James Stephanie Sterling
Far Cry 4 Review – The Hollow Min
Always gorgeous, sometimes thrilling, and overwhelmingly shallow.
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Format: PC (reviewed), PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Released: November 18, 2014
If there’s one thing Far Cry 4 has taught me, it’s that jamming random syringes into my arms, legs, and neck is not only perfectly harmless, but the key to a successful foreign trip. Protagonist Ajay Ghale sticks so many needles into himself, you can probably play join-the-dots with his track marks. As well as the multitude of hallucinogenic drugs forced onto him by other characters, Ghale gets to willfully use all the ability-enhancing syringes present in Far Cry 3 and he still finds time to get totally jizzed up on some dank kush. He does all this in a filthy wartorn environment where you can’t guarantee that the tools are clean, and most of the medical cocktails are put together from unwashed jungle plants. I think the game attempts some sort of story with “choices” and a message about consequences that never really goes anywhere, but to me the overall point of the plot was clear – get yourself messed up on every random chemical you come across, because they’ll make you impervious to bullets and you can see through walls.
Ubisoft’s games are so formulaic across the board by now that, good as many of them remain, they’re intensely predictable. Even the idea of a memorable, charismatic villain has been coldly calculated and laid out in blueprint form. Following the critical success of Far Cry 3‘s Vaas, Ubisoft has realized that a strong antagonist is a great way to win praise for your narrative, and Far Cry 4‘s Pagan Min is the cynical result of this revelation. He’s flamboyant, camp, and extremely affable, brought to life wonderfully by Troy Baker. He’s genuinely enjoyable as nemesis, but he does often come across as trying too hard to be “iconic,” which is something Ubisoft products have had trouble with lately – this misguided need to shoehorn in some evocative, memorable characters and events, rather than let them happen naturally. Pagan Min as a character is helpfully indicative of Far Cry 4‘s wider problem – how contrived it all feels.
The story, while not quite as “mighty whitey” as the last game’s, is about as subtle as a claw hammer up the arse. As Ajay fights Pagan’s despotic rule of Kyrat and joins The Golden Path rebels, he finds himself “torn” between its two leaders, Amita and Sabal. I use the word “torn” lightly, because neither leaders are exactly compelling characters, and their whole rivalry is spun from whole cloth, given no real build, and escalating to farcical proportions. They seem to hate each other for no decent reason, except to present ass-pull dilemmas to the player, and the animosity is so petty, the only choice I wanted was to let their childish bickering kill them so I could start my own damn rebellion. The dialog is so artificial and obvious in its need to set the player up for a decision, I half-expected the characters to turn directly to the camera and say, “We have two different missions for you to pick in this videogame, please choose one of us to keep playing the videogame!” In moments where I was given a choice between killing someone and letting them go, I just shot them. Not because I enjoyed it, or felt they deserved it, but because I didn’t care about anybody. All the effort went into Pagan, who seems to have hogged all the personality for himself and left none for anybody else. What a tyrant he truly is!
It’s all very forced, is the problem. The tension between Amita and Sabal, the gleeful evil of Pagan, it’s like the writers knew what they wanted the audience to feel before they put pen to paper, and then sprinted headlong toward the quickest and dirtiest evocation of those feelings without regard to subtlety.
This cynicism is present in the gameplay too, as it seems to be with practically every major Ubisoft release these days. Like a paint-by-numbers book, this sequel goes through a checklist of things that happened in the previous installment and presents them without much context, letting you get on with it. From the old “climb up a tall thing to unlock sections of map” busywork, to the enemy camps that need to be cleared, right up to the “rousing penultimate battle with cool music” segment that appears in a perfectly affected “epic” fashion, Far Cry 4 sticks zealously to its formula. There’s no spontaneity in the experience, it’s all so intensely obligatory. Naturally, it also offers tons of nebulous content, with an exhausting amount of repetitive tasks to perform, and a deep well of collectible items scattered across Kyrat’s huge environment. Scale and sheer volume are placed above variety and fun – and when fun does arrive, you have to work hard to unlock it. As with the last game, your loot, ammo and even money are constrained unless you hunt animals to craft bigger inventory bags. You won’t get to level up your skills past certain barriers without taking part in “optional” missions first. You WILL respect how much “content” Far Cry 4 has, or by the Gods you’ll have a crap time.
Now, critical as I may be of the game’s artifice and repetition, I cannot deny it’s exceptionally well made, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it’s not still fun to survive in Far Cry‘s unfriendly, inhospitable world. It’s still immensely pleasurable to drive through mountainous paths before stealthily sneaking around an encampment to stab soldiers in the neck,and using the gyrocopter to hover above the world and see for miles is exhilarating. Everything Far Cry 3 did well, its sequel is just as good at, and while the overtly computed design of the whole thing is getting too obvious to ignore these days, I’m yet to grow tired of what this series offers overall. It does, however, feel less like I’m surviving by my wits in a harsh wilderness these days, and more like I’m in a theme park, where everything is gorgeous, thrilling, and glaringly fake.
Far Cry 4 is a game I struggled to play for extended periods of time. Every time I started a session, I was excited and had a blast. I’d hang-glide off a mountain, ride an elephant, get into a fight with a bear and take fools down with my fiercely painted automatic crossbow. For a few hours apiece, it was delightful. Anything more than that, however, and the fatigue set in. As yet more bell towers needed climbing, yet more rare creatures needed murdering so I could have a bigger wallet, as yet more enemies spotted me and dragged me into a fight when I simply wanted to pick up more drug plants, I’d get irritably tired before too long. I started every game happy, and left each one annoyed. There’s something to be said for offering a lot of content, and nothing great to be said about so much content that it overwhelms players, constantly demands their attention, and pulls them in a dozen different directions at once.
The erosion of my patience sadly had a cumulative effect as well. After fifteen hours, I was more than ready for the whole thing to end, with the final few missions being slogged through under the influence of sheer, determined willpower. My tolerance for the game weakened with every session, and it wasn’t that its quality had reduced in any way, it’s just that less is sometimes more, and this was a case of a title firmly overstaying its welcome. Considering how thin the plot really is, it’s not like the campaign needed to be so lengthy. There’s certainly a lot of padding to bump up the runtime, which is at least consistent with all the collection quests and repeated busywork. I get that this has become the standard operating procedure – stuff a game to the gills with things to do, add hours upon hours of playtime, and present an ideal picture of value for money. There’s something to be said for streamlining, though, for not cluttering one’s game to the point where unfiltered maps are impossible to navigate for all the icons littering the screen like so much detritus.
While we’re ticking boxes, there’s online cooperative play, now integrated into the campaign rather than cordoned off as its own mode. It doesn’t do much to add to the experience overall, as you’re basically just playing the same game with another guy hanging around. It’s certainly inoffensive, though, and the usual fun one can have with co-op is fully in play here. Just hop into another guy’s game and shoot stuff if you want. There is also a forgettable five-on-five competitive multiplayer mode, which the series insists on including even though it’s really not all that good and the systems of Far Cry seem far, far more designed for solo play than versus modes.
The game looks as gorgeous as you’d expect from a massively budgeted game. The scenery is vast, and one can get a view for miles. The way textures and objects fade in, materializing with a black fog, is perpetually distracting, however. Animations, particular in the faces of NPCs, are fantastic, and I love the rain and lighting effects that make themselves known. One issue I had was that Ajay looks startlingly bad in co-op, especially awkward if you’re sharing a car with him. Otherwise, Far Cry 4 is easily among the most beautiful games to come out of this generation so far.
For all its visual appeal, however, Far Cry 4 remains a shallow experience. It has loads of things in it, but having a lot of things is not the same thing as having depth. With a vapid story, activities that rely more on regurgitation than anything else, and a campaign that is exciting only for as long as you can ignore how insincere it all is, this is a game that affects a meaningful experience, rather than manages to be one. Highly polished, structured with ruthless, uncanny precision, and thoroughly hollow for all its prettiness. I can’t deny it’s a quality product, but “product” is the operative word. It’s a pre-planned, pre-packaged, factory standard experience that will thrill and entice, until all the strings make themselves glaringly visible.