Far Cry 3 managed to blend a near perfect mix of open world and first-person shooter, taking players to the darker side of a Pacific paradise, where many of the inhabitants were the definition of insane. For its sequel, there’s a definite feeling that Ubisoft took the view 'if it’s not broken, don’t fix it', so Far Cry 4 feels very similar to its predecessor – but when the results were so good before, who could blame that approach.
This time around you’ll be trading in the Pacific, in the fictional South Asian country of Kyrat. This small nation bordering the Himalayan Mountains is embroiled in a civil war, where the insurgents of the Golden Path are in full revolt against dictator Pagan Min. The location itself is a wonderfully realised landscape, with some truly amazing vistas that can be viewed across incredible draw distances. The most amazing part is that on the PlayStation 4 it maintains a solid framerate throughout – even when the action’s at its most frantic.
While graphically this is a real showcase, there are the occasional signs that the game engine may be pushing against its limits; texture pop-in becomes quite obvious when you’re moving at high speed in a vehicle, and while this is understandable given the scale of the world, it's still a little disappointing to see.
Regardless, your character, Ajay Ghale, has arrived in Kyrat to scatter his dead mother's ashes, but in no time at all he manages to run afoul of the country’s psychotic King, and is forced to join up with the freedom fighters of the Golden Path. In comparison to Jason Brody – the unlikable protagonist in the previous game – Ajay is somewhat of a blank canvas, with not a huge amount of dialogue with which to build his character. As a result, it’s hard to have any strong feelings about him either way, and this makes him feel like a reaction to the backlash that the previous game incurred. It’s not until you get a little way into the release that you start to realise that this approach is designed to serve the structure of the game's main campaign, which has you deciding the path that the uprising will take.
As soon as you join up with the Golden Path, you'll realise that not all is rosy in the rebellion, as two members of the group are vying for dominance, with each having a very different idea of what needs to be done to achieve victory. On the one hand, Sabal is a staunch traditionalist, who wants to maintain the proud legacy of the nation, while on the other, Amita wants to prepare Kyrat for the future by pulling down all that held them back in the past.
As you undertake each mission for the Golden Path, it’s up to you to decide whose approach that you want to take. Whoever you side with will influence the mission that you’re sent on, allowing you to steer the rebellion in the way that you think best. Do you destroy the drug farms that Pagan Min uses to fund his army, or take them for yourselves? The choice is yours, but none of these decisions are black and white, leaving you to make some hard selections as you swing the balance of power within the Golden Path.
In between fighting the good fight on behalf of the rebels, you’ll also bump into a number of characters who also want your assistance. These miscreants will not only send you on errands that criss-cross the open world, but also on tasks that will take you off the map completely, and into mission specific areas such as the Himalayas or the mythical land of Shangri La.
These missions are some of the best in the game, as they’re not constrained by having to fit into the open world. This enables the developer to deliver some truly exciting sequences that will see you taking flight down a tight canyon in a wing suit and fighting demons with the help of a tiger companion.
Outside of what you’d class as the game's main missions, there’s also a raft of side content for you to undertake. On top of enemy outposts to liberate and bell towers to scale, there’s races, hunting, a combat arena, collectibles, convoys to hijack, and assassinations – to name but a few – all seeking to distract you from the main path. It’s very easy to find yourself getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content on offer, and there’ll be times when you'll find yourself miles from your intended destination, due to a serious lack of self-discipline and focus on your travels.
If you’re going to bring down Kyrat’s ruler, then it’s worth spending a little time upgrading your character, and this is done by earning skill points generated each time that you fill your experience bar completely. These points can be spent to unlock different abilities along two different trees, known as the tiger and the elephant. The tiger gives you skills that make you much more deadly in combat, while the elephant increases your resilience, by offering upgrades that may, for example, boost your health.
When taking on Pagan Min’s forces, there’s a lot of latitude to the approaches that you can take with your newly acquired skills, and if you were someone who enjoyed the stealthy route in Far Cry 3, then you’ll be happy to hear that it’s still very much an option in the sequel. Sneaking around and using your knife for up close takedowns or turning the soldiers into pin cushions with your bow is gratifying, especially now that you’re able to lure aggressive predators – such as tigers – into enemy positions, creating even more havoc.
The only problem with the stealth is that unless you’ve tagged all of the soldiers with your camera, it’s really easy to blunder into those that you’ve failed to spot. Guards also seem to be eagle eyed enough to see you – and the bodies of their dead comrades – from what feels like quite a distance, so unless you’ve been extremely diligent in your photography – and the hiding of bodies – most encounters will end in a stand up fight. On the plus side, with responsive shooting and a huge array of weapons, when things do devolve into a gun battle, it’s still really fun, whether you’re hitting your foes at distance with a sniper rifle, or lighting them up like a pyromaniac with the flamethrower.
While the combat largely feels the same as Far Cry 3 – which isn’t a bad thing at all – there are some nice additions that add to the mayhem. Now not only can you ride elephants into combat, but you can also shoot with a sidearm while driving vehicles, and by using the new auto drive function to keep you on the road, you can blast away at pursuing vehicles stopping them in their tracks. This is a brilliant addition, and shooting with a handheld grenade launcher while flying the buzzer – a mini helicopter – is something to savour.
Viewed in isolation, these and the other new additions in Far Cry 4 may look a little on the modest side, but when considered as part of the whole, you can’t help but be impressed by how many options are open to you. There’s a lot of fun to be found building your own unique stories that come out of your experimentation, and there’s a strange glee to be felt as you try and engineer a creative demise for yet another band of Pagan Min’s forces.
If you fancy sharing some of your time in Kyrat with others, then you can take your game online, playing in co-op with another player. This allows you both to play any of the available missions or side activities in the host's game, with the second player merely there to provide assistance. This means that the non-host doesn’t get to carry over any of the progress into their own campaign, though they do get to keep any money and experience that they accumulate. As a result, there’s very little incentive to join someone else’s game, unless you’re after the odd Trophy that’s linked to co-op play.
In addition to this, there’s also a five-on-five competitive multiplayer component, containing a number of different game modes which pretty much equate to those that you’d expect to find in any online shooter. What is interesting about this fun little mode is that each side has very different capabilities from one another, with one sporting the usual guns and explosives, while the other uses bows, cloaks, and wildlife.
This is reminiscent of Splinter Cell's multiplayer, as it demands that you spend some time understanding each side's capabilities, as failing to play to their strengths will lead to a lot of frustrating deaths. Due to this more demanding learning curve, it’s hard to see this fun little addition getting much traction with the player base, so it's likely that you'll see your chances of finding a game dropping quickly after release.
While Far Cry 4 doesn’t feel like a major upgrade over its predecessor – except on the graphical front – the series still manages to retain its crown as the finest open world first-person shooter. The introduction of player choice to the narrative is great, but the lack of an interesting story makes this addition feel like a step forward followed by a step back. It’s fortunate, then, that the game's negatives are eclipsed by its sublime sandbox gameplay.