For a piece of DLC with the word "prison" in the title, there's very little in the way of locked doors and iron bars in this unique sandbox campaign. It's actually set at a certain point in the story campaign, not long after an encounter with the titular prison, and in this DLC we're exploring what happens thereafter.
It starts with the player, unarmed and minus all of their accumulated skills, waking atop a tower with villain Pagan Min chatting away in their ear. The premise is relatively simple: there's a helicopter extraction planned to take place in thirty minutes time, in a designated spot up in the mountains. The player has to make their way to that spot, picking up gear and abilities as they go, giving them a better chance of surviving the final encounter against waves and waves of enemy soldiers.
There's a permadeath-like mechanic, whereby when a player dies they head back to the start of the mission. This feature is made less punishing because the equipment you earn on your travels, and the skills you unlock as you level up, are retained by your character and return every time you start again in the tower (skills and crafted gear are retained, whereas equipment is how you left it when you died).
There's certain objectives that you can complete that are dotted around the mini-map (it's not a new area, rather a repurposed take on the game's second half) that grant the player bonuses come the end of the mission, but these bonuses don't carry over to the next game, so the player will have to complete these tricky missions time and time again, although it should get easier as your character - Ajay - gets stronger and stronger through repeat plays. You can also play co-op, and bring Hurk along for the ride, should you have an eager buddy.
The way that Ubisoft has put it together means that there's a snowball effect, with Ajay gathering strength through multiple attempts, until eventually he's powerful enough to tackle the final encounter and survive. Those chasing high scores - there's a leaderboard - can aim for the best numbers by completing missions and discovering various locations on the map that grant time bonuses. In essence, the very best players will be able to constantly extend their time in the sandbox and give themselves more opportunities to tackle increasingly distant side-missions, earn more skill points, grab more items (although you do have to speculate to accumulate as far as ammo goes), and earn more bonuses that come into play at the end.
The final battle sees players protecting a helicopter from waves of enemy troops for ten minutes. It's a tough nut to crack for sure, but for players who have tackled and completed some of the missions in the sandbox beforehand, there will be features added to the mix, such as turrets and exploding barrels, that'll make things easier.
It's getting to the end that's the longterm challenge, because as Far Cry fans will know, Kyrat is a dangerous sandbox to play in. Players must upgrade their gear through hunting, and improve their stats by pitching in and helping the resistance where possible. Of course there's a million and one things that can go horribly wrong along the way, and even the jump from the tower at the very beginning can prove lethal if not executed with care.
The constant restarts can be frustrating. Even more so when you've already completed a couple of missions, as you know you'll have to go back and do those challenges again. Perhaps it would've been nice to have a standard difficulty across the world, with an increase in challenge achieved by harshening the punishment for death ("easy" would keep their bonuses, "normal" as it is, "hard" for a complete restart). Alas this isn't the case, and as such there's nothing to do but grind your way through the missions several times.
The rest of the DLC is solid. While there's plenty of frustrating moments, most of the elements that make Far Cry 4 so exciting are present and accounted for. The gunplay is first rate, the player movement is fantastic, the landscape is expertly designed, the AI is challenging. There could be more scope for stealth gameplay, but the ticking clock means there's only a few opportunities to get the bow out and go in quietly (but when you do find these moments, the countdown makes them all the more intense).
The only significant problem, frustrating restarts aside, is the cost. This DLC costs £7.99, and that feels steep considering what you get for your money (unless you've got the season pass, in which case there's now additional pressure on the next batch of DLC to impress). If we had got a whole new map to explore, then maybe that price would have been warranted, but what's here feels like an interesting deviation, not a total departure. There's some nice ideas here, even if they could have been better implemented, but for players seeking a challenge, they'll certainly find that here, in abundance.