Ancient, ain’t it?
Diamonds played a pivotal role in the story of Far Cry 2. In a war-torn African state on the brink of collapse, these jewels were prized items of great importance. They could be used to broker a false peace between two warring factions, allowing the warlords to continue their senseless bloodshed without interference from the outside world. Or they could offer someone a chance to escape that hellhole, providing a valuable asset to bribe border agents for safe passage.
The game itself was a rough gemstone, in a manner of speaking. While imperfect in some respects, it clearly had a great deal of potential. Ubisoft had unearthed something truly special, a paradigm for survival-themed shooters that allowed players to creatively approach complex situations from almost any angle in a harsh, dynamic sandbox of a world.
In the near-decade since that breakthrough, Ubisoft has studied Far Cry‘s faults and fortes. It has refined the prototype into a distinct formula, taking extra care to meticulously shave off any sharp corners and polish the surface until everything glitters and shines.
As strange as it may seem, Far Cry Primal is the next step in that evolution. Though travelling back in time to the Stone Age may seem like a bold new move for the franchise, in actuality, it’s perfectly in line with where the series has been heading, both for better and for the worse.
Far Cry Primal (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)
Developer: Ubisoft Montréal
Released: February 23, 2016
Far Cry Primal takes place in Oros, a fictional valley set in Eastern Europe’s Carpathian mountain range, over 12,000 years ago. It’s the tail end of the last ice age and the retreating glaciers are giving rise to fertile new ground teeming with wildlife. But it isn’t just mammoths, giant elk, and woolly rhinoceri that have been attracted to the area. Three distinct tribes of prehistoric humans have also laid claim to the land, and will have to struggle not only against packs of dire wolves and massive cave bears in order to survive, but one another.
The protagonist, Takkar, belongs to a group of hunter-gatherers known as the Wenja. By the time we meet these people, they have been scattered to the wind, and are being stamped out of existence by the Udam, a horde of inbred cannibals that resemble Neanderthals, and Izila, a more advanced civilization of Mesopotamian origin that has begun to farm in the region.
The story, to match the primordial world, is more tenuous than previous entries in the series. It’s all about survival, daily resource collection, and surmounting anything that gets in the way.
At times, the sparse narrative seemed like a weakness. There often isn’t a clear next step to move things forward. Instead, players will have to collect rocks, plants, and animal hide to fortify Wenja village, rather than run off on a crusade to eliminate the neighboring clans. On the other side of the coin, this allows the hunting and gathering mechanics that were first introduced in Far Cry 3 to become a truly meaningful and more natural part of the experience.
Being made to butcher a family of monkeys so the first-world protagonists of Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 could have slightly larger tool belts never sat right with me. The idea of rich kids travelling to far-off lands to poach endangered species makes my stomach churn, if only because, setting the games’ ridiculous plotlines aside, it’s all too real and sickening a problem.
However, Far Cry Primal reframes these systems in a way that makes sense. In the opening sequence, Takkar and a group of his tribesmen take down a mammoth in a coordinated effort. It’s not done for sport. It’s not a gratuitous show of dominance in which the prey is being slaughtered like fish in a barrel. It’s an essential part of these people’s very existence. It’s the difference between them being able to endure or dying out.
The mammoth hunt goes poorly, however, leaving Takkar alone to fend for himself in the wild. From there, he is forced to live off the land by crafting weapons and gear from his surroundings, but it isn’t long before help arrives. Early on, Takkar meets Tensay, a Wenja shaman that teaches our hero how to connect with wildlife and become a beast master.
In addition to utilizing an arsenal of spears, bows, and clubs, players will be able to call on a menagerie of creatures to assist them in their travels. It begins realistically enough, with the recruitment of a wolf and owl, but by the time the credits roll Takkar will have ridden on the backs of mammoths and charged into battle alongside leopards and saber-toothed cats.
Clearly, Ubisoft has taken some liberties with history and isn’t out to make a Mesolithic man simulator, which is fine. Whether they’re realistic or not, the animal companions are easily one of the best parts of the experience. Building off the buddy system of Far Cry 2 and Far Cry 4‘s guardian tiger, the friendly fauna can be used in a myriad of ways, whether it’s scouting, coordinating attacks, performing stealth takedowns, disrupting enemies, or protecting Takkar in a time of need; this system has unlimited utility and is immensely fun to toy around with.
In one instance, I rode a mammoth to the edge of an enemy encampment, hopped off, and lit a fire behind the beast. This made it charge toward my foes in a panicked state, allowing me to use my owl to scout the area and drop beehives on the unfortunate Izila below while my dire wolf and I pincered the remaining enemies in a flank attack. It was pure chaos, the sort of thing people love about Far Cry games, but elevated to a whole new level.
That said, while these flashes of brilliance do exist, the experience doesn’t feel as new or thrilling as it probably should. Despite sporting a dramatically different environment and an all-new chest of toys to interact with the world, it still feels an awful lot like the past few Far Cry games. At its core, it’s very much a Ubisoft-brand open-world game with outposts to conquer and plenty of optional side-missions to distract you throughout the journey. If you’e feeling fatigued by that formula, this may not be the bold step forward you’ve been waiting for.
It doesn’t help that Ubisoft seems overly keen on revisiting familiar territory. The narrative once again leans on over-the-top characters, like a stereotypical American redneck who asks you to collect poop for him, and drug-induced hallucinations, which left me wanting for something more subtle, nuanced, or just plain different. The worst offender in this regard was a scene involving a topless woman pushing the protagonist into a pit, echoing a moment from Far Cry 4.
In some ways, Far Cry Primal is a breath of fresh air, but the methods it uses to shake things up are largely superficial or ancillary. There’s a dissonance between what is new and what is not.
While Far Cry Primal is a well-made experience, one I enjoyed a great deal, it oftentimes had me thinking about the routine the series has settled into, and envisioning a future where the Far Cry formula may not be as compelling as it once was, no matter how extraordinary the setting.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]