat isn’t as immediately striking as Rook Island. Azure skies and cerulean lagoons have been replaced with cloud cover and navy waters, and the bold colors of Far Cry 3 have been reined back, in favor of an altogether more autumnal palette. Still, Far Cry 4 manages to throw up some beautiful sights when you’re standing tall on a mountain peak, its world laid out before you like an inviting playground. And variety is given in the shape of an occasional sojourn to the snow-swept peaks of the Himalayas, or the beautiful visual splendor of the optional Shangri-La missions.
Much has been made of the Shangri-La missions. They’ve featured heavily in the game’s promotional materials, and essentially serve as a replacement to the acid-inspired segways in the previous game. Unfortunately, for all its beauty, Shangri-La is home to some of the weakest missions in the game. Far Cry 4 is at its best when it asks you to pick from a multitude of toys and reap mayhem – a power fantasy that it’s all too eager to encourage at every opportunity. Shangri-La, by contrast, is a depressingly straightforward affair; its lush red waters and ashen terrain disguise dull and frustrating treks through entirely predictable obstacle courses, and is only further undermined by the designer’s demands that you take the stealthy approach. Perhaps all-too-aware of its own failings, Ubisoft Montreal has made these trips optional. Aside from a debut voyage that sees you adopting a giant tiger and setting it loose upon foes who disappear in a puff of smoke, you need never set foot in the mythical landscape. It’s a shame that the developer couldn’t make the experience more compelling, because Shangri-La is easily one of the most visually striking examples of what videogames are capable of, and certainly one of the most distinctive environments seen in a game since we first descended to the depths of the ocean and explored the ruined dystopia of Rapture.
Elsewhere, the need to over-deliver sometimes threatens to over-egg the delicious pudding. I’ve already mentioned the extensive running time, which might cause you to look impatiently at your watch even as you’re charging an elephant through an enemy fortress. And the characters, amusing as many of them are, often feel like little more than window-dressing. A pair of pothead slackers aren’t half as funny as the game seems to think they are, and a CIA agent who briefly takes center-stage in the final third of the campaign is utterly forgettable, to the point where the only thing I can remember about him is his ridiculous mullet.
There’s also no getting away from the fact that, as is the case with so many other Ubisoft games, you’re essentially being asked to repeat the same tasks over and over again. You liberated an enemy stronghold? Great! Now do it again a couple dozen more times. Found a demonic mask in a well-hidden area of the map? There’s another 54 of the fuckers to hunt down. Far Cry 4 isn’t short of things to do, but so many of those things feel like shoehorned padding that it’s hard not to start feeling like they exist simply to fill a map with shit to do for the sake of it. What could have been a superb 20-hour whistle-stop tour becomes a gruelling marathon, and only the most dedicated will manage to strike off every one of its tasks.
And then there’s the wildlife. As with Far Cry 3, the latest entry in the series has you hunting down the indigenous population of your environment in a mad hunt to craft a new wallet. The problem is that, just as before, the wildlife doesn’t so much as bite back, as it does simply refuse to fall over and die. Animals in Far Cry 4 take an insane amount of ammo to bring down. Even a fucking honey badger soaks up more lead than a fully-armored, flamethrower-wielding grunt. It was a problem in the last game and it remains so here, and it’s disappointing that in the intervening years Ubisoft Montreal hasn’t managed to come up with a way to balance things out so that expanding your carrying capacity feels like less of a chore. By far the most irritating entry in the game’s menagerie is the Eagle – a fucker that swoops down out of nowhere in a canned animation and swipes a chunk from your healthbar. It doesn’t help that this usually seems to happen just as you’re attempting to flee from a small army of enemy soldiers, either – meaning that it’s all-too-easy to find yourself staring at a load screen through no fault of your own. I have the words “FUCKING EAGLE!!!” scrawled in giant letters in my review notes, and I’m sure I’m not the only reviewer to have done so.
Small things like this aren’t game-breaking by themselves; but there are enough of them in Far Cry 4, and the game goes on for long enough, that they make their presence known in a way which has you occasionally questioning the judgement of the developer. Bigger doesn’t always mean better – sometimes it just leads to accentuating the flaws which exist in your design. That’s a line which Far Cry 4 treads more often than is necessary, and it prevents the game from truly reaching the greatness to which it aspires.
Still, despite these failings, Ubisoft Montreal has delivered a game which doesn’t just expand on its predecessor, but improves on it in a number of fundamental areas. Climbing a mountain only to swoop down gracefully towards terra firma with your wingsuit never gets old, your surroundings will frequently have you pausing to admire them, and Pagan Min is one of the most likeable bastards in recent gaming memory. Far Cry 4 doesn’t quite manage to make itself truly essential; but it comes damn close.
While it has so many flaws, Far Cry 4 manages to be insanely moreish – and there’s simply so much of it that you could easily still be polishing off its endless list of tasks months down the line. Ubisoft’s greatest accomplishment this year isn’t lurking among the blood-soaked cobbles of revolutionary Paris. It’s found gasping for air among the Himalayan mountains.