Far Cry Primal
Developer/publisher Ubisoft (Montreal) Format PC, PS4 (tested), Xbox One Release Out now
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Things were surprisingly advanced in central Europe circa 10,000 BC. There were minimaps and crafting recipes; fast travel and long-distance delivery services. They may not have got around to inventing the wheel yet, but they’d got the grappling hook sussed, and had dotted the landscape’s mountainsides with handy grapple points, marked out by a crude drawing of an eagle on the rockface at ground level below. And around it all was a land handily parcelled up into the exact template of an Ubisoft openworld game: loot caches, collectibles, resting points and countless question-mark map icons designed to ensure you’re never too far from something to do.
All that may sound as if the prehistoric era is a jarring fit for Far Cry – and if you think about it too much, it certainly is. But there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, too. Our go-to weapon in Far Cry 3 and 4 was the bow, hunting local wildlife for crafting supplies. Ubisoft’s Dunia 2 engine has wonderful fire-spreading technology, and where once we watched as the flames spread across a Skrillex-soundtracked drug field, here we marvel as a woolly rhino stampedes fire through a forest after it strayed a little too close to our flaming club. Meanwhile, neanderthal man’s fondness of spirit walks – and getting high on the mulched-up eyeballs of his enemies, apparently – proves a fine vehicle for the now-standard drug-trip missions.
Ubisoft has thrived on having a rather loose grasp of historical accuracy, and in that context it’s fair enough that we look past Far Cry Primal’s liberties with the source material. Besides, there is a more pressing concern, a fundamental issue with the very concept of setting a Far Cry game this far back in history. Despite the surprising technical innovations the Winja tribe have made, and the familiar chosen-one setup that fames protagonist Takkar as the man who can save his clan from extinction, Far Cry Primal never makes you feel particularly powerful, and as such isn’t much fun.
The seeds of a decent survival game are here, though the series’ recently established commitment to make you feel like an all-powerful, borderline psychotic badass means Ubisoft stops short of putting you at the mercy of your surroundings. You hunt, scavenge and gather up plants and materials, but there’s no need to sustain yourself in an era where sustenance was the endgame of everything. Instead you’re satisfying a checklist of arbitrary criteria – the materials needed to craft an extra spear, a bigger quiver, or an upgrade for the Winja settlement. Arriving in the frozen north, we’re warned that prolonged exposure to the cold will see us freeze to death, an icy blue meter ticking down to our demise. You feel immediately threatened, though it quickly evaporates when you realise that any source of flame will warm you up in seconds. Campfires are generously placed, roadside torches are everywhere, and if you’re really in a pinch you can simply set a club, arrow or spear on fire and keep yourself warm while you move. Bleeding? Just eat some meat and a leaf – you’ll be fine. And while early on you’re at the mercy of the local wildlife, before long all but the biggest beasts of the mesolithic era will flee the second they see you.
Where Far Cry 3 and 4 sought to put all the power in the protagonist’s hands, Primal surrounds him with it instead, since Takkar is able to tame an increasingly powerful succession of animals. At first, you’ll have a white wolf at your side; later, you might graduate to a cave lion or brown bear. All can be brought under your control by simply staying out of sight, luring them close with some bait, then pressing a button while they chow down. More powerful allies offer perks – automatically tagging nearby enemies, skinning and looting corpses, and, in one especially odd case, granting immunity to fire. Each can be sent off to attack specific targets, and some can even be ridden into battle. A handful of highlevel hunting missions – involving The Witcher III- style scent-tracking and trap laying – yield the most powerful beasts, and once we get our neanderthal hands on the Bloodfang sabretooth tiger, we don’t look back, since only the biggest enemies put up a fight against it.
Then there’s the owl, which plays the role of the previous games’ camera. Off it goes, surveying the ground below, permanently marking on your minimap the location and type of enemies in the vicinity. Spend a few skill points and it will gain the ability to swoop down and kill a single target; later, kills become even easier. It may seem churlish to complain about not feeling powerful enough in a game where your tactical owl can drop bombs full of bees, but when that and a one-button tiger kill are the most effective tools in your arsenal, you’ve got a bit of a problem. We empty out one snowy fort by hunkering down next to a fire, waiting out the cooldown between owl assasinations, and sending the tiger after anyone that comes to investigate, before heading in to mop up the stragglers and put the boss to the spear.
While the primitive tools in your arsenal can be upgraded over time, the enemy threat scales in kind, so you never quite feel like the all-powerful warrior the story portrays you as. It’s dreadfully po-faced stuff, too, with none of the likeable levity of its predecessors. That’s a natural consequence of the setting, perhaps, but the result is a game that falls awkwardly between two stools – a survival game where your survival is never really in question, and a power-fantasy playground where you’re never made to feel especially powerful. The Winja may treat you like a king on your return, but the acclaim rings rather hollow. If you’re going to put a crown on any of us, it’s probably the owl that deserves it the most.
We empty out one snowy fort by hunkering down next to a fire, waiting out the cooldown between owl assasinations
SETTLE DOWN In the far west corner of the map is the Winja village, which starts out with a population of two – Takkar and female hunter Sayla – but increases as you complete story missions and sidequests. As the population grows and the settlement expands, more abilities and upgrades become available, and you’ll even bring a few vanquished enemies back to pass on rival tribes’ knowledge – to the occasional chagrin of the locals. As a way of conveying the progress of your one-man mission to save the Winja from extinction, it’s fair enough, but despite your growing number it’ll only ever be you and your bestiary doing the dirty work. A few tooled-up villagers would make fortress assaults a little more interesting.