Ajay Ghale is not having a very good day. The new protagonist of Far Cry 4 only returned to Kyrat to honor his dead mother's wishes and bring her ashes to their final resting place. Instead, he finds himself attempting to topple a dictatorship. That means guns, knives, jumping, and rampant destruction in an environment exotic to most of its audience. Which is to say, it's a Far Cry game.
It's safe to note that the reception to Far Cry 3's story is a weight hanging on the neck of the sequel. The writers attempted to play around with the noble savage trope and it didn't work out too well. That meant any serious themes Far Cry 4 wanted to explore would be colored by players' perceptions of the previous game. The image released with the announcement hinted at a game possibly dealing with colonialism, but with more information we now have more context.
The well-groomed gentlemen in the pink suit is Pagan Min, a criminal hailing from the Hong Kong underworld who has taken over the fictional Himalayan region of Kyrat and installed himself as its resident dictator. Ajay is a Kyrati as his mother previously lived in the region and he was born there; Ajay's mother was Kyrat's Helen of Troy, with Min and Ajay's father fighting over the area and her. Min won, Ajay's mother fled the country, and with her death he returns to his old home.
This reframes Far Cry 4 has a fictional take on the very real situations that exist in Nepal and Tibet, two regions of the Himalayas that the sit between both China and India. Kyrat seemingly takes its name from the Kirat people indigenous to Nepal, while the conflict with Min as dictator points towards Tibet's long-standing occupation by the People's Republic of China including the Tibetan uprising in 1959 and subsequent non-violent and violent bids at independence. The crossover is in Tibetan guerillas fighting China, some of which are based in Nepal. Something tells me Ajay will solve his problem a bit quicker than we have in real life. Probably through shooting.
While Jason Brody was an outsider up against the native Vaas, in Far Cry 4 the dynamic is flipped; Min is the non-native flexing his will on the local populace and Ajay becomes a natural part of the rebellion. This side-steps some of the potential issues that plagued Far Cry 3, allowing the sequel to spend more of its time focusing directly on the interplay between Ajay and Min. That interplay is based on a history that Min knows and Ajay has to discover.
Sorry for the tiny history lesson, you're probably wondering how Far Cry 4 plays.
The answer: a lot like Far Cry 3. I mean, there are definite improvements, with E3 trailers showing off wingsuits, mounted combat, grappling hooks, and cooperative play, but the core of the game is still what was established in Far Cry 3. This is largely a freeform murder simulator and the main character is not a good person. You can go in guns ablaze or you can take the stealth route. Gaining control of enemy outposts is still a large part of the game.
The E3 demo put me at the door of the outpost shown towards the end of the above gameplay video. The demo gave me three options: Sneak, Ride, or Fly. "Ride" put you on the back of Far Cry 4's version of the Far Cry 3's tiger and Blood Dragon's dragon: the elephant. This wasn't my favorite mode because unlike the E3 stage demo, the elephant is not the invincible master of all it surveys. The elephants can and will die, and I felt bad bringing them into my little war just to make things a bit easier.
"Fly" hands you one of the game's new vehicles, the gyrocopter. Controls on the vehicle felt really loose and finding the right range for a good strafing run was difficult for me. Then again, I never particularly enjoyed driving a vehicle in Far Cry 3 because I always wanted a third-person view when doing so. First-person vehicle driving has never been my thing, but Far Cry 3 was such a good game that I just grit my teeth and moved on. Your mileage may vary depending on how you feel about that. (Dear Ubisoft, third-person camera option for vehicle driving?)
Finally, "Sneak" is the basic Far Cry experience and the mode I enjoyed the most. As Ajay, I grappled into the camp from the back and went to work, dispatching foes with quiet takedowns. Well until I got caught on a rooftop and died in a firestorm of lead. Ajay also has a crossbow to facilitate silent kills from a great distance. Cheating? Perhaps, but this is war.
Far Cry 3 was a great game hamstrung by a problematic story. I enjoyed Vaas, I loved exploring the island, and the moment-to-moment gameplay was fun. Far Cry 4 looks to blow up all the stuff I really liked, while fixing one of my major problems. If the team can pull it off, they'll have something pretty amazing. From the brief taste I got at E3, they're at least aimed in the right direction. Far Cry 4 remains a big toy box of death with meaningful themes gilded around its exterior.
I certainly deserve a great game if Ubisoft is going to release it on my birthday, right?