I have a confession, and it is this: I really like the Ubisoft formula. Items everywhere, side-quests out the wazoo, big mission arrows, the steadily-expanding skill-set - bliss. I don't like every game made with it, of course, and Assassin's Creed shows what happens when the recipe is used too often. But when it works, and when it fits, you get a game like Far Cry 4.
Part of enjoying Far Cry 4 is abandoning yourself to the sheer weirdness of how Kyrat is made to look on your screen. A gorgeous Himalayan skyline, endless mountains and roads, amazing fog effects, sheer natural bliss - with a map pockmarked by visual icons, a giant yellow arrow pointing somewhere, silly NPCs doing silly things and lunatic wildlife. For some people the latter elements ruin the former, always offering up a distraction and a candied trinket when all you want to do is explore the wilderness. Which is entirely fair enough, except for me these discordant elements blend - like salted chocolate - into something absolutely irresistible.
The thing is, I like to think of myself as a hardy explorer type figuring everything out and making this world of Kyrat mine. The truth is that I have more great games and less free time than at any other point in my life. So I nod sympathetically to those making the purist argument, then go back to gleefully skipping after treasure chest icons with a grappling hook and grenade launcher.
The treasure chests etcetera are a key part of the Ubisoft formula: constant rewards that give the player a minor hit of happy juice and make them feel like they've achieved something. This is interesting because it can go wrong or right. The same principle doesn't work nearly as well in the Assassin's Creed games, where all the icons become a drag and most rewards are so pointless that you come to resent going after their icons. 'Clearing' the map of icons is such a vital part of this structure's appeal that, when you don't enjoy going after them, the whole thing becomes irritating.
Far Cry 4's manifold icons, on the contrary, are a joy. It took days before I even started going through the story missions because, after I'd done the first, I simply wandered Kyrat like a shotgun-toting magpie, snaffling out shiny things and lapping up the XP. The constant incidental encounters slot beautifully into this style of progression, with the courier chases and convoy interceptions frequently taking me into new territory jam-packed with more lovely icons.
We tend to think of sidequests as subsidiary, hence the name. The idea is that there's a 'main' story, and then a bunch of loot and time-filling activities. But the quality and quantity of Far Cry 4's sidequests mean that, even following icons on a map randomly, they add up to a freeform adventure of your choosing - one minute you're Indiana Jones, spelunking through caves to find a goblet, and the next Rambo-ing through a convoy that took the wrong turning. This is why, though I'm sympathetic to the 'distractions' argument, it's not too much of a stretch to say that for me Far Cry 4 is the distractions.
I suspect the development team were influenced by this when designing the campaign missions. Several of these are set in isolated 'levels' like the Himalayan mountains or the tripped-out Shangri-La, which not only change up the palette but also temporarily remove the player from other distractions. These breakaways are often superb, setting up brilliant set-pieces for you to knock 'em down, but it's notable that harsh boundaries are implemented to prevent you wandering off. Even worse, FC4 often flubs the payoff - one mission has you chase a plane down a runway in an ATV, then dive off the ramp at the end and catch it in your wingsuit. When you get close enough, a cutscene plays. Sad face.
So it's always hard to shake the feeling, no matter how much fun it is, that the campaign missions lock your toys away until the chores are done. Because Far Cry 4's greatest strength is when you're just tootling around and its manifold systems collide with each other: a few isolated troops ambushed by a pack of dogs, or an elephant casually scattering an armoured unit like toy soldiers. I once crept up to a hill overlooking a camp, readied my sniper rifle, and heard a growl. I turned around to see a leopard leaping, backed off in panic, and my corpse landed at the feet of two surprised guards.
This gets even better when playing in co-op because, simply put, other players are always a bit of a wild card. I've lost count of the number of times we've been halfway through a silent Outpost takeover, and then my buddy decides he's had enough of this pansy-ass efficiency and gets the rocket launcher out. A partner makes the truly mental stuff about Kyrat, if anything, even funnier. The first time I got killed by a rhino I didn't even see it: my co-op partner shouted 'shit!' and bailed out of our car, and the next second I was cartwheeling off the side of a hill. It immediately turned around and flattened him, and when the game restarted we were still laughing. The dynamism is not incidental to Far Cry 4, but the main reason it's fun. It's also why, even though you could say Far Cry 4 is just a bigger version of Far Cry 3, this kind of misses the point. Yes the two are cut from the same cloth. But Far Cry 4's world is so much denser with detail, incident and hazardous wildlife that the experience is more concentrated and intense throughout.
It's worth stopping for a brief moment to confront the sneers about mainstream sequels. There's nothing wrong with iteration, and the Far Cry series has now produced four great games distinct from one another. One of the absolute best things in Far Cry 4 is torching guards, fauna and flora with a flamethrower - the fire effect, the way it spreads and looks, is just amazing. And it wouldn't be such a brilliantly polished element if it hadn't been one of the main focal points of Far Cry 2. So it is with the wingsuit and Far Cry 3, or any number of other mechanics.
Far Cry 4 is a superb game, in other words, because it stands on the shoulders of giants - using what works, improving what doesn't, and adding its own ideas to the mix so that Far Cry 5 can do the same. Yes, this is a game structured around the Ubisoft formula. But Far Cry 4 is one of the best games of the year because, each time you play it, everything works out in a new way.