Far Cry 4‘s biggest shortcoming is that it feels like a sequel.
That might seem like unfair criticism of a game with the number four in its title, but Far Cry has always been a bit of an odd duck among videogame franchises. Beyond the generic descriptor “open-world shooter,” the first three games have shockingly little in common with regard to tone, storytelling, or even gameplay. This absence of continuity, allowing each title to tailor its mechanics to better suit its narrative ambitions, has been one of the series’ greatest strengths, and it’s why there’s room for both Far Cry 2 and 3 on my short list of all-time favorites. They’re not different takes on the same game with a new story attached; they’re different games, period.
The gulf is much less clear-cut with Far Cry 4, starting with the obvious substitutions of the last installment’s two leading men. The questionably sane antagonist this time around is the dapper and charming Pagan Min, who installed himself as king of the fictional Himalayan nation of Kyrat back in the 1980s and has been ruling with an iron fist ever since. The twentysomething outsider who becomes a hero to the locals is Ajay Ghale: Kyrati-born, American-raised, and back in the country of his heritage to scatter his mother’s ashes and fulfill her dying wish.
And the core gameplay structure underlying that new setup is virtually identical to Far Cry 3, as well. You climb radio towers and liberate outposts to take control of the map, making use of the same stealth and combat tools to do so. You hunt the local wildlife to fashion better equipment and gather color-coded plants to craft syringes. The sandbox of animals, enemies, and your various ways to navigate the world collide to form your own little emergent adventures. Throughout it all, you earn experience points to fill out a skill tree populated by many of the exact same abilities and upgrades. Where it matters most, Far Cry 4 feels an awful lot like Far Cry 3 with a fresh coat of paint.
Not that I’m diminishing the quality of the paint job. For starters, Kyrat proves positively inspiring as a backdrop, drawing on the vistas and traditions of India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet to deliver a sense of place, of geography and history and culture, that’s wholly absent from most invented locales. Massive draw distances make it a treat to look at and explore, especially once you break through into the more varied northern half of the country. There’s something satisfying about being able to see your objective marker plastered on the side of a mountain miles away and closing that distance over hills, across canyons, up cliffs, past enemies and animals. Like the best open-world games, getting somewhere in Far Cry 4 isn’t a trip. It’s a journey.
It’s a shame, then, that only one of the two major additions to traversal really taps into that feeling. The smarter one is the grappling hook, which allows you to anchor to specific points in the world to climb, rappel, and swing across chasms. While not perfectly smooth—the rope routinely clips through and jitters around rock faces, occasionally affecting gameplay—it brings out three-dimensional thinking that’s still involved, intimate, and risky. On more than one occasion, I felt a pang of vertigo as I released the rope on the other side of a gap, terrified I’d miss the ledge and fall a hundred feet to my death.
The less worthwhile addition is the Buzzer, an ultralight helicopter that lets you fly just about everywhere on the map. Trouble is, once you’re off the ground, nothing about your surroundings really matters all that much. Going to your next mission marker or collectible becomes a dull flight from one place to another, over distant, indistinguishable surroundings, with the occasional tap of a button to change your elevation and clear a hill. Even worse, you can use the Buzzer to bypass otherwise exciting gameplay experiences, like climbing the radio towers or reaching cliffside caves that otherwise require a bit of grappling and platforming to access. Hell, you can beat quite a few side missions by just hanging out in the air and raining down grenades on easy targets. In essence, it’s ultimate convenience at the expense of any fun—never a good tradeoff.
In some respects, however, Far Cry 4 does offer serious improvements over its predecessor. The story makes far better use of its star villain and manages to integrate its protagonist into the proceedings in a way that feels much less contrived. The supporting cast on both sides of the conflict has considerably more depth, with most of the characters given arcs that feel satisfying and fully explored. The choices you make throughout the story are both more nuanced and more meaningful—the former thanks to an unabashedly bleak outlook on the nature of power and revolutions, and the latter thanks to a branching structure that changes up mission objectives (or even entire missions) based on what you decide. Though one of the two main endings is an unraveled, pointless mess that never should’ve even been included, the other is a striking, satisfying, and thoroughly unconventional finale.
Even the online play—never a focus of Far Cry—has been given a bit more attention this time around. The 5-vs.-5 competitive multiplayer is probably too convoluted and sloppy to attract a significant following, but it’s clearly trying, with an asymmetrical component that gives one team bows and mystical powers and the other the standard lineup of guns and vehicles. More promising, however, is the open-world co-op. Experimenting in the sandbox with two people can lead to some crazy and memorable moments, and the flow of taking on side missions or outposts changes completely when you’ve got a partner. Be warned, however: To make yourself available for co-op, you need to play the game in an always-on state. If you lose connection to the server, you’ll be booted out to the main menu, losing any progress since your last save.
But no matter how much beneficial retooling Far Cry 4 accomplishes, it’s still mostly following a script we’ve already read. In hindsight, it’s obvious that so much of what makes a new Far Cry enthralling is being able to dive into a world without expectations, learn the rules as you go along, and use that newfound knowledge to survive. In its absence, you’re put in the awkward position of playing newcomer to a strange land while already knowing everything about the way it works—save perhaps what animal you need to skin to make a bigger wallet. Far Cry 4 lacks that ambition, that electricity of discovery and, as a result, can only ever hope to be good among greats.
Far Cry 4 essentially boils down to a retread of the last game in the series with a different setting, a more polished story, and a handful of new traversal mechanics. It's a strong gameplay template to follow, but one that's much less compelling the second time around.
M – Mature
|Far Cry 4 is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|