Sunday 8 February 2015

Far Cry 4

Ajay Ghale returns home to the country of his birth, the remote Himalayan kingdom of Kyrat, to lay the ashes of his mother to rest. He finds his homeland embroiled in a brutal civil war between the dictatorial king, Pagan Min, and the rebels of the Golden Path. Reluctantly recruited into the Golden Path, Ghale must help overthrow the tyrant, deal with the internal conflict within the Golden Path and fulfil his promise to his mother.

The Far Cry series has established itself over the past eleven years as one of the most reliably entertaining in the first-person shooter genre. The series has forged its own identity for setting its games in large open worlds instead of sequential levels (aside from the first game, which was a linear sequence of very large islands which allowed you to approach the objective however you wished). It has also experimented a little with narrative, particularly its focus in the second and third games on the nature of violence and the impact it has on people, particularly untrained civilians who turn into walking arsenals of death in order to complete the game objective.

The fourth game in the series is unusual in that it's the first game not to feature an abrupt shift in mechanics, tone or setting. Far Cry 2 introduced the large open world idea, whilst Far Cry 3 brought in radio towers, crafting and the notion of a free-flowing war going on outside of the storyline, with you able to fight in battles and take over enemy outposts at will. Far Cry 4 surprisingly does little to change this formula, instead refining what came before and, slightly awkwardly, stepping back from some of the things the previous game attempted. On paper the setting may sound very different, but a lot of the action takes place in the lower Kyrat valley which is extremely lush and you may forget which game you are playing until you look up and see the mountains.

In terms of gameplay things are less 'similar' than 'identical' to Far Cry 3. There is still a mix of focused story missions, optional side-quests and environmental challenges, alongside a whole host of other activities (like racing or escorting deliveries). It's just all happening in the Himalayas rather than the Pacific Ocean, so less sharks and more yaks and weaponised elephants. There's more variety in the design of the radio towers and enemy camps (which are now a lot more interesting and challenging to take on), and things are made more complicated by the introduction of fortresses. These larger, more heavily-guarded camps make for a more formidable challenge, introduced just at the point when your character is developing into an unstoppable one-man arsenal. All of this is still good fun to play, of course. If you want a really boring review, if you really liked Far Cry 3 you'll probably really like this. I wouldn't play them back to back, and there is a question if a glorified reskin of an existing game is worth full price, but Far Cry 4 is certainly enjoyable.

Kyrat elephants are unusually tolerant of people riding them into battle and firing auto-cannons from their heads.

There are several problems with the game, although they seem to stem from a genuine desire to make up for problems in its predecessor. Far Cry 3 took some flak for its use of the 'white saviour' trope and for its storyline about how the main character was corrupted by all the death and destruction he caused, which felt a little like the game having its cake and eating it. Far Cry 4 uses a native main character, which is a nice touch if one that has absolutely no impact on gameplay, and dials back the moral erosion stuff. It's been done before and would have been redundant to do it again, but it does remove any kind of emotional or character arc from Ghale's story. Jason Brody from Far Cry 3 may have been an utter tool, but at least he had a storyline to follow. Ghale spends the entirety of Far Cry 4 in a state of vague bemusement at what's going on and ultimately becomes a total non-entity. They may as well have gone for an unnamed silent protagonist.

In terms of characters, the game struggles to come up with any that are interesting. The Golden Path leaders are fanatics and Pagan Min is entertainingly psychotic but a pale shadow of Far Cry 3's Vaas. The game does break with convention by bringing in returning characters (CIA agent Willis and inept mercenary Hurk both return from Far Cry 3) and referencing others (Jack Carver is mentioned, placing FC3 and 4 resolutely in the same universe as the original game, surprisingly). There's also a really weird subplot set in the mystical realm of Shangri-La which features a magical remote-controlled tiger, exploding arrows and gigantic bells which transport people between dimensions or something. These interludes feel like a completely different game has suddenly rammed itself into Far Cry 4 for no reason, but get points for just breaking things up a bit.

So, Far Cry 4 (***½). It has less interesting characters, a duller storyline and rather less innovation than its forebears. It's also still quite a lot of fun and allows you to shoot honey badgers up the backside with arrows (although they don't care). Playable, enjoyable but the first game in the series which is almost completely disposable. Pick up when it's going cheap. Available now in the UK (PC, PS3, PS4, X-Box 360, X-Box One) and USA (PC, PS3, PS4, X-Box 360, X-Box One).

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