Giant tortoises and C-4 explosives rarely make for a good mixture, but life is full of exceptions.
Take Far Cry 4. When Ubisoft Montreal was looking for inspiration for its latest fantasy, it stumbled across exploding tortoises and found inspiration.
Turns out, certain players of Far Cry 3, which takes place on a tropical island, were posting videos of themselves finding creative ways to murderize the game's tortoises. Strapping explosives to the creatures and watching the results holds a deep fascination to a particular manner of mind.
After a few seconds you know you're in a Far Cry game
"There was one guy who was just running around blowing up tortoises with C-4," recalls Far Cry 4 executive producer Dan Hay. "He was talking to them while he was blowing them up. Like 'hey turtle.' One time, he walks up to the tortoise, kills it with C-4, and accidentally alerts nearby enemy AI. 'Oh shit,' he says, retreats, falls into a river and is eaten by a shark."
Hay laughs. "That wasn't about story or character. We had just given that player an opportunity to go out and have some fun. We really looked at that for Far Cry 4. It was about going from 'hey turtle' to 'oh shit.'"
How it compares to Far Cry 3
I spent half a day last week playing around in Far Cry 4's open world. Set in the Himalayan mountains, it's the story of a young fellow who returns to his home country to find it riven by war between forces led by a psychotic dictator and rebels. Such wars are not unknown in the real world.
It's the first time Far Cry has taken its playpen mixture of combat toys into the new generation. Certainly, this is a game that looks and sounds as lush as its mountain kingdom surroundings. Playing a PlayStation 4 build, I found myself enjoying the dappled light of a hillside tree, the sound of insects and birds, and the sight of a grazing rhino, interrupted here and there by faraway machine gun fire and screams.
But this game is much the same experience as its predecessors would suggest. You travel around and invade military outposts, all the while leveling up new combat and survival skills. You climb and disable communication tower puzzles. You interact with local fauna and flora, take on side missions, earn cash for new weapons. It's all glued together with some simple crafting, elementary combat and slightly disjointed driving. Play for a few seconds and you're going to know that you're in a Far Cry game.
I rode an elephant through a gunfight
New systems have been added. Now you can play in co-op. You can earn points that can be spent on AI reinforcements, called Guns for Hire (which sounds like a bad '80s band). You can fly. You can also ride animals into battle, essentially turning them into weapons. I rode an elephant through a gunfight and mashed up some enemies before the poor creature finally succumbed to death-by-machine-gun. It was fun. I was sad to lose such a fine mount.
"Our game director said one day that he had an idea of riding an elephant into a fortress," explains Hay, adding that the fantasy of exotic mountainsides, a "unique culture" and rampaging animals is what led the team to choose a Himalayan setting.
Story and Character
Attempts have been made to address the more annoying elements of Far Cry 3's characters and story. Where previously, douchey gap-year types made the mistake of partying on an island controlled by a maniac, now a serious chap seeks to fulfill a noble task; that being disposing of his mother's ashes, in the country of her birth.
Of course, the main character is marked for greater things than hauling a creepy urn across country. Far Cry 3's tinpot Lord of the Flies villain Vaas is replaced by a charismatic but ruthless dictator called Pagan Min. You may recollect meeting the bad guy, stabbing a subordinate in the eye while charming the viewer, during E3 reveals.
Min's presence in the game is a huge part of its story. Even in the open-world segments, radio stations play government or rebel propaganda, and posters of the despot are invited to be torn down.
"Vaas was a product of Rook Island," says narrative director Mark Thompson. "You could see how he was formed on that island, in these little pockets of insanity. He was as limited as the island was. He would not have succeeded anywhere else.
"But Pagan Min comes from outside and sees an opportunity to take over. He reshapes the place in his own image. Vaas was a product of the islands but this world is a product of Pagan Min."
Hay says the game is not making any geopolitical point, meaning it's not interested in talking about any particular political situation, though there are strong parallels with Nepal during its decade-long civil war, which ended in 2006. Some of the game's developers visited that country and spent time with former Maoist insurgents. It was a well-advised trip. There are details in this world that feel genuine and well-observed.
Details in this world feel genuine and well-observed
Thompson was one of those who made the journey to the Himalayas. He says that the main goal of Far Cry 4, over its predecessor, was to "craft a believable place and making a world that feels real."
"Far Cry 3 was very rich in terms of lots of systems coming together to offer an emergent experience, but it was at a very mechanical level, at least for me," he explains. "You could take away fantastic little anecdotes of unscripted things that you had seen that you didn't expect. But those moments lived and died and didn't really inform the rest of the game. They didn't tell you anything about the real subject. It didn't make you believe that Rook Islands was a real place. It made you feel that it was a fun systemic gameplay playground."
He adds that the first character they designed, the one they regard as the star of the show, is the country of Kyrat, itself a manifestation of Min's madness. The world and its malevolent creator give players a reason to progress. "It is about creating a layer that stays true to the systems and keeps things fresh and interesting and gives people a reason to care so they are not just chasing statistics, the next skill point," says Thompson.
A $60 Gap Year
At the press event I attended, the PR script was all about freedom and choice. Playing the game, it is clear that there are more options available to the player, as they attack military outposts, than in previous games. The outposts offer stiffer resistance, a slightly less formulaic progression of enemy takedowns.
But while there are more options available, it still comes down to the pleasures of watching enemy patrol patterns, performing kills, sniping a few outliers and then unleashing chaos to mop up the remains.
Central to this franchise is the play inherent to mooching around a pleasant environment, running into animals, picking and choosing which part of the map to conquer next, or scanning the horizon for signs of something cool to do. You can choose which mission to take, which animal to kill, which rebel to follow, what strategies to employ.
There are real limits to the choices available to you
The net result, according to Ubisoft, is that you will not only progress along a linear narrative path, you'll be creating anecdotal events. Certainly, that feels very true playing in co-op mode, which I recommend.
Hay says the story and the experience don't just offer choice, but are also investigating the nature of choice. Central character Ajay Ghale arrives in Kyrat, an alien place, and is constantly presented with newness, to which he must react.
"It's not unlike taking a year off a digital life. Not everyone has the money to get on a place and go and live somewhere for a year. If we can make it so you can go have an experience that is filled with stories ...
"I look at it like a fairy tale which have very specific morals inside them. We are exposing people to a modern-day version of that. Life is filled with choices. Life is filled with a veneer of choices and when you look past what is presented to you, you see that a lot of it is built on hardship."
But although the makers of the game talk about choice, and you are offered the option to follow two different rebel leaders who have conflicting views, there is no doubt about the road you are taking here. You don't get to throw your lot in with the totalitarian madman.
Although Ubisoft ought to be commended for creating a central character who is a person of color, once again with a rugged video game adventure, the day must be saved by a male lead. You could argue that the story rests on the attempts by various characters to mentor and influence Ghale, and that splitting responses according to gender might have subverted that lads-together dynamic that the villain exploits. But I'm not convinced this is a problem beyond the wit and budget of Ubisoft. Despite all the talk about open worlds and choice, video games are still about selecting from a limited array of options within rigidly defined structures.
Far Cry 4, due for release in November, is a very familiar animal. It's an exotic playground where people get to do weird stuff like blow up tortoises while following a standard videogamey story of heroic destiny-fulfillment against evil. There are additions to the formula, it's a very lovely world that hangs together convincingly, but don't expect much in the way of surprises.