Following on from a brilliantly-received predecessor has to be hard. There must be a nagging thought that follows you, constantly asking whether you need to be as inventive as your precursor, or whether you ought to simply copy what they did and hope that lightning strikes twice. That discussion must have taken place at Ubisoft during the creation process for Far Cry 4; the previous game garnered critical acclaim, and it must have been tempting to question whether the next one should showcase some radical redesign. In the end, Ubisoft opted for the safer option, and released largely the same game again, but set in the Himalayas instead. The all-important question, however, remained: could this work once again for Far Cry?
Far Cry 4 (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)
Released Nov 2014 | Developed / Published: Ubisoft
The answer really is both yes and no. Without meaning to be overly harsh, Far Cry 4 is largely a reskin of Far Cry 3, and Ubisoft clearly thought that more of the same good thing would be received just as well as before. That probably won’t surprise any patient gamer looking back on the series as I did with this game; we know now (and in all honesty I think we knew then as well) that Ubisoft have a well-earned reputation as being masters at crafting the exact same game time and time again, with the occasional time and place change being employed as a substitute for innovation.
It means that you ought to know clearly what you’re getting when you fire up Far Cry 4, and indeed it contains all the same Ubisoft open world guff as usual. You know the drill: there’s bandit camps to clear out, radio towers to clamber up in order to clear the map, and endless locations to uncover for some vague EXP reward. I’ve almost certainly made that sound a lot duller than perhaps it deserves; the Ubisoft game (as they are mostly all the same) is still made with quality and it’s presented with just as much flair as in Far Cry 3, so it is still very fine to play. There are of course some additions but they’re very small, at the risk of being superfluous.
Our hero this time is Ajay Ghale, a young man returning from America to his native country of Kyrat in order to scatter his mother’s ashes in accordance with her last wishes. The land of Kyrat is basically just Nepal in any other name; a mountainous paradise nestled amidst the Himalayas, but unfortunately for Ajay it has existed under the iron grip of the tyrannical king Pagan Min for decades and a bloody civil war has blossomed as a resistance fights to dethrone him. Ajay, already, cuts a very different figure to Jason Brody; his quest is a decidedly more personal one, and he has closer ties with the land than Jason. However, the writing – and more importantly, the characters Ubisoft chose to craft – is the area in which I think Far Cry 4 lets itself down.
Far Cry 3’s writing was superb, and without a doubt the primary reason it attracted so much praise. It was a brilliant collection of wild, crazed and engaging villains all vying for the attention of Jason, whose journey from scared drug-popping rich kid to a cold, sadistic Rakyat warrior and the ensuing internal struggle elevated it to a higher status. Ajay, doesn’t really seem to have much of a personality at all unfortunately, and exhibits bugger all agency in the story. Unlike Jason, he doesn’t seem to show any emotional responses to his decisions or actions, and nor does he give any thought to what’s happening in Kyrat. His reactions at the beginning of the game set the tone, in that he receives being shot at by Min’s guards, witnessing Min murder his own men and torture someone else while flitting between offering Ajay food and hospitality, and then escaping with the local resistance group the Golden Path, all with the same barely-voiced dull stoicism. After the fabulous writing of the previous game it’s a shame to see the ball dropped quite this badly.
The lesson Ubisoft seemed to learn from the previous game was that big flamboyant villains along the same lines as the inimitable Vaas will sell copies and therefore is all you need. To that end we see a lot of cover baddie Pagan Min in the opening 15 minutes, and yes, he is very much cut from a similar cloth as Vaas. Undoubtedly eccentric and absolutely ruthless, but definitely more amiable towards Ajay than Vaas ever was to Jason, Pagan is certainly an engaging central villain. He has shades of the Joker about him, so I’m sure plenty of folk will find him fun. The way the narrative evolves as more of Min’s story is uncovered is genuinely interesting, but it’s the one golden spot amidst a sea of mediocrity, and I have to say I do find it deeply disappointing that rather than feature overmuch in the game, Pagan spends the vast majority of the time a voice on the phone as he constantly calls up Ajay to banter with him. I get that this allowed Ubisoft to keep him in the game more, but it comes in lieu of Pagan showing up in actual missions, which seems a bit of a poor trade-off.
Other than Min, probably the biggest claim to be the main characters of the game are the joint leaders of the Golden Path, Sabal and Amita. Each vies for control of the Path, and each has very different ideas about how it ought to be run. Sabal wants to restore Kyrat’s traditions and religion, whereas Amita fights to drag the country into the modern day, even if it means leaving its history and culture behind. Certain missions during the campaign require Ajay to choose between them and support one of them to rise to supremacy. These choices purport to have significant consequences, and in fairness to Ubisoft they do lead to some missions having different goals depending on who you backed. For example, an early choice sees Min’s forces attacking an outpost; Sabal wants to send Ajay in all guns blazing to rescue his men, arguing that leaders are pointless if they don’t save lives, whereas Amita is more pragmatic, asking Ajay to use the attack as a distraction so he can sneak into an enemy compound and recover data about future attacks. This sounds like a great idea on paper, with properly diverting pathways depending on your choices, but Ajay’s choices don’t carry the weight the game claims, and really who ends up leading the Path seems to come entirely down to who you back in one endgame mission, rendering all of the stuff before it pointless.
It’s also a frustratingly cynical game. Far Cry 3 earned its reputation by balancing the question of whether Jason was redeemable or not, and one ending of the game makes a lot more sense than the other because of it. He has, after all, just spent a long time running around a deeply hostile environment skinning animals for gear upgrades and coldly butchering a literal army of guards, so the question of whether he would back his friends or not when it counted has more weight to it. Far Cry 4 has no such thing though. Because Ajay has no personality, and Min is mostly there as a fun distraction, Sabal and Amita are left to do all the heavy lifting but they’re too flatly written to make the difference, and in the end the game’s sheer unbridled cynicism coupled with the lack of protagonist presence results in a flat, unsatisfying finale and runs the risk of inducing apathy in its audience.
How does it play though? Well, I mentioned some small changes to the formula that Far Cry 3 gave us, so for a start Ajay gets a grappling hook which is a pretty necessary part of platforming through the mountainous terrain, and it does give Kyrat a marvellous sense of verticality. The other thing which gives Kyrat that same feeling is the newly added Buzzer vehicle, a dinky gyrocopter that was my immediate favourite method of getting around ever, especially as it can be combined with Ajay’s wingsuit and parachute for some fantastic aerial movement. If you’re sitting there thinking “these don’t exactly sound like huge changes,” well, you’d be right. Indeed, all the additions to Far Cry 4 orbit the same core gameplay though that Ubisoft by this point had come to make a hallmark of their releases.
Liberating bandit camps can be done by running in all guns blazing, which can be tricky given how little damage Ajay can soak up, so often stealth is the preferred option. I must say I found stealth in this game even more satisfying than in its predecessor, due in no small part to finally gelling with the bows in this game, which function as a ridiculously strong silent sniper rifle if you can get the knack of managing the arrows’ arc. In a new feature, Pagan Min’s forces can mount counterattacks against outposts, and you can be called in to fight them off again. This sounds like a neat idea but it only really works in theory; the attacks typically happen at inconvenient times, forcing you to choose to drop whatever mission you’re on at the time, and although they’re a good source of EXP there’s not really any incentive to do them beyond that as failing to repel them has no repercussions. Hunting animals returns, and once again the purpose of it is to use their pelts to craft upgrades to your equipment. I like that this time around there’s an actual sidequest attached to finding the rarest pelts, as opposed to how in Far Cry 3 you just found the hunt requests from noticeboards.
There’s also still a skill point system in place. As you earn EXP for interacting with the world, eventually they convert into points to spend on new abilities to power up Ajay. These are split across two paths, that of the Elephant and the Tiger, with the former being focused on more health and exploration passives, while the latter is more built around combat skills. Many of the upgrades are locked behind certain stipulations, most of which require you to interact with the side content, such as completing so many of a certain type of mission. While I’m sure this was intended to encourage players to engage with everything the game has to offer, I do also begrudge it a little because I don’t like being forced to play stuff that I know I don’t like, such as the timed cargo delivery quests or racing. Still, Far Cry 4 is very beatable even without engaging with too much side content, as I found out; by the end of the game I think I only had about half the skills unlocked, but still fought my way through without too much bother.
I worry I’ve been too blase, and made Far Cry 4 sound a bit rubbish. It really isn’t! Although they’re all the same, Ubisoft do tend to at least make games with some quality to them, and I confess that I happily burned away the best part of 20 hours on Far Cry 4. However, I do have the stomach for playing these kinds of games, and if the fact I’ve reviewed nearly every single bloody Assassin’s Creed game should tell you anything about me, it’s that I don’t especially mind the fact that Ubisoft makes the same core game over and over again. If you’re after something innovative, Far Cry 4 will in no way offer you what you want, and if you’re a lover of well-crafted game narratives, it will leave you cold as well. However, not every game must set the world alight; it’s a sad fact but some games are just mid-tier, destined to be playable and enjoyable enough to have a happy enough time with, but without setting your world alight. What makes Far Cry 4 in some senses disappointing is that it followed on from Far Cry 3, but if viewed outside of that context I still think it stands on its own quite well.
4/7 – GOOD.
Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.
We’re going to try out something a bit new here in this space (which I confess to nicking from the marvelous Top 100 Reviews blog) – I’m going to highlight a few other folks’ takes on the same game, and hopefully point you towards some great pieces of writing! Without further ado:
This review brings a very different opinion on Far Cry 4 than mine to the table!
“Far Cry 4 is a game I want to call the best in a series I sort of love. Everything I said about Far Cry 3, about how great it often was, is still true here but here things are better in almost every way, adding small things to improve what was good while dumping so much of what didn’t work about the last game.”
Here we get to take a much more in-depth analysis as to why Far Cry 4’s plot fails in the eyes of the reviewer.
“While Far Cry 4 is a perfectly acceptable video game that ticks all of the boxes, the weakness of its story unfortunately holds it back from any kind of memorability.”