Far Cry Primal

I’ve been distracted of late and thus I’ve been neglecting this blog and this ““column”” also. As a result of this I now have a backlog of this to write, rather ironically. It also means that my memories of the games I’ve completed aren’t as fresh as they could be. As a result of that factor it means these pieces might be a bit different, occasionally written with more feelings and mood in mind, rather than criticisms of gameplay and structure and so on. (I’ll also likely get details wrong.) So I’ve decided to get back to doing these by starting with a game I didn’t particularly like at first, but grew to miss and adore in the months following its completion.

What is a Dreaded Backlog

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Far Cry Primal is certainly an Ubisoft game. It’s a huge open world. There are unlockable fast travel points that unlock side mission start points. Most of the missions, main and side, revolve around tagging your enemies inside a base before killing them all either through stealth, blunt force, or a combination of the two. As usual to distract from its paint-by-numbers formula Ubisoft have crafted a unique theme and setting. In this case it is set in 10,000 BC, or as I call it: caveman times. Thus some other Ubisoft tropes, alternative methods of transport (horses or cars or whatever) are served up in a unique yet functionally identical way to usual. This time you can ride sabre tooth tigers and woolly mammoths and so on.

Now you might be wondering why I’d preface this blog post saying I’ll be discussing feelings and mood more often and then immediately started describing the Ubisoft formula in the driest possible terms. Well, because as I also said: I didn’t enjoy this game until months afterwards.

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The reason why the Ubisoft formula doesn’t usually bother me is because I actually like that the game gives you the option to engage with its fundamental mechanics in their purest form as much as you like. Essentially I am immature and find main campaigns never let me revel in the amount of violence I actually enjoy getting from a video game. Read into that however you like. However when playing this game I also realised it’s because I enjoy spending extra time in the world with the characters I’ve grown to like. I realised that whilst Primal does have a beautiful and evocative world (more on that later) I didn’t attach much interest to the plights of my player insert character or the deliberately more developed surrounding characters.

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Ubisoft constructed an entire language for the protagonist and his people the Wenja. Yet there is relatively little dialogue or character beats to speak of. Obviously given the setting they’re trying to evoke a nascent stage of human culture wherein excessive dialogue and banter may kill the verisimilitude. However this is a world of danger and extreme action behind every rock and tree. It wouldn’t be hard to have visually (and gameplay) driven character beats without much dialogue. The Protagonist, Takkar, is given more life than a lot of Far Cry and FPS player insert characters, but little is done with him. His story is of a man whose people are almost entirely wiped out and he not only goes out for cold revenge, but has to rebuild his society from scratch. In the end the Wenja defeat the evil Izila and Udam tribes, but it doesn’t feel that satisfying. The moments of victory feel like an obligation to stay in canon with the history of developing human co-operation, rather than the culmination of the story of the two opposing themes of savagery versus altruism.

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However.

Months and months later I found myself missing this game for a variety of reasons. The foremost thing in my mind is my animal friends. This game is full of wild animals of various species and sub-species. They all want to kill you and they’re everywhere. Constantly. Thus it is actually very satisfying and oddly affecting that if you are careful enough, skilful enough and patient enough, you can train animals as your sidekicks (and rides). You can pet them too. And this is all so affecting because of how dangerous and savage this world is; there’s Udam and Izila thugs everywhere; they outnumber you and in the first ten hours of the game they have stronger firepower too. You grow to rely on your animal friends and even develop strong feelings for them. They are your shield against the brutality and loneliness of this world. This brings me to just how lonely and vulnerable you feel in this game.

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Even with your magic eagle that can tag people for you and your ability to carry endless supplies, this game is existentially isolating. That stripped down lack of dialogue emphasises it. The fact you have to fight tooth and nail for every object you have and every person you save emphasises it too. But also the fact that travelling anywhere or assaulting any obstacle takes patience and time. In the day the world looks sunny and beautiful. The trees cast light on every brook and rock and bush. But this scenery also hides all the dangers I just described. Alternatively you can travel at night where stealth is easier, but now packs of predators are everywhere. You cannot see very well and using fire to light the way only gives away your position to an entire world that wants to kill you. The game’s story may not bring to life the battle between savagery and altruism, brutality and beauty, but the world and its occupants do. The sound design is simple and effective and never overplays its hand. Just like the clash of themes, the interchanging clash of silence and animalistic deafening noises is a battle too. However it is still mostly that isolating silence.

There’s also some cool gameplay stuff too. The bow feels nice to fire. It’s easy to pick up and a little harder to master. Headshots are obviously very satisfying. Spears are fun, but scary when they’re thrown at you. Close quarters combat with clubs, and so on, is uncomfortable by design. There are no martial arts or finely crafted weapons and armour here. It’s people trying to hit each other as hard as possible before they’re hit too hard themselves. This is the first game I’ve ever played that actually evokes the sensation of strain in the arms from hitting someone with an object. The player input timings, on-screen attack animations and controller vibration feedback are all top notch. This is high quality FPS “gun feel” stuff you rarely see outside the likes of Call of Duty, Halo and any Id software game.

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In a general sense the game does have some stand out boss fights and set pieces. The game builds up Ull of the Udam as a terrifying threat and the final encounter doesn’t disappoint on a gameplay level: it is a true culmination of every mechanic you’ve had to master. The world is huge. I’d argue it is too big, especially as the game as very little variation in topography and terrain. Though admittedly a nice attribute of the lack of variation is that the game only takes up around 12GB of hard drive space, which is obviously very rare and appreciated in this genre. The size of the map does also contribute to my favourite play session of the game.

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In Primal many of the fast travel points to unlock are enemy camps that must be cleared out first. To proceed to an area of the map with better hunting and foraging opportunities I needed to take on such a camp. However, it was through a long mountain pass full of the worst sorts of wild animals. The way to the pass was also long. If I even made it through all this I’d then arrive at the largest enemy camp for me to take on yet. It’d be a huge distance to do again if I died and as I’d have to stock up on every item and weapon just to manage the trip; it wouldn’t be possible to immediately make the trip more than once.

So as night fell I made my way up the long trek to the mountains. I had to preserve as much equipment for as long as possible so I had to take my time and be stealthy. I had to fend off the occasional bear or pack of wolves but without over committing. I’d be stalked by the wolves in particular. Finally I reached the mountain pass, but I stopped to take in the view of the trek I’d just made. Even at night the view was stunning, but the silence unnerving.

I then headed into the pass, which was actually a series of caves. I had to use a torch. And thus a series of different and terrifying large mountain cats were upon me. But I called upon a particular animal friend: a brown bear. Together we managed to make our way through this gauntlet of angry beasts and reached the other side.

There I was at the top of a small canyon that wound round in a path to the bottom where the enemy camp resided. It was sort of almost suspended over a cliff edge. The only way into it was over two bridges, each either side of the camp. So I cycled through the equipment I still had and formulated a plan. The first problem was that half the enemies were a brute class that’d require a higher level bow to kill quickly and thus quietly. And the fact that both bridge entrances were each guarded by someone not turning away. So I lured one of them away with a rock over to my side of the bridge and killed him. I then switched my animal companion to stealthier friend. The sight lines for the camp made it difficult to stay in there. So I’d run in, take one guy out, run back over the bridge and occasionally have to handle someone looking for the guards. Eventually I whittled the camp down to a few people.

However, then I was spotted. Two attacked me and another ran for help. I couldn’t get the messenger as the two attackers were of the brute class and were upon me. By the time I’d scrambled through the process of killing them (with dwindling supplies) the messenger had returned with support. However now the camp belonged to me and I had to hold off a small siege from within. I called for my bear again and whilst he distracted them I collected supplies from the camp to rearm myself. My bear got wounded and went down just as I went back into action. With my extra supplies I made relatively short work of the assailants. The game then threw up the screen saying I’d taken the base. I then healed my bear and petted him with much concern.

This experience is Far Cry Primal at its best and arguably video games at their best too. Hell, the storytelling was even good with clear but shifting paces and stakes, a “but or therefore” set of story beats and plenty of diverse emotional reactions and just a boatload of pure adventure. On the other hand it’s also a shame that none of this was connected to the main story at all. I went through all this, Takkar just performed it all and the Wenja got some extra tents.

Played on both Xbox One and Xbox One X

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