Players can do a lot of things in Far Cry 4. You can scale a snow-dusted mountain by rope and carabiner. You can sail back down again by hang glider. You can defuse bombs, assassinate enemy commanders, and rescue hostages. Compatriots cry out for escort and reinforcement. Herbs demand to be harvested. Several hundred collectible posters littered throughout the game world yield to a one-button tug. There are convoys to be hijacked, radio towers to be seized, outposts to be liberated, and fortresses to be conquered. Suppose you want to increase the number of rupees you can carry on your person. You can do that too: Hunt and skin a rhinoceros and, in a flourish of astonishing resourcefulness, fashion yourself a larger wallet.
You can also kill—discreetly, ruthlessly, theatrically. Expect the usual horror show: skulls cracked, limbs severed, jugulars gorily punctured. But here, too, Far Cry 4 affords seemingly inexhaustible variety. From the outset you wield machine guns and grenades with the deftness of a lifelong mercenary; you graduate to flamethrowers and Molotov cocktails; then claymore mines and military-grade RPGs. Soon enough you find yourself commandeering an elephant to demolish an opium factory or mounting a surreptitious compound infiltration with silenced sniper rifle. A more amorphous, and therefore more pliable shooter, Far Cry 4 encourages diversity in your approach to slaughter. Sometimes a degree of circumspection seems advisable, like when you’re vastly outnumbered or need to whisk a prisoner to safety unharmed. More often it pays to be brash. Either way, the result is the same: baddies annihilated, victory secured.
So demolition and butchery: These are the routine furnishings of the first-person shooter. But just what is this open world that is their background (and your playground), and who are these victims, these targets, of your ruinous whims? Far Cry 4 is set in a fictional South Asian country called Kyrat, spilling up the mountains somewhere along the Himalayas. Kyrat is Nepal, sort of—a Nepal slackened by creative license. The differences feel like shrewd concessions to ambiguity: The Kyrati people speak Hindi, rather than Nepalese, suggesting northern India or Pakistan. It is a former monarchy, like Nepal, but is ruled by a fascistic warlord, which doesn’t quite fit with the region. (Nepal, by the way, is a democratic republic.) Such modifications afford the game a thin layer of insulation against criticism. They have a dampening effect on its ideology: It isn’t technically colonialism, the game cannily reasons, if the subjects are fictitious.
And yet, however tasteless Far Cry 4 tends to be—and it ranges from quite to outrageously—its provocations aren’t especially interesting. Its brand of controversy proves too dully familiar. After the ample hand-wringing entrained by Far Cry 3, Ubisoft Montreal at least had the sense to make 4’s genocidal hero Kyrati-born, and therefore mercifully non-white; but he is still a passport-holding, accentless American, traipsing into developing nations and possessed of the requisite self-righteousness and entitlement. It ought to make players feel at least marginally uncomfortable to murder literally thousands of a developing country’s natives, and a smarter or more sensitive game, like Rockstar’s Max Payne 3, would have interrogated that friction. It isn’t difficult to make murder of this kind and scale intriguing; even the slightest pretense of reflection, of nuance, would have sufficed to open up conversation. But Far Cry 4 hardly seems aware that its audience might be thinking.
One of the campaign’s early missions invites players to burn an opium field to the ground. You don’t exactly need to be a student of history to appreciate that an American setting South Asian fields alight with a flamethrower might arouse some rather disturbing connotations. And yet the game remains thoroughly, even ludicrously oblivious. This is not so much a moral problem as an aesthetic one. It’s symptomatic of the game’s laziness—its creative negligence. This extends most acutely to its people. Nepal boasts a population of 27 million. Kyrat, meanwhile, feels empty: Its lush, beautifully realized vistas are personless, as if evacuated; its roads and paths are untraveled; its huts and forts and houses are abandoned. The rebellion you’re leading to victory has its allies (distractions for enemy bullets), and the dictator you’re straining to overthrow has his minions (grist for your murderous mill), but Kyrat’s civilians—the people who can make a world seem plausibly lived in—are all but nonexistent.
Action games often struggle to reconcile storytelling with killing. A narrative of ordinary heroism, for instance, can’t easily accommodate a game’s average mortality rate. The everyman with the machete is hard to relate to after he’s slain several thousand people, even if thrust into a life-or-death scenario. Far Cry 4 is a particularly dire case. Your hero’s cruelties are careless and unthinking, indulged in for the feeblest of reasons. He never considers—and you are never asked to consider—what the distinction might be between the nameless, faceless villains you’re gleefully eradicating and the equally nameless, faceless friends you’re celebrating with afterward. One side wears red shirts and the other wears blue. In a video game, the damage is virtual (in moral terms you might as well be shooting at 6-year-olds), but there remains an aesthetic responsibility, a burden of ideas. If it hopes to be taken seriously, an action game ought to engage, even in the most meager way, with its action. And Far Cry 4, for all the action it includes, for all the things it lets you do, proves woefully unengaged.
Far Cry 4
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal (primary); Ubisoft Kiev, Red Storm, Shanghai, Toronto (additional development)
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4