If Far Cry 3 is Skyrim with guns, Far Cry 4 is Far Cry 3 with elephants. My four-hour playthrough starts me on top of a grassy hill and standing directly behind the unmistakably broad grey buttocks of an elephant. Clearly Ubisoft want me to ‘weaponise’ it, unleashing its proud fury against the colour-coordinated sentries of the outpost ahead. I fire an arrow into its leathery rump and await said fury.
Nothing. I fire another. Still nothing. I walk up and slash it with my knife. That does the trick, even if the glitchy, unresponsive old fool does somewhat dampen my dream of finally becoming Beast Master. The elephant charges at the fashionable soldiers, caring not for their rouge cravats and matching cumberbunds because it is an elephant. Men shout, jeeps roll, things explode. It’s chaos, especially as one guy gets knocked flying and disappears into the ground, limbs stretching and flailing. Behold the power of mother nature.
Nepalling acts of violence
Two glitches and I’m only 30 seconds in—that’s not good. My initial comparison to Skyrim, Bethesda’s bonafide festival of bugs, is starting to look less flippant. But to be fair, Ubisoft tell me to expect a few rough patches. Content now mostly in place, they’re currently in the midst of a polish crunch, which is not to be confused with a Polish Crunch, the popular Eastern Europe cereal bar.
Lead writer Lucian Soulban tells me how the scale and ambition of the game leads to difficulties. “First thing we wanted to do was have one iconic figure in the landscape, the mountain. And it had to be visible from all different directions. We wanted the idea of a centrepiece of the landscape, so these were challenges. As far as narratively speaking, I think the biggest challenge was taking a look at a landscape that was varied, that had all these different biomes. You go from an arboreal jungle to the top of a mountain and saying, ‘How is this all cohesive? How does it fit together?’”
I hop in a hovercraft and crash into a tree. This is not my destination, so instead I use a single-seater gyrocopter. They’re ridiculously simple to control, almost swimming through the air, but they’re dangerous as hell too, which is probably why you can’t buy them in Argos. The engine turns off when you fly too high and ejecting even a foot off the ground causes it to explode. Another glitch?
I buzz over a picturesque lake with flowery lily pads, a quaint stone hut village decorated with multicoloured flags, and an ancient shrine set in a mountain. The region they call Kyrat, located deep in the Himalayas, feels more remote than Far Cry 3’s jeweled tropics. It's a land of rugged isolation. You can almost sense the higher altitude, the thinner air. It’s a place of new sights and sounds: an eagle carrying a bleating goat in its talons; a man running screaming from a rhino; a tenacious honey badger who won’t take "Argghhh go away!" for an answer. They really are buggers.
Still, Kyrat functions just like the Rook Islands. Rapel points replace Far Cry 3’s climbable vines, for instance, while still treasure hides in nooks and crannies waiting to be looted and sold. You climb radio towers - now wooden Buddhist-style monuments - and claim outposts for natives, except they can be retaken by ‘revenge parties’. Dreamlike sections set in Shangri-La even replace the magic mushroom flights of fancy introduced in the last game.
The story covers fresh ground, though. You play Ajay Ghale, a man caught up in a bloody civil war when attempting to scatter his mother’s ashes in her home country. Unlike Far Cry 3’s chatty Jason Brody, conscious efforts have been made to, well, shut him up a bit. For Soulban, his motives make more sense.
“We did a test run of the character talking more and being more vocal. But the thing is it’s kinda hard to tell the player the story about him when the player may not be reacting how [Ghale] reacts. So we started scaling back how much he said because we wanted the player to have ownership over the story.” It hangs together tonally, too. Brody going off to play with sharks while his friends languished in some bamboo cage was always a bit anachronistic, but without people counting on Ghale directly, his tangents are excusable.
After several entertaining campaign missions in which I sniff incense in a monastery, use ziplines and C4 to defend that monastery from soldiers, pick off people through a thick himalayan blizzard then speed off on a snowmobile, and later handglide down a mountain, I indulge in a spot of co-op.
Co-op is a separate mode to campaign but takes place on the same activity-filled map. First my companion and I are tasked with hopping on the back of a flatbed truck and defending it until it reaches its location, using grenade launchers against onrushing jeeps and hopping out occasionally to fix it with blowtorches. Nothing special, but it’s enjoyable enough.
Then we go on the offensive against outposts, designated by great pillars of black smoke visible from miles away. There are more outposts this time, Ubisoft doubling down on one of the predecessor’s most successful features. They’re ranked from ‘easy’ to ‘very hard’ so naturally we choose the latter. Turns out it’s very hard. Mines litter the entrance to this high-walled fortress, and laser-sighted snipers guard the door, forcing us to clamber up vines and come in round the side. Dispatching the sniper gives us access to his mortar, so I target the most dangerous foe in the area—the dog.
The dead dog and loud explosion somehow give us away, and soon two heavy duty black choppers come to drop off soldiers. I mortar one and snipe the other’s driver, causing it to plummet from the sky. Nice. The real danger is a lack of ammo and seemingly inexhaustible soldiers. This is a war of attrition, and a supply run is our undoing. Still, it’s a gleefully chaotic end to the session, and in true Far Cry style, there are plenty of alternate ways to tackle it.
Do you see what I just did there? I told an anecdote. That’s what Far Cry 4 is—like 3, it’s another anecdote generator, this time in a new place and with new props to power it. Props like elephants and gyrocopters and snowmobiles and blizzard sections and Shangri-La and a central character that’s not an asshole. Typically of a game this ambitious there are glitches in abundance, but provide Ubisoft address them then the pieces are in place for you to generate a whole new set of stories.