Far Cry Primal

FBT is the missing link in the Far Cry 4 spin-off

About the only series to recycle itself more than Far Cry is it’s stable-mate Assassin’s Creed. I’m amazed they’ve not created a cross-over or just merged them; Assassin's Cry. Since FC 3, it’s always the same, even repeating the plot – regular guy gets stranded, bonds with locals, sees off oppressor, gets shitty choice at end. But this Far Cry is set in pre-history, it can’t follow the routine that closely, can it? We are Ugg (actually Takkar but I prefer Ugg) who gets isolated when his hunting party is crashed by a Sabre-Tiger. Left stranded, Ugg discovers a group of his people, the Wenja, are hunted by other tribes and it’s up to Ugg to drive them off. That's every other Far Cry. FC is becoming Groundhog Day the Video Game.

Actually, that’s a little unfair. FC:P is easy to dismiss as Far Cry in melee mode, but the setting does demand change and it’s there that Primal evolves into something interesting. There’s no machine guns or vehicles, so being out in the woodlands leaves you feeling exposed; you develop a tense, cautious approach. Whereas in typical FC gameplay you’d stomp through the undergrowth, confident a shotgun volley will put down a tiger or pirate, here you’ve got a bit of flint and a club. It’s a lot more, well … primal.

Ugg rescues Sayla, a lone Wenja medicine woman who explains the local tribe is being hunted by the Udam -for food- and has scattered. Determined to re-establish the clan, Ugg and Sayla begin building a village by saving Wenja from Udam hunting parties and the like. Soon, he’s got a little commune going and convinces a shaman with a wolf’s head for a hat to help. I’m sure there’s a wiki article justifying a caricature but the witch doctor is invaluable, teaching Ugg to tame an owl, which is the coolest thing in a Far Cry game since Jason had hallucinogenic sex with Citra.

Essentially, Ugg has invented a Drone. The owl can circle ahead, tag objects and animals, roam around and best of all, dive-bomb. Lower-level enemies can be killed by it, while armoured ones weakened and eventually offed too. The Owl can even be weaponised, dropping smoke and crazy bombs which presumably it stole from a nearby Assassin’s Creed Sequence. It can also drop bee-hives and unlock caged animals; Droney the owl is easily one of the best things in FC:P, I can’t wait for it to reappear in every new Far Cry game. But Droney is just the first animal Ugg gets to grips with – alongside his burgeoning village, Ugg is setting up a petting zoo.

In Blood Dragon, our hero Rex could attract Dragons by lobbing a cyber-heart. In Far Cry 4, our hero (whatever his name was, Mum’s Ashes Guy) could attract animals by lobbing meat. In Primal, Ugg can attract animals by lobbing meat – and now tame them. You’d expect it to be a tricky, terrifying affair but it’s easy; just hold down a button. The result is a new furry friend – any equal or lower animal will scarper while you have your pal around, and it’s nice to have company, I spent more time petting my wolf than I do exploring and I feel a pang of guilt when I upgrade it to a bigger animal (or smaller, in the case of the Crazy Nastyass honey badger. Even the sabre-tigers take off when that maniac is on the loose). They can be wounded but reviving them is possible – even if they die (and I accidentally skinned one of my pets once) they can be brought back with a potion. You’d expect to have to re-tame a downed animal but no, a couple of leaves will do it. I was all upset until I noticed the revival option. Wolfie!

Although there’s no vehicles, you do get to ride the bigger animals you tame. It’s a shame it doesn’t go into third-person when you mount your big cat or bear, it must look amazing, and there’s several alpha versions that can be tamed too, including the uber-tiger from the beginning. They do act a little like classic Fallout 3 companions, taking misjudged routes to reach you, getting stuck or attacking something clearly too big for them, but they’re great. You can direct them, it crouches when you do, they growl at things and see off attackers; they become an absolutely necessity out in the wilds. The only ones you can’t tame are the mammoths, although you can ride the smaller ones, if you can get past the parents …

I really struggled with offing families of Mammoths, orphaning the baby and watching it circling its dead mum; I stopped doing it in the end and part of the reason for that is it has no real impact beyond you stocking up on fur and meat. It’s natural for Ugg to do it, but we should be taking that huge carcass back to the camp or something, make it a bit more meaningful, or at least realistic; why is Ugg taking on an entire Mammoth herd with nothing but a honey badger? Usually out of self-defence; get one pixel too close and its game on. Being chased by the bull is terrifying. Not even running into the water can save you – not only can they wade but the crocs from FC3 are back. It’s just a shame you can’t tame the crocs, surfing one as a reskinned jetski would’ve made Primal the best game ever.

To help fortify the village, Ugg tracks down legendary Wenja; a famed hunter, a crazy craftsman (who introduces himself by pissing on Ugg) and a feared fighter who kills Udam for sport. They have nice little side missions that help Ugg build himself up. There’s even an ancestor of FC3’s Hurk, who has some advanced if idiotic ideas. Aside from the spear, bow and club, all of which can be upgraded, you also get rock shard to stab or throw, including ones tipped with crazy-poison (AC Ugg again) and a sling to lob stones. You’re a back to basics mud-covered Arnie and it’s so much fun; XP rewards are nicely balanced and put you in-tune with the world and the animals. As the little village starts to grow it becomes a lovely little spot to return to, genuinely idyllic and pleasant, with kids running about and folks doing their thing. Naturally it doesn’t last. Having caught the eye (and the stomachs) of the Udam, the boss man, UII, cuts through and threatens to have us for dinner. To protect the village, Ugg kidnaps ‘Dah’, a Udam warrior and from him we learn various skills - and that the Udam are dying from disease; and think Wenja meat will cure them. They’re dangerous and primitive but they’re not savages, we see them caring for their children too and realise they’re just another tribe trying to survive. It’s a nice change from FC’s usual boo-hiss villains and as I soften to Dah, and he explains their plight, I wonder if FC:P will let us make peace with them; nope. That would go against FC policy. Shame.

FC:P can’t quite shake off the FC structure; true to form, the main missions all feel familiar and not doing the main mission feels familiar too - we’re attacking camps and outputs. But, FC:P’s approach is the best we’ve seen for a while. Letting your owl get the lay of the land is a great start, as is using it to pick off lookouts, open cages or do strafing runs. Once Droney’s done his business, send in one of your menagerie and ‘snipe’ with your bow while the Udam freak out. At least, that’s the plan. The Udam seem to have evolved from Far Cry 3’s pirates; one arrow ten feet above their heads and they know exactly where you are, and they’re masters at spear-lobbing. The whole thing devolves into a fun scrap with spears, arrows and clubs flying about everywhere – most of which can be lit too, adding a fiery edge to everything. You’re vastly outnumbered and never better armed but a hard-won victory really makes you feel like you’re establishing the Wenja. I’m devolving and I like it.

Now da (cave)man, Ugg can strike out with some confidence; the world is huge and interesting, with cave formations, valleys, woods and rivers to venture through. Ugg gets a very modern grappling hook allowing him to FC4-it up cliff faces, and like all open-worlds, there’s tons of collectables to ignore. As beautiful as it is, its not the kind of world where you can just wander and see where the day takes you; if nothing else, because you don’t want to be caught out at night. A real show stopper is the night-day cycle. After dark the really big bads show up and facing down a pack of wolves, their eyes glinting in the moonlight is unnerving, scary stuff. You can’t see anything except the occasional glint or hear wolves and cats scrapping. You can use fire to keep things at bay, but only for so long.

It’s a real fun challenge to ignore fast-travel and just try to reach safety. A nice touch is pretty much everything can be crafted enroute, there’s no shops so you’re literally hunter-gathering for specific items – types of wood, rock and skin; there’s a lovely survivalist feel to Primal instead of the standard fast-travel to a shop, restock then fast-travel back again. It’s just you and nature. And those bloody crocs. They didn't even have crocs in ancient Europe.

One staple of the FC series is its tendency to change up in the final third, but while Primal has that, it’s more on Ugg’s abilities as to when it happens. Besides the Udam threat, Wenja are being sacrificed by the Izila, an advanced tribe established in a tougher region. Once strong enough, Ugg goes to rescue the Wenja but is easily outmatched. After Ugg escapes, the Izila’s Citra-lite leader declares war, forcing Ugg to capture one of her advisors, Roshani, for their agriculture and warmongering skills. The Izlia are very tough opponents, and nowhere near as much fun as the Udam, but they do provide the standard FC fantasy sequences as we dig into their sun-worshipping. They have advanced techniques and more complex camp layouts, but it’s not really enough; by the time you’re encountering them, FC:P has reached an evolutionary dead end.

Midway through you start to realise this is all there is – roaming the same valley, encountering the same enemies and animals, the same situations. The Izila don’t alter it enough and there’s just not enough going on to cover how light and repetitive it really is. It is an Open World Shooter after all, but it’s reputedly as big as Far Cry 4 and that’s too big when there’s not much in there. It should have been Blood Dragon - a quick, fun romp through 10,000BC - or go more RPG; have Ugg invested in the village, more interaction with the tribe – it would have been great to build up hunting parties to go after a mammoth, take Wenja with you when exploring, help gets crops started; in every other Far Cry you’re trying to escape the region, but here you should be making a home; so much is being missed. It could have been amazing to make peace with the Udam, who are also victimised by the Izila, or fall in with the Izila to put down the neanderthal Udam, open it up a little; one tribe could provide better protection, the other advancements; you decide where the Wenja are headed. Anything but another FC with added AC; Ugg even has 'the sight', able to sense animals, objects and foes around him. You never shake the feeling you’ve done this before.

Still, there’s a lot of effort gone into FC:P – the representation of pre-historic life feels very believable and the taming animals and the Owl really change the dynamic; the characters are amazing too - Primal is trying, and when we finally take the fight to both the Udam and Izila bosses it’s not FC’s event-driven button mashing; they’re curiously old-school with health-bars and waves of baddies in arenas. But there is a rather effecting end with Dah, which again just makes you wish FC:P had struck out on its own; rather than a spin-off it could have been a reboot. Instead it’s too bedded in the standard FC world and that’s at an evolutionary dead end. Still, it’s the best Far Cry since 3 and until it runs out of ideas, one of the more original open-world FPS (First Person Spearers) of ancient times; go find your inner caveman.

2016 | Developer Ubisoft Montreal | Publisher Ubisoft

Platforms; Win (Steam/Uplay), PS4, XO