A deadly, wide-open frontier filled with interesting characters, wild animals and the potential to turn to chaos at any moment. These things characterise the long-popular Far Cry series of games, which until now has been set in wild, uncharted pockets of the modern world.
The latest game doubles down on the formula, removing the guns and vehicles of prior entries, ratcheting up the deadliness of the world and its inhabitants, and transporting players back to 10,000BC, an era defined by the series' tenets of a lawless frontier and the darker side of human nature.
To bring the Mesolithic era to life, the development team at Ubisoft spent countless hours researching the society, tools and conflict of the time, even going so far as to reach out to linguists and anthropologists to lend its new game an authoritative edge.
Far Cry Primal opens on a mammoth hunt, as main character Takkar and his Wenja tribe family fight for food on their way to settle in the fictional land of Oros. The Wenja aren't the only predators in the vicinity however, and the group is scattered by a tiger attack, leaving Takkar to fend for himself.
The early game introduces players to the basics of crafting tools and weapons — which of course can not be purchased by arms traders as with the guns of previous games — with Takkar making a torch to fend off hungry wolves.
The world is immediately notable for its scale, as plants and animals alike tower over the human player in stark contrast to those in previous Far Cry games set in the 21st century.
"We wanted to give you the sense that you are not the dominant species here," says lead writer Kevin Shortt.
That sense had diminished somewhat by the time I was a few hours into the game — commanding my owl to drop bombs on groups of foes before crafting a set of spears on the fly and dispatching them into enemy faces with impossible precision — but the scale and unpredictability of the world remained terrifying throughout.
A mix of convincing Mesolithic aesthetics and good old video game fun, Primal plays out more as a riff on our knowledge of pre-history than a straight-up ancient tribe simulator.
"It's not a history lesson, for sure. But we want to make sure we're being true to the period," says Shortt.
"The region is reflective of what we believe was going on at 10,000BCE."
Perhaps the most convincing aspect is the language spoken by the other humans in the game. Based on Proto-Indo-European, linguists took the common features of known languages to estimate what spoken conversations may have sounded like 12,000 years ago. The result is a perfect fit both in the exposition of your tribe members and the primal yells of enemies.
"[Prot-Indo-European] is the language we know they probably spoke back then. We kind of reverse engineered the language [...] from research and from the linguists that were working with us," Shortt says.
Asked if there were concerns players would be intimidated by their character speaking a dead language, Shortt says recordings of actors speaking the created language were tested against actors reading English, but the latter made interactions uncomfortable.
"The English just popped," he says. "You felt it immediately, and we just thought, 'We can't do that'."
To ease the burden of players needing to read subtitles while they play, anything said outside of direct conversation (for example something shouted by an enemy during combat), is left captionless, which makes for a scarily authentic vibe when exploring the world.
Even direct conversation between Takkar and members of his tribe are very light on reading, with much of the communication being non-verbal.
"We wanted to make it dynamic, so you're getting the story visually as much as looking at the subtitles," says Shortt.
Since there's no concrete records of Mesolithic life, the team was afforded some creative licence, inventing a pair of menacing tribes — the brutish, neanderthal-like Udam and the lithe, fire-worshipping Izila — to serve as antagonists for the settling Wenja. As players explore the world at their own pace or take on missions to help tribe members and build their village, these factions are every bit as dangerous, intimidating and intelligent as the mercenaries and militia of previous games in the series.
While much of the Far Cry formula — including brutal combat, gathering resources and stealthy infiltration of bases — fits neatly into 10,000BC, anthropology provided the opportunity for some new mechanics as well.
"[Humans] used to be nomadic, and they started settling, they started building villages," Shortt says. "Also, they started domesticating animals."
Both of these developments are present in-game, with the main narrative focused on building a new home in the land of Oros. Some liberties have been taken with the animal training, as while evidence would suggest taming wild creatures was a long process, Primal sees Takkar imbued with mystical powers that make him the first human able to commune with animals.
In addition to the aforementioned owl, players will be able to command quick and far-seeing wolves, stealthy cats and tank-like bears in battle. There are even rideable animals, including the sabre-toothed cat, cave bear and mammoth.