Far Cry 4 preview: Himalaya it on me
Ubisoft senior level designer Vincent Ouellette talks to Independent.ie about the latest instalment of the shooter
SHOW me something new, we jaded gamers always demand, even if sales of annual franchises may beg to differ. Just two years have elapsed since the last instalment of open-world shooter Far Cry and Ubisoft is mindful of the need for evolution, if not revolution.
“One challenge we set from the start was to try out new locations, a new set of characters, we wanted to keep the experience fresh,” says Vincent Ouellette, senior level designer on Far Cry 4, which is out next month.
FC3 revisited the steamy jungle setting of the 2004 original and was well received for its emergent gameplay, lush landscapes and thrilling gunplay. The balance wasn’t perfect but Ouellette and the rest of the team knew that with a few tweaks Far Cry 4 could be even better.
“So we set out to recon a new location and we ended up choosing the Himalayas for a few different reasons,” Ouellette explains. “We wanted more verticality in the world and bigger diversity.”
Having rejected other possibilities including Russia and South America, the Himalayas offered such an exciting assortment of terrain that the team kept coming back to the mountains.
“In this part of the world there’s so much height. In this small region you get very lush valley with rivers. Then, really close to it, a little bit higher you get pine forests and rocky areas.”
Never mind that Nathan Drake got here first while exploring Shangri-La in Uncharted 2. The environmental variety in FC4 acts as an interesting backdrop for the storyline about fighting with the rebels to unseat Pagan Min, the evil ruler of the small (fictional) kingdom of Kyrat.
“The Himalayan missions are exotic. In some of them you’ll be stuck in blizzards and won’t be able to see very far. Tools such as your camera and sniper rifle are ineffective because you can’t see very far. That brings something new to the table in terms of gameplay.
But the Far Cry team went deeper than just looking at maps and photos – sending a crew to research the real Himalayas..
“Online you can see a lot of references about topography and architecture,” recalls Ouellette. “The team were looking to see what you couldn’t see in pictures. You get to see how people live their life, what their beliefs are, you get a bit more intimate with them.
“By going there, narrative director Mark Thompson got a lot of inspiration that went into the story and the characters.”
The maps include snowy wastes as well as lush valleys
What sets Far Cry apart from several other shooters is the dynamic nature of the world. Beginning in Far Cry 2 with the ability to set bushfires, FC3 expanded emergent possibilities through the wildlife and a broader toolset.
Of course, many players preferred exploring the diverse side-missions at the expense of the main narrative but Ubisoft was undaunted.
Ouellette insists: “Emergence is something we pushed, giving the player more tools, more gadgets, making sure that all the systems we had can speak and interact with each other.
“That’s exactly what happened when Far Cry 3 launched. Post-release everybody was putting videos online of stuff that we were not expecting. Such as people carrying around C4 while flying in gliders – then letting the glider crash into enemies. All these crazy kinds of stories were shared with the world.
“In Far Cry 3, some people found that the missions were a bit too restrictive, it forced you to play in a certain way.
“So we gave them a lot more freedom in the missions and some decision-making too. Basically the rebels have different leaders have different vision of where they want to bring the country. You align with them and that will influence the outcome of some missions and how they play out.”
Ubisoft figured that if one player plus emergence equals untold excitement, then co-op plus emergence could be gaming gold.
“That’s something we wanted to push in co-op,” says Ouellette. “All that emergence with another player, the possibility of chaos is multiplied.
“Obviously the complex thing was more on the tech side, making the feature itself work. When you work on a systemic game you just have to let go. Mostly as a level designer you’re used to controlling things and staging things. In a game like Far Cry, it’s like giving the gamer the tools and then him letting make his story.”
But emergence and co-op are not things that sit well with a strong narrative.
“When you’re with a friend running around, the story is not the one told by the game any more, it’s the story you make up with a friend,” Ouellette says.
“So co-op takes place in the main world but you can only play the open-world content. All the story missions are single-player only. It was a deliberate decision. We felt story is something that gets a bit spoiled when you’re with a friend.
“We put so much effort into these characters. As soon as you’re with a friend, the story is not told by the game any more.”
Players had such fun with manipulating the wildlife in FC3 that enhanced interaction was inevitable – who didn’t enjoy setting a tiger free near enemy goons?
This is what happens when you let rhinos loose
“In FC3 we had outposts where you could find animals caged and you could destroy the cage to let the animal out,” recalls Ouellette. “That is something that players loved but it was really static in the environment.
“We wanted to transform that into a tool. Now when skin an animal, you not only get a pelt, you get meat.
“If you throw the meat it’s going to bait the predators in the area. A tiger or a honey badger is going to come by sniffing and he’s going to start attacking the bad guys. You can use that as a diversion to get in the camp or disable alarms or plant explosives."
Wait, did he just say honey badger? Yup, in addition to the usual fearsome felines and grumpy bears, you can hunt these small creatures. But don’t be fooled by their cuddly name. Honey badgers are fearless, vicious little buggers. They’re fun to hunt but even more amusing when set them on your opponents.
Honey badgers for the win
Animals play a big part in Far Cry 4, as useful for scavenged resources as weaponised accomplices. You get to ride elephants at various points, though you have to wonder at the cruelty of some players, with Ouellette explaining with a grimace that the first thing most people do in the Far Cry 4 demo is to shoot the pachyderm.
He brushes aside concerns that animal rights activists may get upset by the abuses perpetrated in the game.
“It’s something that happens in nature. If something happens because of the player, then the player must question his own morality. It’s not for us to judge. We leave it as a tool for the player.”
There’s still much to be revealed about FC4, even as we’re just a couple of weeks away from release. Very little has been said about multiplayer, for instance.
“I can tell you that it’s completely asymmetrical,” offers Ouellette. “Red Storm in North Carolina is taking care of it. They are the guys behind the original Rainbow Six. They are really experienced with multiplayer games, so it’s really looking good.
Ouellette compares it to the popular Spy vs Merc mode in Splinter Cell, which pitted sneaky but weak spies against powerful but limited mercs.
No doubt more details will emerge in the remaining weeks before launch but it’s highly unusual to keep it all under wraps until now. Ubisoft has moved at least to discount rumours that multiplayer would need paid DLC, promising that only one mode would require the €30 season pass.
We can’t go without a word on Pagan Min, the flamboyant despot on the front of the box. What we've seen in trailers makes him the most instantly likeable/dislikeable villain in years.
“He’s a peacock, he likes to show off,” notes Ouellette. “He’s got his own country, he’s got his face printed on the money. He loves his own image.
“You’re trying to overthrow him. But at the same time he likes you and he wishes you were more on his side.”
Min sounds more multi-dimensional than your usual cookie-cutter baddie. Here’s hoping Far Cry 4 lives up to the promise. It’s released on PS4/XOne/PC/PS3/X360 on November 18.