Earlier this week Ubisoft confirmed what we already knew and announced Far Cry 4, with a release slated for November 21st. It's set in the Himalayas. You're going to be able to shoot stuff dead, a lot. All of this, of course, was expected: a succession of leaks and rumours saw to that. The casting of a third-rate Zoolander extra as the apparent bad guy, however, less so.
Just look at that boxart. Once you're done drinking in that wonderful/awful outfit, that Graham Norton-shaming haircut, compare and contrast it to the thematically similar art for Far Cry 3. The difference is that Vaas is meant to intimidate through brutalism, and yet his pose suggests calculation, contemplation. This guy's version of torture, while no means less horrible, probably begins with a lecture about your outfit and the importance of correct collar fit.
It seems a deliberate message that the series is getting more playful, carrying a vibe that is immediately comparable to Saints Row. And if that's where the series is headed, that's fine with me. After all, Volition's series was also a po-faced open-worlder until it embraced The Nonsense. It hasn't looked back since.
Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy playing Far Cry 3. I did, or, more accurately, I really enjoyed playing the bits where I wasn't pretending to care about the game's actual story. Far Cry 3 was an experience at odds with itself, in a way its immediate predecessor wasn't. Far Cry 2 was a depressing safari of the worst traits of mankind (and some of the worst traits of video games), but for all its faults it stuck to its forever-jamming guns. Not a great game, but a superb showcase of tone and atmosphere. It never wavered.
Far Cry 3, on the other hand, was all over the place. The game spends the opening few hours desperately trying to get players to care for the plight of Jason Brody, jock of all jocks, former owner of a no-limit black card but now just the owner of two dead siblings and more rage than six 28 Day Later sequels. It tries, unsuccessfully, to make us care for an inherently unlikeable family. It tries, also unsuccessfully, to tell us we're a scared young man when in actuality we're killing more people than Vietnam, and having a great time doing it.
It fails on all these fronts. It succeeds, inevitably, when it lets players loose on the island, enabling them to chose their own destiny. Freed of the weak narrative justification for your actions and the, for the most part, troubling characterisation of most of the people on the island (such as the natives and the Dennis character, neatly deconstructed here), players could get on with what many wanted to do in the first place. Namely: shooting people in the neck with arrows, infiltrating enemy bases, and climbing towers. The game still has issues, of course, but mechanically it's something to build on.
Far Cry 4 would do well to dispense with all but the most arbitrary narrative and allow the environment to tell the story. (Failing this, make it as silly – not stupid – as possible.) The series' best moments were built this way: not when the fucking Trigens were introduced in the original, not when the bizarrely sped-up cutscenes that meditated on the nature of good and evil played in the sequel, and not when you were pretending to be a scared All-American boy in the third.
This is all bullshit, clutter, over-design, the fear of letting players simply get on with it, and it needs to die. Every Ubisoft open-world title suffers from the constant interference, tutorialisation, and hand-holding. Starting a new Assassin's Creed title is a mixture of excitement and despair, as players know that it'll be about three or four days until the game proper starts, after the dev has explained everything from how the controls work to the finer points of Plato's Republic.
We've seen nothing of Far Cry 4, of course. But I'm hoping that boxart tells us a lot. I'm hoping that Ubisoft remembers that its players know what they're doing, and even if they don't, they're smart enough to find out.
One thing that I hope it doesn't tell us is that we're going to be playing as an all-conquering white dude freeing hapless natives. The press release states that the region is "struggling under the regime of a despotic self-appointed king", and the boxart certainly sells that. If Ubisoft repeats its mistakes from Far Cry 3 on this front, it'll be a travesty. No more magical tattoos. Ever.