A Far Cry 3: Brotherhood of sorts, the latest Open World Ubisoft Game (this one is the Iconic Himalayan Edition, for reference) abandons the series' previous liking for radical inter-instalment change, instead focusing on refining its best concepts. It's an obvious move - Far Cry 3 was a critical darling, and not many people want to play Malaria and Depression Cry 2 again - and a shrewd one. It's also the best Far Cry yet.
Those that loved the previous title's open world and mechanics will find themselves picking up where they left off almost instantly. After a short prologue you're back in familiar territory, mechanically if not geographically, climbing towers and infiltrating bases to the backdrop of a destructive civil war. Those that despised the last game's focus on hammy, contradictory, pace-killing laments about the nature of violence ('killing is, uh, bad? Here's some grenades') and questionable racial stereotypes will be pleased to know that most of these storytelling devices have been binned (even if a gun-running Christian comes dangerously close to the latter).
The end result is a game as patently ridiculous as it is compulsive and, in flashes, even somewhat insightful on the nature of power. Barely any of it makes actual, logical sense - lead character Ajay has a camera he uses to tag enemies with because the guy in the last game had one, and he carries around his mother's ashes at all times, ready to be brandished For The Sake of the Plot, on what can only be presumed to be a magical urn-papoose.
Ajay himself barely gets any real character development, a deliberate move confirmed by the game's creative director as an effort to make the game 'your' story. Ubisoft's decision to make his parents native to the region is meant to dodge awkward questions about white interlopers and colonial overtones, but that's just an excuse for players to commit awe-inspiring violence while not feeling too bad about it, and a thin one at that. The fact that he's an American citizen is handwaved away by his parents being important to the history of the war effort, a prodigal son returned to help save the nation from self-destruction. Of course, it's never really explained why he's so good with firearms, or is so keen to fight in a conflict he didn't know about, let alone care for, just minutes earlier.
It's as silly as its villain, Pagan Min - a pink-suited, troll-haired, cut-glass accented archetype of mayhem. He's an indiscriminate killer and despot with a way with words, and encapsulates the game's appeal: alluring, violent, nonsensical, and with a certain, demented desire to take over vast lands by force.
That land is Kyrat. As expected it's exquisitely detailed, the PS4 rendering the thick foliage, vertiginous mountains and superb, naturalistic lighting while barely taking a hit on performance. It's also a dangerous place, not just in terms of its population (of all kinds) but also in its topography. While Far Cry 3's Rook Islands had a few sheer drops and some difficult paths to trek, the general feeling was that you were slaughtering your way through Fantasy Island, all rolling hills and perma-sunshine. Kyrat, on the other hand, is a foreboding environment: as beautiful as the previous setting, but much more dangerous in almost every regard.
Located in and around some of the harshest terrain known to man, it is as threatening as its inhabitants. Not every road features a sheer death-drop, but venture high enough above sea level and there are enough dangers to make the driving less a chore and more of an enjoyable challenge. (For those that don't want to take the chance, the game can now be set to auto-drive you to a waypoint).
Whereas navigating Rook felt more laboured as the game wore on, insurmountable cliff faces and long drives (unless you fast traveled) lessening the appeal of just getting around, Far Cry 4's mountains enable Ubi Montreal to add in new traversal techniques that keep things fresh. The most obvious is the new grappling hook, which turns it into the best video game adaptation of Cliffhanger you're ever likely to see. Clambering up the mountains is great fun, and the grapple is also used as an offensive tool to get the drop in enemies and infiltrate their strongholds.
It's little changes like this that push Far Cry 4 past its interesting, if flawed, predecessor. It may have resulted in a rather nonsensical narrative, but Ubi knows what players want from this series, and gets them into the action as quickly as possible. After that, there's no family to worry about, brothers to save, or loved ones to protect. In place of wearisome monologues is an emphasis on yet more player-driven interaction with the world, in a series already stuffed with it.
As before, there's a hefty story to play through, supplemented by side quests, challenges, and collectathons, revealed by climbing a tower and removing the fog of war in the territory. The difference between Far Cry 4 and other Ubisoft Open World games is that while every action you take feeds into a seemingly never-ending cycle of rewards, as it does in Assassin's Creed, The Crew, Watch Dogs, etc, here it actually makes a difference to what you're doing moment-to-moment.
You're not just hunting feathers for the sake of it boosting an arbitrary number. Instead, actions are rewarded with a constant slew of upgrades that then enable you to be a more efficient murderer, which of course nets you more upgrades. A new Karma meter joins returning XP-based skill unlocks (now, thankfully, shorn of Magical Negro tattooing), where killing dudes cooly gives points to spend buffing offensive and defensive qualities, and complements the hunting-and-pruning of local flora and fauna that offers better ammo storage and chemical boosts.
Karma builds should you decide to help out the citizens of Kyrat in their battle against Min's oppressive forces, usually by defending or assisting rebels you encounter on the road. Doing so gives you money off on guns and ammo, and also enables you to call in mercenaries to help in tough spots. It's fairly passive - you never really need to go out of your way to complete these tasks - but it's another thing, efficiently implemented, to appease your lizard brain.
In fact, this is pretty much all Far Cry is: a gigantic, beautiful murder playground, Countryfile for wannabe dictators, manifest destiny for trained digital killers. Its main gameplay loop - sneaking into outposts and killing everyone silently before the alarms can be tripped - is essentially a slasher movie in reverse, and that's Far Cry's endorphin-blasting hook: it's empowering. Stalking men through the jungle is the closest many of us will get to (and would want to) the illicit thrill of The Most Dangerous Game. But the appeal is the same.
Realising this, Ubisoft has beefed up the amount of missions you do off-campaign, each asking mostly the same thing: sneak here, kill these dudes, don't get spotted, use all these awesome death-dealers - throwing knives, arrows, etc - to get the job done.
Far Cry's worlds are giant game preserves, both literally and figuratively, and hunting prey of all shapes and sizes is the game. In turn, it's so good at dishing out rewards that it makes players want to be better psychopaths, and then rewards them accordingly. Montreal has recognised its game's objectives are micro-sized, compulsive power fantasies, and has doubled down on that. In fact, the game's biggest flaw is, predictably, down to breaking that illusion with insta-fail stealth sections, not helped by guards whose AI is sometimes superhuman.
If anything, Far Cry 4 didn't need a 'traditional' story: most of its highlights are told through player action, not cutscenes. But it does feature an interesting tale, albeit a rather basic one. Instead of there being two warring factions to fight with or against, you instead have to decide which direction your rebel group, The Golden Path, will take in its bid to otherthrow Pagan Min's Royal Army and 'liberate' Kyrat.
There are two ideologies, each represented by one of Golden Path's top dogs. Sabal wants to fight to reinstate Kyrat's traditional religious ways, whereas Amita wants progress in the form of US-style commercialism (in this case, drug distribution - allusions are made to Kyrat being a new Colombia). Players can only take one side in each of the handful or so forks in the road, and doing so affects the ending you'll get.
Neither path is particularly grey: Amita will sacrifice people readily and act the dictator if it advances her cause, and Sabal's traditional yearnings also encompass grooming and marrying underage girls. Other attempts at facing the atrocities of this sort of war are even less convincing: an openly racist CIA agent appears to be so because, erm, he's a Republican, and an American butcher's love for his daughter is meant to humanise and appall in light of his barbarism, but comes across as cheap point scoring.
But there is something, no matter how sixth form, to the constant questioning, bickering, and in-fighting that dominate your relationship with The Golden Path, a glimmer that the developers realise that civil wars are bloody, terrible things, and that insurgency isn't just something you hear on the news. Kyrat is a power vacuum waiting to happen, and you're the one driving it. Nowhere is this better exemplified than one of the endings (no spoiler), which in the moment of glory simply ends - quite brilliantly, with an unexpected, inspired musical cue - leaving the player as to no doubt that violence begets violence.
And there can be no doubt. Far Cry 4 is a superb Skinner box, staving off monotony with constant upgrades, and it's so expertly crafted to appeal to baser instincts, so rewarding of you embracing them, that there's a strong chance you'll miss the broader point that all of what you're doing is utterly despotic. Like, say, a dictator might. A lot of games are about killing. Far Cry is about hunting. They're not the same thing, and it is as disquieting as it is enjoyable.
How does multiplayer hold up?
Far Cry 4, as with the last entry in the series, features both adversarial multiplayer and co-op. The latter is the most interesting of the two, as it enables players to go about the business of taking over Kyrat together, unlike Far Cry 3's separated co-op campaign. Stalking outposts is disturbingly fun in the single-player, but the potential for creative (and, it must be said, sometimes hilarious) takedowns increases tenfold with a smart human partner.
Basic interactions keep both combatants abreast of the situation - tagging is shared, an icon shows you what they're looking at, and you can offload ammo/syringes - but it's at its best when you're planning an expansive two-pronged assault and successfully executing it. If Far Cry's basic appeal is hunting, then this is it at its best.
PvP fares a little worse, feeling rather tacked on despite its interesting asymmetric dynamic. One team controls Golden Path members, and has access to all the tech and weapons that they do. The other is comprised of Rakshasa forces, a more mystical force that can summon spirit animals such as bears, crouch to go invisible, and have a one-hit kill bow.
Likewise, the maps and modes are geared to exploiting each of the team's different abilities. Standard TDM makes way for games like Outpost, a King of the Hill-type mode that sees players contesting a flag. Demon Mask is essentially Capture the Flag, and Propaganda is Domination meets S&D. The first few games seem unfairly skewed towards the Rakshasa, with their seemingly-overpowered invisibility and bow being particularly grating. Then it becomes clear that one of the most important tussles of any game is conquering a bell tower which, when turned on, gives Golden Path the ability to see its enemies on the minimap until it is taken by the other team.
It's an interesting setup, and it can lead to very tense matches between vastly different opposing forces. But so far it feels too reliant on rubber-banding (especially on spawns in Demon Mask, where I saw two teams take a 3 point lead and lose it as their opponents constantly regenerated closer to the mask) and rather limited as whole. Still, there will be some who love it, and it's different enough to warrant a look.
Version Tested: PS4.
Disclosure: for the purposes of this review VideoGamer.com was invited to a review event. Accommodation and food/drink was provided.