Far Cry 4 is the kind of game that lets you make a lot of mistakes. The first night I started playing, I walked into an abandoned house and spotted a hornet's nest. I shot it for no particular reason. A swarm of hornets flew out and killed me. The next time I saw a hornet's nest, I did not shoot at it.
This is the way Far Cry 4, which comes out tomorrow for PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One and Xbox 360, teaches you how you're supposed to play it: you're given a small collection of tools, and allowed to experiment with them in fits and starts. You die a lot, especially at first. You learn from your mistakes, hone your skills, and learn new abilities. With time, things start to make sense.
The amount of obstacles in its world, and the freedom the game gives you to figure out how to overcome them, is something I've long admired about Far Cry. It's a series of first person shooters, but one that has a lot more in common with expansive open-world adventures such as Assassin's Creed, Grand Theft Auto, and Shadow of Mordor than most other FPS games of its calibre. More like Mordor than GTA or Assassin's Creed, Far Cry 4's world is one that only knows violence. Well, I guess there are also driving side-missions too. But what I mean is that the story and setting here put you very clearly behind enemy lines. When protagonist Ajay Ghale is deposited in the fictional Himalayan region of "Kyrat," he soon discovers that he's stepped into to the middle of a full-on civil war -- and one that the good guys in the picture (a group of freedom fighters known as "The Golden Path") aren't doing a great job of winning. It's your responsibility to help them do that. But before you can, you have to learn to actually survive.
After spending a little over 20 hours playing Far Cry 4's single player mode, I think I'm finally beginning to master the survival part of the equation. But that's only the beginning here. I only just gained access to the second portion of the game's map late last night, so there's a lot more to its story and single-player-centric adventure that I have yet to uncover. I haven't had a chance to properly test out the game's multiplayer features, including its ambitious-sounding new co-op mode. I'll have more to say about the game as I test more of its features and journey deeper into Kyrat, but here are some of my initial impressions.
It's Very Similar To Far Cry 3 -- At First
Far Cry 4 will be very familiar for anyone who's played its predecessor Far Cry 3. Ajay Ghale's presence in this game is strikingly reminiscent of Jason Brody's in Far Cry 3, to the point that I wonder if the game was made by transplanting the spine of Ubisoft's earlier work onto a new body.
I consider Far Cry 3 to be one of the best shooters I've ever played, so I don't think rehashing choice elements of that game is necessarily a bad thing. Ubisoft already revisited Far Cry 3 once with a campy, eighties-era action movie-themed expansion Blood Dragon, after all. But unlike Blood Dragon, Far Cry 4 is supposed to be a full and proper sequel -- not just a new paint job. By that standard? Well, parts of the new game can feel a bit...uncanny. It starts with the guns themselves, which look nearly identical, albeit prettier versions of their past selves.
Here's a picturesque assault rifle from Far Cry 4, for instance:
And here's its younger brother in Far Cry 3:
Or the towers you unlock by ascending them and pressing a button to interact with a mechanical box at the very top:
Looks snazzier then it did in Far Cry 3, that's for sure:
But it's still the same basic thing in many ways.
The same could be said for Far Cry 4's animation for sneaking up and stabbing enemies. Doing so is captivating, and disturbingly so, much in the same way it was in Far Cry 3:
And then, who could forget the hunting and "skinning" of animals to craft gear for yourself? This is done with what looks like the exact same animation as was used in Far Cry 3. Which raises the exact same fourth-wall breaking question all over again: why does "skinning" animals take a matter of seconds and produce the same gross-looking hunk of glistening flesh, no matter what animal it is that you're harvesting?
Funnily enough, Ubisoft's developers came up with a minor adjustment to the animal killing-and-skinning for Far Cry 4 that makes the game's homogenous chunks of flesh seem slightly more appropriate. See, this time around, you don't only harvest skin from animals. You also harvest actual meat from them, which you can use as bait. This becomes a handy way to distract vicious predators (such as tigers) away from some objective. Bait can also be used to lure those same predators toward an unsuspecting batch of people. And no: you still can't skin the people. The game hasn't gotten that dark...yet.
A Lot Of Small Changes Make For A Big Improvement
Far Cry 4's extra animal-harvesting flourish is a good symbol for the kind of improvements and adjustments that I've seen in the new game. At first, using bait seemed like a laughably minor detail. The first time the game prompted me with a quick tutorial showing how I could hurl bits of meat the same way I throw molotov cocktails or grenades, I remember thinking to myself: "Really, Far Cry? This is the best I can expect from a sequel?"
But then I kept playing. And I realised very quickly that the wildlife in Far Cry 4 is intense. Everywhere I went in Kyrat, my journey was hampered by numerous obstacles in the form of vicious animals. Birds would attack me from above. At one point, a bird swooped in and snatched a pig I was in the middle of hunting. Hey! I wanted to shout as I watched the bird fly off into the distance. That was my kill!
My indignation gave way to bemused disbelief. A bird just stole the loot I was going after to make a new piece of gear, I wrote in my notes. And now I'm mad at a bird. Yes. That is a thing that just happened in this video game.
The animals in Far Cry 4 aren't just there to add extra eye-candy to Kyrat's already gorgeous world. Rather, they seem fixated on poking and prodding you whenever you get too caught up in the habits that are easy to develop in a long, winding shooter like this. Whenever I waited outside an enemy encampment for more than a few minutes, for example, tigers and mountain lions would suddenly start chomping on me from behind. And don't even get me started on the elephants.
Ok, fine. I'll just say one thing, but only since so much has been made of the fact that you can ride into battle on top of an elephant in Far Cry 4. You can indeed do that, and I've done so several times already. I haven't leapt at the opportunity every time it presents itself, though, because Far Cry 4 is still a stealth game in many ways. Riding on top of an elephant while shooting at people is not a very stealthy way to get things done, shocking as that may sound. So while the combat-optimised elephants look insane and over-the-top in a way that makes you want to ride them in theory, I haven't found them all that useful in practice. Yet. And that's a big qualifier, because, again, there's still a lot of stuff in this game I have to continue playing around with.
Some of the new additions, like elephants and self-driving cars (there's now an autopilot feature for vehicles), strike me as being overpowered means to circumvent the trickiest, and therefore best, parts of Far Cry 4. But I've only scratched the surface of parts of this game's world, such as the gigantic fortresses that are peppered across the outer corners of its map. The first time I got within reaching distance of one, I just circled around it, admiring Kyrat's lush visual palette and wondering excitedly what the game had in store for me here. But I didn't even bother venturing inside then. Far Cry games always start on a small scale, even as they make it clear from the outset how big and bombastic the experience will eventually become. I'll get to the fortresses soon. For now, I'm still having trouble with lesser foes.
The first time I encountered a rhino in the game, I stopped in my tracks to admire the serene beauty in front of me: two majestic-looking members of the animal kingdom enjoying a drink together by the side of a river. Then one of them turned toward me. He started huffing and puffing heavily, angrily pounding his hooves against the earth. I realised what was going on and turned to run in the opposite direction. The rhino lunged, and I fell to my knees as the screen filled with black and red -- the sign I was about to die unless I did something fast. I got back on my feet and lurched towards a random boulder sticking out of the ground, scrambling onto it as best I could.
I spent the next few minutes shooting at the two angry rhinos with everything I had, which wasn't that much. Eventually, I realised I was trapped up there. I decided to make a run for it, which meant jumping back into the grass and sprinting away from the deathly rhinos. I didn't make it very far.
My untimely death at the hands (hooves?) of two angry rhinos told me a lot about Far Cry 4. So far, this is a game that doesn't feel as much "new" as...different. In comparison to Far Cry 3, the game has a bit more of an edge to it. It's much more difficult to play, because everything feels far more challenging. The enemies -- both human and animal ones -- are smarter and more threatening this time around. The world itself might look familiar, as do the bare-bones ingredients of what you do inside it. But once I got down to unlocking different waypoints on Kyrat's map and trying to see more of what the game had in store for me, I began to notice more and more subtle changes. Minor additions, individually, but they added up to something that felt refreshingly new all the same. Like the grappling hook, which lets you climb over parts of mountains more easily:
Or the adorable one-person helicopter I stumbled across in my first few hours of playing:
Ingredients like these are essential, because the terrain in Kyrat is so maze-like and mountainous that it makes getting around the world feel like a puzzle unto itself. Movement here is far more labored than it was in Far Cry 3, then.
It's Tougher, But In A Fun Way
Many other things I remember as my favourite parts of Far Cry 3 have been intensified in a similar way. The strongest example of this I've come across so far are the outposts and enemy encampments you can capture and raid.
In Far Cry 3, sneaking into these outposts and either sniping or stabbing all the bad guys to death became easy by the time I unlocked a few abilities to boost my sniping and stabbing powers. Once I got a strong enough sniper rifle in that game and equipped it with a silencer, all I'd have to do was circle around the edges of a camp -- picking off the inhabitants before rushing in to take care of the remaining stragglers. This has not been the case in Far Cry 4. I mean this as a compliment.
Even after playing for twenty hours and continuing to get new weapons and abilities, I'm still having a hard time clearing out even the easiest enemy encampments without being detected or raising alarms. Why is that the case? Well, because of a lot of tiny little adjustments like the tigers eating me if I sit in one place for too long. If try perching at a comfortable distance and chipping away at a camp's defenses, the soldiers quickly become aware of my presence and start lobbing mortars at me. Or they send scouts. Or attack dogs. Or...they just always seem to have some other trick up their sleeve. And whatever that trick may be, I keep finding myself back on square one: running away from an encampment as truckloads of reinforcements make their way towards me, doing my best to dodge enemy gunfire and anything else the game might have in store for me.
And once I manage to successfully capture outposts, my victory isn't even set in stone. Since Ghale has stumbled into a civil war in Kyrat, there's an ongoing power-struggle between the Golden Path and Pagan Min, Far Cry 4's flamboyant antagonist. The primary way I've felt Min's villainous presence so far is in the many moments when I'm passing by an outpost I've laid claim to and receive a frantic radio call from a golden path member stationed there saying that they're under attack.
"I had to reload five fucking times to capture that thing," I might mumble to myself in frustration. "Now they can just walk in and take it back? I earned this encampment, Far Cry. It's mine!" And then I'd turn around and rush to its defence, praying to god that there isn't an angry rhinoceros hanging out somewhere between me and my fort. Moments like these made Far Cry 4's world come alive for me.
As with its predecessor, Far Cry 4 hits its stride in the random, often crazy moments that make you feel like you're using your wits to survive in a fiercely chaotic landscape. Well, your wits and a whole lot of firepower. The new game does a better job than Far Cry 3 did in developing opponents that are fearsome and capable enough to genuinely challenge you. And just as importantly, these enemies keep challenging you even as you improve you bad guy-killing skills.
Far Cry 4 hasn't presented any groundbreaking new ideas or novel forms of gameplay for me yet. Playing it feels like I'm seeing something made by people who played and replayed Far Cry 3 exhaustively -- going over that with an exceedingly fine-toothed comb, nit picking every possible detail to see how it could be improved. Do all of those improvements add up to something that feels wholly new? I'm still not sure. But I'm enjoying the game enough that I'm also not sure if that even matters.
I'll have a review of the game, including impressions of its multiplayer modes, for later this week.