A yearly Assassin’s Creed iteration this is not. “Pretty much everything is new,” Far Cry 4’s creative director Alex Hutchinson tells Red Bull on a rainy day in central Paris earlier this month. “It's a whole new world with a whole new story and whole new side quests. It still has some of the same DNA of the Far Cry franchise, but it’s all new.”
But then, Ubisoft would say that. ‘New’ appears to be the definitive word for Far Cry 4, the latest title in the open–world first person shooter, but in a way, it also feels rather old. It’s the first Far Cry game to hit current–gen Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles, and it’s the first to feature a brand new drop–in co–op feature that lets you tackle the game with your best mate. But the core of the game feels a lot like last year’s breakout adventure, Far Cry 3 – Not that that’s a bad thing.
“Welcome to Kyrat”, we’re told as we pick up our controllers and dive into our hands–on session. We’re at a lounge bar in the second arrondissement which has been decked out to look like it’s an area straight out of the game – tropical and exotic, with Buddhist bric–a–brac dotted about. It’s nothing like previous titles in the franchise, which were either set on beautiful, lush island resorts, or a vast, sprawling desert. Instead, Far Cry 4 takes place in the land of Kyrat, a Nepal–esque mountainous paradise that’s also shadowed by the huge, chilly Himalayas, yet still has an element of beauty to it.
Just like with previous games, the world itself is as much of a character as your leading man, Ajay Ghale, who’s here to fulfil his mother’s last wish, or flamboyant antagonist and dictator Pagan Min, and that’s down to just how much has been packed into the huge world.
That’s not to say it’s bigger than the previous game. “We didn't want to make it any bigger than Far Cry 3, as it's an already enormous environment at around 18 square miles,” says Hutchinson – but it is denser. There’s a whole lot more to explore in the game, whether that’s through thick, sprawling forests, rocky hills or snowy mountain peaks, and there’s a lot of diversity in both environments to explore, along with what’s actually in those areas to help or hinder/murder you. “Basically, we wanted to put more stuff in it. So it's not just physical landmarks that you'd see as you move around, but encounters too, and with the new karma system, the locals will help you out from time to time if you help them. There are also plenty of new animal encounters and different incidents, so now predators hunt prey in the open world.”
Far Cry 4 is not only denser, but it’s taller too. “We wanted an open world that felt unique, a world you hadn't explored before – so we looked for somewhere a lot more vertical,” Hutchinson tells us. “So once you create a problem, you can create tools and toys to help solve the problem. With big cliffs, we were like ‘How are you going to get up that without circling around all the time and climbing a ladder?’ So we came up with the grapple hook, and the gyrocopter is another great tool to get around.” Of course, having a hook could easily draw comparisons to the grapple–fest that is Just Cause 2, but Hutchinson assures us that it’s to add a “structured, puzzle–solving tone to the game”, which is why you can only use the grapple hook at certain points.
The influence of the real–life Himalayas and areas of Nepal are visible right away as soon as you step into any area filled with other characters, and it instantly becomes like a living world. “We actually had two guys head out to Nepal to get a sense of the region,” lead writer, Lucien Soulban tells us. “We did a ton of research, and after we did the research, we then said okay, now what can we start modifying to make it ours?”
Kyrat is a completely autonomous, breathing world too, complete with its own anarchic inhabitants, ruthless animals (bears, rhinos, snow leopards, tigers and even lethal honey badgers to name a few), and one of those ‘modifications’ you could say, is the shadow of Kyrat’s self–appointed king, Pagan Min, which looms over every peak and valley. While we didn’t get to see his brand of crazy in our playtime, Min’s rule is definitely echoed throughout the game, whether that’s through his army draped in red, the radio in your car telling you more about his dictatorship (tongue in cheek, of course), or to just NPC characters hiding away or rallying up arms to fight against his army. That living world is what Ubisoft is trying to expand on from the previous game, where things are happening with or without you, and potentially cool things too.
That element of “cool” is what Ubisoft is expanding on with Far Cry 4: those once–in–a–playtime moments that you’ll gush about to friends, shout out “Xbox, record that” to your Xbox One, or hit the Share button on your PS4 is what the game is all about, leading on from the viral YouTube success Far Cry 3 had. From punching sharks to blowing up turtles, the previous game had plenty of ‘oh my god’ moments, and you can expect to see even more in its successor. Whether that’s using animals as your own personal weapons (throw a bait down to a group of troops, and watch a bear or tiger wreck havoc), storming a base with an elephant, nailing a huge jump on a quad bike or just soaring through the air in your wingsuit, you can find plenty of crazy to tap into.
“We consider the game as an 'anecdote generator', meaning we love seeing all the clips on YouTube out there. We love seeing players doing different and unexpected things – it's part of the delight. Not only will no two player experiences will be the same, but even running through the main path, things will be different there too,” Soulban tells us.
And that’s what had us buzzed, and in our quick play time, we managed to pull off several things we’ll definitely be bragging to friends about. From scaling the scenery in the rickety gyrocopter that just about does the job, to skidding a quad bike into oncoming enemies with guns ablazing, taking down enemy outposts with nothing by an elephant, luring C4–armed rhinos into a fleet of troops, and even running away from the small, but deadly honey badger. No doubt, you’ll have plenty of small, but incredibly awesome things, to brag about and share when the game hits next month.
One major change from last year’s game is to how the story works: unlike Far Cry 3 which had a seemingly time–sensitive overarching storyline, even if you spent days flying around in your wingsuit, the plot wouldn’t be affected – but that’s been addressed this year.
“We definitely realised we needed to make a change,” Soulban tells us. “We needed to give the player a lot more reason to drop in and out of main missions and into the open world. The very fact that… Far Cry 3 was character driven, Far Cry 4 is player driven. And it's going to be all about what you're doing in the world, and how it's going to influence the main missions.”
“There's a lot stronger mesh and marriage between the two, there are a lot more supporting systems that help bring the two together. We took a look at what we did on Far Cry 3, and what we could improve and do differently. Playing the game, you'll realise that exploring the open world will fill in a lot of the background information and a lot of the cultural aspects, and at no point should you feel like you should be doing the main missions when in fact you just want to play and explore.”
That open–world exploration is what made Far Cry 3 great, and Far Cry 4 intends to improve on that in every way. You’re dropped right bang into the open world, and it’s yours to explore in any way you see fit. Take over radio towers to broaden your map, or take over enemy bases to liberate them for your own uses, stalk animals and hunt them down with your bow, or just get on with the story if you see fit. If that sounds a lot like the previous game, it’s because it is: the game barely changes up the formula from Far Cry 3, only the main story actually plays into the freely explorable gameworld. If it ain’t broke, right?
You’ll find deeper weapons customisation this time around, which lets you shape up your armory in almost any way you see fit, a slightly varied skill tree that’s tailored to your playstyle. “Each skill reinforces a play style. So if you're a sniper, you'll start unlocking more stealth skills, much in the same way as being super aggressive,” says Hutchinson. The bundled in co–op, which lets you drop in and out of a game with a pal quickly and easily, and in our play time, works just as advertised. The host plays as Ajay, while returning Far Cry 3 character Hurk is the second player character, all adding up to ridiculous fun (although a shame for players who love customising their characters, as you’re locked into these established roles with no grounds to change how they look).
You’ll also be drifted away into the dreamscape–esque world of Shangri–La by meditating upon one of five thangkas (traditional weavings that show the history of Kyrat) spread across the gameworld, which not only looks a lot different to the typical gameworld thanks to its bright, vibrant aesthetic, but you’ll also face off against a new set of mythical enemies, and you’ll even have a noble white tiger helping you out. Psychedelic–esque missions, you could say, similar to Watch Dogs’ Digital Trips, where one has you controlling a giant robot spider.
There are plenty of new guns to play with too, such as an auto–crossbow and throwing knives, while there’s also online multiplayer in the works that’s being handled by studio Red Storm Entertainment, best known for its Rainbow Six games. Expect to see a whole suite of versus–style game modes when the game touches down next month. In a nutshell, Far Cry 4 is more of the same, only bigger, better and with a wide range of quests, terrains and tasks to tackle – if you liked the previous game, you’ll love its successor.
With the game hitting both current–gen and last–gen consoles, you might consider the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 millstones around the neck of the development team. Anything but, according to Hutchinson: “So this generation is interesting, and even the last to a certain extent, in that more power doesn't radically change the kind of games you make – it changes the fidelity of the games you can make. So with next–gen, we have better fur shaders, better lighting, more grass, individually modelled leaves – all the kind of usual graphical improvements.”
“But it's important for us to make sure that all the different versions of the game are gameplay–wise identical, in the sense that I guess maybe we could have done it with just current–gen I guess… If it was just current–gen, we could have got a few more enemies on screen, but it wouldn't change the experience.”
Unfortunately, Nintendo’s current home console, the Wii U, is again like many other multiplatform games, left out of the party – even though Hutchinson helmed Assassin’s Creed 3 onto Nintendo’s struggling console, and Watch Dogs is finally on the way. “My last game actually was Assassin's Creed 3 which supported the Wii U at launch, so we're always interested depending on what state the market is in, and how easy it is to get the game across, but for the moment? No plans.”
With gorgeous islands checked off (more than once), far reaching dry deserts, and now the mountainous terrain of the Himalayas, what’s next for the team? A return to the electric–80s vibe of the surprise standalone Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon? Don’t rule it out. ”We're talking about it… you never know,” says Hutchinson. “The goal would be to be surprising, so it wouldn't be another Blood Dragon, but hopefully something equally as odd and left field.”
Now that, we can’t wait for.
Far Cry 4 is out worldwide on 18 November 2014 for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC.
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