Elephants. They are the largest land animal, the only mammal incapable of jumping, and pitched from the very start as one of the modes of transportation players of Far Cry 4 will be able to indulge in. It may seem odd that an open world shooter with significant RPG mechanics making the leap to next-gen consoles would be excitement enough, but word of elephant riding in Ubisoft’s next installment spread like Far Cry 2’s wildfire. And now that we have played the game for ourselves, the emergent gameplay and story-a-minute coincidence that defined previous games is alive and well — and elephants are at the heart of it.
Out of all the major franchises in Ubisoft’s stable, there is no other as inconsistent (in a certain sense) as Far Cry — set on a tropical island, then the African plains, another tropical island, and now shifting to the fictional country of Kyrat on the mountainous slopes of the Himalaya. But what has remained constant is a desire to remove restrictions, player assists, and prescribed action beats in favor of systemic gameplay that thrusts players into and out of encounters that could be neither predicted nor forgotten.
Sadly, this is still very much the case. Sad, because not every gameplay mission or animal encounter goes the way a player would hope. Audiences at E3 2014 got the opportunity to see not just the murderous new villain Pagan Min (voiced by Troy Baker), but a mission tasking the player with liberating an outpost. To do so meant catching a lift on a gyrocopter and watching as rampaging elephants charged, tossed, and crushed enemy soldiers underfoot.
In reality, the infiltration by air is just one option afforded players; the hands-on demo also offered the ability to use stealth in infiltrating the base and taking out hostiles, or climbing atop one of the pent-up pachyderms and unleashing tusked justice (if you can even call that a choice). Elephant attacks are generally not something to be celebrated, but the uniformed soldiers players are tasked with eliminating are not to be pitied: as the developers have explained, the are the forces belonging to the despotic leader Min, ruling with an iron fist and — as was shown in the game’s official cinematic trailer — dealing harshly with those who disobey.
It’s hard to know exactly when, but somewhere between mounting the elephant and steering it through the splintered remains of the outpost’s doors, it became clear that Ubisoft doesn’t make a habit of restraining itself when it comes to Far Cry. The previous game injected hallucinogenic drugs, tribal magic and one of the most unexpected DLC expansions in years, and its mechanically similar successor is clearly not pursuing a sense of realism (we doubt, for instance, that elephants can be easily steered).
Nevertheless, once Min’s forces recovered from the shock of seeing a man burst into their compound astride the monstrous mammal, sawed-off shotgun in hand, the firefight began. It’s hard to know exactly why the guards chose not to fire a barrage of bullets at the beast (perhaps they are animal lovers) instead of fleeing helplessly or standing dumbfounded, but the combination of trumpet blasts and automatic weapons fire proved at once that the emergent and unpredictable gameplay is alive and well in the Himalaya. But as always, that is a two-way street.
For it seems inevitable that the feeling of working in tandem with the game’s environment in eliminating enemies detested by nature itself, must be short-lived. And before long, the friendly grey hide of an elephant strays into the crosshairs, taking the full brunt of a shotgun blast, and wincing in pain. Pain that can’t compare to the sense of betrayal such an act inspires in the players(s) responsible.
That was the case with our demo, where we learned that the great truth of fictional entertainment still applies to games: you can do all the horrible things to people that you want, but abuse an animal, and you are beyond forgiveness. In hindsight, it should have been immediately clear that the player’s bullets would be no more harmful than those of the enemy, and all the regret in the world wouldn’t override programming.
As it happened, it was only when, hunkered down behind cover from reinforcements and wondering why warnings signs blared that the game’s hero was near death, that the truth became clear; the world of Far Cry 4 and its inhabitants don’t play favorites. And the line between ‘scripted experience’ and ‘simulation’ is one that the series has continually blurred.
Again, it's hard to put a name to the feeling of being stomped to death by a vengeful elephant, ending our demo session on a rather unexpected note. If we’re honest, slight frustration that a misplaced shot would throw all the planning and reacting that followed into complete chaos was the first reaction. After all, the developer had informed us prior to playing, mounting an elephant would “allows us to control it.”
Yet in the Far Cry series, “control” has always been a tricky notion — and the addition of killer elephants is just one more example. The game’s new setting and story may offer a variety of locales and themes that prior games could not explore, but just because the series is growing in popularity doesn’t mean it’s unforgiving set of systems is getting simpler.
You may fight on the side of good or freedom, and conserve ammunition as you think one step ahead of your opponent and their comrades.
But in the world of Kyrat, giving one elephant a reason to hate you makes gunfire the least of your problems.
Far Cry 4 will be available for PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3 and PS4 on November 18, 2014.
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