Far Cry 4
The Far Cry series, while generally being well regarded over the course of its three main entries, hasn't stuck to a particular formula when it comes to story or mechanics. Each game is set in a postcard-worthy open-world setting, and allows you the freedom to approach objectives with tactics of your choosing, but little else carries over from title to title. That boldness of vision stops with Far Cry 4, which is content to riff off the successes of its direct predecessor. The setting and characters may be different, but the rhythms of the experience stick to a familiar tempo.
Replacing the insufferable dudebro one-percenter protagonist from the last game is Ajay Ghale, an American who returns to his fictitious home nation of Kyrat to spread his deceased mother's ashes. He doesn't even get across the border before being drawn into the civil war between the established dictator Pagan Min, a silver-tongued maniac who wouldn't be out of place hosting Project Runway or starring in a Tarantino film, and a rebel group known as the Golden Path, which excels more at in-fighting than it does inciting revolt. Ghale becomes the tip of the spear in this war for the nation's soul, single-handedly turning the tide in favor of the rebellion while its alleged leaders argue between ideals of progressivism and traditionalism.
Unfortunately, that choice ultimately boils down to bad or worse, since both Golden Path leadership candidates stubbornly cling to extremist ideals. This makes it hard to root for either of them. Ghale's perspective, on the other hand, is tough to grasp. He thankfully spares you the groan-inducing one-liners and general unlikability of his predecessor, but his personality is vacant - a cipher for the player to project onto. This approach fails largely because you have minimal control over shaping his trajectory. Whether you want to or not, Ghale spends time with a curious cast of characters, including a dopey duo of druggy backpackers, a Bible-verse-spouting gun-runner many may remember from Far Cry 2, and other unsavory elements that make you question what kind of person he is and where his motivations truly lie.
Its leaders and expats may be hard to stomach, but the faux-Tibetan country of Kyrat is the true star. This gorgeous and varied open world mimics the vibrant tapestries of the region, brightly colored with mysticism, intrigue, and danger. Venturing into a largely uncharted territory for open-world games, Far Cry 4 transports players to a Himalayan setting pock-marked with winding roads, treacherous mountain passes, and snaking river lands. A destitute nation with few natural resources outside of its poppy fields, religion and political turmoil have a strong hold over the region, with Royal Army outposts everywhere and gorgeous Leshan-sized Buddhas carved into mountainsides.
The square mileage of this open world feels similar to Far Cry 3's Rook Island, but traversing the region is made easier with the inclusion of a gyrocopter and a grappling hook you can use to climb over elevated terrains instead of going around them. The copter became my preferred method of transportation, largely because the cars are difficult to handle on the default settings. Narrow roads and drastic elevation changes make driving hard enough; the Halo-like driving controls that give you no independent control for direction or speed of travel make it much harder. If you run into trouble on the road, however, you can turn on the new autodrive feature or switch to a more traditional control scheme in the settings.
The Himalayan setting is breathtaking, but some pervasive cosmetic technical hiccups can take away from its majesty. Coming over to the new-gen systems, the Dunia engine developed originally for Far Cry 2 is showing its age, especially when it comes to draw distances. While you're flying across the landscape or speeding down a road, expect a heavy dose of pop-up.
The countryside is packed with activities to pursue, though most of them are familiar to those who played Far Cry 3. The major open-world activities revolve around capturing outposts, gaining control of radio towers, hunting animals to gain crafting materials, and performing your typical assortment of escort, hijack, and assassination missions. Animals don't just serve as dangerous deterrents in the open world; you can also hop on an elephant to wreak havoc on enemy encampments. The variety and volume makes it easy to get distracted as you make your way to the next objective. All too frequently I gleefully explored the question marks that pop up on the map or had fun using bait to turn a wild animal onto a nearby enemy patrol instead of speeding to help the cause of the Golden Path. In these moments, the game shines brightest.
Players can call in a friend to help with the side missions, but don't expect a challenge or much depth. With the main missions limited to a single player, the only options duos have are the easy-to-complete side missions. Even capturing fortresses, which are essentially souped-up outposts, is a breeze with two capable guns on your side. Cruising through an open world with a friend is fun - I just wish there was more dedicated content or that we could share the entire adventure together.
A deeply entrenched progression system lies at the heart of every action you perform in Kyrat. Whether you are sticking to story missions or helping out Kyrati citizens in need, everything feeds back to the skill tree, weapon unlocks, or cold hard cash you can use to buy weapon attachments, pay guns for hire, or upgrade the Ghale estate with amenities like a helipad. These perks provide just enough incentive to keep you engaged in the open world.
The mulitiplayer tries to preserve the open feel of the campaign with large maps, but when only 10 players are sometimes vying for three objectives on a big map, the matches can be filled with down time during traversal. The concept, which pits the Golden Path army against a band of mystical warriors who can use invisibility and control of animals to compensate for their lack of modern weaponry, would have greatly benefited from a larger player pool, dedicated servers, and a richer progression loop.
The half-baked co-op is disappointing and the game sticks to the conventions of its direct predecessor almost to a fault, but the wondrous Himalayan setting packed with activities still makes Far Cry 4 a trip worth punching your passport. Come for the gunfights, and stay for the viscous honey badger hunts.