In a story called "Low Men in Yellow Coats," in Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis, a mysterious, kindly retired man explains the best kind of literature to a young boy. Some books, Ted Brautigan tells little Bobby Garfield, get the story right. Others get the words right. And some books — rare and special — get both right.
Brautigan was talking about William Golding's Lord of the Flies, but if you dim the lights, squint just a little and change books to video games, you could pretend he was talking about Far Cry 4, developer Ubisoft Montreal's open-world first-person shooter that excels by doing so much so well.
Far Cry 4's greatest achievement stands at the intersection of all that it does. It offers a trifecta of astutely realized locomotion, geographical immersion and do-whatever-the-heck-you-want gameplay assembled into an astoundingly rich package.
Its open world environment not only justifies powerful new gaming hardware but feels alive. Hanging out in Kyrat is immersive in the best way. Spending time in that fictional land nestled in the Himalayas, one gets the sense of a true visitor — as if this world exists, whether you're there to see it or not. Of course, there are enemies to contend with, but Far Cry 4 isn't content with stopping there. It's normal (but never less than amazing) to crest a random ridge and watch two bears fighting or hustle on foot only to be attacked by an eagle — or watch said eagle attack and fly off with a honey badger.
It's easy to move around Kyrat in whatever way it suits you, too. Hop into any car — of which there are several varieties — or hoof it on foot or, later and best, find yourself a gyrocopter and take the scenic route. Even the travel is part of the fun, in large part because of the randomness you'll discover along the way.
As is the combat, which is smartly tuned to make it … well, not easy, exactly, but geared away from punishing exactness. Find an enemy, turn toward him and pull up your sights, and you're aimed at center mass. The generous aim assist doesn't make Far Cry 4's combat simple. It acknowledges that there's a ton of it, and that you shouldn't have to worry overmuch about being the world's best shot. Instead, in a land where it's par for the course to take on several enemies at once, the ease at which you can do so makes encounters fun, not frustrating. It's also easy to share, with the game's widely praised cooperative multiplayer.
Far Cry 4 is also an excellent stealth game, if you choose to make it so. Many missions are designed around stealth, but its interoperating systems allow you to shuck and jive when things go wrong, so that stealth and brash gunslinging are equally viable options.
Inside Kyrat is a population of what seems like thousands; your countless enemies only make up one faction. As you stumble across random civilians, each is imbued with a bit of character to call their own, which is an arguably unnecessary but thoughtful addition that only serves to make Kyrat feel authentic.
Where Far Cry 4 really shines, though, is in its central antagonist. You, as Ajay Ghale, may be the "hero," but the big, bad Pagan Min is the game's real star. I haven't enjoyed or bought into an omnipresent antagonist this deeply since Joker in Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Far Cry 4 feels like a game created by a development team that understands exactly what it wants to deliver. It isn't bloated or confused about what it is. It's a sandbox, and you're the dump truck set free. Ubisoft populates Kyrat with an astounding amount of content and then more or less sets players free to do as they wish.
That freedom works, earning the game its place on Polygon's games of the year list, because it's all designed to extract the maximum amount of fun from every square meter of Kyrat. And maximum fun, delivered in dozens of ways, is precisely what Ubisoft Montreal achieved in Far Cry 4.
This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.