It’s rare that a game will make me feel tense. Normally I needn’t be afraid if I bump into a small pocket of resistance. I always have numerous means available to me for dispatching them. But in Far Cry 4’s Escape from Durgesh Prison DLC when I’m moving through the undergrowth, narrowly avoiding a rhino, and I see a squad of Pagan Min’s loyalists, complete with a heavily armoured machine gunner in the back, I’m worried, worried that my knife and pistol won’t be enough to take them out. When I bungle a stealth takedown and the big guy spots me I don’t have a choice. I run, making a dash for the nearby cliff edge and diving into the river below, making sure to be wary of the demon fish beneath the surface.
Far Cry 4 is the gift that keeps on giving. One of my favourite games from last year, not only does it feature a main campaign packed with scores of side missions, all playable in co-op, it also has an extensive level creator and a huge bank of user created outposts. Outposts are, after all, the best part of Far Cry’s campaign. On top of that there’s an absolutely barmy competitive multiplayer mode that somehow slipped under everyone’s radar. Far removed from its predecessor’s disappointing attempt to ape Call of Duty, Far Cry 4’s Battles of Kyrat offers animal riding, magical drug crafting and teleportation arrows in a world where everyone has a wing suit.
Escape from Durgesh Prison, as far as I can tell, is the only DLC for the game worth bothering with. It shakes up the game’s format completely, in a way not dissimilar to Shadow of Mordor’s trials modes, which essentially turned the game into a roguelike. Escape from Durgesh Prison gives you a world and one life to explore it. You have half an hour until a helicopter arrives to extract you and in that time you must prepare yourself to defend it. Taking down outposts, assassinating commanders and hunting animals all put you in a better position to make your last stand. You start with nothing but knives, a wingsuit and no skills, but as you complete objectives and ransack supplies you gradually build yourself back up to what you remember from the end of the campaign. It’s an excuse to reacquaint yourself with Far Cry 4’s gradual power fantasy over a few hours in a world where you can never quite get complacent.
When you die some things remain. You retain all your unlocked skills and the weapons you were holding when you went down, as well as your crafted items, thankfully. You only have to make the trek to find tapirs for your holster once. This means that though you might die again and again, you still feel like you’re getting better, as a character as well as a player. It’s almost Soulsian in this respect. I struggled with Dark Souls but I can see the appeal of trying and trying again until you crack something, enjoying the sense that you’re continually improving, with the permanent rewards lessening the blow. That process is just more fun when there are honey badgers.
The game starts on one of Kyrat’s many beauty spots at the top of a bell tower. Pagan Min mocks me through my walkie talkie as I pull down a propaganda poster, netting me a sweet extra minute of time on the clock. On the ground below I can see a soldier marching along a hostage. I plummet from the tower and glide gracefully behind him like Batman. Even without my weapons and skills there is satisfaction to be had in the game’s systems, and now I have an assault rifle.
That’s another minute and a half on my timer. I check my map to see what activities are available nearby. The world is still full of walking satchels (known as ‘animals’ to the layperson), and there are various missions that offer extra tools at the final defence. I ambush a boat patrol with a mounted grenade launcher, securing myself mortars for my last stand later. I swim to an island and sneakily dispatch the captains using only my kukri, meaning that gyrocopters are now scattered about the map. Then I catch my wingsuit on a tree, collapse in mid-air and die. Wingsuit related injuries are the primary cause of death in Kyrat. I still have the bow I found and the skill points I put into unlocking chain takedowns but my mortars and gyrocopters are gone. This makes me wary. The more I do in one life the better prepared I’ll be for the final defence, but also the greater chance that something will go wrong and I’ll be back at the start again. It makes for an exciting game of pushing your luck.
Bang. I drive my ATV too close to a grazing rhino and get flipped upside down. In my state of disarray I can’t heal or defend myself from the nearby patrolling soldiers. I die.
I miss a headshot with my throwing knife, alerting the sentry to my position. Reinforcements are called. What was previously a stealthy capture of an outpost turns into a tense game of cat and mouse where the mouse is Predator. I scamper around cover, over rooftops and behind jeeps, trying to avoid enemy fire long enough to chew the bullet out of my arm and to dive onto the back of the flamethrowerer.
Without checkpoints as a safety net I have to go back to the start a lot. It takes many lives before I even survive long enough to want to travel to the extraction point. Perhaps the DLC’s biggest problem is the unreliability of the systems of the game it’s built upon. Too many times my death hasn’t been my fault. A soldier hits me with the butt of his gun, knocking me down and taking away any control. Then he shoots me before I can even get up. Or a gyrocopter blade keeps spinning even after I’ve climbed out, tearing me to shreds. The wingsuits are the worst for it. Sometimes they don’t deploy as I slide down a slope or I collide with the ground even though my parachute is deployed. These are the things that hold the game back the most, that are the most frustrating. To have been taking down wildlife and helicopters for an hour only to die to a fall that wasn’t your fault is excruciating.
Eventually the attempts fall into routine, unfortunately. Once the player becomes a superman with a handheld grenade launcher and a machine gun that spews hot death at 50 bullets a second there’s no reason to take outposts for crafting ingredients or skill points any more. There’s just the same defuse, assassination and hostage missions to secure extra defences at the extraction point. While these are always fun, doing the exact same missions again every life starts to feel like a bit of a chore. There’s never really any rush to complete as many as you can either, because so many of your actions increase the length of the half hour timer. The timer is meant to make you priorities only the most important tasks but you can easily clear everything and still have plenty of time to reach your last stand. It would be nice if the content and rewards of these missions could have been randomised to some degree.
After a few hours and many lives I do reach the extraction point, where I have to defend a helicopter for 10 minutes, utilising the various utilities I’ve gathered on the rest of the map. Mercifully, keeping the helicopter in good health isn’t difficult. It’s mostly just your own life you have to worry about. The area is cleverly designed, with enemies arriving by a road you can load with mines and C4. They’re then funnelled through thin alleyways, allowing you to pounce down from the roofs above. Depending on what missions you’ve done the area is also scattered with treats like turrets, explosive barrels and caged animals, though most of them aren’t particularly helpful.
It’s an entertaining 10 minutes with a satisfying level of threat considering how much more powerful I am than when I started, but it lacks the sense of accomplishment of beating the final boss in Spelunky or of taking down the final orc in a Shadow of Mordor trial. By the time I have most of the skills and the best weapons it feels like I’ve lost the freedom I had at the start. My experience doesn’t feel personal any more.
All that being said, Far Cry 4 remains one of the best action games and one of the best stealth games ever, and Escape from Durgesh Prison does a splendid job of reminding you of that, especially in its first hour or two. It forces you to play cautiously in a way the campaign never did and then distils the satisfaction of the main game’s gradually increasing power trip into a few frantic sessions.