The Himalayan country of Kyrat is a place of myth, faith, secrets, lies, and beauty, and it's one of the best-realized locations I've ever explored in a video game. Kyrat is a colossal, dense, visually diverse place that feels lived in, torn up, and ancient. Far Cry 4 capitalizes on every available strength to make it an amazing open world for first-person action and adventure, while failing repeatedly in creating enjoyable characters within it.
Its most notable misfire is the hollow, ambivalent protagonist. Ajay Ghale, the American son of Kyrati freedom fighters, returns to his Himalayan birthplace to scatter his mother’s ashes, and becomes embroiled in his parents’ revolution. It’s a smart, human premise that justifies Ajay’s rampant warpath throughout Kyrat, but Ajay isn’t remotely as interesting as the things he does.
Versatility is the greatest strength in Far Cry 4’s first-person exploration and combat. I scaled cliffs with climbing gear in search of treasure, religious monuments, and hostages in need of rescue. In venturing into the Himalayan mountains, I stole oxygen masks and snowmobiles to survive, and used the unstable environment to crush enemies with snow. Long-lost letters told a tragic story I wanted to learn more about. Collectible calling cards had me on the trail of a serial killer, and gorgeous vistas had me in awe of Kyrat’s lakes, mountains, and other spectacular scenery. This is sometimes compromised by lower-resolution textures and an inferior draw distance on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but Far Cry 4 is comparable to Far Cry 3 in terms of visual fidelity, and up to expectations for old-generation hardware.
I loved discovering every inch of Kyrat because it always presented compelling opportunities. Liberating it from the oppressive government was always front and center; as in Far Cry 3, enemy-occupied towers serve as platforming puzzles with a fulfilling sense of personal progression. Climbing to the top gives you a broader perspective of the world, highlighting notable places and unlocking new objectives.
Liberating outposts is more challenging in Far Cry 4 than in its predecessor, and more satisfying as a result. Take the stealthy approach and you can disable alarms individually to prevent enemy reinforcements, and use bait to attract tigers, bears, and other animals to occupy the enemy’s attention. The hard counter to this is the Hunter, a new, silent enemy wielding a bow and capable of charming animals into fighting for him. He creates another unexpected variable that made me think even harder about how these excellent combat systems worked together. Plus, enemy forces sometimes attempt to reclaim their territory, challenging you to drop what you're doing and fend off waves of ruthless soldiers. This also encourages you to take down specific strongholds that, when vanquished, cease the takeovers. Wrestling with the Royal Army like this puts an even stronger emphasis on outposts, one of the franchise's most alluring attractions.
These encounters emphasize the importance of improvisation in Far Cry 4. The unpredictability of a situation getting out of hand often leads to catastrophic, unforgettable moments — like the time I blew up a bear with C4 to protect the hired guns I'd called in to help take an outpost. Once, I shot grenades from my personal helicopter and watched the fire trap the enemies below. Another time, I mounted an elephant, smashed through a gate, and flipped a pickup truck into a man. Tossing enemies with my elephant’s one-hit-kill trunk is basically everything I dreamed it would be.
Outpost battles — particularly the four larger fortresses owned by government officers — are at their best when a friend drops in for some two-player co-op. Adding another player to the volatility of Far Cry combat leads to new kinds of hectic, hilarious moments. Cooperative multiplayer also introduces new tactical opportunities, like having one player blow through the front door while another sneaks in through the back to stab distracted guards. You can, if you're patient and skilled, use Far Cry 4's Map Editor to create your own single-player outpost missions. At launch, most of the best missions are familiar takeover objectives, with a nice variety of snowy settings, evening assaults, and intricate, larger level designs. I don't see myself making much, but I'll absolutely jump into a community map between co-op outpost runs.
Far Cry 4’s competitive multiplayer does a marvelous job of capturing the freedom, scale, and surprises of its co-op and campaign. The 5v5 competitive multiplayer, called Far Cry Chronicles, sees two asymmetrical factions fighting in different ways, using the wide-open environments to their particular advantages. The Golden Path plays more like an aggressive Far Cry player tends to -- guns, explosives, vehicles, and traps. The Rakshasa, who borrow supernatural powers seen in Shangri-La, relying on invisibility, and different types of arrows for their bow.
I adore the Rakshasa style -- teleporting with the Blink Arrow, whether for navigation, escape, or an instant kill, is a great tool. Summoning a tiger or bear to guard an area works beautifully. Chronicles also has a strong economy, with in-game successes earning coins to spend on new weapons, attachments, or skills, such as stronger stealth, faster movement, or a closer connection to wildlife summons. The maps aren’t terribly notable in Chronicles, and the modes are simple, unremarkable, but functional, but borders on miraculous that the heart and soul of Far Cry 4 found its way into a competitive mode at all. It’s a bummer that matches start whether or not teams are even, and that not a lot of people are actually playing it, because this is actually great. Don't skip multiplayer because it isn't why you play a Far Cry game.
The supernatural side-story set in Shangri-La stands out above nearly every other objective, online feature, and other Far Cry 4 success, though. Like a miniature Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon doled out in chunks throughout Far Cry 4, the psychedelic, stunning aesthetic of its crimson foliage and golden skies is completely unlike Kyrat, as is the foundation of its combat. It’s linear, by design, but introduces enough new and interesting ideas to have an identity of its own. Teaming up with a fierce tiger, slowing time, and firing five arrows at a time to take down fearsome demons is a huge change of pace. The myth is explained episodically, and while I didn’t fully understand the legend, I couldn’t seek out the next piece of Shangri-La’s weird, wonderful world fast enough.
All of these missions feed into Far Cry 4’s brilliant economy, where everything in Kyrat has a cause and effect. Hunting and skinning animals lets you craft holsters to hold more weapons, or wallets to carry more money. Reclaiming enemy territory creates fast-travel points and opens side-quests promising huge cash payouts. Destroying propaganda posters unlocks new missions as well as earns experience points. XP unlocks new skills, like aerial takedowns, damage resistance, and riding elephants, which is both hysterical and actually useful. It also presents opportunities to become a better hunter — unlockable injections show off animal and enemy locations, or double the damage you deal and take.
Far Cry 4 borrows heavily from Far Cry 3’s superb player progression (many of the skills are direct carryovers), and then layers new rewards on top of it. New Karma Events unlock gear, discounts, and XP for spinning spiritual prayer wheels, or killing specific enemies in randomly occurring objectives.
Half the campaign’s main missions are strong, memorable, and take advantage of Far Cry 4’s flexible combat. These quests typically explore Ajay Ghale’s fascinating family history, or the ethically gray future of the Ghale’s faction, The Golden Path, and the dark places your choices can take it.
The Golden Path’s bickering leaders, Amita and Sabal, are the emotional anchor for this part of the story. They’re unified in their goal to dethrone the despicable king of Kyrat, Pagan Min, but their conflicting personal philosophies cause volatile problems for the country. I was often conflicted about who to side with during single-player missions – both make strong ethical arguments for why you should, say, claim an enemy opium farm to fund your revolution, or destroy it to free Kyrat from narcotics. Where the Golden Path goes, and which missions become available, differ depending on who you choose to lead the revolution. When Amita and Sabal aren’t involved, Far Cry 4’s cast of mostly poor characters compromises its campaign.
The weaker half of the story relates to Pagan Min and his lieutenants. I barely remember what the missions were, or what completing them accomplished. Pagan Min is a great character, thanks to an excellent, gleefully sadistic and twisted performance from actor Troy Baker. But Min is completely misused. He has a thunderous introduction, followed by a disappointing, minimal presence throughout Far Cry 4’s 15-hour campaign. Worse, his poorly explained henchmen don’t have time to become interesting before vanishing from the story in sudden and confusing ways.
When I’d finished with a story I simultaneously loved and loathed, I keep returning to my meandering around Kyrat. I uncovered new temples. I found more of Ajay’s father’s journals, chronicling the struggles of The Golden Path’s rise. I wondered whether I’d made the right choices for Kyrat -- a country I didn’t want to leave, and a place I’ll continue fighting for as long as it keeps giving me reasons to.