Reviews

Far Cry 4 Review – Not Such A Far Cry After All

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Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3 and PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes

This game was provided free of charge by the publisher for review purposes.

Having just leapt down from a gyrocopter in order to wing-suit my way into the enemy base I have inadvertently pissed off an elephant due to my slightly erratic approach to aiming, an elephant that has proceeded to completely wreck two vehicles filled with troops and squash at least three gun-toting baddies into something resembling a pizza. Realising there’s just a single foe left alive I lazily lift my gun and put a round through his head, but pause due to a honey badger launching an assault on his ankles, followed by his face. Outpost captured. No alarms raised. I’ve definitely done this before, and not just in this game. But the elephant is new. And the badger. And the gyrocopter.

There’s no denying that Ubisoft have chosen to play it safe here, taking the brilliant Far Cry 3 template and expanding upon it by providing new tools to take into battle, making for even more freeform mayhem. As for the remaining mechanics they’ve essentially just turned everything up to 11 – there’s more insane weirdness, more drug trips that send you into wacky realms, more animals, more space, more quests, more guns and just generally more. The result is a game that feels very familiar, a fact that may turn off many people and understandably so. But perhaps the best way to think about Far Cry 4 is that it’s Far Cry 3, but much better. And with elephants. And let’s face it, Far Cry 3 was fucking awesome.

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Once again you’re dumped in a vast, beautiful landscape filled with a myriad of things to do and a tonne of systems just waiting to collide, creating fun emergent gameplay. You play as Ajay Mohan, a man heading home to the country of Kyrat to scatter his mother’s ashes, her dying wish. Kyrat, unsurprisingly, though, is ruled by an eccentric dictator by the name of Pagan Min, voiced brilliantly by Troy Baker, and it turns out that Ajay’s parents had a hand in sparking the civil war now raging across the country. Mayhem ensues and Ajay finds himself fighting with the Golden Path, the local rebel force attempting to overthrown Pagan Min lead by Sabal and Amita. Although technically he’s from Kyrat, Ajay was taken to America shortly after birth and has lived there since, so once again we essentially have the Far Cry 3 story of an American turning up and suddenly getting everything that the local people failed to do done. Outposts need to be captured, guns bought, people killed and innocent animals skinned, all in the name of fun.

Things get off to a good start during the intro when the bus you’re heading home in gets stopped by the military and the charismatic Pagan Min arrives, his odd mix of charm and violence immensely creating a compelling force. He could perhaps even outstrip Vaas as one of the best villains in videogames if it wasn’t for the simple fact that after the intro he largely disappears, becoming little more than a disembodied voice on the radio and only an occasional presence on screen. Vaas may not have been physically present often, but he appeared enough and with such brutality to drive the narrative, whereas Pagan simply isn’t present during most of the game, nor does he have the same level of commanding savagery to make his few moments impactful.

There’s a pattern of story elements appearing only fleetingly within the game without ever being granted the time needed to properly tackle them.  Pagan Min’s four lieutenants suffer the same fate as their master, appearing in the narrative seemingly a random before being quickly rushed away with zero time given over to actually making them feel like genuine threats or dangerous people. This sadly includes Noore, whose backstory, which I won’t spoil here, could have made her one of the best characters in the game. Her introduction as master of a deadly arena is fantastic, but then she vanishes until reappearing for a single, albeit dramatic, scene. Like Yuma, Pagan’s personal bodyguard, is described as some sort of badass, but you’ll meet her all of twice as well. Given the short timeframe in which you encounter and dispatch the lieutenants it feels like the writers are  rushing through them.

And then here’s Ajay himself who hovers between being a silent protagonist and a person with no interesting characteristics. He can speak for himself but is mostly devoid of personality. It seems Ubisoft were aiming for players to push their own character onto Ajay, but considering you get dragged along with barely any opportunity to influence the story there’s never any sense that Ajay is you. Meanwhile the plot involving his parents also feels rushed, despite its importance to the overall game.

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That leaves Amita and Sabal, the two “leaders” of the Golden Path. Throughout the story you’ll be given opportunities to pick who you’ll support, changing the objectives of upcoming missions and the overall leadership of the Golden Path. It’s a great idea in theory, but one that’s never fully explored. Anita is more progressive while Sabal is traditional, but you’ll quickly realise that most choices boil down to picking between the lesser of two evils as neither leader makes decisions that could be viewed as sensible. It’s actually the foundation for a good narrative, the idea that while you’re fighting against a dictator the rebellion itself isn’t exactly all roses. Amita, for example, wants to take Pagan Min’s opium processing system for the country and use drug money to rebuild with schools and libraries. Sabal would simply destroy the Opium, but his traditional views mean keeping some pretty questionable ideals.

Other, more interesting people turn up. Yogi and Reggie are two mental, fantastic drug addicts who lead you off on some seriously trippy missions, while Longinus makes a return from Far Cry 2, now a scripture-spouting man intent on righting past wrongs through the use of guns. It’s clear that Ubisoft saw how people reacted to the madness of Vaas and the love of Far Cry 3’s drug induced moments and decided to leap on the bandwagon, sometimes to an irritating degree as it becomes clear that they are merely pandering at times to what they think everyone wants. But for the most part the side characters you meet are a fun bunch.

What’s  disappointing is everything that the narrative doesn’t do. The culture and religion of Kyrat is never explored so it’s just space to traverse rather than a real place, an area of land inhabited by a people who are nothing more than just vague background decoration. The Golden Path suffer from this as their entire rebellion feels like Amita and Sabal arguing with the occasional appearance by a random person. No time is ever given to showing the suffering of the people or the other members of the rebellion fighting the good fight. It feels less like a country of repressed people rising up and more like two idiots bickering and an American going on a rampage. A wider perspective is needed in order to truly show the conflict, and with Ajay seemingly uninterested in his own country and without any real motivation to be fighting it’s hard to even care about what’s going on.

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The narrative is a let-down, then. Ajay doesn’t have enough personality to drive the story forward but has too much to be a vacant body for the player to project into, while the lead villain and his minions aren’t around enough. That leaves the leaders of the Golden Path itself, but they aren’t all that interesting and the choices you make along the way have minimal impact on events. Even Ajay’s own story gets mostly rushed through for unknown reasons. Pagan Min deserves a better story.

The gameplay more than makes up for any misdeeds, though, a compelling sandbox of shooting and stealth set in a vast country. The two core pillars of stealth and gunplay haven’t been touched very much from Far Cry 3 and remain fantastic. Guns feel and sound heavy and meaty with a pleasing amount of kick to them, while the controls are responsive.  Combat feels nice, it’s really that simple. It never manages to match some of the best FPSs in the business, but it gets close sometimes. Likewise stealth is easy to grasp and incredibly satisfying thanks to the lovely feel of silenced weapons and the bow. Generous detection times mean staying hidden isn’t overly challenging, and when combined with the savage takedown moves creates a mighty power fantasy in which you are never anything less than the predator. Indeed, more often than not it’s your own desire to experiment that gets you into trouble, at which point the game smoothly transitions from stealth gameplay into full-on gunplay without a hitch. It’s seamless.

The main campaign missions are fun enough but they hem you in too much, which is where Far Cry 4 is at its worst. It’s not that they are bad, just that they lack a certain something. The developers made a great decision in including a system where the players gets to choose which of the Golden Path leaders to side with and thereby change the missions slightly, but because you don’t care about the characters, plot or country in general it makes them feel pointless, especially since they change so little and have no impact on the world around you. The campaign is worth completing, but it’s hardly the best Far Cry 4 has to offer you.

No, that award still goes to the simple joys of driving around the world, causing insane mayhem. The land of Kyrat is vast and filled with stuff to do, and thus simply going forth and killing bad guys offers up more thrills than playing through the campaign. New additions to the formula include a grappling hook which can be used to clamber up cliffs and even swing Tarzan style from point to point and a small gyrocopter from which you can shoot pistols or launch grenades. Both of these things can be combined with the wing-suit for epic aerial assaults, giving Far Cry 4 a bigger sense of verticality than its predecessor. There’s plenty of smaller new additions, such as bait which can be thrown to attract animals or even act as a distraction. There’s a new vehicle takedown skill where you can leap from your own vehicle to the enemy’s and proceed to stab them in the face, while a cover takedown also expands your reportoire. Being able to move dead bodies is also a nice addition that helps stealth, and you can even learn to ride an elephant.

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There’s even a new autodrive system where you can simply click the stick to set the vehicle you’re using to autodrive mode so that it’ll drive along the road itself or navigate to a waypoint you’ve placed on the map. It goes hand-in-hand with the new ability to use sidearms while driving to shoot things up. Driving and shooting can be a bit awkward, hence autodrive, but if you can master the skill it leads to some intense chase sequences.

There’s an interesting new enemy type on the go, a a hunter with the almost magical ability to tame wildlife in the area and send it after you. These guys fight with bows and if tagged disappear from your HUD again after a short time. You’ll also encounter mortar stations that enemies will use to rain horrible, fiery death upon you, or at least until you kill ’em and use the mortar yourself. It has to be said the Far Cry mortars are arguably the most awesome in videogames to date.

Not all the new changes are good, though. There’s no longer an awesome tattoo that slowly grows as you acquire new skills, and many of those skills are locked until you complete side-activities. To be fair some may find this encouragement to try out all the various side-missions to be a good thing, but in a sandbox such as this being able to pick and choose at will seems a far better idea.

Kyrat itself is a frequently beautiful realm to explore, the power of the consoles being used to full effect to create something  equal to Far Cry 3 running on ultra on a PC, a sight that any PC gamer knows is very impressive. The lush, tropical views of Far Cry 3 give way to more cold, mountainous terrain filled with shrines. The level of detail is incredible, but the star of the show is undoubtedly the foliage which looks sublime. Hands down this is one of the best looking games to arrive on current-gen consoles yet. If the views of normal Kyrat begin to drag then never fear because there’s even a quest line which transports you to the spiritual realm of Shangria La,  a world of reds and golds and white animals where demons roam and a tiger fights by your side. If that’s not quite enough drug-induced trips will turn Kyrat’s sky into a light show of epic proportions.

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There’s also sections where you visit the Himalaya’s, the snowstorms providing cover for you as you sneak through the freezing environment hunting for enemies. It’s pretty cool, and something of a shame since it doesn’t get used very much.

There’s some small performance hiccups along the way, though, as I did note framerate drops, albeit infrequent ones, where the FPS  dropped to perhaps 25 or so. Glitches, however, were actually rare and when they did occur they were minor, like an enemy getting caught up in a wall. It should be noted that PC users are reporting quite a lot of performance problems and other issues, so oddly enough console may very well be the way to go here.

For all its splendor, though, Kyrat never does manage to entice the same desire to explore as games like Skyrim do. Climb Bell Towers an you’ll be shown three little areas that may be worth checking out , and they are indeed more interesting than Far Cry 3’s due to actual things going on, but rarely did I feel compelled to actually set off in a single direction and see what was out there. Mostly you’ll open up the map, pick an activity and head straight to it via fast travel and the most direct route possible, the vast landscape between objectives little more than distance to be traversed. Choose to see what’s over a hill and you might find a nice waterfall or view, but there’s no obscure quests to be discovered or little narratives to find. Like all Ubisoft titles over the past few years everything the game has is shoved in your face, unable to be left to the player to just be found while adventuring. Until Ubisoft can learn to let some of the content remain hidden their open worlds will forever struggle to match the masters.

But hey, hidden or not Kyrat is packed full of stuff to do, a pick ‘n’ mix of activities that you’ll grow tired long before managing to actually finish all of them. Eye for an Eye missions send you on a mission to kill a commander using a specific weapon while Assassinations are straight-up kill orders with the requirement that you’re not detected. Hostage Rescues require stealth as being detected means innocents will be killed, and Bomb Defusals are a blast. Sorry. Meanwhile Royal Cargo trucks can be blown up, or hijacked for extra rewards, and Retaliation Squads need to be taken out with force. On top of that there are races to complete, hunting challenges and random events around the world, plus couriers to chase down. It’s a substantial list of things to do, and most of it feels worth while due to the satisfying gameplay.

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And then there’s the Outposts, the pinnacle of the Far Cry gameplay system. These little areas are guarded by enemies and you simply need to kill everyone,  an extra reward being granted for never tripping an alarm. At Outposts you’re free to launch your attack however you want, from luring in animals with bait to using a bow to raining down death from the air. Free of mission constraints you can simply enjoy yourself, either through the carnage you cause or the carnage the game itself creates through its systems. The campaign missions may be fairly typical stuff and the narrative uninspiring, but taking on Outposts is sheer brilliance. Few games handle the mix of stealth and gunplay so well.

You can now opt to replay Outposts as a well, a direct response to fans feeling letdown in Far Cry 3 because once all the Outposts had been captured one of the most fun elements of the game was gone. Choose to rip through an Outpost again and your score will be placed on a leaderboard so you can compete with friends.

A more divisive feature is that of retaliation squads who will attempt to attack and reclaim any Outpost you’ve captured. Happily in about ten hours not a single Outpost of mine was retaken, perhaps because I destroyed most of the squads roaming the map during my travels. Still, there was  a moment when I took an Outpost and about a minute after leaving it was attacked and retaken.

Fortresses are like amped up versions of Outposts – bigger, nastier and with more enemies to confront.  Progressing through the campaign weakens them as at the start their defenses are far greater. It’s just a shame that there’s only four of them throughout the entire game as their sheer size makes them a blast to tackle. Like Outposts you can choose to replay them, but it’s not the same as having a few more to battle through.

Fortresses are clearly aimed toward co-op which is one of the biggest additions to Far Cry 4. While the campaign is solely the area of one player pretty much everything else is available to take on with a second player, essentially making for twice the mayhem. In a way it’s an underdeveloped system, though. Co-op doesn’t actually add anything to the game, it just brings in somebody else so that you can both do the normal stuff together. But then that seems to be about as deep as co-op goes in games these days, and for what it’s worth blitzing the map as a team feels pretty awesome. One person can set up shop with a sniper rifle while the other tackles and Outpost, tagging foes, or one can distract enemies while the other knifes them in the face. The game does become incredibly easy with two people running around, however, so some sort of balancing system would have been appreciated.

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There’s also an interesting multiplayer mode where one team plays Kyrat warriors with plenty of weapons and the other team takes on the role of hunters who fight with bows, but can also summon animals and turn invisible. It’s a neat idea and maps are often big enough to get vehicles involved, but the objectives are all standard offering like capturing points or just killing everyone. It’s actually pretty fun stuff, although even this shortly after launch getting a game can be tricky.

A map editor is included, a Far Cry tradition at this point. It’s robust and not overly tricky to use, so you can whip together some pretty epic stuff or just attempt to make a mountain of tigers because of reasons. It’s a shame you can’t currently create competitive maps, though, only solo maps can be made and shared. Still, tinkering in the editor is very satisfying. Hopefully we’ll see multiplayer map support arrive soon.

The cynic in me could so easily rip Far Cry 4 apart for its strict adherence to Ubisoft’s triple-A development template and entirely safe approach to its mechanics. The core gameplay loops of gunplay, stealth and rewards are practically unchanged. And indeed I’ve become so cynical that I almost feel the need to take this approach, but it would be untrue. While these criticisms are entirely true and deserved they do not change the fact that Far Cry 4 is incredibly good fun. The story is forgettable as are the characters and the campaign missions are enjoyable but also unmemorable, but that freedom to approach Outposts and combat situations how you want makes Far Cry 4 very compelling. The new toys and mechanics aren’t game changers but they add a little more to the experience.

The Good:
+ Random crap happening.
+ Riding an elephant into battle.
+ Dropping into a firefight from the sky.

The Bad:
– meh storyline.
– Zero depth to the world.

The Verdict: 4/5 – Great
Calling it a glorified expansion for Far Cry 3 is an injustice to just how bloody fun Far Cry 4 is. Yes, it’s familiar, but that’s not always a bad thing.

 

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