Ubisoft sometimes reminds me of my dad. He’s a man of frugal taste, who on birthdays and other special occasions would repaint my action figures in lieu of buying new ones. With a few new nail-polished armor panels my Megazord was suddenly not a Megazord, but a Hyperzord. Sure, it was obvious what was going on, but there was so much heart put into it to earn his wallet a short reprieve.
On occasion, I notice a similar degree of thriftiness to Ubisoft's game design, although it's perhaps not so endearing. With Far Cry Primal, for example, just a few minutes plonked in its Stone Age world is all it takes to see the nail polish covering up what used to be Far Cry 4's Himalayas. This is again an open-world first-person shooter in which players take over camps, explore caves, and follow objective markers. Despite sometimes expecting to see papa Hussain emerge as the game's director, Primal's attractive prehistoric setting and new mechanics are nevertheless enough to make it seem new.
Primal is set in Oros, a frontier created in the recess of an Ice Age glacier now melted into nothing. It depicts an untamed, unspoiled wilderness blanketed in emerald grass, strewn with groves of criss-crossing trees, dwarfed by rocky mountains, and laced with snaking rivers. At its best, it's a joy to behold. During our hands-on with the game I perched myself on a table-sized rock, watching on as the sun set and the world around me was bathed in golden light. You've seen this many times in games, yes, but it was lovely nonetheless. Creeping in behind the sun was the sheath of night, where only the embers of distant campfires guided my way.
But this kind of passivity isn't what Far Cry Primal is about. Quite the opposite, in fact. This is a bloodthirsty action game about ascending the food chain.
Within this picturesque basin is an ecosystem of herbivores and carnivores. In previous games, the wildlife was largely a means to an end, hunted as resources to craft items or weapons. Occasionally, aggravated tigers would mount random attacks, or docile elephants could be riled up and manipulated into stomping through an enemy camp. In Primal, however, your relationship with the animal population of Oros is far more intimate.
Playing as Takkar, a seasoned hunter that starts the game separated from his tribe, the ultimate goal is to reconnect with your kin and make Oros more inhabitable for his people. To do this, however, he must harness the power of the various predators prowling around.
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Beast Master is the standout new mechanic that Primal introduces, but also one that makes the most of what was already there. Instead of gunning down animals and skinning them for pelts, you can now throw a piece of meat to lure them over and tame them. Once complete, this animal is at your beck and call, ready to sink its teeth and claws into anything you point at.
It's Ubisoft's economic design at its most obvious; a game-altering mechanic that only asks the player to hold a button. In many cases, the animals won't even put up a fight, and become subservient with surprising ease. (It makes you wonder if Takkar is lacing the meat with something he found in the bushes.)
The luring and taming procedure is quick and frictionless, and this is appreciated given that you'll go through these poor creatures rather quickly. During battles, animal sidekicks still take damage as normal, although they can be healed by feeding them meat. In the heat of battle, I found it safer to let them perish and then tame a replacement. There was no degree of attachment to make this a dilemma, which was both a shame and a relief.
The kill-commands you issue to your companions are limited to beckoning them to your side and telling them to attack. However, since they still behave realistically, that sense of unpredictability animals had in previous games is preserved. In fact, your animal protectors have a tendency of unexpectedly creating those systemic moments that Far Cry players love and then bringing them to you.
Passivity isn't what Far Cry Primal is about ... This is a bloodthirsty action game about ascending the food chain
During my playthrough, for example, I started with a beautiful white wolf (he peed a lot), and while sneaking up to an outpost inhabited by a rival tribe, the wolf ran off into the distance. He returned a few moments later with an angry bear in tow. Cowering out of their way, I watched on as the wolf led the bear into the middle of the camp. Naturally, the brutish tribesmen weren't pleased about the situation and began hurling spears at the enraged bear. In response, the bear switched focus to the tribe and got busy. My cunning little white wolf, meanwhile, snuck away and returned to my side, watching the mayhem from a safe distance. It's moments like these that really drive home the idea that there's still some magic to be found in this familiar formula.
Once the bear had slaughtered the tribe, it was a shame that I didn't particularly fear it; instead I enticed it with a piece of meat, sauntered up, and claimed its freedom. My wolf dashed off into the wilderness, since you can only have one animal sidekick at a time, and I was now walking around with an almighty bear at my side. In total there are 17 predators that can be tamed, including the aforementioned; there are also jaguars, sabertooths, and even the infernal honey badger that gave everyone so much grief in the last game.
Some of these beasts serve a secondary function which is unlocked through upgrades. Bears and sabertooths, for example, double as impromptu vehicles. Woolly Mammoths are also another of the game's rideable animals, but as of yet it's unclear if they can be tamed. I did make an attempt at it, but it didn't go very well.
Primal's other new addition is the ability to summon an owl. When called, the game shifts to the owl's aerial view, providing the ideal vantage point to get the lay of the land and scout enemy camps. The owl can be controlled directly, which means you can bring it in close to ground level and use its razor sharp talons to rip an enemy's throat out. For the most part, it will kill normal enemies in one hit, but then there's a 40-second cooldown before you can call it back for another strike. Using the game's upgrade tree, the owl can eventually be taught to drop fire pots on targets.
There are clearly new ideas here that provide a satisfying way to engage in combat. Instead of sitting in a bush and picking off enemies with a sniper rifle, sneaking around with a knife and slitting throats, or rushing in machine guns blazing, there's the opportunity to mount a multi-pronged assault; fire a flaming arrow to push the enemies together, summon an owl and take out someone to cause a panic, send in your sabertooth to cover your approach and thin the crowd, sneak in and quietly take out the distracted enemies. There's a genuine thrill in feeling like you're bending Mother Nature to your will.
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The gameplay that engulfs these mechanics is, nevertheless, fairly rote. Stone Age counterparts replace modern day weaponry, so instead of AK-47s and grenade launchers, Takkar is equipped with a bow and arrows, slingshots, bee bombs, and clubs of various shapes and sizes.
Missions, meanwhile, involve killing a specific animal that is terrorising non-essential NPCs. The demo allowed us to wander around a section of the world and capture outposts and camps, which became fast travel and respawn points, as well as explore some of the cave formations to find treasures and interact with the Wall Painting collectibles. The main thrust of the gameplay experience will involve lighting key bonfires, which represent Takkar's control of territory--think of these as the equivalent of the towers from previous games. By setting these points alight, he signals to his tribe a safe, habitable place to dig in.
There is, I'm told, more to Far Cry Primal than revealed so far. The game has been described as equivalent in size and scope to Far Cry 4 and will feature distinct characters, a full narrative arc, and missions with more exciting objectives, but these weren't shown in our demo.
Far Cry Primal is the latest in a long line of measured, iterative Ubisoft sequels. As is the case with Assassin's Creed, you probably already know whether it's a game you're interested in, and the answer to that is also likely whether you enjoyed the previous Far Cry. For the most part, it was a familiar experience, and that's not necessarily a red flag, considering that the last two games in the series have been high-quality open-world shooters. The new mechanics certainly add to the formula but, like with my one-of-a-kind Hyperzord, I’m not sure how many more I can take.