There's a new Far Cry game coming next year, Far Cry Primal, set in 10,000 BC so as to pit its protagonist (and you) against all manner of big-toothed mammals that want to make your guts into their lunch. It looks, to quote Motherboard's Emanuel Maiberg, like "too much of a good game." Translation: based on its reveal trailer, it's what we've already seen and played before, most recently in the rightly celebrated Far Cry 4 of 2014 (which I'll get to, shortly). And as great as all of that running and climbing and stabbing and skinning was, unless there's something staggeringly fresh stirred into the mix, developers Ubisoft Montreal might be corralling what I think is its finest series down the path marked Assassin's Creed Complacency. And all that lies in wait that way is disappointment.
I'm not here to hate on Ubisoft, though. Not really. Sure, the company's an easy target for gamer ire, having put out its share of buggy games and titles that fall short of, if we're being reasonably honest with ourselves, some pretty wild expectations. The open-world Chicago of Watch Dogs wasn't quite what its previews promised, its gameplay rudimental and visuals significantly less eye-popping than promo trailers implied, while its delayed and wretched Wii U port was an afterthought best left unreleased altogether. Sandbox driving game The Crew was all ambition and no trousers, although its virtual-tourism appeal is considerable, allowing the player to go on a classic American road trip and ignore the story entirely. And, yes, Assassin's Creed Unity came out with more holes in its character models than moldy mounds at a Dutch cheese festival, but get this: it wasn't a bad game. None of the above was a bad game. Ubisoft hardly ever makes a bad game; it's more that the modern iterations of its longer-running series are crippled by the excellence that came before them.
Case in point: the comparison to be made between the Italian Renaissance-set Assassin's Creed II and its sequel proper, discounting various spin-offs, the American Revolution-backdropped III. Controlling Ezio around Florence and Venice, slicing the throats of those who deserved it and clambering up the sides of famous buildings, brought back that feeling of bringing a fresh Mitre Delta football back from Argos. Such a crisp thrill, with a smell to match. Oh, you'd been saving your pocket money, stashing away the pennies until fifteen glorious pounds were yours, and now you had the dream, your most spherical desire. You were immediately the envy of your neighborhood pals. You immediately went down the park. You immediately rolled your sparklingly white simulated-leather orb of joy through a freshly laid dog turd. That is Assassin's Creed III: what you loved so dearly, with shit on it. Still works, but you're going to have to wipe it in the grass before delivering a deep cross to the far post. The post being your school sweater, naturally.
Somewhere along the line that analogy got away from me, but hopefully you caught its gist: even a ball with a bit of feces on it functions as a ball, as it should, it's just that you'd much rather get on the end of an in-swinger that didn't also carry with it the risk of toxocariasis, or simply shit on your school shoes. Ubisoft's released its share of crappy software, but as was the case with Unity, it soon enough sorts it out, because you can do that in 2015: release a game that's a bit broken and fix it afterwards and yet still so many people put their cash down for pre-orders, I do not understand any of you. The next Assassin's Creed, the imminent Victorian London-set Syndicate, will surely be a more complete end product that what preceded it, but even if it's not I'm sure its makers at Ubisoft Quebec will smooth out any janky edges at the first opportunity.
What Syndicate isn't, though, albeit based on just the one preview, is a radical reinvention of a now overly familiar formula: all the main AC games play the same way, and while the naval battles of Black Flag and the new-fangled grappling hook seen in Syndicate are advances, I suppose, it's still bogged down in tedious Templar-this and Mega-Corporation-Is-Evil-that plot predictability, while the bulk of the gameplay—go to this marker on your map and pulverize that guy's face and/or steal this important trinket—is as it's been since, well, the first Assassin's Creed, which came out in 2007. That's like a lifetime ago, before the Tories were these Tories and #piggate gave a nation hope, before we saw Pluto in such detail that we cried a little, before The Only Way Is Essex and those cereal café blokes and Bake Off and the tabloid popularizing of twerking and Amy Winehouse transitioning from tragedy to a money-making myth. (She really was a real person once, you know. You'd see her in Camden sometimes, in those pubs where prawns came in pint glasses. Never could understand that. I don't drink my Guinness off a dinner plate.)
And back to Far Cry. The first game in the series, released in 2004, was only published by Ubisoft, with development handled by Crytek. It had weird mutants in it. I didn't play it. I did play the sequel of 2008 though, one of the finest games to grace the Xbox 360 and those other systems I didn't own at the time. Its setting was a fictional Central African state in the throes of a civil war. Nothing much works. In-game politicians are corrupt to the core and will do whatever they can to take power. Your guns are constantly breaking, and you're more susceptible to malaria than Arkansans are obesity. It had some really great fire in it, some of the best. And it revitalized the Far Cry franchise, taking it out of the linear shooter market and sitting it down amid sandbox explosions. It had weather that worked in real time, roaming wildlife, and a day-night cycle, creating the convincing illusion that this really was Africa you were, well, mostly setting fire to.
'Far Cry Primal,' official reveal trailer
And that depth of realism extended to 2012's Far Cry 3, switching locations from the savannah to the tropical shores of a South East Asian island full of komodo dragons, absolutely fucking deadly cassowaries and a shitload of cheesed-off pirates who aim to ransom your flesh for a few fistfuls of dollars. It's a tremendous game until the disconnect grows too great between what your character, Jason Brody, begins as—a pissing-his-pants tourist who's taken a wrong turn—and the blood-lusting murderer he ultimately becomes, a colossal prick who'll dick over his mates to get his end away with one of the natives. Far Cry 4 fixed this problem by having you play as the sweet-hearted Ajay Ghale—still a crack-shot with a rifle, but a man whose more violent actions are exclusively in response to, and an antidote for, the strife and struggles that his homeland of Kyrat, the game's fictional Himalayan setting, is going through (as inspired by the very real Nepalese Civil War). He only came back, from the States, to deliver his mother's ashes, but things (can, if you let them) escalate pretty quickly.
Both Far Cry 3 and 4 share gameplay tenets: you climb high, up radio masts or bell towers, to scan the surroundings for more objectives; you murder the indigenous wildlife to improve your belongings, to craft pouches to hold more ammo and the like; you chop up plants to concoct drugs to make your injuries less distracting; you shoot and shoot and shoot and sometimes duck behind cover and then shoot and shoot some more. These are very much shooty-bang-bang experiences, but 4 is a very special one amongst so much homogeny. It looks and sounds incredible, its story has moments of relatable tenderness, and you can ride on elephants. Riding on elephants is amazing. More games should have the option to ride on an elephant. Surely that's a GTA V mod already?
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Far Cry 4 is also surprising. The overarching plot about a despot ruler and rebel forces rocked by internal divisions isn't all that remarkable, but that you can finish the game without even firing off a single bullet certainly is. At the very beginning Ajay meets the tyrannical Pagan Min, a shock-blonde maniac who's basically The Gamergate Guy From Breitbart in a bright pink suit with both some serious daddy issues and a thing for Ajay's dead mom. He invites you to hang out at his p(a)lace. While there, dinner takes a turn for the homicidal, and Min has to step out for a few minutes. "Please, stay right here," he tells you. "Enjoy the crab Rangoon." You can leave of your own volition, and many players will, but let's say you don't: What then? Most games would direct you where to go, flash an arrow on screen or drop a marker onto a mini-map and make it strobe like a disco lighthouse. Far Cry 4 is content to leave you be—and when Min comes back, off you go together to scatter mum's remains at his somewhat creepy shrine in her memory. Roll credits. Ajay has completed his mission, and he didn't even have to get his hands dirty. You've had the game on for less than half an hour.
It might be that Primal contains comparably unexpected Easter eggs, hidden routes through its systems that respect player choice like few other shooters. (Except, obviously, Primal isn't a traditional shooter—no guns in the Mesolithic.) It's impossible to know for sure until it's been out a while and players have poked at its edges, testing its limits, seeing what they can break. Looking at the trailer though, and its accompanying clip of Ubisoft staffers proclaiming how original their new game is going to be, I'm neither seeing nor hearing anything that gets my excitement bubbling in an unprecedented fashion.
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Granted, the same was true of 4, before I played it—it looked like a fancier version of 3 in promo reels, but played so much better. But Primal's not doing a great job of selling its singular appeal. You make your own weapons in it, you say? Well, crafting's been a part of Far Cry for a while. There's a day-night cycle? Well, yeah, it is 2015, guys. An emphasis on man versus nature? If I could point you towards this cassowary that just slaughtered me, even though I am playing as an adult human man with an arsenal of firearms and two-dozen pirate kills to my name. Mammoths. Okay, got me there. The mammoth is very much an under-represented extinct animal when it comes to contemporary video gaming. I'd better be able to ride them though or so help me, Ubisoft, I'll get on that Twitter and post something moderately aggrieved, so I will.
Its expectedly evocative prehistoric window dressing aside, as it stands there is nothing in the footage we've all seen of Far Cry Primal to suggest it's going to maintain the series' forward momentum—and as soon as the franchise does stall, so the Metascore levels out and the fans grow disaffected, just as we've witnessed with Assassin's Creed. If Primal was a budget-priced expansion to 4, as the Michael Biehn-starring laser-dinosaurs-everywhere Blood Dragon was for 3, I wouldn't be worried. It'd be a bit of fun, no need to innovate, just chuck some spears at saber-toothed cats for a few hours. But it's not. Primal is the next proper Far Cry game, due to arrive just 16 months after the release of Ajay's adventure. A solid two years separated 3 from 4, so skimming eight months off that turnaround time either means the team at Ubisoft Montreal is absolutely on its game, or that Primal's not going to be bursting at its seams with never-before-seen stuff. It'll still play well—everything since the second Far Cry has—but with Ubisoft, history shows us that well is rarely enough to chase the haters from the door.
So please, guys and girls of Ubisoft, environment artists and narrative directors and executives alike: do not fuck Far Cry up. Do not turn it into a dreary yearly franchise like you have Assassin's Creed. It's the fabulous feather in your cap, a beautiful plume of color and creativity that all others look up to. It's so much fun. Try not to get shit on it.
Far Cry Primal is released in February 2016
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