Far Cry 4 is mainly something to give the visual and hands-controlling part of my brain something to focus on while I listen to podcasts and audiobooks. This is something I really like to do, and I’m having a pretty good time with Far Cry 4, although I suspect it would be much less so if I’d played Far Cry 3 on PC. Because I played Far Cry 3 on console, Far Cry 4 is my first time experiencing the full potential of these game mechanics. But Far Cry 4 could’ve been a great game even despite the looming shadow of its predecessor, if it had picked one of the two games it’s trying to be and committed to it.
The first game Far Cry 4 wants to be is Far Cry 2 but better. This is what the game is aiming for with its main story missions. Some of the modifications made to Far Cry 2 are things I dislike, but I enjoy a heavier level of immersion than the average gamer, so they were probably wise decisions. Things like a much greater density of fast travel points and many more HUD elements. You can choose to ignore or disable many of these, although, as with many games with this feature, being able to disable the mini-map isn’t practical if the game was designed around the assumption you’d always have one. Unlike Far Cry 2, there is no immersive means of bringing up a map in game, so while disabling the mini-map does encourage greater familiarity with the terrain, it also requires you to frequently go into the pause menu to scan the game map, rather than having your character frequently bring up a map of the area in their actual hands. The former makes you feel like you’re playing a video game, the latter makes you feel like you’re in an unfamiliar country.
But despite these minor setbacks, Far Cry 4 is mostly much better at being Far Cry 2 but better. One of my biggest complaints with Far Cry 2 was that it was devoid of any civilians in the open world, so literally everyone is trying to kill you, a bizarre level of hyper-hostility even for a warzone where you’re broadly unwelcome. In Far Cry 4, there are civilians and allied combatants.
Instead of two warring factions who are interchangeable with one another and always hostile to you, Far Cry 4 has one always-hostile faction and two allied resistance factions. The two resistance factions wear the same uniforms (mechanically, the majority of resistance NPCs have no affiliation with either resistance faction), and the division between them is expressed through the dialogue of NPCs, especially the two faction leaders. The deeper you get into the plot, the more apparent it becomes that the two resistance factions are both terrible. Far Cry 2 kinda-sorta had a theme that you couldn’t do anything for the country you were in except make things worse and the best thing to do is just leave, and Far Cry 4 further spotlights that both by fleshing out the two resistance factions into a narco-state dictatorship and a theocratic oligarchy. Noticeably different factions, sure, but it’s hard to say which of them is better and whether any of them is that much better than the military dictatorship of Pagan Min.
Except actually it is, because Pagan Min is an unstable psychopath who kills people on a whim, and neither Amita nor Sabal are that bad. The two resistance leaders are at least sticking to “obey or die,” as compared to Pagan Min’s “obey and maybe die anyway if I’m having a fit of pique.” The Far Cry series has, since at least Far Cry 2 (which was such a massive tonal break from the first game as to effectively be the start of the series), had an emphasis on its charismatic villains. The Jackal from Far Cry 2 was about the only fleshed out character in the whole game, Far Cry 3’s Vaas stole the show to the point where its main villain Hoyt was almost an afterthought, and the trend continued in Far Cry 5 and 6. Far Cry 4’s Pagan Min is certainly charismatic (Ubisoft is consistently good at getting really good voice actors for the Far Cry series, who are able to elevate the writing even when it’s mediocre – and every now and again the writing actually gets good).
The problem is that he’s Handsome Jack charismatic – a quipping comedy villain whose disregard for human life is used as a punchline to a dark joke. That’s fine, it can even work as the villain of a serious meditation on life and resistance in a dictatorial outlaw state. So long as the other characters are played straight (and they are), Pagan Min comes across not like a transplant from another video game, but as someone who is intentionally presenting themselves as a Handsome Jack-like figure. And tin pot dictators are often vain and unstable in ways like this.
But it can’t work as the villain of a story where the point is that none of the factions you can support are any better than the one you’re fighting, because someone who will murder for a punchline is clearly worse even than other dictators. Far Cry 4 wants to tell a story about the resistance being no better than the current regime, but it’s not willing to pull back on Pagan Min’s combination of menace and quips far enough to make that work. People sometimes claim that the real good ending of Far Cry 4 is the one where, when you’re brought to Pagan Min’s palace at the beginning, you just wait for him to come back from torturing a guy, spread your mother’s ashes at the shrine she wanted, and then presumably just leave (although Pagan Min makes it clear he plans to make a holiday of your stay and it’s not clear when, if ever, he expects you to leave, so I’m making some inferences based on the themes of games before and after 4 in the series). That could’ve been true. But it would’ve meant sacrificing some of Pagan Min’s lines, and I guess the Far Cry 4 team doesn’t know the original meaning of the phrase “kill your darlings.”
Pagan Min’s flippant comedy is a symptom of a problem that otherwise comes up mainly in side activities, that other game that Far Cry 4 tried to be and which is at odds with being the Far Cry 2 apotheosis its main plot wants to be: The murder vacation. This is a trend that started in Far Cry 3, with its hang gliders and wingsuits and torching a marijuana farm with stoner music playing in the background. The plot of Far Cry 3 is that you got kidnapped while on vacation, and in a sense you’re still on vacation while playing the game. This works really well for Far Cry 3’s plot, because a big part of the point is that, despite his initial terror, Jason Brody fairly quickly comes to have fun fighting the pirates. His experience after the escape is a combination of rage and joy, contrasted against the pure trauma and terror his friends have experienced.
Far Cry 4 continues along the murder vacation path. The wingsuit is much easier to unlock, there’s stil hang gliders everywhere, and now gyrocopters and mountain climbing have been added to the repertoire. You are playing through a fun mountaineering vacation where also you have cool high-power automatic weapons that you use to shoot the footsoldiers of a brutal regime led by a charismatic psychopath. The side quest characters tend to emphasize this vision of the game. While Longinus, the Christian zealot arms dealer, fits in snugly with the Murder Can’t Help version of the game, Rabi Ray Rana, the radio DJ who gives you side quests to destroy enemy propaganda centers and talks on the radio in liberated regions of the map, the high fashion tailor whose name I’ve forgotten who gives you side quests for hunting rare animals to craft max-tier inventory upgrades, and Yogi and Reggie, the two British stoners who got trapped in the country after Pagan Min seized their passports and give you side quests that involve trippy psychedelic particle effects, these guys are all aimed so hard at Murder Vacation that they are completely at odds with Murder Can’t Help.
How are Rabi Ray Rana and the tailor so out of touch with the brutal reality of Pagan Min’s regime when they’re both native Kyrati? Why would Ajay Ghale keep going back to Yogi and Reggie for psychedelics while in the middle of a war (it’s not like they’re giving him weed or cigs or something else soldiers traditionally use to stay sane under prolonged periods of extreme stress, you go to them for acid trips)?
The arena side quest is a place where these two different visions of the game collide badly. The arena is run by Noore, a renowned humanitarian who went to Kyrat to provide free medical aid to the people, criticized Pagan Min’s regime for its human rights abuses, and then accepted an invitation to bring her family to Kyrat a few years later so Pagan Min could show her how he’d taken action to address the problems she’d criticized. Pagan Min kidnaps her family and forces her to run “the worst parts of his empire,” which is apparently the gladiatorial arena where political prisoners are made to fight to the death. Personally I’d say the weird method of execution is actually not nearly as bad as the process of arresting and torturing political prisoners in the first place, and also Noore is phenomenally stupid for bringing her family with her to a rogue state whose government she has openly criticized. If North Korea or the Taliban’s Afghanistan invited a critic to bring their family for a visit, I have to imagine anyone smart enough to function in society at all would be smart enough not to bring the kids.
But whatever, Pagan Min gets his hands on Noore’s family and forces her to run some particularly terrible part of his regime. Already this is fraying the Murder Can’t Help end of the game because neither Amita nor Sabal would ever put any part of their operation under the command of someone who hates them out of pure sadism. But it gets worse, because the terrible part of his regime is also a fun (well, not actually fun, because they fucked up the execution, but it’s supposed to be fun) side quest that gets introduced by a pair of topless women with body paint on, one of whom is the NPC you talk to in order to further the side quest. If Noore had been running a regular old gulag or torture dungeon, then she at least would’ve served her intended role as a lieutenant in Pagan Min’s regime with sympathetic motivations (she’s one of three such characters, although the other two don’t really have sympathetic motivations so much as unrelated sympathetic qualities). But because her section of the main plot also serves to introduce a Murder Vacation side quest (and introducing side quests via the main plot is, mechanically speaking, a perfectly good idea!), her plight is mixed in with a bizarre vein of titillation and gleeful carnage.
Far Cry 4 could’ve been the Murder Can’t Help game that Far Cry 2 didn’t quite succeed at being, and it could’ve been a really good Himalayan Murder Vacation Starring Off-Brand Handsome Jack, but by trying to be both at once it undermines its attempt at a serious philosophical point (already tenuous from the weakness of its writing) with memes and stoner jokes and quips, while bringing the mood on its vacation fun times way down with its attempts to realistically portray the horrors of a psychopathic dictatorship.