When Far Cry Primal [official site] was unveiled, I shrugged with semi-feigned disinterest, aware that the series has hit milking point, but unable to dismiss the inner teenager tugging at my inner sleeve saying "But it's got cavemen and tribes and woolly mammoths and you can ride them, and throw spears and stuff!" Yes, the prehistoric era taps into a primal fantasy in me, but when that's overlaid with an advanced radar, an owl endowed with the abilities of a military drone, and heat-vision that conveniently colour-codes every object, footprint and smell, the fantasy kind of tapers off.
By shutting off as many aids and HUD elements as possible, I intended to reclaim the fantasy.
Convenient though these appurtenances of Ubisoft are, they end up funnelling the stunning locations and great sense of time and place in franchises like Assassin's Creed and Far Cry into a formula that can undermine the setting. Instead of engaging with their impressive worlds, we spend most of our game time looking at mini-maps, 'detection indicators', and pause-screen maps cluttered with enough arbitrary Things To Do to trigger an anxiety attack in closet completionists like myself.
So I've decided to take matters into my own hands, refusing to let my Far Cry Primal caveman experience be watered down and Ubi-softened up by the conveniences of modern games. I'll be playing the game on Hard, with no Hunter Vision, and no mini-map, detection meter or health bar. Most importantly, under no conditions would I use an owl – a bloody owl – to supernaturally do my scouting for me, because this is the gritty mesolithic era, not Harry Potter.
The one liberty I took was with the pause-screen map, limiting the icons to only include Main and Secondary Missions, as unfortunately Morrowind-style spoken quest directions ('head to the fork in the road, then take the rough trail along the coast') don't exist in Primal.
And so it is that I find myself creeping through the long grass in Far Cry Primal's nocturnal tutorial mission, feeling hyper-aware, vulnerable and excited. I stumble upon signs of a struggle between man and beast, and the UI tells me to 'Press 'V' to follow tracks using Hunter Vision'. Sucks to your bloody 'V', I think, lowering my torch to the ground to try and read the tracks with my naked eyes. The animal tracks are completely legible – perfect little paw prints you'd find in a cheap tattoo parlour catalogue. The human tracks, however, are almost nonexistent. In Oros, it seems, humans tread more lightly than wolves; maybe that's just what happens when your position at the top of the food chain isn't yet secure...
So barely 10 minutes into the game and one of my caveman fantasies – tracking – is already out, destined to be used as little more than a novelty to read maybe five or six footprints before I reluctantly strap on the hunter vision goggles for these segments. This doesn't bode well. How long before I relapse completely into that comfort zone that I'm so desperate to avoid?
Once I get out into the open world of Oros, I'm hit by the sensory overload a cat feels when venturing outside for the first time. I freak out, as semi-visible creatures skitter through the swaying foliage, tribal shouts reverberate ominously off the encircling mountains, and an ambush by man or beast feels imminent. Without any aids to reassure me that I'm safe, I'm twitchily reacting to face every single movement and sound – SHIT! Oh, it's only a goat. UNGH! Uh, a deer. FU-- aww, it's only a doggy. Hey there little fella-- Argh, it's got my arm. IT'S GOT MY ARM!
While playing without a UI certainly ups my receptiveness to the game world, Oros also happens to be a very loud and visually busy place, giving me plenty of environmental cues to respond to and to look out for.
For all my skittishness, I'm enjoying not being a master of my own surroundings from the get-go. I'm having to learn the ways of the wilderness rather than merely applying the things I'd already learned in previous Far Cry games to a new setting. Before long, I come to identify animal sounds so that I can distinguish between creatures and better understand when I'm actually in danger, and when those screaming goats are just playing tricks on me. Other skills I pick up include not getting stomped by a rhino when I nearly walk into the side of its paunch, and how to scout out enemy outposts without Hedwurg the mesolithic drone owl.
I seek out campfires and side-missions by following the sounds of violence. My first such intervention proved disastrous, as I tracked down a group of Wenja hunters (goodies) being assailed by a couple of Udam (baddies). It was one of those moments when I wish there was a button that let me scream 'WENJAAAA!', as I charged into the fray and helped club the assailants to death. My heroism was short-lived however, as a fusillade of arrows and spears flew out of the dense foliage into our stupid Wenja faces. See, without a mini-map or hunter vision, foliage is just as useful to the AI as it is to the player, particularly in a world as fecund as Oros. In fact, this is the first time in a AAA game that I can recall foliage actually being of any use to AI, making the enemy seem much smarter...and more menacing.
Chasing sounds is great for finding scuffles and animals, but to get a bigger picture of the world, I climb Oros' clifftops and peaks, where I scan the formidable landscape for pillars of smoke rising from outposts and bonfire towers waiting to be lit. By night, I can see the glow of distant fires from my lofty perch, or if I'm creeping through the haunting night-time forests, I spy camp-light creeping among the trees. As with the foliage, the lack of superimposed visual aids has turned what would otherwise be little more than an aesthetic flourish into a whole new layer of gameplay. Each time I take out the final enemy at an outpost that I find and infiltrate without the aid of the UI, the carnal rush of bloody victory feels pure, raw, and undiluted.
And all the while I'm exploring the world, I feel an odd sense of contentment that I can't quite place – strange, given how I'm definitely dying, and getting lost and confused a lot more than I would otherwise. It's only when I compare my experience with another Ubisoft game that I'm currently playing, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (late to the party, I know), that it hits me: I'm not obsessing over arbitrary collectibles all the time!
With no mini-map harrying me about the fact that at any one time there are at least five objects or places in a 100ft perimeter of me that I can collect or explore, or a pause-screen map pointing me to all the bonfires and camps I should be liberating, I feel free of my completionist anxiety to sweep up every trivial little objective around me. Of course, like any vigilant caveman, I keep an eye out for caves and treasures, and if I spot an outpost along my travels then I'll immediately attempt to capture it, but doing so without the constant nudges of a UI makes the process less gamey and more experiential.
As I wander Oros, whose sights and sounds are organically becoming more familiar to me by the day, I feel completely present in the moment-to-moment concerns of the caveman, rather than the synthetic concerns of the Ubisoft open-world game. This is the experience I was looking for...
A big part of gaming is to learn and experience growth; to go on a journey from rookie to pro, amateur to master, or, in this case, wandering nomad to tribal leader. The big problem with Far Cry Primal is that by default it offers no room to grow for people familiar with the series. Strip away just some of these comforts and UI privileges however, and you can engage with the wonderment of a fantastic setting and premise that's been held back only by its tired series trappings.
Granted, plenty of gamers will want more immediacy and direction than my caveman experience offers, but you can find that in just about any AAA game today. Stomping around a beautifully-realised prehistoric land, on the other hand, is a rare luxury in the medium, and I refuse to have that tempered by mini-maps, heat detectors, or some bastard owl.