There’s a fantastic feeling of anticipation when you watch the opening cutscene of a new game. It’s a time pregnant with pure possibility: How will it play? What will it let me do? Will this be a title that lives in my collection for years, or will it be traded in at the first available opportunity? It’s in that precious, delicate moment that random thoughts can wander in, wave to their more rational friends and put their feet up on the counter; thoughts that won’t leave for hours and will still stick with you for days after, so that when you start writing a review they’re the first things that pop into your head.
My random thought after watching the start of Far Cry 4 was as follows: I don’t remember ever seeing a monkey in a bus – on a bus, yes, but never in one.
It was a stupid thought, I’ll admit, but one that served to remind me that this wasn’t Nepal (a place where I’ve spent some considerable time), but Kyrat – a kingdom every bit as mythical as the dream-like Shangri-La. A place of stunning beauty, an idealised, English-speaking populace, and a diversity of wildlife so great that the meanest zoo may well wish to consider sending someone in to kidnap it.
That someone wouldn’t last too long. Under the vain and iron rule of Pagan Min, the urbane but ruthless self-styled king, life is not easy for the citizens of this idyllic Himalayan nation. Gulags, executions, and a predator population to put Australia to shame – it’s no wonder so many of them have joined the Golden Path, a resistance organisation in the midst of a leadership dispute; the fate of which can be determined by choices you make in the game.
You play as Ajay Ghale (pronounced at various times as A.J. Gale or R.J. Gar-lay), returning son thrust into this civil war by his mother, whose dying wish was that her ashes be placed in her homeland. Upon arriving, you are immediately kidnapped by Min himself, only to be rescued by the Golden Path. To show your gratitude, you subsequently set out to commit several tribunals’ worth of war crimes on their behalf.
What I’m saying is that I have trouble buying it. Where the excellent Far Cry 3’s protagonist Jason Brody was driven by a desire to free his friends – a process that required a descent into the heart of darkness – Ajay’s motivation is far harder to pin down. For someone raised in the west (in America, no less), with no real knowledge about his homeland, he seems remarkably quick to drop everything and join the cause – casually killing soldiers without ever really questioning why.
So, is he a sociopath waiting to happen, or just incredibly accommodating? It’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourself, as you slowly piece together a twenty-year-old story, and learn how Kyrat became what it is.
It’s a surprisingly nuanced narrative for a shooter; one that, while not quite as jarring as Jason’s transformation, still raises stark questions of morality and its relationship to violence.
But plot isn’t everything, especially in a shooter. Every open world game ever made can be judged by whether or not you can get lost in it, and this is one test that FC4 passes with flying colours.
With no other aim than fun, hours can be spent exploring the lush forests of the lowlands or the strangely autumnal foothills. Even the snowy passes of the high Himalayas can be visited – if only in missions – creating a much wider range of environs than Far Cry 3’s comparatively prosaic pacific islands. I thought that the increased verticality might lead to some issues with getting around (remembering the difficult-to-navigate mountains of the previous game), but Ajay’s handy grappling hook, acquirable wingsuit and the occasional gyrocopter make covering terrain easier than I had anticipated – although I did still run into some ‘I need to get up there’ issues.
As in the previous game, you must craft upgrades from animal skins, motivating you to take on some of the beautifully animated creatures that inhabit this beautifully realised world. Also returning are the signal towers and outpost missions, which reveal new quests and de-fog the map (a MacGuffin that’s quickly become Ubisoft’s specialty).
New features include the awesome ability to ride elephants and the use of bait – a handy resource collected from skinned animals that encourages predators to attack your foes. There’s a greater range of side quests than before, including everything from races to hostage rescues to bomb disposals, but fewer mini-games. Call me petty, but I like to sit down to a game of digital poker once in a while.
Drug trips are another hangover from FC3, though there’s far more of them, and they’re far trippier than before. Seeing bears through walls or watching enemies explode in psychedelic blooms does change the pace nicely, even if some of the colour schemes made me slightly queasy. This bending of reality is also reflected in your trips to Shangri-La, a mythical kingdom where you must use your bow and your pet white tiger (I named him Tim) to take down the demons that threaten the tranquillity of this red-tinted nirvana.
While generally bigger and arguably better than its immediate forebear, there is one thing that really got my Bharal: the autosave is absolutely useless. Instead of recording when you open a chest or even when you finish a side quest, FC4 eschews this fairly basic function – meaning that if you die then all of that progress is lost. In a game fraught with collectibles, this design decision is both puzzling and extremely frustrating, and knocks a half point off the game’s score. Driving controls are also a bit dodgy, and there are occasional bugs – though I’m basically picking at nits at this point because Far Cry 4 is, on the whole, a fantastic game.
For multiplayer, there’s the standard array of PvP maps, with one side playing as the modern rebels and the other as the more mystical royal guards. I’m not a big MP fan, so all I can say is that they seemed competently put-together and loaded fairly easily, with no massive wait times to ruin the experience. More interesting is the co-op – where you can summon or be summoned by another player when outside a mission, working together to take down difficult foes. When it worked, it worked quite well, but I got booted off the servers a few times, which may or may not be the fault of Australia’s crummy internet providers.
With a villain as interesting as Vaas, and mini-bosses far more realised than FC3’s empty flak jackets, it’s the depth of this world that’s perhaps most impressive. Not only are the side characters more numerous and developed – with motivations and opinions of their own – but the mythology they’ve created is perfect for the setting, adding layers that made Nepal echo strongly in my mind – even with the incongruous bus monkey.