In Far Cry, you are always a stranger. Every game in the series has placed players into the boots of a protagonist who is a foreigner in the wild and untamed land they find themselves in. The conceit helps ground participants in both the story and the action; when everything is as new to the player as it is to the character they control, they’re essentially on the same learning curve.
Far Cry 3 heaped the theme of madness on top of this rubric. There, players controlled a wide-eyed Western tourist on the run from bloodthirsty pirates on a tropical island and his only hope of survival was to become an efficient killing machine. As the protagonist became the alpha male in ascendance, he also became more unhinged, the game hinting that becoming capably violent carries a psychological cost. Far Cry 4 takes this theme and runs with it; if Far Cry 3 saw players tumbling down the rabbit hole, Far Cry 4 sees them smack bang in the middle of Wonderland – and what a vast and hostile place it is.
It’s also achingly beautiful. The fictional country of Kyrat in Far Cry 4 is a mish-mash of Nepal, Thailand and Tibet in both its culture and visual representation. Snow capped mountains loom large behind rolling hills of untamed forests. Giant statues stare down into valleys pock-marked with villages, outposts and the ruins of Buddhist temples. Traders carrying their world on their backs wander dirt roads with hiking sticks, and the wilds are filled with fauna – most of it deadly to the casual intruder.
The world swarms with activities for players to get stuck into. Beyond radar towers, guarded outposts, story quests, races, hostage missions and the like, Kyrat is filled to bursting with animals to hunt, forts to attack, and plants to collect and craft into drug cocktails. You can even embark on the odd acid trip, courtesy of a pair of Western backpackers.
These pursuits continually crash into one another – one minute you’re on your way to unlock a radar tower and the next, a herd of animals – the source of pelts you need to craft an extra weapon slot – run into view and you’re off and running in a new direction. The player’s hardest task, really, is staying focused on the matter at hand – not that Far Cry 4’s developers offer any help in this department. The dynamics in the game’s environment make Kyrat feel like a living, breathing country and one that encourages and rewards exploration.
People and morality
Kyrat’s landscape is further bolstered by the colourful set of characters the player runs into. Top among them is the game’s villain, Pagan Min, a bleach-blonde, silver-tongued psychopath in a purple suit who also happens to be Kyrat’s nominal dictator. He shares a couple of character attributes with Far Cry 3’s antagonist, Vaas Montenegro, in that he’s charming, ruthless and utterly unpredictable.
However, while Vaas knew himself to be an unapologetic killer given over to his primal urges, Min sees himself as a stabilising force in Kyrat’s savage landscape – and given the moral murkiness of some of its freedom fighters, he makes a convincing case. One of the weaknesses of Far Cry 4 is that, shortly after introducing the player to Min, the developers keep him off-screen for the length of a Biblical epic.
Instead, the game’s protagonist, Ajay Ghale (a Kyrat ex-pat returned from the West to scatter his mother’s ashes), comes into contact with the leaders of a resistance movement called The Golden Path – Amita and Sabal. Both want to end Pagan Min’s brutal rule in Kyrat but they have vastly different ideas about how to go about it. Sabal is a traditionalist; he values human life above most concerns, but he’s determined to return Kyrat society to its traditional heritage. Amita, for her part, wants nothing to do with Kyrat’s sexist past, but she also sees nothing wrong in taking over Min’s drug-running operations if she can use the proceeds to build hospitals and schools – and presumably the rehab clinics Kyrat will need if she gets her way.
The narrative and outcome of the game splinters depending on which leader the player sides with and this does a lot to differentiate Far Cry 4 from its predecessor. Players aren’t locked into a fixed narrative and their actions and decisions have far more of an impact on their environment this time round. It’s to the writers’ credit that Far Cry 4 never offers players a moral conundrum that’s completely clear cut. Like Arjay, they’re learning the terrain and the culture as they proceed, so they may find themselves questioning the wisdom of early decisions later in the game.
The second curveball Far Cry 4 hurls at players is tied up in the game’s AI. While there’s an awful lot in the game that series veterans will find familiar, Far Cry 4’s NPCs and animals are far more vicious and smart this time round. Enemy soldiers will retreat in the face of insurmountable odds. Packs of dogs will circle their prey, looking for an undefended opening. Larger animals attack directly and ferociously while smaller creatures will look to intimidate or wait until the player’s back is turned. The AI functions much in the same way the player does; it takes in the challenge and the landscape ahead of it and then looks for the path of least resistance.
As for co-op and multiplayer, the campaign is so strong that they seem almost like surplus requirements. However, the former is certainly worth investigating for a little variety and playing with a friend makes taking down outposts and forts a lot easier. The PVP multiplayer has a couple of interesting match types, but it’s doubtful that it’ll rob the Call of Duty and Halos of this world of any significant lobby numbers.
There are some hangovers from previous iterations. Far Cry 4 occasionally boxes players into a style of play they may not appreciate in a couple of story quests – stealth missions, for example, in which being spotted is an instant fail – and a lot of the game’s best equipment is off-limits for far too long.
But Far Cry 4 truly shines in the almost bacchanalian sense of freedom it bestows on the player as they traverse through its environment. In Kyrat you have the ability to go anywhere and do pretty much anything – much as Pagan Min would advocate. Here, the only pact you need keep is that with your conscience. God help you.
This article was written by Nick Cowen, for theguardian.com on Friday 14th November 2014 14.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010