I quite dislike being right sometimes. And, sure enough, Far Cry 4 proved me right over the course of the last two weeks. Far Cry 4 got stale.
It's not fair to say that the gameplay got stale. The gameplay, in the Bungie-derived "fifteen seconds of fun" sense, is still very fresh. There's a rush that comes from chaining together takedowns, pulling a pistol off the last man standing and unloading it at a crowd of enemies. Chasing down trucks from a gyrocopter and raining grenades down on them is tremendously enjoyable. The climbing, the dodging and shooting, the exploration, it's all great.
Well, maybe not the exploration.
While the world is varied and splendid with narrative, some of it has started to feel stale. It's not entirely fair of me to say that; so much love has gone into crafting the "history" of each place in Far Cry 4. A random cave I stumble into, filled to the brim with loot, will have a pair of intertwined skeletons in it, or a tiger pinned under a dead bear, or a set of paintings paying homage to an old, dead god. It's a dense kind of semiotic storytelling, where a handful of symbols, presented in an offhand fashion, tell a narrative as complex and interesting (sometimes more complex and interesting) than the one illustrated by the main story of Far Cry 4.
But the doodads in these configurations are getting repetitive. Even after I broke through the northern gate in a pulse-pounding action sequence (that was actually less difficult than some side-quests I did) there wasn't too much new stuff to see. A little more snow, which was nice, and some new posters, but for the most part the art felt like a color shifted version of things I'd already seen, a slightly dimmer pallet casting all the scenes I'd visited in a light that reduced their vivacity and increased their brutality. It makes perfect sense, in one light: the northern land is colder and more brutal, got it, got it. But here's the thing that Dragon Age: Inquisition taught me: even the most brutal kind of landscape can be rendered beautiful. DA:I showed me desert after harsh desert and swamp after stinky swamp, and managed to make each and every one gorgeous and distinct. Far Cry 4 has trouble make mountains sufficiently majestic at times, or cave paintings interesting enough to catch my eye.
Perhaps some of this is owed to the way exploration works. There are so many collectible items in Far Cry 4, and so little incentive to pursue them, that I find myself no longer caring when an indicator shows up telling me I should check an area out. I'm 70% through the game, maxed out on experience and karma and, for the most part, have all the weapons I want, so at this point I'm really just ticking boxes when I explore, trying to uncover interesting bits and pieces of the world around me so I can roll around in them later. Some of the collectibles are pretty smart and savvy: my dad's old journals, for example, tell a story about this land before I came to it, and the British soldier's letters do a much better job of the same, though with a more "drug trippy" bent oriented around the Shangri-La side-quests. But there are far, far fewer of those collectibles than there are masks illustrating cute little bits of murder scene work. And there are even more propaganda posters littering the landscape, some of them lovingly arranged, some of them haphazardly throw into locales where they're difficult to see, let alone find to destroy.
And therein lies the rub: there's meat on these bones, interesting bits and pieces to Far Cry 4's narrative and the ambient narrative of the world in which that narrative sits, but there's also a tremendous amount of associated fat. As grand as Far Cry 4 can be in moments, for every real and passionate debate that occurs between Amita and Sabal, I've got a cartoonish fight-sequence where someone tells me not to fight a particular enemy because this isn't the appropriate narrative moment, followed by a follow-up sequence where I fight in a slightly different context, because the person whose murder would've inconvenienced the narrative has fled the scene. And those Amita and Sabal arguments aren't even that interesting anymore. Their nuanced positions are growing to cartoonishly extreme proportions. Amita is becoming an avid drug smuggler. Sabal is a sexist asshole. The most interesting character has, in recent times, become the fashion designer living in exile that I murder rare animals for. With his stereotype defying speeches on the nature of "being fierce," and his quiet rage at both his presently reduced stature and Ajay's shit eating side commentary, he's got some chops going on, and I'm genuinely excited to see if I get to have any moments where I really get to know him a little better.
But all of this is couched in a samey narrative that seems to play out through the same emaciated patterns. And here come the spoilers. When you capture the first "mini-boss," a sociopath named Paul, there's no question, you're going to kill him. He tortures and murders people, taunts you as you drive him to be executed by the Golden Path. He's a nasty character, and there's nothing redeeming about him. His weird relationship with his daughter is perhaps his only distinguishing feature, but that does little to soften him and more to reinforce his stature as a monstrous kind of righteous-minded devil. It makes sense, and it's fine - there's no complexity there, and no need for a choice to be presented. It would be like choosing between shooting a rabid dog and letting it go on a playground, a non-choice aimed at exciting the worst in players and doing nothing to forward the narrative. But then there's another mini-boss, a complex woman named Noore who works for The Big Bad because her family was kidnapped. She introduces herself in a profoundly odd way that casts her as a potential ally. Relatively little about her makes any sense, but she is sympathetic and, on the face, your resolution with her gives you a choice to kill her or spare her life. It's fair (she's kind of a war criminal but she seems capable of genuine good) but it's essentially a non-choice: if you don't kill her, she jumps to her own death.
That little turn took all the narrative oomph out of the campaign. It's clear now: I'll be making a series of decisions about who should live or die, and they'll end up dying anyway. There's a slight chance that the next mini-boss might just lose her mind instead of dying. That wouldn't surprise me at all, though it wouldn't change the central issue: the narrative of Far Cry 4 made up of a series of non-choices dolled up as choices. There's nothing wrong with that if you're clever about it and execute on that concept for a purpose, the way Bioshock did, but there's no evidence of that here and, given that I'm 70% through the game, it's reasonable for me to assume that no such moment will occur as I continue to limp through the narrative.
I'm having trouble caring. The same way that Far Cry 3 more imposed than encouraged when it came to finishing up the game, Far Cry 4 is making me feel a disconnect from its systems. Not because it isn't a fun game; it is a thoroughly fun game. But it lacks the sensibility of Far Cry 2, wherein the narrative really was unpredictable, right up to the last. The betrayal that unfolded in the final moments of Far Cry 2, where your every friend from the game turns on you and tries to murder you for the blood diamonds you've spent most of the game acquiring, was a real shock, as was the slow burn realization that you'd be sacrificing yourself, in one way or another, to make a real change. Far Cry 4, in trying to introduce narrative convention to a gameplay form that disdains narrative, and in trying to highlight its collectibles to encourage exploration, has essentially made me walk through places I've already been, again and again, until they begin to lose meaning and I begin to lose steam.