Saturday, March 14, 2015

Impressions #28: Far Cry 4

By the time this piece is published, I will have already completed Interactive Friction's season of Far Cry 3. When taken with my article comparing it to Wolfenstein: The New Order, my opinions of that game cannot be made any more clear. That said, I have always had a fascination with Ubisoft's products. They always manage to make enough good and bad decisions that excellent conversation can be had. Though I have many complaints regarding Far Cry 3, I enjoyed it enough to purchase and play the sequel. This week, we will discuss Far Cry 4.

Those who played Far Cry 3 will find themselves right at home. In that respect, the game is fairly iterative. Players take a trip to an exotic landscape that would feel at home in the pamphlet of a travel agency. Once there, they do the things that have become so deeply linked to the typical Ubisoft game. Enjoying the fight against hordes of nameless, faceless soldiers, climbing towers, conquering outposts, and hunting animals and collectibles are all the order of the day here. Nobody should be particularly surprised by this. In this way, the game is just as derivative as one can expect. The fundamental gameplay loop is the same, with no real big changes occurring. Because of this, most gameplay-related criticisms that have been made of a AAA-game published by Ubisoft in recent years could be levied towards Far Cry 4 and be just as accurate.

What distinguishes Far Cry 4 from the rest of Ubisoft's big games are smaller, less visible changes. The game is less of a unique title in the lineup and more of a refinement of the formula that has been used repeatedly for the past few years. Some of these updates are a step up, while others have more mixed results. Exploration in particular has been vastly improved for this sequel, with the new helicopter allows for more freedom and verticality when traveling around the map. Even without it, the wingsuit from the previous game can be purchased very early on, which allows the player to safely jump off of high cliffs and move huge distances. Autodrive even removes the tedium of driving from waypoint to waypoint in order to get to different objectives.

The story is also much more bearable than what was present for Far Cry 3. Unfortunately, it is not because of the characters the player will spend most of their time interacting with. Honestly, most of the major characters come off as either one note or bland. Despite my intense loathing of Jason Brody, at least he does have some character, if not a great one. Far Cry 4's lead character, Ajay Ghale, is a blank slate. He comes to the fictional country of Kyrat in order to burying his mother's ashes there, completing her dying wish, getting swept up into the politics surrounding the region. Taken by Pagan Min, the king of this nation, Ajay soon finds himself rescued and recruited into the Golden Path, who oppose his rule.
The Golden Path is headed by two people. Sabal, the man who rescues Ajay from Pagan Min, believes that sticking to old customs and traditions, including the status of woman as second-class citizens. Counter to his ideals is Amita, who wishes to abandon tradition and take a more progress stance towards Kyrat's future, funding it primarily through the trade of illegal drugs and narcotics. As the third man, Ajay is often forced to make binary moral choices in support of one person's plans over the others. I found the whole affair painfully dull. Although they are the two characters that players interact with more than any other, they are the least interesting part of the entire game. There is simply nothing else to those two aside from their chosen stances on how Kyrat should be ruled. One could even make a drinking game out of the number of times Sabal uses the word “tradition” in his dialogue. As the player avatar, Ajay is robbed of whatever chance he had of decent characterization because of this dynamic of being the mediator between two uninteresting paths.

And that is a real shame, because the rest of the supporting cast is much more interesting. First and foremost, the chief antagonist, Pagan Min, steals the show whenever he is on screen. Voiced by Troy Baker, Pagan is very clearly aware of his role in the plot. He chews the scenery in every appearance, which is why he ultimately comes off as strangely likable compared to the other characters in the cast. Min is the bad guy. He knows it and is willing to let loose and have fun with it. Regrettably, the man only makes a scant few appearances in a plot which is, at least in theory, all about taking down his regime. The plot twist regarding his history with Ajay's parents also recontextualizes the main campaign in a way that is oddly self-aware, to the point where one could say it openly mocks the video game conventions that the rest of the plot takes for granted. Even if he is not Vaas, and does not make many appearances, the game is made better for his character.
Most of the side-quests are given to the player through characters with unique views and idiosyncrasies. The quests to hunt legendary animals for the game's carrying cases is delivered to Ajay by a fashion designer who believes that garments can only be truly beautiful if they are practical as they are stylish. A radio DJ with a tendency to just say whatever inane thoughts come to mind gives the player the side objective of shutting down Pagan Min's propaganda centers. The local weapons dealer is also a missionary who needs someone to help him atone for his past crimes by killing the people who still commit them and reclaiming their ill-gotten goods. Not only do these characters entertain the player, but they also serve to contextualize many of the side-missions in a way that Far Cry 3 never really did aside from the radio towers and outposts. I understood more clearly in this game why my character would have a vested interest in going out of his way to do these things, and the side-cast was instrumental in that.

Which is great, because those smaller characters are part of what make Kyrat such an interesting playground. The other big draw is the land itself. Taking a helicopter and flying high over the terrain reveals impressive and beautiful vistas. Though I am not one for graphics, there is no denying that these moments make the game look fantastic. The nation also has a very interesting and well-written backstory, especially when compared to the islands from Far Cry 3. Ajay's parents, the previous king, Pagan Min, and the Golden Path all have detailed and rich histories with each other, which helped flavor the game so that it felt like players were in a living, breathing place. Kyrat is as much a character as the rest of the game is.

Unfortunately, despite the praise I have for the game, I do have one serious complaint. Somebody at Ubisoft needs a stern talking to with regards to collectibles, because the sheer amount of them in this game is absurd. Some of them, specifically the letters from an 18th century explorer and pages from the journal of Ajay's father, provide interesting reasons to explore the world by giving the player stories to discover. However, the rest of the collectibles are pointless. They consist of spinning wheels, shooting evil(?) masks, and tearing down propaganda posters. Not only are the reasons for doing these activities unclear, but there are so many things to collect that most of the game's roughly 40 hour playtime comes exclusively from these innocuous trinkets. The propaganda posters are particular egregious because there are an excessive 150 scattered throughout the game. Eventually, someone at Ubisoft is going to wizen up to the fact that artificially injecting length with pointless collectibles does not make gathering them up fun. This revelation will sadly come too late to help Far Cry 4.

Far Cry 4 is, for better or worse, an upgraded Far Cry 3. If you enjoyed that game, you are going to enjoy this one. It is very similar in terms of how it plays, and the new location offers a bit more freedom in how players explore the world. What sets it apart mostly is how much more self-aware the writers of this game seemed to be compared to the writers of the previous game. Despite using similar tropes, this new awareness makes the plot a lot more tolerable, even humorous, than it otherwise would have been. That said, if Ubisoft's standard formula for AAA games has begun to wear you down, Far Cry 4 is not going to do you any favors. It is a good game and a fun experience, but you have to be aware of that before you dive in.

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