Character, story: Whatever. Far Cry 4 is a math problem. The solution is conquest. But there are some variables in the equation: Explosive arrows, bespoke sniper rifles, wingsuits, gyrocopters, weaponized elephants. You can press a button to throw a rock to distract the bad guys. If you’re playing the game a certain type of way—if you’re playing on Hard, if you prefer stealth over shootouts, if you just love the plan-comes-together thrill of a silent Takedown—then you might hit the “throw rock” button more often than the “shoot gun” button. Far Cry 4 is a brutal and cerebral thrill, a fantasy about global conquest rendered in microcosm as a sparsely populated multiclimate mini-world. Call it tactician porn.
The game hits stores at an auspicious moment for its company. Here’s the Year in Ubisoft: Watch Dogs, Child of Light, Valiant Hearts, South Park: The Stick of Truth, two different Assassin’s Creeds. You can feel that Ubisoft is cusping on something. It could be Renaissance, or it could be overexposure. (Likely both.) They’re planning movie adaptations of all their big franchises; they’re making a multiverse out of Tom Clancy. And though the company earns points for diversifying their stock, there is a Ubisoft house style that runs through all their releases. You feel it most in their open-world games. Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed, and Far Cry look different and feel the same: Towers to climb, bad guys to sneak around, endless collectibles.
There’s something aggressively meta about Ubisoft. You look at Grand Theft Auto V and you feel how much Rockstar is struggling to embed the gameplay inside of a breathing universe. Then you look at Watch Dogs and you feel how Ubisoft barely even tries to embed the universe inside of the gameplay. Only Ubisoft could’ve made Watch Dogs, a video game about a man looking at his smartphone; only Ubisoft could’ve made Assassin’s Creed, which has lately transformed into a video game franchise about contemporary chumps trapped in boring subplots who spend most of their time playing Assassin’s Creed.
Sometimes the results are toxic. Ubisoft released two Assassin’s Creed games last week. Rogue and Unity would be unplayable even if they weren’t unplayable. It’s not just that the Assassin’s Creed mythology is a relentless incoherence—the thousand-monkeys-typing-on-a-thousand-typewriters lithium cocktail of wristbladed ninja monks who fight apocalypse zealots because ancient-astronaut god-mutants taught humans some sick parkour. It’s that so little that happens in Assassin’s Creed seems to matter.
I played Rogue for several hours last weekend. I don’t remember a single thing that happened in the game. Remember in The Matrix, when Joe Pantoliano looks at a screen dripping with green number-symbols? “All I see is blonde, brunette, red-head,” he says. “I don’t even see the code.” In a bad Ubisoft game, all you see is the code: Every gloriously animated metropolis becomes a 2D map across which you guide a pointer towards several collectibles.
But a good Ubisoft game gives you a feedback high unlike anything else in the video game landscape today. There’s a legit narcotic intensity to Ubisoft’s open-worlders at their best. And Far Cry 4 is the very best of Ubisoft right now. Immediate predecessor Far Cry 3 took a franchise that always felt like a lesser gem in Ubisoft’s Infinity Gauntlet and packed it with glorious graphics and box-ticking expansiveness. Towers to climb, fortresses to conquer, animals to hunt: This was done before a million times, but Far Cry 3 refined the formula. Every fortress could be conquered at least six different ways.
Far Cry 4 is the same, except moreso. It’s a much denser experience than Far Cry 3, carrying you from the heights of mountain ranges down to river valleys below. You’re playing some random guy who’s returning to his parents’ homeland with his mother’s ashes. The country is basically Nepal, although they call it Kyrat, and anyhow it’s a Ruritanian blend of ancient artifacts, pink-suited megalo-tyrants, and a parade of English-speaking mission assigners.
All the Far Cry games have a touch of retrograde colonialism—White Man Goes To Third World, Is Most Important Person Therein. Credit Far Cry 4 for making this subtext into actual text: The Big Bad is a carpetbagger from Hong Kong; his chief henchman is an American who vibes CIA-gone-corporate. Credit Far Cry 4, also, because—at least as far as I’ve played—there are no hottie-nude miniskirt priestesses.
Far Cry 4 does have plenty of cartoony touches: This is a game that encourages you to ride an elephant into a fortress while carrying a sidearm grenade launcher. But in many ways, Far Cry 4 is a stripped-down game experience. Half the game is you walking/driving/climbing/flying around a gorgeously illustrated nature-verse. And half the game is you, carefully plotting how you’re going to take down the newest set of bad guys. If you’re like me, that second part is more like 90 percent. Far Cry 4’s Hard is very hard indeed. On more than one occasion, I’ve spent a couple minute scouting an outpost, marking all the bad guys, when the jungle suddenly coughs up a pack of wild dogs that tear me to pieces. (One time, it was a wild eagle.)
But playing Far Cry for stealth is more rewarding, I think. Every attack sequence is like a mini-heist movie. Every outpost or conglomeration of bad guys is sorta the same but slightly different, located alongside hills or rivers or deep in the caverns of a mountain range. Far Cry 4 combines the punishing repetition of Dark Souls with the wish-fulfillment spree of Borderlands. It looks beautiful, did I mention? A lot of video games look great now, but the quiet tension of Far Cry 4’s world feels full in a way more elaborate video games don’t. After awhile, you start to memorize the specific way a certain hill rolls downward.
Far Cry 4 comes with a new co-op option, and you can play online, etc., etc., etc. I prefer Far Cry 4 as a single-player experience, and I’m incredibly skeptical of wedging any online-gameplay knick-knackery into a campaign. I’m also skeptical about the future of Far Cry. Ubisoft isn’t shy about aggressively pushing its franchises; there have been an estimated five hundred million Assassin’s Creeds in the last five minutes.
And part of what makes Far Cry 4 so great is its comparative minimalism. When you go to the weapons locker, you have access to all the firearms in history. But when you set out on a mission, it’s just you, nature, a few choice weapons, and some raw meat in case you need to attract wolves. Most open-world games get overinflated on their own helium, overdosing on plot or customizability or missions inside of missions. This game is the corrective: Coarse, straightforward, sharp as a throwing dagger, Far Cry 4 is scuzz polished into serenity.