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1 December 2014

When formulas work, they really work – Far Cry 4 proves it

This game isn’t trying to be a serious study of life, the universe or anything else – it is its self-awareness that makes it so good.

By Phil Hartup

Ubisoft are the undisputed kings of the formulaic game. The games that they make feel less like the product of creative energy and more a tightly controlled effort to eradicate the errors from previous games in the series. Often this doesn’t work very well, and the capacity of the staggeringly prolific Assassin’s Creed series still to serve up stinkers demonstrates this on what feels like an almost monthly basis.  But sometimes this sort of trial and error approach comes up trumps and you get Far Cry 4.

The gist of Far Cry 4 is that it is a first-person action game set in a fictional miniature Nepal-like country called Kyrat. It would be unfair to call the game merely a shooter now, in the same way that the GTA games are not merely considered to be third-person shooters, so Far Cry has expanded to include other elements such as driving, climbing and a range of activities that come under the broad descriptor of “elephant-related malarkey”. However, for all the expansion you’re always aware that what is under the hood is a Far Cry game.

There is a story to Far Cry 4, some boilerplate waffle about civil wars and the returning son of a rebel leader come home to scatter his mother’s ashes. As ever the story is manifested in the missions that you can do, or not, as you pootle around investigating the many and varied objective markers the map has to offer. It’s a standard plotline – you start at the bottom and fight your way to the top gaining weaponry and skills as you go. It’s a nice change to have a hero in a Far Cry game who is actually a local rather than an American arriving to save the day. In a practical sense this has little effect on what you actually do – you remain an outsider marauding around the countryside like Kublai Khan on a quad bike – but giving the character a legitimate stake in the setting is an improvement on Far Cry 3s generic douchebag protagonist.

The scenery and setting are incredibly well presented and the game is one of the best-looking that I’ve ever seen from that point of view. But it does suffer somewhat from having an ugly and intrusive user interface. A lighter touch with those visual cues would have gone a long way to aiding the immersion, because the sheer amount of things the game is trying to tell you doesn’t ever let you forget you’re playing a game. It is a testament to how great the visual spectacle of Far Cry 4 is that a usually minor detail like an ugly interface feels like a big deal.

One of the most striking elements of Far Cry 4, beyond its visual spectacle, is just how much of it there is. There are missions and quest-lines and side jobs in this game that could keep a player going for months. You can throw a lot of time at Far Cry 4 and barely make a dent in all those to-do lists. All games should aspire to have this much to do, especially when, given the sandbox nature of the game, the vast majority of what it has to offer is entirely optional.

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The downside to all these piles of content is that the game does suffer from diminishing returns. For example, climbing one radio tower is fun, climbing a second is less fun, climbing the third even less, and so on. And there are 17 of them. That is not to mention the towers you might have encountered in pretty any other Ubisoft game. I’ve climbed towers in Watch_Dogs, I climbed them in Far Cry 3 and I climbed them in Assassin’s Creed. I feel like I have climbed enough towers to unlock enough maps. I’m a big fan of big games, but at times you can feel the impact of quantity on quality. This repetition crops up again with elements like the hunting and the collect the random objects side quests. A lot of this is little more than busy work.

Past that, the fundamental process of killing folks with guns and knives hasn’t really moved on since Far Cry 3. Even the enemies feel vaguely familiar. New mechanics like the ability to lure hungry animals with bait help to spice things up, but when the bullets start flying, for all the tigers and mountains it’s impossible not to get a sense that you’ve been there before. I feel like more could have been achieved by improving the basic features of combat rather than simply adding a new layer of stuff on the top. People will always say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but I don’t see them driving around in Model T Fords.

This all means that Far Cry 4 can get boring, depending on how familiar you are with the games from which it draws its mechanics. Yet in spite of its capacity to wear out its welcome in long sessions, the game fits perfectly into the gaps between other games (or even real-life activities if that’s how you choose to spend your time). The myriad different tasks provide a little something you can do so you progress in the game without having to commit to an extended session of play. The compartmentalised nature of its missions and plotlines also means you can’t really lose track of where you are or what you were doing. There’s always something on the map to go and investigate and/or kill. Or you can just hop in a car and chase tapirs. Ironically in a game so crammed with unlocks and collections many of the most entertaining things you can do in Far Cry 4 are the things the game doesn’t explicitly direct you to do.

Overall I like Far Cry 4. It’s a game that knows what it is about and I appreciate that level of self-awareness. It is not trying to be a serious study of life, the universe or anything within. This self-awareness is demonstrated beautifully at the start of the game. A few moments after the opening cut-scene you are left in a room by the apparent villain of the piece and you face a choice. Do you wait for him to return, or do you escape? If you wait, you complete the game. Credits roll. Well done. If you escape then danger, adventure and jumping off mountains in a wing suit await.

Far Cry 4 knows its story is just a thing to hang its violence from, like some sort of malevolent shoe-tree. It knows that its characters are flimsy and largely pointless, serving merely as hubs and gatekeepers for the game’s missions and it is completely at peace with that. It can afford to be at peace with that because stampeding elephants into army camps, hunting giant killer fish with grenades from a gyrocopter, or driving straight down the side of a mountain in a pickup truck is, and I use this word in its literal sense, awesome.