Mixing the historical and hysterical in the land before time
Is relocating Far Cry to 10,000 BC really so radical? The modern-day games may arm you to the teeth with modern-day killing machines, but they do tap into man’s more primitive ways. Outposts are seized one slit throat at a time; long grass is crept through and tall rocks are clambered; hell, you spend a good portion of the game slowly turning the animal kingdom (or their intestines, at least) into a combat advantage. By the time you’re messing about with mystical tattoos and herb-powered trips, it’s only the gun in your hands that keeps your mind anchored in the 21st century. What innovation can Ubisoft possibly have to justify a standalone caveman adventure?
The answer: your own personal sabre-toothed tiger. Or a cave bear. Or, if you’re some kind of deviant, a honey badger. Our hero, Takkar, is a Beast Master, which, as well as giving him a really badass business card, lets him tame the carnivores of his world. You just drop a tiny lump of meat and give the snacking creature a quick rub on the head. This is also the quickest way to a game critic’s heart. Once the animal is tamed, it basically becomes a bigger, nastier version of Fallout 4’s Dogmeat. It’ll trot along by your side – in an adorable touch, the animals hunch down in stealth mode, too – and move to attack anyone you point at.
Watching Far Cry’s beautifully animated animals tear through humans has always been its secret weapon (we still start every day with an hour of FC4 ‘eagle kidnapping villager’ GIFs); sidekicks simply make that weapon more public. Instead of lobbing down a lump of meat and leaving it to Mother Nature to do something horrible, you get horrible somethings on tap. A giant grizzly bear bellyflopping on a screeching spearman, say, or a lion casually snacking on a chieftain’s neck. And it’s not as if having one well-behaved beast rules out those classic outbreaks of chaos. In his introductory demo, the game director didn’t make it one minute into his tutorial before his pet wolf was unceremoniously eaten by a passing bear. It’s basically a neverending episode of The Planet’s Funniest (Extinct) Animals.
Animals are a weapon class unto themselves – a good thing, considering Takkar’s stripped-back arsenal. A bow invites long-range headshots, but his spear and club are less about surgical precision than blunt-force trauma. Thudding a spear into a man’s chest and watching the force lift him off his feet gives a great sense of playing as a muscular warrior of old, which sets you up for the slight disappointment of clumsy clubbing. Pressing the attack button feebly flails the club in a limpwristed manner; considering it makes up a third of Takkar’s armoury, the designers could have padded it into a meatier melee system. Close-quarters combat can be thrilling from a firstperson perspective – Condemned’s bloodied hand waves hello – so this already feels like a missed opportunity.Thankfully, Ubisoft has another trick up its sleeve: your attack owl. Okay, it’s not technically up a sleeve: you summon it by hooting through clenched hands, like a secret agent issuing an all-clear. The owl is 10,000 BC’s answer to a drone; it hovers silently over the battlefield marking guards or points of interest. It can launch pre-emptive strikes – by dropping wasp nests and flaming pots, or diving talons-first into your prey. The owl is about as a big as a man, despite rigorous research (we typed ‘big owl’ into Wikipedia) turning up no evidence of such a beast. If Harry Potter set owl conservation back 50 years by making them the must-have Christmas gift, Far Cry Primal happily reinstates them as nightmare fodder.
Flapping about the sky gives us the aerial-photography fix otherwise missing from this pre-helicopter era, but one does wonder if it isn’t just Ubisoft falling back on old design habits. Pluck the feathers and the owl is a glorified version of FC3/4’s digital camera, right down to the returning enemy marker types and the electronic bleep as they’re assigned. If the aim was to capture the distinct challenges and tensions of the period, why crowbar in fantastical nonsense to give Takkar a modern-day advantage? Indeed, the more you play Primal, the more you see the skeleton of the former game hiding underneath: it’s there in the grappling hook, the item crafting, the interface and map icons. Short of radio towers and a charismatic villain, it could be any Far Cry.
It takes less then the hour we have with the game for it to fall back into old structural rhythms. Instead of outposts, you’re clearing out camps and lighting bonfires to open up more of the map. Instead of a bounty board, you’re killing notable baddies to help in your ongoing tribe war. You’re venturing into caves to find collectible paintings and shamanistic doodads. Karma events resurface in tribal disputes, such as saving a besieged follower or stopping a trade route. Of course, in the pre-car age, stopping a delivery means killing a man on-foot. Not as gripping as booby-trapping a road with mines and lying in wait, is it?
This isn’t to say we had a bad time with Primal. There’s a reason Ubisoft sticks so slavishly to its established template: people enjoy virtual tourism, and there are few travel agencies that give you such a long leash. Having the freedom to approach objectives from any angle – be it climbing seemingly impassable cliffs, stringing together stealth kills or simply raining down fire and unleashing a bear – still proves intoxicating. And there’s something to be said for the relative calm of Far Cry’s return to nature: no radio means no Rabi Ray Rana. All of a sudden, 10,000 BC sounds a lot more attractive. Matthew Castle
A tad overpriced, but fun all the same