After amazing audiences at E3 over the last three summers, Ubisoft’s failure to live up to the hype with games like Assassin’s Creed Unity and Watch Dogs made 2014 a year to forget. Assassin’s Creed Unity’s clearly rushed development did the brand no favors, leaving fans wondering if the series could continue annually. But a similar conversation took place in 2012, when a buggy, bleak, and downright boring Assassin’s Creed III released to similar, if less severe, criticism. Distracting audiences from the disappointment was Far Cry 3, a trippy, polished shooter starring the wickedly captivating Vaas Montenegro. Its world-building and irreverence were a breath of fresh air in the face of the “realistic” stories that other developers wanted to tell, and with Far Cry 4, Ubisoft bet that lightning could strike twice. Luckily, it did, and this bolt is even bigger.

Departing from the tropical setting for which the series is best known, Far Cry 4 places you in the shoes of Ajay Ghale, a returning native to the fictional Himalayan country of Kyrat who has taken the journey from the United States to scatter his mother’s ashes. Almost immediately, your bus is stopped, gunfire erupts, and you come face-to-face with Pagan Min, the King of Kyrat, who stabs one of his soldiers in the throat for disobeying his orders — but Pagan’s happy to see you, and this ongoing contrast between his violent, ruthless attitude to everyone around him and his friendly tone with Ajay becomes a source of confusion.

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Let me set the mood with a little harmonica.

That’s not to say that the reason for Pagan’s behavior is left unexplained, however; his continued calls to Ajay — who joins up with the “Golden Path” resistance group to topple his regime — as well as the occasional confrontation, make Pagan a more sympathetic character than Vaas of Far Cry 3, but they also make him much more predictable. Far Cry 4 shows its hand very early, and while it attempts to throw you off with a few late-game twists, nearly every betrayal and plot revelation is telegraphed hours beforehand. This is in large part due to the binary “choice” system that Ubisoft uses for campaign missions, forcing you to side with one of two allied characters at several key points. These choices aren’t as black and white as something like Mass Effect, or even Far Cry 3’s endgame decision, but they work to simplify the two characters down to nothing more than obstacles for each other.

Fortunately, these less-than-subtle moments don’t take away from the game’s excellent campaign missions, which explore Kyrat in all its violent, exotic glory. Open-world games have a tendency to treat the “main” missions as one piece to a larger puzzle, but after the first few hours in Far Cry 4, I found myself going from one campaign mission to the next almost immediately. The game does set pieces better than any AAA shooter on the market, and even though it does tread some familiar ground  — a few missions feel almost identical to Far Cry 3 — the “wow” moments are both more memorable and more plentiful. Over the course of the roughly 10 hours it took me to complete the story, I drove a chemical truck into a fortified gate, toppled a smokestack with an elephant, and caught up with an airplane after launching off a ramp on an ATV. The only section where the campaign stumbles at all is a stealth mission near the beginning of the game, where being detected leads to an automatic failure. While the forced stealth makes sense in the context of the narrative, it eliminates the “think on your feet” option that makes Far Cry 4 so much fun to play.

I didn't do it.

I didn’t do it.

Pagan Min, Ajay Ghale, and the large supporting cast aside, the real star of Far Cry 4 is Kyrat itself. The map is covered with mountains, lakes, caves, forests, and Eastern architecture that create an environment unlike anything the series has seen, but the aesthetic differences are the least important change: this is one of the densest open worlds in recent memory. You can’t go more than a hundred meters without running into a new area to explore, a convoy to fight, or a quest to complete, and these are as dynamic as they are varied. Helping a group of random Golden Path members kill enemy soldiers or rescuing a hostage earns you “Karma” that unlocks extra mercenaries to help you in combat. The system is simple, but it encourages you to be careful with your shots; kill the wrong target, and your Karma decreases.

Far Cry 4’s other open-world activities are largely unchanged from Far Cry 3’s, but there are a few notable additions. Enemy outposts are still scattered all over the map, and conquering them earns you a new fast travel location, but now, there are also fortresses: large, fortified camps that are nearly impossible to take down until you get to select points in the campaign. Taking these down stops Pagan’s soldiers from launching counterattacks in select areas of Kyrat, and they make for some of the most intense firefights in the game. The first of these saw me using a fortress’s own mortar to shell the soldiers inside, also destroying the alarm that they could have used to call for reinforcements.

Unlocking radio towers reveals new items and objectives, and it also changes the in-car radios from playing Pagan’s propaganda to “Rabi Ray Rana,” a sarcastic DJ who hero-worships Ajay. His inclusion leads to some entertaining dialogue while you travel, but it also leads to Far Cry 4’s biggest narrative problem. Rabi jokes about Ajay becoming a “serial killer” before dismissing his own statement because Ajay “has a conscience,” but this is never really shown to be the case, and the game is content to hint at this idea without every truly entertaining it.

Somewhere in the forest, Smokey Bear weeps.

Somewhere in the forest, Smokey Bear weeps.

There are a number of hunting, hostage rescue, and assassination missions, many of which were included in Far Cry 3, and while the missions are similar in structure, the varied design of Kyrat makes them still feel different from each other. Hunting missions in particular can be a daunting task, especially when hills and a huge lake prevent you from escaping the deadly charge of an Asian rhino. If you want to play with a friend, most of these can be done in Far Cry 4’s cooperative mode, as well. Removed is the separate, linear cooperative campaign of the game’s predecessor —instead, you can invite a buddy or use random matchmaking to conquer most of the game’s open world quests. It doesn’t add all that much to the experience unless you’re playing with a friend, but riding side by side on elephants is something that everyone should try at least once.

Far Cry 3 featured a standard, fairly uninspired competitive component, but its sequel keeps things just as weird as the single-player experience. Utilizing an ever-popular asymmetric design, the three multiplayer modes have one side playing as the Golden Path, but the other side play as the Rakshasa, ancient bow-wielding warriors with the ability to go invisible. Even though all three objective-based modes have teams switching sides between rounds, the two factions are well balanced. Rakshasa can kill an unsuspecting enemy in one shot, but they lack the explosive firepower to go up against more than one target at a time. The most creative aspect of the entire multiplayer component, however, is that it still uses the towers from the single-player game. Golden Path have the ability to turn on “bell towers,” which reveal the location of all Rakshasa on the map, while the Rakshasa can sabotage these and hide their positions. It’s a unique element that forces teams to split up. While most of the Golden Path go after the objective, a few stay behind to keep the tower online, creating a tense atmosphere that can lead to inexperienced players running around like headless chickens.

There is no denying that in basic structure, design, and appearance, Far Cry 4 is a very similar game to Far Cry 3, but it’s a more refined experience that capitalizes on the best aspects of the series across every mode. A few technical problems from the previous game return (texture pop-in is still an issue), and the villain-centric plot might not be as surprising this time around, but Far Cry 4 is a journey that I’m thrilled I got to take. Open-world games are rarely this alive, and even rarer are they this fun. It’s going to be very difficult to leave Kyrat.

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Invisible Gamer’s Far Cry 4 review is based on a PlayStation 4 copy of the game purchased at retail. All images were captured directly on the console.