(WARNING: Spoilers below.)
Ubisoft and iconized content go together like a bow and so many useless arrows.
To play "Assassin's Creed" or "Watch Dogs" is to be pulled in all directions by an open world of things to do, things to see, things to kill — all signified by stylish specks on the map. For compulsive players, the ones who have to do every thing, it's a pointillist hellscape.
It's something else, too: It's order. It says, "Go here and get this thing." And conversely, it says the spaces between those things mean nothing.
In no Ubisoft series is this design rubric more glaring than the shooter "Far Cry," where disorder is the name of the game. It feels weird to tame the series' war-torn frontiers by tidily sweeping up religious artifacts and killing finite squads of bad guys, clearing the map of all its things. It feels wrong.
To the credit of "Far Cry 4," it feels less wrong than in 2012's "Far Cry 3." The game takes you to the fictional Himalayan country of Kyrat as Ajay Ghale, who's there to scatter his mother's ashes on a pilgrimage of sorts. He's soon taken captive by a man who claims to be her lover, the psychotic fashion plate King Pagan Min, and plunged into his struggle against the rebels of the Golden Path.
Narratively, the game is more absorbing than "3," its party-boy-turned-spree-killer protagonist of Jason Brody, its racism.
Ghale's still a nobody tourist who becomes magically able to mow down groups of trained soldiers with automatic weapons, but ditching the "white savior" trope alone makes him leaps and bounds better than Brody. The "noble savage" trope that also dogged Brody's relationship with the Rakyat tribe in "3" isn't entirely gone — warrior priest Longinus sure talks like one — but it's at least toned down significantly.
Instead, two people command a good kind of attention in "Far Cry 4." First is Min, who out-crazies "3" cover boy Vaas thanks to the talents of the ubiquitous Troy Baker. Not long into the game, I looked forward to his random radio calls to Ajay more than whatever shoot-bang spectacle lied in wait. I'd rather hear about his chef's crab rangoon, or the suit with copious raw meat pockets that he wanted to commission for me. If only the game had more than 15 total minutes of his madness.
The second source of intrigue is Golden Path leader Amita. She's the iconoclastic devil on your shoulder to the reverent Sabal's angel. She wants you to melt those golden idols to buy guns, to blow up a centuries-old temple if it means a strategic advantage. She's a compelling female character in an Ubisoft game.
Maybe it was her will to spit in the face of Kyrat's sexist traditions, maybe it was the fact I had just finished "Dragon Age: Inquisition," but I sort of wanted Ajay to hook up with Amita. That path led me to Ubisoft's bravest decision in "Far Cry 4": Not hooking up with Amita. No, spellbinding as she speaks, beautiful as she looks, you don't get her. You serve her. To be object to her subject in the same year as the patently misogynist "Watch Dogs" is perhaps a mark of progress for Ubisoft.
The actual action of "Far Cry 4" is less forward-thinking, but still fun. Throwing misdirecting pebbles from some bottomless pocket of them still makes for fun stealth. Having flimsy health you sometimes can only recover by dislodging bullets from your forearm with a twig still makes for fun shooting. Thinning the native wildlife so you can deepen your pockets still makes for fun sport — sickening, but fun.
Of all those icons — the bomb defusing, the new arena fighting, the frightful first-person driving — it's the outposts that remain the highlight. They're 24 deathly playgrounds where you can pick off patrols with stealth takedowns and long-distance arrows, or risk instant demise by storming in. The cherry on top is the game-changing calamity you just can't replicate. Maybe it's a helicopter crashing into a fuel tank feet away from you, maybe it's a bear finding its way into the fray — either way, it's "Far Cry 4" at its most wonderfully chaotic.
Karma events are a smart addition to the mix, randomly generating hostage rescues and skirmishes between Min's army and the Golden Path. They somewhat address Ubisoft's problem with overly curated open spaces, but they're too short — and the stakes too low — to mean much.
No, "Far Cry" still has a way to go before it can make everything it does so meaningful. Kyrat is a gorgeously realized, if slightly homogenous countryside, and it's easy to get hypnotized by the swaying flora and all-seeing mountain ranges as exotic chimes massage your reverie.
But who cares. On to the next icon.