Far Cry 4 is easy to dismiss, if you're so inclined.
"It’s just more Far Cry 3!" Well, yes, in a way, you're right. No wheels have been reinvented here: Kyrat, a mountain nation nestled in the Himalayas, is a sprawling piece of land for you to hunt, kill and climb your way through. There are outposts to conquer, towers to climb, a near-infinite supply of valuables to filch.
But this convenient yet misguided shorthand becomes instantly less useful once you actually find yourself submerged in Far Cry 4: This is a bigger, better, braver version of an already fantastic thing and that’s awesome.
So what's new, different and better? A lot of it tracks back to Ajay Ghale, the young man making his first journey home to Kyrat, which he fled as a child during a civil war.
Far Cry 3 got a lot of heat for its reliance on the problematic "white savior" trope, but I found myself far more distracted by the fact that Jason Brody was sort of a chuckleheaded dipshit. Ajay isn't. He's got ties to this land — his father founded the rebel group The Golden Path, which attempts to overthrow despotic king Pagan Min — and he's returned with the noble goal of spreading his mother’s ashes in the country she loved.
Perhaps the best thing about Ajay (and this shouldn't be such a rare compliment in a game made in 2014) is that he actually sounds like a human being. That extends to all of Far Cry 4's characters actually; I cannot tell you what a relief it is to hear lines being delivered in a naturalistic fashion that don't sound like they were squeezed out right before the recording engineer took his union-mandated break. Some superlative performance capture also helps Kyrat's inhabitants feel like real, actual people.
This is true for no one so much as Pagan Min, the stylishly monstrous yin to Ajay's yang. He's plenty evil, but in such a fun, seductive way that I’d be lying if I said I wasn't a little tempted when he invited me to go "tear shit up" with him in the game's opening moments.
"But … you do get to tear shit up, right?" I hear you ask worriedly, and let me put those fears to rest. Yes. Shit is torn up. It's torn in multiple directions and with near-infinite variety. If you can think of a way in which shit can be torn, Far Cry 4 lets you tear shit in that precise fashion, and probably gives you a unique shotgun if you do it five times.
As I mentioned, the basics from Far Cry 3 are all here. Much like Brody, Ajay can scope out enemy encampments with binoculars, highlighting enemies for elimination and executing a precise, stealthy strategy to eliminate his opposition undetected. Alternately, he can stroll in the front door, ignite his flamethrower and secure an unconscionable amount of overtime pay for the staff of Kyrat General’s burn ward. Both approaches are valid, and both are a singular treat, especially when circumstance forces you to pivot from one to the other.
This is the same loop that Far Cry 3 already nailed so well, but the increased verticality provided by Kyrat’s mountainous terrain helps to liven things up a bit. While you can still sneak around a base’s perimeter to try to gather your intel, you might be able to use Ajay's grappling hook to scale a cliffside and get a perfect view of all your targets.
That grappling hook deserves special mention. In so many games, the grappling hook is a mechanical way of getting from A to B, but it's so much more here. Use it to swing like Tarzan, use it to rappel into an otherwise deadly crevice, use it for daring clifftop escapes; there's a ton of flexibility, and it’s a delight to play with. It’s not Far Cry 4's best new toy (that honor goes to the one-man gyrocopter), but it's a close second.
That grappling hook deserves special mention
It may be hard to believe in a game that lets you blast a helicopter with a rocket launcher from the back of an elephant, but Far Cry 4 gets even more batshit insane when you invite a co-op partner into your world.
Planning a stealthy attack on a base takes on a completely different vibe when you have a sniper marking targets on a hill while his partner sneaks through the base for up-close assassinations. Or, if you’re playing with my brother Griffin, your buddy may drop a grenade in the middle of the base and giggle as you try to bail his ass out of the crossfire.
The difficulty is considerably lessened with a competent, non-Griffin partner, so if you're looking for challenge and tension, stay solo. If you want to inject a little hilarity and unpredictability, especially into Far Cry 4's slightly more run-of-the-mill missions and objectives, this is a can't-miss co-op experience. [continued below]
Straying from the critical path a little provides even more outlandish scenarios for Ajay
The gadgets and gizmos aplenty are, of course, ostensibly provided to help you take down Pagan Min, and the missions that form the path to that point are excellent. What they lack in the open world's flexibility, they make up for with variety and pyrotechnics. One minute, you’re scrounging for oxygen tanks in the Himalayas as you hide from enemy soldiers in a blizzard, the next you’re stunting an ATV off an airstrip so you can soar into a plane with your wingsuit.
Straying from the critical path a little provides even more outlandish scenarios for Ajay, like a series of drug-fueled hallucinations with loquacious stoners Yogi and Reggie, or traveling to Shangri-La to inhabit the body of an ancient warrior who bids a spirit tiger do his killing for him. Far Cry 4 is many things, but it is never boring.
One knock: You must decide if you’ll be playing online from the start and should you lose your connection at any time, you’ll be kicked back to the main menu, no matter how dire of a firefight you may be engaged in at the time. That applies even if you don’t happen to have a partner in your game at that moment. Play it safe and play offline until you’re ready to add a friend.
In the unlikely event that you tire of hanging off the back of a friend’s gyrocopter while you lob grenades from on high, Far Cry 4 also offers competitive multiplayer called Battles of Kyrat. In this asymmetric mode, a team of well armed Golden Path warriors are pitted against bow-toting Rakshasa warriors who are able to summon beasts and turn invisible at will. It’s a cool idea, but the actual objectives — defend an outpost, bomb propaganda — aren’t particularly inspiring. I also had trouble finding matches at launch, so I’m not sure Battles of Kyrat is going to having the staying power to make it really notable.
If anything, there’s perhaps too much to do. Beyond the missions and side missions, there are side-side missions like destroying Pagan Min's propaganda centers for pirate DJ Rabi Ray and hunting rare animal skins for flirtatious clothing designer Mumu Chiffon.
Then there are more generic side-side-side missions where the people of Kyrat beg you to avenge a family member, rescue a friend or deliver supplies. These are distinct from à la carte objectives like outpost takedowns (excellent) or liberating radio towers (fun, but more mechanical).
And then there are the collectibles: propaganda posters, treasure chests, plants used to make stat-boosting syringes, diaries, letters, masks and probably a few I’m forgetting. It's staggering.
Whether or not that's a knock against the game is really a matter of taste. I’m typically a completionist, but when faced with the utter infestation of collectible icons on my minimap, I balked. Once I had decided I wouldn't be catching them all, they became more distracting than desirable.
Far Cry 4 doesn’t need to artificially inject its world with diversion
The funny thing about it is that Far Cry 4 doesn't need to artificially inject its world with diversion; it's organically being created all around you. Perhaps the most captivating, yet least obvious evolution from its predecessor is the way Far Cry 4 uses roaming soldiers and wild beasts to make the world feel alive. Who needs to go poster-hunting when a tiger and a bear just got into a fight 10 feet in front of you?
These unpredictable threats can be frustrating, like when you turn from your comfy sniping perch to find a pack of wolves ready to tear your throat out. But even when it turned a perfect plan sideways, Far Cry 4's unpredictability did a fantastic job of drawing me in.
It's a world I was delighted to lose myself in and moments after my last confrontation with Min, I was eager to hop right back in and finish all those side, side-side and side-side-side missions I had left hanging.
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