Far Cry 4 suffers from the perennial Ubisoft problems of hackneyed plot and repetitive gameplay, but its saving grace is its mechanical near-perfection and its amazingly crafted open world.
A play session in Far Cry 4 might look something like this:
You spawn in one of the gameworld’s outposts and hop onto a jeep. You drive towards an enemy encampment. The radio plays an endless medley of Hindi tunes interspersed with a rebel deejay’s endless commentary.
Along the way, an enemy jeep hurtles towards you. You whip out your handheld grenade launcher and lob a few rounds into the enemy, watching the jeep explode as you speed past. Further along, a group of villagers is being attacked by a leopard. You ventilate the offending animal with an LMG.
Nearing the base, you spot an enemy cargo truck full of supplies. You drive alongside the truck and pull the VC out of his seat, knifing the other. You drive all the way back to the outpost to deposit your new bounty and get a free ammo refill for your trouble. You got injured sometime in the past fifteen minutes, so you wander around for the next fifteen minutes looking for green plants to craft healing syringes so you won’t have to waste money buying them.
But the main objective still isn’t done – the base remains in enemy hands. You drive there again, trying hard to ignore any distractions on the way. You reach the base and decide to take a stealthy approach. You clamber up a conveniently placed ledge, bring out the sniper rifle, and start picking off targets. At first the grunts are oblivious but soon enough, they start realising that they’re being attacked. They panic, fanning out, while their numbers continue to drop. At one point, you’re almost spotted by one of the grunts, but you quickly backtrack into the bushes. If you’re spotted, an alarm will sound and reinforcements will arrive – and you don’t want that.
Finally, the grunts are all on the ground and the base is yours – and your allies roll in on their jeeps just in time to savor your victory. Now what? You think. You open the map. A huge world, dotted with bases much like the one you just took, awaits.
Rinse and repeat.
Don’t get me wrong – gameplay loops such as the above are the foundational building blocks of all video games. The issue with Far Cry 4 isn’t that it has such loops, but that much of the open-world gameplay is made up of nearly-identical segments that don’t differ in any meaningful gameplay fashion.
Luckily, Far Cry 4 somewhat makes up for this because the loop is just so much fun. It strikes a very delicate balance between challenge and player empowerment. The gunplay mechanics are weighty and satisfying, the stealth and takedown mechanics challenging but rewarding to execute. And all this ultra-violence takes place in an absolute stunner of an open-world: the mountains and forests of a fictional Himalayan country called Kyrat, filled with birds and beasts and warring factions, surrounded by the snowy peaks of distant mountains.
Even so, it can get stale, after a while. Far Cry 4 is an arcade game at its core. It offers packaged, predictable gameplay experiences to the player as an empowering, escapist fantasy. The predictability and repetitiveness wear you down after a while. Although there may be many different activities to pursue at the start – animal hunting, bell-tower climbing, spelunking, collectible-finding, outpost-clearing – these activities don’t feel particularly meaningful after doing them again and again in the course of the open world. In other words, there is breadth, but not much depth, of content. This is an issue that plagues many, many Ubisoft open-world games of more recent vintage, including Far Cry 3, Assassin’s Creed and Watch_Dogs.
Shallow gameplay loops might be mitigated somewhat by strong narratives. In games like The Witcher 3, which are not particularly deep on a gameplay level, the strength of its narrative and worldbuilding more than makes up for its lack of scalability.
But in Far Cry 4, the plot is a paper-thin excuse for gameplay – even more so than in Far Cry 3, which at least had some attempt to mine the story for a commentary on video game violence and empowerment. Far Cry 4 features a protagonist who ends up mass-murdering for no better reason than that he has nothing better to do. This is a perfect example of ludonarrative dissonance – the gulf between doing things in a video game and the in-game narrative context that justifies those things. As Ajay, the character, we are keenly aware that we’re playing the game because it’s what we signed up for when we purchased it. Ajay himself, however, has no particular impetus to start mass murdering – he just wants to scatter his mother’s ashes in Kyrat, then leave.
The funny thing is, the game does try to lampshade this narrative deficiency. The dandy-villain Pagan Min reveals that would have helped Ajay scatter his mother’s ashes and send him on his way, if only he’d just waited for him at the palace and not tried to sneak out, video game style – but the player who inhabits Ajay knows that the idea is to leave the palace to start the game proper.
But this bit of meta-narrative cuteness doesn’t lend much in the way of narrative context and meaningfulness for 90% of the game, and therefore, doesn’t fulfill the function of giving narrative significance to the player’s actions. For most of the game, you’re playing a bona fide killing machine who kills for no reason. You can’t hinge a whole narrative on the notion that the “right” thing to do, from an immersion perspective, is to passively wait for Pagan to return at the start, and then forego the whole video game for that. It amounts to throwing away the chance to get something of the game just to score a few a-ha! points at the expense of the player.
And I don’t get the franchise’s obsession with having a whole host of hyperbolically eccentric characters as overly chummy quest-givers or villains. Pagan Min, the pink suit wearing diva, seems like a hot-air filled but ineffectual villain most of the time. Then there are the annoying quest-givers like Longinus, irritating the player with his nonsensical declamations and unwillingness to do the dirty work himself. Maybe they saw the success of Vaas in Far Cry 3 and tried to replicate it, but it doesn’t amount to much.
One more thing I don’t like is the game’s attempt to shoehorn the player into making stark binary moral choices without the ability to compromise between one choice and another, even though in the real world they would be eminently reconcilable. This characterises most of the missions in which you either help Amita or Sabal, two bickering members of the rebel faction, the Golden Path. Destroy a factory and cripple Kyrat’s economy – or use it to manufacture cocaine to export, turning Kyrat into a drug state. Can’t you re-tool the factory to, I don’t know, make something else? The worst part is that the game ultimately paints a picture of moral equivalence between the two of them – that they are at their core intolerant tyrants, interested in pursuing their diametrically opposed visions for Kyrat at any expense. It’s grim for the sake of grimness, and not particularly meaningful.
But at the end of the day, despite my many complaints about a plot that was most likely not a particularly high priority in the dev’s list – Far Cry 4 is a worthwhile purchase, providing hours of content and arcadey fun by presenting the player with a broad variety of things to do in a beautiful open world. But the sheen of fun will wear off after a while, as the mechanics start to break down and reveal their moving parts. But a good number of hours will probably pass before that happens.
I give this game: 3.5 out of 5 bongs