A good cry.
Far Cry 4's Kyrat, the scenic destination of protagonist Ajay Ghale, is both a playground and a slanted microcosm of Tibetan culture, guerrilla warfare, and an authoritarian regime. It's a world where the capriciously sadistic Pagan Min has pushed the diminishing Golden Path resistance to the southern border, where the bounty of mountainous cliffsides come pre-installed with grappling points, where the local wildlife approach and murder civilians on a regular basis, and where the flashing treasure chests littering the landscape hide such wonders as condoms and birth control pills.
The incongruence—a pristine, sacred setting adorned by waterfalls and massive statues to gods and goddesses yet at the same time torn by constant warfare—mostly works in favor of the game. Peering at the carved sky can bring moments of peace and awe where the nearly endless number of firefights do not. The open world has such freedom and verticality that it's almost impossible not to feel invigorated by the sheer geography of Kyrat's natural world.
As you might suspect, Far Cry 4 is best when it allows you to forget about the apparent seriousness of eradicating Pagan's forces, the bickering between the Golden Path's two leaders Amita and Sabal, and Ajay's personal mission to spread his mother's ashes on Lakshmana. While the setup is better than Far Cry 3's awkward concept of a naïve Californian surfer forced to play soldier on a tropical island, it still takes quite some effort to suspend your disbelief in Far Cry 4.
Truly, the Golden Path is lucky to see the return of the prodigal son whose parents are the founders of the movement and who doesn't just pack his bags and leave the country while he's still alive and breathing. I wouldn't blame him if he stopped to spread his mother's ashes at some other mountain in Kyrat (can you really tell them apart?) and muttered to himself, “Eh, close enough.” Moreover, the resistance is extremely lucky that Ajay, despite claiming that “he's not a soldier,” might as well be a spec-ops mastermind by the way he handles stealth, mountain climbing, wingsuits, C4 explosives, and sniper rifles. (Must be all those American movies, huh?)
Also lurking beneath the surface is a strange disconnection with the interpretation of the story-world. It's difficult to imagine that Kyrat culture, largely influenced by Tibetan beliefs, would approve of violence and disharmony so freely. The religious community in the game unequivocally coincides with Ajay's pursuits for the sake of convenience, and its ritual animal sacrifice seems to ensure that your hunting of endangered species falls in line with what's acceptable. If you're an animal lover, conservationist, or behaviorist, you might feel guilty murdering Bengal tigers and snow leopards, albeit virtual ones of course, just for their pelts so that you can craft, of all things, a larger ammo bag. Or perhaps you might be irritated that nearly every predatory animal will attack you regardless of gunfire when their nature would be just as likely to avoid humans as much as possible.
That said, Far Cry 4 is first and foremost a video game, chiefly about exploring the wild, hunting animals, and landing headshots on poor fools who support Pagan Min. While it would have been better to have a narrative that's easier to care about, the gameplay shines through more when you forget about the ramifications of Ajay's actions. There's nothing like taking out an entire outpost by sniping every last mercenary from a nearby cliff or sneaking into a base and performing badass knife takedowns while remaining entirely undetected. The same goes for riding an elephant into an enemy encampment and trampling everyone down with its sheer power, or sniping a cage holding a tiger and watching it maul its captors with clawlike precision.
The quantity of collectibles and side objectives in Kyrat almost brims over the capacity for an open world (which is saying a lot). With the welcome auto-drive feature and the addition of new intuitive controls for grappling and rappelling, exploring every inch and cranny of the craggy woodlands is worth the effort, with treasure chests, lost journals and letters, evil masks, flammable propaganda posters, and bell towers that clear the fog on the map once you find the way to the top. Karma events appear at regular intervals too, in between opportunities for armed escorts, arenas, Shangri-La exorcisms where you defeat demons in an alternate universe, and other side missions if ever you need a distraction.
Clearing outposts will also not only become a fast-travel waypoint, but open more activities and challenges. Obtaining rupees for upgrades, weapons, and guns-for-hire tokens, and earning skill points from experience is a breeze, for better or worse; in fact, the toughest part is actually unlocking skills and equipment in the first place by completing their required objectives. That said, completionists will easily find themselves swimming in rupees and skill points.
If that weren't enough, the drop-in/drop-out co-operative experience literally doubles the fun, allowing a friend (or a complete stranger) to tromp through Kyrat and watch your back. Partners can revive each other, instead of being forced to reload at a checkpoint while in single-player. One of the finer co-op strategies for taking out an outpost is to have one player distract enemies with a gyrocopter or a barrage of grenades while another player flanks them with stealth takedowns as their backs are turned. Better yet, purchasing the game on PS3 or PS4 will net you 10 Keys to Kyrat codes which you can give your friends to play co-op with you for a free two-hour trial period. The multiplayer PvP option works respectably enough as well, though it's largely tacked on.
One issue with this adventurer's delight, however, is that the design is slowly becoming stale from being too close to the Assassin's Creed/Watch Dogs gameplay loops (though Far Cry came out before Watch Dogs). Ubisoft needs to watch out for the similarities between its franchises here. Bell towers are merely viewpoints or ctOS towers by another name, and as picturesque as the art assets may be, the open world should not be populated by collect-a-thons and padded objectives that are copied and pasted numerous times over.
Midway through the story, the game starts to feel iterative with the only significant progression being hunters, big gunners, and a few more difficult units. The presence of Pagan Min, whose maniacal personality is at least strong, if not terribly deep, fades from the fantastic opener and contacts you by radio mainly to remind you that he's the bad guy. Being unable to interact with characters much outside of missions represses their potential as well. Last but not least, I must also not fail to mention the packs of dholes who relish coming out of nowhere to interrupt whatever you're doing (but I suppose I must expect this kind of behavior from “d-holes”).
Far Cry 4's lavish environment and solid shooting mechanics are stifled by a mediocre story-world that's a hair too serious and an iterative design that's a bit too obvious. Oddly, this is the type of open-world shooter, like Just Cause 2, that's better when you stop yourself from analyzing the game's components beyond the mechanics, which puts a reviewer like myself in a strange position. Still, though Far Cry 4 should have considered its characters and inclusion of culture more thoroughly, its breadth, production, and co-operative experience help save the game from rolling too far down the hill.
Copy provided by publisher. Review based on PS4 version. Also available on PC, XOne, PS3, and X360.