There aren't many modern first person shooter franchises that could release a game set 12,000 years prior to all previous entries and not miss a beat. Without some kind of clumsy alien or time travel conceit, the likes of Call of Duty or Halo would have a tough time on an Earth lacking firearms. But then, the shooting was never what made Far Cry so interesting.
Taking place in 10,000 BC, Far Cry Primal fully embraces the core of its predecessors — scavenging to survive against crazy, chaotic enemies in a wild, lawless frontier — except that this time there is no rogue state or crazy dictator to facilitate this, it's simply how the world is.
Taking on the role of Takkar — a tribesman fighting to make a home for his people in the contested land or Oros — players collect resources to fashion clubs, spears and bows; recruit important tribe members to unlock advanced abilities; and learn to control wild animals for use in combat.
This last point is probably the most enjoyable aspect of the new game, as Takkar's beastmaster abilities allow you to choose from a roster of viscious-yet-adorable animal friends — including stealthy cats, powerful bears and crafty badgers — and deploy them however you like as you fight your way across Oros. The land itself is the game's other big success, with the flora and fauna magnificently huge and the varying environments — from snowy fields to lush lakes to cluttered forests — brimming with animals and resources to collect.
The issue with Primal is that while the setting and world have taken a convincing and refreshing step to a completely different time, a lot of the structure feels familiar. As in previous games, the map is opened up and territory gained by claiming enemy camps and raiding outposts. But the outposts — complete with fences, buildings, caged animals and enemies patrolling with military precision — seem anachronistic.
The developers deserve huge praise for the convincing representation of 10,000 BC — even the language is as authentic as possible — but the fact the gameplay is so close to the structure of the modern-day Far Cry 4 takes away from the pre-history feel. This is compounded by the fact that even the coolest new mechanics are functionally similar to old ones. Scouting and dropping bombs with the owl feels like the gyrocopter; lining up shots with your bow feels like sniping; there's even the return of drug-fuelled vision quest segments (and yes, they're still kind of weak).
Like Assassin's Creed — Ubisoft's other big franchise — Far Cry's duality is increasingly between an interesting, incredibly realised world you really want to explore and a set of gameplay systems you feel like you already know too well.
Given the option, I'd much rather put my weapons away and hang out with my tribespeople by the lake, taking in the mountain scenery and watching from a safe distance as an enormous alligator stalks a herd of drinking deer. Oros is an amazing place, and I love spending time there.
But often, as I spent hours moving from task to similar task unsure whether I was really making progress at all, I wished that guns weren't the only Far Cry staple that was left behind.