Few things are quite as entertaining as unloading a machinegun from atop an elephant as it rampages through a remote Himalayan fort, turning over jeeps and trampling petrified soldiers. It’s totally preposterous, but then the open world adventures of the Far Cry series have always worked to their own weird logic. In its idiosyncratic tapestry Far Cry breezily accommodates everything from mutants and ‘80s cartoon kitsch to vicious knife-wielding psychopaths. In Far Cry 4, it can invoke the spirits of Hannibal and Rambo and house them in unlikely hero Ajay Ghale without breaking a sweat.
Straddling a stampeding elephant is just one joyously absurd way to tackle the strangely particular question of how to take down an ancient stone fort guarded by uniformed thugs in berets. You can assume a stealth posture and cut a procession of throats with a bowie knife, or even clamber into a gyrocopter with a friend for a co-pilot. Of course you could also kick down the front door yourself – although why you’d do that when the elephant option is still on the table is totally beyond me.
You’ll do all this to subvert Pagan Min, the self-appointed ruler of the fictional Himalayan kingdom of Kyrat. Pagan Min is a sociopathic despot with the outlandish fashion sensibility of an early dropout from Project Runway. You are Ajay Ghale, a young man with a famous last name returning to your estranged homeland to fulfill your mother’s deathbed wish.
In this secluded mountain kingdom the spiritual bleeds also into the real. Kyrat is heavily reminiscent of its real-world influences, the Himalayan regions of Nepal and Tibet. Far Cry 4 includes its on rendition of Shangri-La, a mythical paradise on earth. Here it’s a kind of spiritual dreamscape inspired by Tibetan Buddhism.
In Far Cry 4, the Shangri-La sequences serve a similar function to Far Cry 3’s magic mushroom-fuelled psychedelic levels. Ubisoft was coy about explaining how Shangri-La fits into the game’s wider narrative, so we’ll leave you to speculate as to how it might relate to the return of a prodigal son and reluctant hero to his homeland.
The levels themselves are 3D platforming sections patrolled by malevolent spirits, and punctuated with objectives such as ringing a massive bell, or spinning a massive top. Ajay is equipped with a bow that can be shot in bullet-time, and a ceremonial knife. He also has a white tiger companion that he can set on enemies, and watching it stalk and uncoil with sudden ferocity is tremendously satisfying.
Shangri-La is the most prescribed section of gameplay Ubisoft is showing from Far Cry 4. The goals are clear and the paths to them are few. A final section that takes place high up in the mountains opens up the gameplay again.
Ajay has been tasked with tracking down a military camp leader, taking him out, and photographing the evidence. Far Cry 4 includes many expansive vistas, but it also appears to make excellent use of the high winds and lower visibility conditions that are common on mountains. Here, Ajay is able to move surreptitiously through the camp avoiding detection and discreetly completing his assignment.
This passage of play also included a brush with the native wildlife. In this instance it was a ferocious snow leopard that, although dangerously endangered in the wild, left us with no choice but to put it down. It feels somehow callous to note with detached interest that its fur was one of the richest textures we’ve encountered anywhere on new-gen hardware.
This particular mission concludes with a wingsuit glide back to marginally less heady altitudes. At what feels like blistering speed, you’ll pilot Ajay through craggy ravines until he chutes once again into the clear thin air of Kyrat. It probably sounds a little more interesting than it is in practice, but it does ably create the illusion of scale.
Altogether it took maybe an hour to ponder through these three vignettes, exploring different options and avenues whenever possible. Far Cry 4 appears to follow very closely the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to open world gaming that Ubisoft has refined over the last few years, and packaged in numerous different ways. The game’s greatest asset is its irregular setting, and Ubisoft appears to have captured and distilled it expertly.
We’ll learn how the total package comes together when Far Cry 4 releases on November 18 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.