I want to write a letter to all the animals I've met in Far Cry 4.
First there was the confused monkey, who looked up at me with big, sad eyes during my bus ride into Kyrat. My mother had written, as her dying wish, "Take me back to Lakshmana." The monkey had no idea what was in store for his brethren.
Dogs seemed small and non-threatening in comparison to hungry beasts like lions and tigers. But they always attacked in groups. I remember once very early in the game thinking that I could best the angry pooches with a bow and arrow. I got one with a clean shot to the head, but then another three sprinted at me full-tilt, going straight for my arms and face. My bow was no use at this point, and I knew I wasn't fast enough to outrun them. Grasping at straws, I switched over to a stout-looking weapon I'd just purchased. I bought it because I thought it was a shotgun. Turned out, it was a grenade launcher. The explosion launched the dogs into their air. I stood in the middle of the street in silence for a moment, catching my breath.
Honey badgers. Oh god, the honey badgers. Nasty, vicious little creatures. At one point late in the game, I carefully ascended a craggy cliff-face in search of a secret cave that contained a magical artifact I needed. When I finally made it all the way to the top of the mountain and found the entrance, there was a honey badger perched outside. I chuckled at the thought of this furry little monster trying to defeat me after I'd mastered enough deadly skills to take out enemies ten times his size. The badger went for my legs. I shot at him with an assault rifle, stepping backwards to avoid his surprisingly sharp claws. Too far backwards, it turned out. I tumbled off the cliff, landing a few meters below. There was no easy way to get back up. I had to begin the perilous ascent all over again.
And then there were the eagles. So many eagles. Everywhere I went in Kyrat, I was attacked by these spiteful birds. This happened so often that I started to wonder if protagonist Ajay Ghale had some sort of bird feeder attached to his body. Or maybe it was his mom's ashes?
The slapstick absurdity of fending off furious eagles is exaggerated even further by the fact that Far Cry 4 tells you little to nothing about about who this guy is, or what he's doing here. The game begins with you, as Ajay, travelling into the country for the first time in his life in the hopes of delivering the last remains of his dead mother to something called "Lakshmana."
The very minute Ajay's bus crosses into Kyrat, all hell breaks loose. A group of armed militants stop the bus and kill almost everyone inside. Then a man dressed like a flamboyant supervillain named Pagan Min shows up, and stabs one of the soldiers to death as punishment for killing everyone on the bus. A few minutes later, you're sprinting away from one of Min's ornate military fortresses because an insurgent movement known as "The Golden Path" came to help you escape. Then those people turn around and ask that you help them in their fight against Min's tyrannical rule over Kyrat. It's a lot to take in, in just a few minutes. So once I was free to roam around on my own accord, I set about doing that. And then an angry bird appeared out of thin air and tried to eat my face.
Even the birds in this game want to kill me? I thought. What the heck is going on, and why have I become the single-most important person in Kyrat the second I arrived?
It took a while to answer the second part of that question. But as for the angry birds? Well, I discovered that it wasn't only me the birds wanted: they were just aggressive and hungry. One night well into the game, I was hunting some wild pigs with a tricked-out bow I'd acquired in my adventures. I felt like I was an expert hunter at this point—crouching down in the bushes, silently targeting my prey. As I was peering through my weapon's scope at the head of my soon-to-be-victim, an eagle swooped in out of nowhere, grabbed the pig, and flew off into the night sky. I tried to get the bird (or the pig) in my sights for a few seconds, but I was so taken aback by what I'd just witnessed that I didn't react quickly enough.
I want to write a letter to all these wonderfully insane, antagonistic creatures—the best characters in Far Cry 4. If I could go back in time, I'd wrap this letter around the pig's leg and pray that the eagle helps it find its way to the right place.
"Dear animals," the letter would read, "take me to Far Cry 5."
Far Cry 4 is the kind sequel that gives me an overpowering sense of deja vu. So many elements are copy-pasted from Far Cry 3 that when I first started playing, I found myself wondering why Ubisoft had even bothered putting a "4" in the title.
But then I met more of the animals, and things started to click. See: there were many dangerous beasts in Rook Island, the tropical setting of Far Cry 3. But they weren't as smart, or as vicious, as the ones in Far Cry 4. I could say the same thing about the human opponents in this game, and even the Nepalese-inspired setting. Playing this game is a much more intense and challenging experience than its predecessor, in a good way. It might not make a great leap forward the way Far Cry 3 did, but it takes plenty of small steps in the right direction.
Far Cry 4 refines and improves upon its past self more than anything else. And I'm perfectly happy with that. I mean: so what if it feels a lot like Far Cry 3? That's one of the best shooters I've ever played. But it was also flawed enough to warrant a revision.
A revision, or an evolution, is exactly what Far Cry 4 is. It's a new draft of something that was already pretty spectacular. But it's not a perfect draft. Scrutinizing the ways that the game tries, and occasionally fails to improve upon itself is where it gets really interesting for me.
Staying true to tradition, Far Cry 4 takes place in an expansive world that's seductively beautiful. Kyrat is located somewhere in the Himalayas, and this mountainous region adds an incredible amount of density to the game. And depth. As in, physical depth. My annoying encounter with the honey badger who nudged me off the face of a cliff was just one in a long, long line of graceless tumbles down the mountains in Far Cry 4. Exploring Kyrat often left me with the dizzying sensation that I was teetering precariously on some jagged edge at the top of the world.
Even if you're at the bottom of one valley, that doesn't mean you're safe. Oftentimes when I was sprinting away from bad guys and angry predators, I ended up running straight into the face of a cliff far too steep to climb. With nowhere else to go, it was time for Plan B. Thank god Kyrat's landscape is so picturesque, because otherwise this would've gotten pretty stressful. Even after spending upwards of 35 hours playing Far Cry 4, I still catch myself stopping on the way to a mission, transfixed by the majesty of the scenery.
Kyrat is such a breathtaking place, visually speaking, that to only be able to use giant deadly guns to interact with the stuff within it starts to seem limiting. That being said, learning to use these instruments of destruction effectively has been my favorite part of playing the game so far. They're mostly standard shooting fare—assault rifles, submachine guns, pistols, more than enough rocket and grenade launchers. That doesn't mean they feel uninspired or dull, though. Each weapon feels like a distinct object with its own unique characteristics.
The viscera of Far Cry is an essential part of what makes it so captivating. It's always been that way. But in Far Cry 3, I primarily associated its base, guttural character with the knife. Far Cry 4 has an identical blade, and it's just as ruthless and satisfying a tool as it was before. I may admire the pretty view of Kyrat's mountains, nestled as they are in a thick layer of fog. But the clearest vision I have of this game is walking up to enemies and stabbing them in the throat:
Or digging ferociously into the fresh carcass of some animal I just killed:
Or burrowing just as fiercely into my own skin to pull out bullets in the middle of a shooting match:
Far Cry 4 surpasses its predecessor simply because it manages to replicate that vivifying, physical sensation with its guns. Using them might mean that you're killing from a more comfortable distance. But the hefty rattle of a machine gun, the resounding thunk of a grenade launcher, the dazzling explosion that erupts from the end of the rocket launcher make my eyes pop all the same.
Far Cry has always been the sort of game that's deeply in love with its own violence, so I guess it's not that surprising that the first entry in the series that's been able to take advantage of the new console generation used that technology expertly to create bigger and better tools of destruction. What I didn't expect was they'd be so much better. I've become obsessed with the guns in this game, to the point where I regularly catch myself pausing in the middle of a journey across the map, the same way I do when I feast my eyes on an arresting piece of Kyrat's landscape. Except now I'm just gawking a gun—marveling at the way light glimmers off its barrel with a warm, dull sheen.
I bought into Far Cry 4's supremely fetishized form of violence so wholly that it actually helped me realize something about this game: the reason I find its wilderness so much more captivating than the human civilization that was laid on top of it. It's because the wild animals are much easier to relate to than the people here. They speak the same language as I do when I play Far Cry 4: one that only truly acknowledges force, the action and reaction of opposing elements crashing into one another. Everything else—intention, justice, retribution—is just window dressing.
I don't really feel as if I'm playing as a human being in this game. Instead, I've become a wild animal, too. It can be scary, feeling such a ravenous desire for murder. But as resident eccentric villain Pagan Min tells you at one point: "God damn if it isn't fun."
It is fun. That's the point of playing a game like Far Cry—to indulge in a destructive fantasy. The problem with Far Cry 4 is it wants to be something else as well. Whenever Ajay speaks to his fellow rebels and the leaders of the Golden Path insurgency in cutscenes, the conversation turns towards more fruitful topics than, say: "How I do I take down this fucking rhino?" These characters aren't just concerned with killing bad guys and blowing stuff up, it seems. They're also interested in what comes next: like how a nation rebuilds itself after a tyrant is finally toppled. I admire Far Cry 4 for broaching a topic like this, but it's only able to in a way that's disappointingly artificial. Ajay doesn't have the means to negotiate any of Kyrat's social and political realities because they can't be solved by shooting at them.
The only way that Far Cry 4 even bothers to encourage him to behave civilly is by introducing a karma system that dings off points whenever you kill civilians—accidentally or intentionally. And what are the consequences of having a low karma score? You can't get the best possible discounts from Kyrat's vendors—who only sell weapons. That, and you won't be able to unlock an upgrade to your sprinting abilities. That's the best Far Cry 4 can do to make any overarching sense of morality the story tries to bring out feel real to the experience of actually playing the game: impinging on your ability to run fast and buy weapons.
Where Far Cry 4 falters in comparison to its predecessor is in the clarity of this disturbingly violent vision. Far Cry 3 told a nihilistic story about a group of self-absorbed and excessively privileged millennials romping around a tropical island they treated as their own private resort. Far Cry 3 protagonist Jason Brody reveled in his newfound ability to kill anything and everything that moved. He laughed at the bombastic explosions he triggered in a way that first sounded surprised and giddy, but quickly became perverse and maniacal. And still the game gave you more stuff to do, more ways to play, more things to kill.
Ajay Ghale, on the other hand, is on a mission in Far Cry 4. And it's a pretty noble mission at that: to help an oppressed nation he's tied to by birth free itself from the shackles of a crazy despotic ruler. The game tries to humanize itself by giving Ajay something admirable to fight for, rather than just myriad ways to produce chaos. That's an honorable goal, but it's one that Far Cry can't quite meet. At least not now, when it's still leaning so heavily on a set of tools from another game—ones that were built with something much more disturbing in mind.
It's telling, then, that the best new idea in Far Cry 4 arrives in the form of online co-op, one of its two multiplayer modes. The way it works (and it's worked very well, in my experience playing on the PS4) is you and a friend can drop into one of your games, and do almost all the same stuff you'd do when playing in single player—capture enemy encampments and fortresses, go on side-quests and challenges, and yes, hunt animals.
The only thing that Far Cry 4 omits when you're playing co-op? The story missions. Blocking off narrative progress can be frustrating at times, especially when you're first starting out and don't have access to the full map. In spite of that logistical hindrance, co-op is quickly becoming my favorite way to play the game. It lifts a heavy burden from Far Cry 4, because it allows you to submit to the chaos at the core of this game, and do so completely. In the process, it helps make the game's intrinsic ferocity feel less intense. Instead, the havoc you wreak is comically absurd.
It's no coincidence, then, that the two greatest moments I've gone through in Far Cry 4 both happened when I was playing online with Kotaku's very own Steve Marinconz. Or, at least, the funniest ones. The first was shortly after we first started playing together. I was running down a dirt road towards an objective we set, when suddenly I heard Steve's voice come through my headset to say: "There's a tiger right behind you."
"Don't stop running, don't stop running, don't stop running," he kept chanting. I continued to sprint forward, imagining what a passer-by might think if I he saw this bizarre procession rolling down the street. One man doing his best not to be eaten by a tiger. Then a tiger trying to eat that same man, and doing an uncharacteristically crappy job. And then, finally, a third man murmuring softly, "don't stop running, don't stop running," as if speaking only to himself.
A little while later, we were doing our best to capture an outpost without raising any alarms or alerting the guards. And by "doing our best," I mean we tried and promptly failed. Truckloads of reinforcements flooded into the camp and shot at us from all sides. Then a tiger showed up for some reason, and leapt into the air to attack one of the enemy soldiers. At that exact moment, a cluster of cars next to the tiger and his impending meal exploded (we still don't know what caused that, exactly). I burst out laughing as the tiger launched into the air, missing my head by what felt like just a few inches.
That's the kind of story Far Cry 4 knows how to tell—one that's anarchically anathema to our sense of an understandable human narrative. Because think about it: would that have been a moment to remember in any shooter if the tiger wasn't in the picture? It counters Far Cry 4's graphic violence with something so profoundly absurd that it forces the game to accept a tone of comic whimsy. It's less Apocalypse Now, more Monty Python's Flying Circus.
I love the idea of another Far Cry game that doesn't have to settle for wanton destruction in service of silly fun—one that can explore complex issues about terrorism, military rule, and political upheaval. Or one in which exploding tigers and social commentary can co-exist a bit more...peacefully. But that's not really what Far Cry 4 is right now, despite its efforts. It's a game that speaks a very specific language—one of violence in service of no greater purpose than being able to produce bombastic, explosive, hilarious moments. And it's exceedingly well-versed in that language.