Mountains and molehills.
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When it's good, Far Cry 4 is very, very good. It's also familiar: this sequel hews close to Far Cry 3, the game that preceded it. The surprises are few, a disappointment in a series featuring more disparity and diversity between its various entries than most. But there is no denying the sandbox joys of wreaking havoc in a wild world of freedom fighters and fanged felines. The tropical island of Far Cry 3 has been replaced by a Himalayan enclave, where badgers, tigers, and bears threaten to sink their razor-sharp teeth into your flesh. Yet the wildlife is not always foe, but often friend as well. There's endless glee in mounting an elephant and intruding on an encampment of gunners, flipping over their vehicles with the creature's massive trunk and tossing molotov cocktails on your enemies. Having a friend join you cooperatively opens up even more delightful possibilities. Your buddy mounts a rinky-dink gyrocopter and rises into the air while you hang from beneath. You come face to face with a helicopter pilot, aim your shotgun at his face, and shoot. The pilot slumps over and the helicopter crashes to the ground, where a fiery explosion signals the end of this battle of wits, guns, and spinning blades.
I dare you not to grin.
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When it's bad, Far Cry 4 is very bad. The badness doesn't typically overcome the goodness, but it's inescapable. The oft-maligned Far Cry 3 story is a classic when compared to Far Cry 4's mess of embarrassing stereotypes, abysmal dialogue, and contradictory themes. I might have been convinced the game is Ubisoft's parody of its own games' typical narrative excesses, were it not for a freedom-fighter-versus-evil-government plot starring leaders you're clearly meant to identify with. One moment, a young woman hugs you tightly for saving her life; the next, the local radio personality relates the overall cleanliness of his anus. The game occasionally reveals a certain level of self-awareness: I was pleased when I was told that my violent actions proved I had no room to take the moral high ground. But if Ubisoft had hoped to subvert the "save the natives" motif that tainted Far Cry 3, it failed once again in Far Cry 4.
I dare you not to groan.
I am still grinning and groaning my way through Far Cry 4, and though the Ubisoft-provided review embargo time has arrived, I am not yet ready to share my final verdict. I am hardly short of opinions, however, and Far Cry 4 elicits strong ones. Given the recent announcement of Just Cause 3's development, I can't help but wonder how much better Far Cry 4 might have been had it fully embraced its sandbox nature and abandoned its ridiculous stoner caricatures and eye-rolling plot developments in favor of even more crazy activities and colossal explosions. I love every chance I get to express creativity purely through gameplay.
I write this after one such display of absolute mayhem, courtesy of my grenade launcher, which is classified not as a primary weapon but as a sidearm, meaning I can fire it even from behind the wheel of my vehicle. On my way to an enemy camp, a caravan of baddies approached, firing weapons as it ran my buggy off the road. Without missing a beat, I spewed a grenade at the road-raging bandits; two vehicles and five individual gunners were blown to bits, and I sped off towards my destination without ever slowing down. Once I arrived at camp, I summoned an AI-controlled comrade to my side and rushed forward, spraying AK-47 fire and tossing molotovs.
As the world burned around me, I flung some meat I held as bait, and a bear roared into view, tearing apart my enemies' flesh as I prepared for the next wave of reinforcements by setting up land mines around the perimeter. Once I triumphed, I rushed to a nearby overhang and leapt off, breaking my freefall by activating my wingsuit and swooshing ahead. Beneath, I spied a small lake. The waters beckoned to me, for demonfish might be swimming in them--and I needed two more demonfish skins in order to craft a larger inventory bag. And so I triggered my parachute, floated to the water, and dived beneath the surface to find the remains of a demonfish a nearby friendly had already killed.
Far Cry 4 allows you to string together one such incredible moment after another. Most of the methods for creating chaos are readily available. Guns and grenades, trucks outfitted with mounted weapons, hunting bows, paragliders, throwing knives, and grappling hooks: these are the tools of the trade. This is a stealth game, a shooter, and a destruction simulator, shining when it trusts you to find new ways to have fun. What happens if you set a tiger on fire and then set it loose on its captors? What is it like to stab a sniper from behind and fling a knife into his buddy's heart, all in one fluid move? Far Cry 4 answers these vital questions.
If only the game had more faith in your ability to find the fun. Far Cry 4 is the most Ubisoft open world game that has ever been. As such, its giant map is covered with icons pointing you to some kind of activity or another: a vehicular race, a drug-fueled visit to Shangri-La, an animal to hunt, hostages to rescue, masks to collect, and so on and so forth. You tear propaganda posters from walls. (Hello, Assassin's Creed II!) You climb towers to dispel the fog of war. (Hello, every Ubisoft open world game!) Insta-fail stealth, and tailing missions? A big world and too many minor glitches? Yup--this is a Ubi game, all right, from the try-too-hard "edginess" to the vast array of collectibles.
Thus, Far Cry 4 is a needy game, reminding you constantly that there's something to do everywhere you go with pop-up messages that invite you to go do something other than what you are currently trying to do. Did you just liberate that camp? Well, you'll be told it's under attack 10 seconds after you leave it, and the game will move your waypoint to it on your behalf. And if you re-liberate the camp, it'll be under attack again 10 seconds after you leave. Don't want to go back? Far Cry 4 informs you of your failure when you don't.
If you're like me, you'll swear at Far Cry 4 after that scenario repeats enough times. Don't tell me I failed! I just want to go and climb up the sides of mountains, hunt tigers, and hijack convoys (hello, Watch Dogs!). Far Cry 4 can be amazing in the way Far Cry 3 often was: the heated action and exploratory freedom inspires thrilling personal stories for remembering later, the kind that start with "Hey, remember that time…" and end with "...and wasn't it awesome?!" It retains most of what made Far Cry 3 amazing, but the potential greatness is burdened by an even worse story, less memorable missions, and a formula suffering from years of overuse. When I love Far Cry 4, I really really love it. But when I don't love it, I all but hate it. I'll be in a better position to tell you just how that balance plays out in my full review. Look for it on Monday.