My Kyratian Summer (or playing Far Cry 4)

Far Cry 4 is a brilliant game. It doesn't transcend or innovate, it just does exactly what it says on the box. And in the summer of 2014, where every AAA title seemed to suffer from countless bugs, that's an achievement in itself. Far Cry 4 sets the bar for gorgeous, open-world shooters with an emphasis on fun and frivolity. At thirty-five hours in and seventy-nine percent down, I'm still engaged and hungry. 

STORY

Look, it's slim at best. You play Ajay Ghale, who's returning to his ancestral home (the fictional Kyrat), to spread the ashes of his mother. Within seconds an ill-fated bus ride sees you plunged into the internal civil war that is ripping apart the gorgeous landscape and its people. Fighting on the side of the rebels, you set about a slow campaign of mass slaughter until you can claim victory. 

Ajay is far less douchey than his franchise forefather Jason Brody from Far Cry 3, but he's the least interesting of a surprisingly compelling ensemble cast. Troy Baker predictably takes the cake as the fantastically flamboyant villain Pagn Min. Because of this, the game's story has stakes. I was surprised how invested I became in Kyrat. The rebels face their own internal power battles, and the most nose-wrinkly bits of the game are the times where you have to choose between one leader or another. These choices have the unmistakable veneer of truth around them. Do you destroy the cocaine fields, for example, stealing a key export for the fascistic government? Or do you attempt to simply take them over, ensuring the rebels have a strong financial (but ultimately unethical) backbone to keep their country afloat when they finally take over? 

Another campaign mission, and by far the most uncomfortable, sees you sneaking into a slave trade operation in an attempt to rescue some hostages and de-throne a powerful military head. The cries of frightened young women surrounded by realistic slums makes the level more confronting than I was expecting. The darker and more 'realistic' angle here gives anchor to a game that almost at every other turn doesn't take itself too seriously.

GAMEPLAY

Far Cry 4's huge open world allows for the kind of antics that simply make you giggle. The wildlife is astonishing. You can be walking in the forest calmly minding your own business when you spot a tiger doing battle with a bear. I consider myself an animal lover, but I hate to say I didn't feel a modicum of guilt setting several mines under the paths of bears, rhinos and leopards, only to see their cartoon rag-doll bodies catapult through the air and land crushingly on unsuspecting foes. Riding an elephant into battle is an experience that is wonderfully satisfying. 

The shooting mechanics are fantastic. Although the sheer volume of controls on my PS4 has left me guessing at functions that I am only NOW figuring out. The touch pad is too sensitive here to be useful. They've tried to make it an easy swipe to access your weapon wheel, but I found it too inconsistent, and sadly resulted in too many instances of me drawing a bow and arrow when I really needed my grenade launcher. 

The side missions range from genuinely difficult but satisfying stealth, to straight shoot 'em ups, to hunting (the honey badgers have gone rabid!). Each is well executed, and makes Far Cry 4 a seemingly effortless flexible game. Fans of the franchise will be pleased and unsurprised - there's essentially little difference in fundamentals from Far Cry 3. If you've never played, Far Cry 4 is a perfect time to jump in. 

THE LOCATION

Kyrat is the star of the game. A fictional mash-up of India and Nepal, the beautifully rendered mountainous regions make for plenty of gasp aloud moments. There are endless tunnels to explore and ancient temples to uncover. Prayer flags wave in the wind as you pass through jungle, and incense smoke hangs at the feet of every grand Hindu statue. 

The hilly landscape can make for an occasionally painful journey. There are many attempts to circumvent this, the main being a grapple hook that allows you to scale great heights. You can only grapple in very specific places, however, and these places are under-used. A short 400 metre trip can turn into several long minutes of walking along a cliff face trying to find a suitable grappling point when you realise your goal is on the other wide of an exceedingly wide ridge. The other and far more efficient form of transport is the 'buzzer', a one-man helicopter. Flying around on a buzzer is fun and easy, but they're too far apart to be relied upon.

So Far Cry 4 is a brilliant game. But...call me old-fashioned, I can't help but actually THINK about the game I'm playing...

Far Cry 4 narrowly avoids some difficult racial questions that have plagued the franchise before by placing themselves in a fictional space. While the inspiration is no doubt Indian, they never make this claim explicit in-game. The idea of a 'white' liberator is also skated over by the fact that Ajay is half Kyrat-ian and half American. But these decisions smell an awful lot like some fairly uncomfortable early development meetings. Is our white culture so xenophobic that we really wouldn't find a Kyrat-ian native accessible enough to play? Why was it important that Ajay had to have an American male accent? I simply can't support the idea that the game wouldn't have sold as well. The break away game of last year was Dragon Age: Inquisition in which players can choose to play a variety of fictional races. No one seems to worry if making a protagonist an elf will make the game inaccessible. 

Far Cry 4 should be applauded for its female characters who stick out in my memory as important, fleshed out, and not particularly sexualised. It's just a shame that we couldn't have had the option to have a female protagonist, as Ajay's gender has no affect on the story whatsoever. 

ike all brilliant video games, Far Cry 4 is worth your money and your brain. 

 

Thoughts on Destiny

I'm seven or eight when the tinny sounds of carnage draw me into the 'computer room' of our house. Dad is blowing apart Nazi's in Doom, and I watch with great interest. It's very obvious at the time that this is a Very Violent Game and not appropriate for my age. But it's this element of scandal that draws me nearer, and within a couple of years I'm playing Doom 2 and Quake 3. At prepubescent age, there's no strategy involved. My only goal is to get to the biggest rocket launcher I can find and blow everything apart. 

But first-person shooters never got their hook in the way other games did. I spent a lot of time solving puzzles as Lara Croft, escaping Sligs as Abe, or re-builidng Ancient Rome and defending my camp from invaders. I managed to miss, almost entirely, the vortex of Call of Duty. (I had a brief interlude with Call of Duty 2, and was impressed by its cinematic approach to gameplay, but as with so many other first-person shooters, I ultimately got bored of the repetitive mechanic at the heart of the game.)

Nevertheless, I'm in the minority in this regard. First person shooters were the blockbusters of the last gaming generation, out-selling any other game type. Regularly panned by critics, drowning in bad dialogue and incomprehensible story-lines, first person shooters defined a group of teenage gamers. It's been prophesied that this may finally be dying out, and will be replaced by the more artistically minded rash of indie games that is being brought to the fore by Steam and iOS. Given the way Destiny has sold, however, this is difficult to believe.

Destiny's developer Bungie happily claims Destiny to be the biggest new gaming franchise launch of all time, claiming over $500 million worth of sales within the first couple of days of its release. Despite this, reviews tended to hover around scores between six and eight. Some gamers went so far as to describe the game as 'aggressively boring', or fundamentally flawed. Within hours, gamers picked up the trend, and took to forums describing the game as a major disappointment. I've now played dozens of online games of Destiny with players around the world, who take to mouthing off about how much the game that they've played for OVER FIFTY HOURS addictively just plain sucks. It's fashionable to rip on Destiny.

The blame for this trend is shared equally between fans and Bungie (ok, maybe a bit more with the fans.) Bungie previously developed Halo - an online shooter franchise that I managed to miss entirely thanks to being a PlayStation-er as opposed to an XBox-er. Halo is talked about with such devotion by its fans. It's a franchise that regularly appears in the top ten lists of best games of all time. The rather explicit promise by Bungie of Destiny being the 'Next-Gen Halo' unfairly created an immediate comparison between the two franchises. And keep in mind, it's not that fans are saying Halo is still better than Destiny, it's just that Destiny didn't live up to the brilliance that they held in their mind. 

A lot of the criticisms of Destiny are spot-on. The promised 'open-world' nature of the game feels stunted. At time of writing there are just four maps. They are extraordinary, beautiful things, but they feel cramped. The novelty of walking around a beautifully rendered Venus, Mars, Earth and Moon wears off in your seventh hour of completing a mission for the eleventh time in order to level up your character. There are also obvious loading zones. Different sections of each map are chained together by narrow tunnels, placed strategically so the game can have enough time to load and render the next open area. This would be less obvious if the exact layout wasn't duplicated on literally every map. Sadly, it feels like something last-gen RockStar games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption solved in a much more sophisticated way. 

Complaints about the game's narrative are a little more difficult to substantiate. Destiny opens a narrative chapter and world that will clearly be given more depth in ensuing DLC's and sequels. Bungie has committed to developing the world of Destiny with over ten years of content (once again promising something they may later regret). The story strikes me as no more shallow than other first-person shooters, and actually sets up a compelling science fiction premise. The game feels as though it's missing an extensive explorative element, or a depth in its world, that is down to the afore-mentioned level design rather than the game's narrative.

Complaints aside, Destiny rocks. My initial disinterest in playing first person shooters dissipated quickly in the face of Destiny's RPG-light elements and mission structures. I sunk 20+ hours into the game without thinking. Destiny presumes you're intelligent. It doesn't waste time teaching you about itself. Because of this, there are some elements of the game that I still don't understand. But I actually like this. There's still more to explore, more to gain. 

However, I did find the learning curve between level 20 and 21 unforgivably steep, and I'd love to understand Bungie's thinking behind this. At level 20, you're at 'maximum', but not really. You can get up to level 30, but the entire currency that you've used to previously build up to level 20 (traditional XP) is now useless. You need 'Light', a convoluted system that is dependent on you finding rare loot. You gain the loot by basically playing particular missions over and over again. 

Reaching level 21 was enough of an achievement for me, and I put Destiny back on the shelf. I'm not trading it in any time soon, however, and I look forward to returning. With loads more content promised in upcoming DLC's, it would feel foolish to throw away the hours I've spent building up my character. I think my feelings would be substantially more negative if I knew this was all Destiny had in store for me. But I will happily view Destiny as an investment in gaming content that will slowly drip down in the years to come, allowing me to pick up a gun at will and shoot aliens for a few hours, finding entertainment every time. 

This makes Destiny a very good game. Flying in the face of its flaws is it's perfect technical execution. Every gun feels different. Shooting is fun and fair. Movement and special abilities are enjoyable. On a pure technical gameplay level, Destiny is the best first-person shooter ever made. While some reviewers trash Destiny for not knowing 'what type of game it wants to be' (given it's implantation of MMO and RPG elements), I applaud it. Bungie have delivered on their promise to deliver a next-generation shooter. It's innovative, and has a fair share of risk involved that is unusual in a AAA studio.

The fan cultures unfortunately typical immature response comes at a time when gamers are already suffering from an appallingly poor public image. Our dis-satisfaction at something as wondrous as Destiny points to a culture of entitlement that corrodes the very nature of what video games are about: fun. Video games are now undeniably mainstream, but it's clear the biggest obstacle us gamers face in shedding the image that they are a lazy, socially unintelligent group is ourselves. If we continue to react to innovation with disappointment, pouring criticism on developers who want so desperately to please us while we buy their games by the truckload, I'm not sure I really want to stay in the club. 


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Saga, and other stories that can only exist in comics

Reading Saga is unlike reading any other story I've ever experienced. The psychedelic space opera is funny, brutal, emotional and endlessly surprising. Two lovers are on the run from their war-torn past, evading bounty hunters and attempting to find peace. The result is a comic that is colourful, beautiful, imaginative, and doomed to never exist in any other medium.

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