Far Cry 4 brings Ubisoft's open-world shooter series to the Himalayas to face off against a charismatic and unpredictably terrifying self-appointed king. Also, you can ride elephants.
Far Cry 4 Game Director Alex Hutchinson didn't know he was going to be making a Far Cry until it was in his lap. As production wrapped up on Assassin’s Creed 3, Hutchison — that game’s creative director — and Far Cry 3 lead Dan Hay embarked on a whirlwind press tour for the two Ubisoft titles that would eventually bind them together. The "how I would do Far Cry" conversations between the two suddenly became more real.
"So by the end you say, 'Hey, we've had a lot of conversations where Far Cry could go,'" Hutchinson says. "And Dan has a very deep voice; he's a very commanding man. So he was like, 'I think you need to come on to Far Cry.' And I was powerless."
For Hutchinson, building Far Cry 4 has been a balancing act of coming up with new ideas and preserving brand identity. He feels that the team has landed in a "cool spot that retains the core of Far Cry 3 while still giving the audience "a bunch of new toys for you to goof with."
For example, riding elephants.
In my hands-on time with the game, I were sent to take down an outpost and liberate it from enemy hands. The outposts in Far Cry 4 are a direct riff on those from Far Cry 3, a fan-favorite element of the 2012 shooter. These "pumped up" outposts in the new game feature a smattering of enemies wandering within their walls. To get to the outpost, I had to climb up the side of a mountain using a new tool: a grappling hook, a handy item to have when navigating the rocky crags.
I could have taken down the outpost in two ways: by sneaking over the gate and running along the rooftops while taking down enemies, or by running through the front door guns blazing. I took the first approach, running along the roofs and taking out clumps of enemies with grenades and guns. In some up close and personal encounters after I accidentally fell off a roof, throwing knives came in handy. Combat felt smooth and my inventory made me feel well-prepared. I was powerful, strong, ripping my way through my enemies.
Then the elephants came.
With one button press you can mount an elephant and ride it anywhere. I chose to take mine into combat, watching it stomp enemy soldiers and swipe them into walls with its powerful trunk, flipping vehicles and wooden boxes everywhere. A raging elephant is your best friend in Far Cry 4, as they can bash down walls and take out many enemies with one fell swoop.
While Far Cry 4 won't ape Far Cry 3's exploration of a slippery descent into madness, it will have a little bit of a "crazy" element to it, says Hutchinson. After all, he says, Far Cry has always been about going off the beaten path, both literally and figuratively.
"The idea here is to work on a bunch of these tropes that have started popping up," he says. "There was a lot of discussion [early in development] about how we wanted [the main character] to be a native of the country returning to your homeland. So then who are you? There are definitely some identity politics in the game; you're from this place but you've never been there before. You've been raised overseas. And so we wanted that feeling, or at least, I liked the idea that it would be like going to your high school reunion and it's those people that walk up to you and are like, 'Hey, Jim! How are you? You remember the time we did this?' And you think, 'I have no idea what you're talking about.'
"For me, people are always like, 'Far Cry, now it's all about crazy,' and you're like, 'I don't think so.' I don't think that's interesting, necessarily. But I do think Far Cry has found this beautiful niche where it's OK to be extreme. We like the idea of taking extremities and playing with those but yeah, it's not crazy. It’s different."
Protagonist Ajay Ghale won’t be a stranger in a strange land — at least, not quite. The story begins with Ghale returning to Kyrat, his homeland in the Himalayas, to scatter his mother’s ashes. Hutchinson sugests that Ghale is just foolish enough to fulfill this wish, which kicks off the events of Far Cry 4 and leads him on a trek through Min’s territory.
"You know where you're from; you just don't know your family history," he says. "So it's about discovering who you are and then figuring out how you fit in this place."
But the core set piece of Far Cry 4's narrative appears to be the relationship with Ghale and Pagan Min, the self-appointed king of Kyrat and a genuine madman, if the game’s first trailer is anything to go off of. It’s clear that these two were once friends, or Min at least considered himself Ghale's friend. But after Min hands Ghale his bloody knife so he can snap a selfie, we have to wonder just how unhinged Min is — and how much he may or may not mean to Ghale.
"The funny thing about games is, especially if it's a shooter, you know in the end there's gonna be a confrontation, right?" Hutchinson says. "So in the end, you're going to have to fight them, and after a while, having a villain or an antagonist who's just shaking their fist at you and hating you ... well, I've done that at least 100 times, personally. So we're always trying to find new angles, and for me the idea that this antagonist would, deep down, have very positive feelings or hope towards you as a character was a far more interesting mindset to get into than the idea that yet again you're the outsider, you're the bad guy, you need to be eliminated, you need to be fought."
On the subject of characters, Hutchinson added that bringing back Hurk, an NPC from Far Cry 3 that players assist on a handful of missions, was a way to make Far Cry 4's multiplayer mode something special. Rather than slap a generic and random male or female character palette down for player two, why not bring back someone whom you know is always ready to blow shit up?
"When we were talking about the Guns for Hire multiplayer mode, the idea that you could bring your best friend into the open world and all your single-player missions would be put on hold, and you could then go around and mess stuff up — it felt like a good fit," he says. "Hurk is this crazy character who's willing to blow shit up just because you ask him to. And that, in a weird way for us, was a nice metaphor for your buddy in the game. Whenever we watch playtests — when you're in co-op, you skip the cutscenes, you're talking trash, you're not taking things too seriously. So it just felt like a very natural fit to have the character that you were going to embody mirror the player's stance. It made us laugh; we hope it makes people laugh."
Far Cry 4's Guns for Hire multiplayer mode allows a second player to jump into the game at any time and help with missions. Players can summon in their player two, represented by Hurk. As shown in a recent trailer, players can take to the skies on a small personal helicopter, with one steering while the other shoots enemies from the back. Together they can raid outposts, gun down enemies, grapple and parasail across the Himalayas in a break from the lonely single-player story mission.
This feature is seamlessly integrated into the game, with players able to switch into Guns for Hire without missing a beat. There is no separate menu or mode to navigate to; your friend is just a button press away.
"The guys from the start wanted to do co-op," Hutchinson says. “We knew that playing with other people was a big demand, but originally we had it on the side as a different mode, and for me separate modes are the death. We'll be getting rid of them more and more in the future; I hate the idea that I'm wasting away on co-op or multiplayer. All these things are gonna be part of the same game."
Hutchinson pushed his team, demanding the two-player mode be part of the same seamless experience in the same way players can hop in and out of each other’s games in another recent Ubisoft title, Watch Dogs.
"It needed to be part of the same world, the same characters, same experience, same unlocks," he says. "So when we put it in there, then we thought, 'All right, what can we do with this that makes it special? How can we convince people to try Far Cry?' Because one of your biggest challenges on any brand is, after a while, that the people that love it, the people that think they know it, aren’t interested anymore."
From his time working on Assassin’s Creed 3, Hutchinson says that he has learned to be "comfortable with the fear" of working on big, highly-anticipated projects. Thinking that you’re going to "make the best thing ever" is a death sentence, he says, immediately hanging a cloud of expectation and misery over the project that could doom it before it begins.
"For Far Cry 4, we've been a bit more critical in terms of scope to make sure that we can finish everything that we include and really get it to a high level of polish," he says. "... I was very proud of all the homestead missions, all of the district missions in Assassin’s Creed 3, which were a lot of fun but they were difficult to find and it started feeling like a checklist. So I'm happy with that and we're trying to bring a lot of that learning forward.
"You're trying to steer hundreds of awesome people in one direction as much as possible. And so, learning how to get the most out of people is part of it."
As for what links Far Cry 4 to the rest of the franchise?
"The series has always been about these things: be brave, be exotic, be unusual. Take a strong stance, we're big on that."
But that’s not all. Hutchinson believes that Far Cry is a good vehicle for creating a more inclusive mainstream experience. He is proud of his previous incorporating gay marriage into The Sims games at Maxis and making Assassin’s Creed 3’s lead a Native American. Hutchinson wants to keep exploring the world of non-white male protagonists and broaden the bubble in which we tell and hear personal stories.
"There’s an opportunity to be more inclusive," he says. "So it was the point a bit of Far Cry 3 that you were playing a bit of a douchebag, but at the same time it still means at the end of the day, when you step back you're playing a douchebag. So we were like, 'How can we make people take on different roles to play different characters? It's a bit of a thing that I like making sure if I'm working on it, that we can be as inclusive as possible and try different things.
"So we tried very hard this time to make sure it was a broader demographic we were touching," he says. "We've done a lot of stuff like that, which is also why it was frustrating to see the first image leak and the reaction to that cause you're like, this is the exact opposite of what we're doing, even though sometimes we're playing with images to get a reaction."
At the end of the day, Far Cry 4 is still a Far Cry game. You’re exploring an environment, blazing your way through groups of baddies with an M.O. and coming up against some colorful adversaries. As the series evolves, Hutchinson is hoping to see more things like female protagonists and cultural narratives tied to fun, powerful combat options. Players will be able to see for themselves when they descend into the mountains of madness this November.
"Far Cry, to me is a big systemic toy that you can approach from many angles and do what you want," Hutchinson says. "And we found that the biggest way to maximize that is not to just have new toys — which we do have — but to have a friend with you who can play with all of those toys at the same time. So the idea that I can be riding an elephant while you come in on a buzzard or we can both attack an outpost or a fortress from different directions, that we can strategize together and just play with this big toy box that we built, to me, is the most fun."