AusGamers had its flights and accommodation paid for by Ubisoft
Far Cry, that ongoing Ubisoft franchise that’s obsessed with madness, shooting and vehicles, is poised to ditch at least two of those key franchise features for its next game. Ask the devs at Ubisoft Montreal, and they’ll tell you they’ve wanted to make a game set in the Stone Age for quite a while. This, in and of itself, is not a problem, but it’s definitely taking risks with Primal in terms of what should be expected from a Far Cry game.
For starters, and perhaps most refreshingly, Ubisoft has broken the recent fish-out-of-water trend with Primal’s protagonist, Takkar. He’s no “dude bro”, like Jason Brody from Far Cry 3, and he’s not perpetually on the back foot like Ajay Ghale in the face of Pagan Min’s madness. While I didn’t get to see or play Takkar’s backstory, I was told that Takkar loses his tribe at the beginning of the game and has to fight to earn his place at the top of the food chain. Hell, Ubisoft has gone all out on creating its own primal dialects for Primal, so it’s a bit like playing a Stone Age take on Apocalypto, minus Mel Gibson’s obsession with high-impact violence.
For those who played Far Cry 4, the mystical Shangri-La missions seem to have been a trial grounds of sorts for Primal. Obviously, with a game set more than 10,000 years in the past, there are no firearms on hand. The early section that I played featured an emphasis on melee weapons, with a fast-swinging single-handed club, a heavier-hitting two-handed club, spears as well as a bow-and-arrows combination.
In terms of console controls, pulling the left trigger allows melee weapons to be raised and thrown. Alternatively, holding left trigger and tapping right bumper orders your tamed animal to move to a location or, say, rip out an enemy’s throat. This is part of the Beast Master mechanic, which builds on the idea of controlling the tiger in those aforementioned Shangri-La missions.
There may be a later-game upgrade that lets you roam with more than one, but for what I played, I was only allowed to have one beastly companion at a time alongside my owl. The owl acts as both surveillance and attack drone. Tapping D-pad up sends the owl into the sky ahead of you, where the perspective switches to its view of the landscape below where you can spot threats, plan a stealthy incursion, or order it to attack a single target.
Ordering the owl to attack activates a cooldown timer so it can’t be spammed, but it’s ultimately a neat solution to spotting enemies that doesn’t damage immersion, even if I didn’t rely on it too much during my one-hour preview session. Being a Far Cry game, the real joy is in forcing the game to throw those beautiful emergent-narrative curve balls at you as you sprint across the world.
At times this would be helping out Takkar’s kin as they fought human enemies, or were caught battling a sabretooth tiger. At other times, it was as simple as stumbling on a base or an enemy hunting party and having to react on the fly as the not-terribly bright AI was forced to deal with my inadvertent incursion.
This is where the beast companion truly shines. If anything, it’s a tad on the overpowered side at this pre-alpha stage of development. Unlike the current trend of friendly AI to do anything but shoot enemies (I’m looking at you Halo 5), Primal’s beasts do their darndest to kill more enemies than you, barrelling off ahead in search of fresh prey when they’re in attack mode.
The beasts have health bars, but can be healed with meat, which is pretty easy to come by, and they can be revived in the same way. There’s an option to pet them when they’re at full health, which is as adorable as it is creepy, given my roster of tamed beasts included a sabretooth tiger, a bear and a wolf.
In terms of taming them, it’s a bit disappointing in its simplicity. All that’s required to tame a beast is to throw bait in an area where they’re roaming, then to approach them while they’re eating it and hold a button. That’s it. A more nuanced approach for such an integral mechanic would be preferred for the final version but, at least for preview purposes, it was an easy way to expand my collection of killers.
What is more nuanced in terms of the beasts, is the specific attributes associated with each choice. There’s the general weighing of strength, speed and stealth ratings (ranked out of five per category, per beast), but there’s also beast-specific perks that encourage different approaches to gameplay. For instance, I started with a jaguar whose passive perk was that it could attack an unaware target without alerting nearby foes. Very handy for stealthy players.
The leopard can tag nearby enemies, the sabretooth tiger automatically collects items from killed foes, and the honey badger -- yup, you can tame the bastard beast from Far Cry 4 -- has a perk that I don’t know about because I couldn’t find one to tame. While I didn’t get to try it out during my preview session, the devs admitted that there’s a later-game unlock that converts beasts into mounts, which sounds like a handy ability, considering the amount of time I spent running between points of interest.
There’s actually a great balance of sparseness, points of interest and game-world threats as I sprinted across the game world. This idea of exploration and discovery was more engaging for me than the combat, even if playing it stealth is quite satisfying (relocating bodies makes a welcome return from Far Cry 4). There didn’t seem to be an option to block during melee showdowns, which feels like an oversight in a melee-focused game and resulted in me sprinting in and mashing attack to try to kill enemies before my greedy beast companion did the job for me.
What’s more effective is the ongoing day/night cycle that necessitates different strategies in how you approach the game world. Predators roam at night, and unless you have fire and an intimidating beast companion, you’ll be seen as easy prey. It reminded me of a more accessible version of what was achieved in that freaky indie horror game, The Forest.
Fire is something of a double-edged sword, too, as you can ignite any of your weapons, and while flaming armaments intimidate certain foes, the flames also degrade your weapon. Losing a weapon to fire or because you threw it at some poor sap’s head isn’t a big deal, because you can craft from your weapon wheel, which also conveniently slows time when accessed. In order to craft, you’ll have to collect particular items from around the game world, and these items can be stored and accessed at camps so it doesn’t feel like the ultimate fetch-quest mini-game.
Primal is also more familiar in terms of Far Cry mechanics than I thought it would be. The UI includes the same easy-to-read notifications when enemies spot you, the mini-map hasn’t changed, and there’s an emphasis on capturing camps to create fast-travel points. That said, I couldn’t find any of the divisive Far Cry towers during my hour with Primal, and it may just be that the setting didn’t allow for the construction of giant scalable spires. If they’re not there in the final game, it’s not a bad thing.
Perhaps the best news for those that like the look of Primal is that Ubisoft is very much treating it as a core Far Cry title, especially in terms of duration, so don’t expect this to be a short-lived Blood Dragon-type experience. Far Cry Primal is set to be released on the 23rd of February, which gives Ubisoft Montreal time to address some of the above quibbles in what is otherwise proving to be a great change of pace for the Far Cry franchise.