The best thing about Far Cry 4 is not playing it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of fun – in fact it puts a lot of the AAA games we’ve seen this year to shame – it’s just that its cleverest moment involves skipping out on all that pesky gameplay. At the outset the protagonist, Ajay Ghale, is returning to his homeland of Kyrat (think Nepal meets Mongolia) to lay his mother’s ashes to rest. Kyrat is ruled with an iron fist by the despot Pagan Min (played by the imminently talented Troy Baker), who arrives in person to greet Ajay’s bus as it crosses the border. He gives the young man a (slightly blood-soaked) hug before stuffing him in a helicopter and whisking him off to a palace for a welcome dinner of crab Rangoon.
When Min steps away from the table to take a call it’s the player’s cue to skedaddle, which kicks off the now-standard Far Cry intro of running through the underbrush with armed guards in pursuit. Of course, running from the dinner table like that is incredibly impolite, so Ajay really has nobody to blame for what follows but himself. Thing is, if he demonstrates just a modicum of good manners, Pagan Min returns to the table and whisks him off to the place where his mother wished to be interred. Then the credits roll. This scene is exceptionally clever in how it subverts player expectations, but it also shows the underlying philosophy that makes the Far Cry franchise unique.
Unlike a lot of other sandbox games with pretensions of player choice, Far Cry 4 is all about what you choose to do. From the point you leave Pagan’s dinner party you’re drawn into working for The Golden Path, a terrorist organization founded by your father Mohan Ghale. Since your father’s death the organization has suffered a bit of a schism, and its two co-leaders Sabal and Anita don’t always see eye to eye. Anita is a pragmatist who prizes intel and military advantages over the lives of her soldiers, whereas Sabal is something of a bleeding heart. At certain points you get to choose which of the co-leaders Ajay supports, shifting the balance of power within the organization and leading to different missions.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to player agency, though. Kyrat is immense, and right from the getgo you’re free to roam its mountain ranges looking for animals to hunt, outposts to liberate, and Royal Guard lieutenants to assassinate. Like all Far Cry protagonists, Ajay needs to use guerilla tactics in order to accomplish these objectives, which means you’ll spend a lot of time hiding in the bushes looking for the perfect angle of attack. Enemy bases are largely open-concept (I attribute this to Pagan Min’s clearly fantastic taste), so how you approach them is entirely up to you. You can sneak in through a hole in the fence and take out soldiers one by one, or charge in on the back of an elephant and flip cars in a berserker rage. The map is absolutely lousy with things to do, and even if you do find yourself without something in the immediate vicinity, the procedural Karma event system will create a hostage situation or animal attack for you to deal with.
For the most part, procedural events keep the action lively and ensure that the pacing is never dragged down by all the walking (and sometimes hang-gliding, which is more fun) that you have to do. The events that can pop up are varied, and if you don’t feel like dealing with one you can move on – most of the time. Sometimes you’ll be surrounded by a pack of wolves, or backed into a corner by a tiger, and at that point you have no choice but to fend the beasts off. This can happen when you’re in the middle of infiltrating a base, which throws a bit of a wrench into your plans, as I’m sure you can imagine. Still, you can just as easily turn the odds to your favor by tossing a bit of bait into the middle of a group of guards, so that particular frustration balances itself out. Base invasions, on the other hand, are a consistent annoyance. These random events, in which royal guards attempt to recapture your bases, create mandatory waypoints that force you away from whatever quest goal or objective you might be following. Having one of these pop up en route to a mission is infuriating, but at least the shootout that follows will be fun.
The gunplay is polished to a mirror sheen (or a golden one if you have the rupees to drop on that paint job), with tight aiming controls and solid physics. Each of the guns in the game (and there are a lot of guns) has its own distinctive quirks – weight, recoil, firing rate – and special physics-driven weapons like grenades and bows feel really good to use. Between those weapons and your throwing knives, grenades, and Molotov cocktails, you’ll never run out of fun ways to deal with enemies. Far Cry’s fire physics in particular are remarkable (it’s been a hallmark of the series since the second installment) and you can absolutely wreak havoc with a carefully-placed Molotov or fire arrow.
Ajay can customize his arsenal with an array of scopes, silencers, and special ammo, all of which can be earned by exploring and completing missions or by paying up in cold, hard rupees. It’s a nice feeling to have a tricked-out signature weapon at your disposal, and the upgrades actually improve the weapons in meaningful ways instead of just changing numbers around. There’s a significant difference between putting a reflex sight or a marksman sight on a bow, and the way that the latter allows you to make trajectory-adjusted shots with Ted-Nugent-style explosive arrows from a hundred meters away is positively badass. It’s very easy to earn rupees, so you’ll almost always have the option of trying out a new weapon or upgrade if you feel like the game is getting stale.
You can also tweak Ajay’s abilities directly through an RPG-style skill system. More or less everything you do in the game earns you EXP, and every ten minutes or so you’ll get a skill point to spend on an upgrade of your choosing. There are two sides to your skill tree, TheTiger and The Elephant, each of which corresponds loosely to a different playstyle. Tiger skills give you extra takedown moves and make your weapons more efficient, while Elephant skills increase your defensive capabilities and give you access to newer, better healing items. Both trees are important, but you can pick whatever skills you want in more or less any order without feeling like you’re gimping yourself.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with games that let you choose your playstyle, Far Cry 4 doesn’t handle all aspects of its gameplay equally well. Stealth is the foundation of real-world guerilla warfare, and while the ability to infiltrate enemy bases from any angle is theoretically exciting, the Far Cry series has never had the AI chops to back it up. Enemies in Far Cry are great at keeping you on edge with coordinated attacks once they’ve spotted you, but everything before that feels off. Their range of vision is immense, and once they’ve spotted you, all of their allies instantly become aware of your location. In better stealth games there’s a bit of lag as guards shout out “Hey, there’s the enemy!” but even if you put an arrow through their throat the second they lay eyes on you these soldiers somehow manage to communicate your position to their friends. This still isn’t much of an issue in standard missions, where you can just switch to running and gunning when the jig is up, but in “assassinations” where you fail the second you’re spotted it’s a major headache.
Speaking of headaches, the game’s field of view is a little on the tight side, and while that works very well when it’s a down-the-barrel shooter, it isn’t nearly as serviceable in its sneakier moments. Thankfully, the FOV does pull back when you’re driving, but you still don’t have enough peripheral vision to do that effectively. Even if you did, though, driving would still be a mess. The game is designed to encourage shooting on the road, which means that all of the nice pressure-sensitive triggers you’re used to driving with in other sandbox games will only shoot out your window. Instead you have to accelerate by pressing up on the analog stick, which, as it happens, is also the implement that you use to steer. As you may be able to imagine, this is not a great setup, and the issue is compounded by the driving physics. Cars in Far Cry 4 feel about as unwieldy as those in WATCH_DOGS – to put it kindly, like a unicycle on ice. You can click L3 to have your car automatically drive toward your chosen waypoint, but pathfinding in this mode is finicky at best and you’ll lose a significant amount of karma points when the game makes you run over pedestrians. It’s best to just ride elephants everywhere.
Bad driving isn’t the only way this feels like an Ubisoft game either. There are upsides to this, of course – the control-point based style of sandbox design established by Assassin’s Creed is a proven formula, and when paced effectively games based on it can work remarkably well. Ubisoft hasn’t managed to pace any of their campaigns effectively since Assassin’s Creed 2, but Far Cry 4 comes closer than most and its increased emphasis on emergent gameplay means pacing isn’t as much of a problem. On the other hand, there is the very obvious downside that’s characterized every one of the publisher’s game’s this year: a noticeable lack of polish. Bugs abound in Kyrat, and I’m not just talking about the mosquitos with exotic diseases. Texture pop in and animation glitches are common issues, and I’m not even sure what the hell this is:
None of the bugs I encountered in my playtime were game-breaking by any stretch, but they frequently took me out of the experience, which is the last thing a game like Far Cry 4 wants to do. This series is all about building a sense of immersion with its gorgeous environments and dynamic gameplay, and to have that broken so frequently is extremely disappointing. The awkward driving and touchy stealth are annoying for the same reason – when they inevitably fail they remind you that you’re playing a game.
This is also a problem for large parts of the story, where the writing and acting can be a little uneven. Anything involving Pagan Min or the game’s minor villains (like De Pleur, a sadistic torturer who’s based his life around the teachings of Doctor Phil) is great – they have some great, scene-stealing lines, and Troy Baker especially strikes an impressive balance between erratic menace and potent charisma in his performance. The rebels are less convincing – Anita and Sabal deliver passable performances, but they speak almost entirely in stilted exposition. As far as the other quest-givers go, I’m fairly certain I heard one of them pausing to read his line in the take that Ubisoft decided to use, and they’re all so awful that I can’t remember which of them it was. I spent most of the game wishing I could be working for Pagan instead of the terrorists – a desire that the optional ending only intensifies.
Despite having a lot of flaws, Far Cry 4 is a lot of fun. Ubisoft has set up a massive sandbox full of stuff to do, and though getting between things can be a bit of a hassle and not all of the activities are great, the core of the game – its gunplay – is exceptional. The primary intention of this series is to make you feel like Rambo, and in that respect Far Cry 4 succeeds spectacularly. It also has a compelling lead villain and a sharply-crafted nonlinear plot that suffers only for its focus on weaker characters. Those who’ve enjoyed previous Far Cry games will be happy to know that this is more of the same, just with rideable elephants.