When developing a new sequel in a popular video game franchise, designers and producers are often stuck between the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rock and the “if we don’t change enough stuff, people will say we just recycled the last game” hard place.
Which is why Ubisoft seems to be taking a big risk with the upcoming Far Cry Primal, the fifth full installment in the successful shooter franchise. Where every previous Far Cry game has had players wielding assault rifles, driving jeeps and blowing up mercenaries with rocket-propelled grenades, Far Cry Primal is set in the low, low-tech Mesolithic Period, roughly 12,000 years ago. No machine guns, no C4, no motorbikes or trucks or jet skis. Just clubs and spears and woolly mammoths.
But after an hour-long hands-on preview of the game at the Ubisoft Toronto studios this week, I’m happy (and maybe a little surprised) to say that Far Cry Primal feels very much like a Far Cry game, even if the setting is unlike anything that’s come before.
Set for release on Feb. 23 on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Far Cry Primal puts players in the fur garb of Takkar, a skilled warrior who has the ability to tame, control and command all manner of dangerous animals. As a so-called Beastmaster – no relation to the amazing/awful 1982 movie – lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) become Takkar’s combat companions, as he guides the Wenga tribe to survival and domination.
As I explored the game’s beautiful, sprawling wilderness, I threw a chunk of bait to lure a rare black jaguar, then tamed it and added it to a growing list of animal companions that I could summon at will. Together we skulked into an outpost, where I quietly bashed unsuspecting enemies from behind with my lethal stone club.
But once the members of the rival Udam tribe spotted my jaguar, all hell broke loose. The fierce cat held her own and acted as a perfect distraction as I waded into the fray, swinging my club two-handed and knocking my bloodied enemies to the ground.
In a sense, animals are your heavy weapons in Far Cry Primal, from agile wolves that can dart from foe to foe to hulking bears that can soak up a ton of damage as you command them charge into a group of rival warriors. On more than one occasion during my time with the game, I was lining up an enemy with my bow when my bear leapt in and mauled the poor sap to death before I even could even get the shot off.
The world of Far Cry Primal is teeming with life, from deer that can be hunted for valuable meat to terrifying sabretooth tigers that will shred you if you’re foolish enough to challenge them head-on. “What’s different this time around is humans are not the primary source of danger,” said Ubisoft Toronto’s Matt West, a level design director on Far Cry Primal. “They are not the top of the food chain.”
Although Takkar’s arsenal of weapons is primitive, it’s extremely effective. At another Udam camp, I used my bow to pick off lookouts on the periphery of the settlement, then commanded my owl – which can act as a sort of feathery reconnaissance drone – to drop beehive bombs in the midst of the enemy warriors. As chaos ensued, I rode in on the back of a mammoth, sending my foes flying with her trunk while I hurled spears into the guts of any stragglers. They didn’t know what hit them, and within minutes the camp was mine.
The variety of ways to approach objectives feels like pure Far Cry, even if the tools are significantly different. And as you’d expect from a Far Cry game, there are a vast number of skills to unlock, weapons to upgrade and useful items to craft.
While Far Cry Primal is a lot of fun to play, I think the game’s ultimate success will depend on its ability to make us care about the world and its characters, all of whom speak a primitive tongue patterned on the actual languages of the era. Unlike previous Far Cry heroes, Takkar isn’t a stranger in a strange land – he owns this world, and he’ll need enemies and allies who are as interesting and capable as he is.
From this brief taste, though, Far Cry Primal looks very promising. Taking a trip back to the Stone Age is a bold move for a series built on guns, cars and modern technology, but who needs a rocket launcher when you can fire off a half-tonne of fur, claws and pointy teeth?