A week later than consoles, because apparently Ubisoft have abandoned that promise already, Far Cry Primal [official site] is out on PC tomorrow. I've donned my wolf-skin coat, daubed random lines of paint on my face, and killed some local wildlife (sorry Mrs Primms about Fluffy) in preparation to tell you Wot I Think:
Far Cry Primal is a very impressive game. However, Far Cry Primal would feel much more like the very impressive game it is had it not followed Far Cries 3 and 4, and perhaps most of all, Just Cause 3.
If you’re familiar with the franchise, there’s not a great deal to explain. It’s Far Cry 4, but 12,016 years ago. So no guns, helicopters or mobile phones, but pretty much everything else. Even bombs, albeit more likely made of bees’ nests. With the additions of animal taming for conveniently violent pets, and a bit more variety in mission types, it’s downright peculiar just how much it still feels like regular Far Cry. Which, as I mention, isn’t a bad thing. Just a familiar thing.
So, set in 10,000 BCE, late enough in the Stone Age to excuse quite such adept tool creation, you’re Takkar, a member of the Wenja tribe. And the Wenja, by dint of some quite hilariously dreadful storytelling, are the Good Guys of this region, while all the other tribes are inherently evil, making it perfectly acceptable to kill their members on sight.
You’re tasked with gathering Wenja to your home village, and taking down the leaders of the enemy tribes. And really, in terms of arc, narrative, purpose or meaning, there’s absolutely nothing else to this. It is, despite so very many cutscenes in its gibberish language, a game about clearing icons off the map. The setting, the opportunities to either a) explore the time and culture, or b) have a lot of silly fun, were both cast aside in favour of narrative nothingness. Not the end of the world, but a shame.
But boy is that map covered in icons. It’s enormous, ever-growing, and ludicrously packed with things to do. There are the core missions, the usual muddle of Far Cry rescue/escort/defend tasks, giant terrifying animal hunts, cave exploration missions, cave escape missions (these are absolutely ace), random events to rescue Wenja, bonfires to capture from enemies, encampments to capture from enemies, and of course 85 million billion collectables of 479 different types to search for about the lands. You cannot accuse FCP of lacking things to do.
On top of that, the volume of wildlife has been turned up to 11, and most of it has big pointy teeth. At the start, roaming around can feel a little daunting with quite so many packs of animals wanting to eat you. As you progress, and indeed as you learn to tame something bigger than them and have it trot around with you, the wildlife becomes far less of a constant threat. But even the presence of a low-level threat at all times means that just plodding around the world means you’re always “on”, always playing, looking out for wolves (wave a club on fire toward them to save a fight), sabre-tooth tigers (run like shit), or enormous woolly mammoths (hide), and indeed dozens of other species. The scariest animals in the game – and this isn’t a joke – are badgers. Not honey badgers – ones that look just like a regular European badger. Those bastards can take down a sabre-tooth. (And yes indeed, history fans, smilodon would have been pretty much extinct by the time, but this is hardly a game about historical accuracy.)
Taming beasties arrives once you’ve added the right member to your tribe. This allows you to gather a menagerie of creatures that can be called on at your leisure, from leopards and badgers to bears and sabre-tooths (the latter two of which you can even ride on!). Having a pet beside you changes a lot, meaning you don’t need to worry about many random animal attacks, as they’ll either be scared off or taken care of for you. It’s also useful when you want enemy throats ripped out for an unsubtle take-over of their territory.
There’s also a far better reason for the series’ emphasis on hunting this time out. Gathering skin types is less like a morbid hobby, and more a practical action with skins used in crafting and village development (a massively underused idea where you can briefly improve the homes of various Wenja to make more crafting items available), so going out hunting makes sense within the game’s world.
It looks absolutely stunning at all times. Even more beautiful than FC4, and teeming with life, it’s a game that makes you want to stand still and stare. And indeed watch, as the various species get on with fighting each other (humans included). It’s quite ludicrously stunning, and on my edging toward middling set-up, runs extremely well at the highest settings. There’s the same issue I had in FC3 and 4 with creature fur looking weirdly blurry close up, and I wonder if that’s an AMD issue, since only Nvidia seems to love hair enough to get it right. But otherwise, gosh, it’s gobsmacking.
So, lots to do, lots to look at, and then quite surprisingly quickly, lots of repetition. It doesn’t help that the game is so incredibly similar to its predecessors in terms of activities, and even weapons. (Although I’m not sure if most people chose to play FC3 and 4, as I did, primarily with the bow and arrow. That certainly emphasises the issue.) It also doesn’t help that despite there being quite so many activities on the map, most of them come down to firing arrows into the heads of the rival tribespeople. Caves certainly add a lovely variation, but they themselves become very routine very quickly, as you climb, grappling hook and swim from section to section, looking for the same two collectables that will be hidden within.
Provision is also wildly badly balanced, meaning you become replete with absolutely everything you could ever want - every weapon, skill and ingredient - far too soon. After about 10 hours, every single supply sack, looted corpse and even tree and shrub offered me the message, “Pack is already full of these items”. Reaching a hidden supply through exploration becomes ridiculously anticlimactic when even “rare” versions of animal hides are falling out my ears, with no current projects on which to use them.
But the largest issue with this incarnation of the concept is how much of the game is locked behind its dismal story. When I had collected every last hidden item in the world of Far Cry 4, found every poster, taken over every encampment, cleared the map of every minor task, I thought, “Well, I guess I’ve finished the game then.” And only then, genuinely, remembered the main story was still to be completed. Far Cry Primal seems to have seen this wonderful strength as a terrible weakness, and “fixed” it.
Even exploration requires that you obey the core storyline, such as it isn’t. Rescue this key Wenja, then do as he or she says by going over there, killing that, finding this, climbing over the other, and then you’ll get the grappling hook that you need just to reach a bunch of the map’s “?” locations. Want weapons that make it possible to enter certain areas without instantly dying? Do as you’re told. Want to be able to move more quickly than running (ie. beast riding)? Then it’s the same again. There’s no value to the story you’re being told (in subtitles, because apparently having them speak an unintelligible to all language hand-crafted by real-life historians is “more immersive” according to Ubisoft Montreal), but dammit, you'll be forced to listen to it.
The closest it gets to going beyond, “We don’t like them over there,” is, of course, bloody spirit quests. One involves flying as a really badly programmed owl through some dreary valleys, another – and I’m not joking – involves BLOWING UP THE MOON. In fact, if anything, Far Cry Primal feels like the series’ writers finally finding their way to write the “me simple but magical tribesman” story they’ve so awkwardly and with such resounding cultural tone deafness put in the last two games. Despite an incredibly confusingly mixed race group of tribesmen and women (because god-forbid a game feature all brown people, and not be able to have a really peculiarly white male main character), this feels like their wet dream excuse for including all the Magical Negros they could dream up. Oh, and for having loads more ladies with their boobies hanging out of their clothes, too.
There’s also a really strange inclusion of a character called Urki – a seemingly mentally retarded man who begs you for help with his ill-fated quests to fly, protect himself from spears, be able to survive being attacked by a bear, etc. In each of these endeavours you aid his getting killed, and he then mysteriously comes back to life for the next nonsense in his quest chain. The whole thing appears to be one uncomfortable link in a chain of self-referential Ubi-quity, referencing both Assassin's Creed and a (thankfully) DLC only Far Cry 3 character called Hurk.
But it’s all so incongruous to the tone of this game. In keeping with Hurk, Urki speaks with a deep-South American accent, rather than the cod-African lilt of the rest of the cast. I don’t know what to make of it. It unquestioningly feels like mocking a man with the mental age of a child, but at the same time, it suggests a whole other game in which the ridiculousness of the setting could have been used for... fun? For a game that didn’t take itself quite so astonishingly seriously.
I think it’s Just Cause 3’s fault. That series has always been the open-world antidote to Far Cry’s pomposity, and following on from the glorious fun in the most recent entry, Far Cry Primal feels chained to a rock. No, clearly infinite parachutes would have perhaps been an incongruity too far, but it’s hard not to feel that the series needs to shake itself loose. (Although I say all this with the deep fear that Ubi feel this was taken care of by the absolutely abysmal 'comedy' of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, where just shouting badly written silliness over the exact same game was supposed to take care of it.)
Okay, a lot of complaining in a row there, and all of it quite justified. But I come back to my original point: Far Cry Primal’s biggest problem is that it has predecessors, and it’s not fair to damn it with that. What the developers have built here is a massive, complex, extraordinary creation, that has kept me occupied for five solid days, going to bed far later than I’d planned on each of them. It’s a familiar world though, despite the opportunity of the dramatically different setting. (Although, again, I feel that the game’s being quite so similar to the previous two while being set in 10,000 BCE, is perhaps more indicative of the astonishingly patronising bullshit they wrote for those earlier games than anything else.)
I’ve had an enormous amount of fun playing this, obsessively clearing the map of icons, occasionally relenting and accepting I need to do one of the main quest threads to progress, riding around on the backs of mammoths, diving off cliffs into pools hundreds of feet below, wrestling crocodiles, being dazzled by sunsets, escaping labyrinthine caves, and using my “hunters vision” to track enormous beasts. It’s undeniably great fun, and unquestionably a huge achievement. Just a very, very recognisable one, for all the best and worst reasons.
Far Cry Primal is out tomorrow for Windows.