At face value, Far Cry Primal looks like an easy diversion for Ubisoft to take from its main line of militaristic shooters -- a side project full of vicious animals instead of rifles and rocket launchers. I'd argue it's something more than that. Primal is the apotheosis of the series' post-Far Cry 2 design trends.
First announced at the beginning of October, Far Cry Primal steps away from the series' contemporary paramilitary settings in favour of transporting players all the way back to the stone age. That means no guns (at least that we know of now...maybe there's some big Assassin's Creed-style meta-narrative, though let's hope there isn't). No super-soldiers either. Just primitive hand-made weapons and vicious prehistoric beasts.
Gamers got their first real look at Far Cry Primal last week during the Video Game Awards, and the word of the night, Far Cry-wise at least, was "animals".
So. Many. Animals. You do battle with saber-toothed tigers, wooly mammoths, and big scary-looking bears. But that's not all you do with them. You can also pet them, then tame them, and, ultimately, fight with them by your side as a "beast master".
This all sounds like it could just be a big gimmick -- the kind of thing that's perfect for a less-than-consequential spin-off like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, a cheesy sci-fi spoof expansion to the 2012 shooter that added giant neon dinosaurs and stuff like that into the mix. And it is called Primal, after all, not Far Cry 5. But don't let Ubisoft's branding confuse you. Primal is exactly where Far Cry's been heading for years now.
One of the main things Ubisoft added to Far Cry 3 was a robust wildlife system that challenged the player to hunt and kill a plethora of tropical beasts: boars, tigers, dogs, even sharks. On one level, the animals all existed to support the game's crafting system, which allowed you to create things like bigger ammo pouches once you killed and skinned enough of a certain critter. But they also emerged as one of the game's defining motifs once players realised how bizarrely humorous and thematically discordant it was to, say, dive underwater and frantically try to punch a shark to death in the middle of your journey through what seemed like it was supposed to be, again, a gritty militaristic first-person shooter.
Things only got weirder, and sillier, when Far Cry 4 arrived in late 2014. While it was, at face value, a sombre-faced first-person shooter much like Far Cry 3, the main thing that Ubisoft fleshed out in the sequel was the cast of animal characters.
You still shot at people too, of course. But as I wrote in my review last year, human beings were the least interesting parts of Far Cry 4. The animals were far more memorable. There were the cute little monkeys that looked up at you helplessly. The packs of vicious dogs who'd lunge at you before you could outrun or outgun them:
Those nasty honey badgers who'd slash at your shins and once knocked me off the face of a cliff:
And, dear god, let's not forget the eagles. They'd drop in from out of nowhere and start attacking your face:
One of the most surprising moments of the game came when one such devil bird swooped down while I was hunting a wild pig and snatched my prey right out from under me.
As my colleague Luke Plunkett put it to me last year, it's an amazing testament to how well Far Cry 4's animals were designed and implemented in the game that when an NPC character shouted, "Oh no, an eagle!" it actually meant something for you, as a player -- i.e., it meant you were supposed to either run or get ready to defend yourself. That's why I began my review of Far Cry 4 by saying I'd wished that Ubisoft had centered the game more squarely around your relationship with its animals rather than their comparatively dull human counterparts:
I want to write a letter to all the animals I've met in Far Cry 4.
I want to write a letter to all these wonderfully insane, antagonistic creatures -- the best characters in Far Cry 4. If I could go back in time, I'd wrap this letter around the pig's leg and pray that the eagle helps it find its way to the right place.
"Dear animals," the letter would read, "take me to Far Cry 5."
Separate from the game's mostly forgettable narrative, let's just look at this from a gameplay standpoint. There were many different animals in Far Cry 4, each with their own unique traits and threats posed to the player. They all demanded unique techniques and tactics to counter in turn. As for the humans? There were two main types of human bad guys in Far Cry 4: the ones who had heavy armour and took a lot longer to kill, and the ones who didn't. There were only a few ways to deal with these people in turn: shoot at them, maybe lay some explosive trap for them if you felt like going through the trouble, and, most memorably, running up and stealth-stabbing them.
...though even Far Cry's melee attacks lent more towards the game's animalistic qualities than its human ones. I argued in my review that these viscerally satisfying stealth-stabs only felt that way because they made me feel "like a wild animal," not like some standard shooter bro running around killing standard shooter bad guys.
Be warned: Far Cry Primal might end up being a botched experiment that's not all that enjoyable to play. But what I find intriguing about the game, and what makes me more excited for it than I would be if Ubisoft had just unveiled another modern-day shooter, is that it shows that Ubisoft actually notices and appreciates what it is about its own series that makes it feel distinct, special, and, most importantly, fun. It may just be a spin-off. But I hope that Ubisoft keeps going with the gameplay motifs its established for Primal, at least until the studio's figured out how to make shooting in Far Cry games feel quite as fresh and interesting again.