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‘Far Cry Primal’ Is a Stone Age Setback for Open-World Gaming

Ubisoft's first-person series arguably peaked with 2008's 'Far Cry 2,' and a dip into prehistory can't shake up its tiring formula.

by Ed Smith
26 February 2016, 12:00am

Far Cry Primal isn't a game about rugged, back-to-basics combat. Far Cry Primal is a game about mystical supermen, equipped with the same extraordinary abilities and gadgets as Watch Dogs' Aiden Pearce, or Far Cry 3's Jason Brody. The only difference is that instead of a smartphone or a GPS, you send an owl to go and scope out your location, and you use "Hunter Vision"—a variation on the Arkham series' detective mode—to track down your enemies.

Surely the point of taking Far Cry back to 10,000 BC, when clubs and spears were the equivalents of shotguns and assault rifles, is to play on limitation. Surely what this game ought to be saying to players is "no," "you can't do that," and "remember where you are." But Primal's structure and mechanics are precisely the same as a sandbox game based in the modern era, or any era for that matter (see Assassin's Creed). You skip across the landscape, acquiring new and incredible abilities, picking apart plants, animals, and enemy bases as you go. You are the One. This is your domain. And any notion of survivalism or struggle—the "what now?" feeling promised by this advert—is completely out the window.

The characters—an earnest woman who wants to save her people, a larger-than-life shaman who sends you on hallucinatory spiritual journeys—are lifted from previous Far Cry games, and everything you do here you've done a thousand times before: You find resources, spend them on upgrades, and complete missions and side-quests. Then you find more resources.

Last year saw Mad Max, Just Cause 3, Assassin's Creed Syndicate, Dying Light, Metal Gear Solid V, and Fallout 4, all going-nowhere sandbox games in terms of their basic structure, all riffing on the same mechanics and stories. Far Cry Primal is another title on the pile. It took thousands of years for the part of northern Europe that Primal's set in to break apart into the clearly bordered countries we have today. But in a drag race between current open-world games and historical political debates regarding where one territory ends and another begins, you'd be hard pushed to predict a winner—this genre, in regards to fresh ideas, has slowed to a stop.

More specifically, so has Far Cry. Since 2008, and the definitive Far Cry 2, this series has been flailing for something to say. Primal, at least in its marketing campaign, is an indictment of human nature: In one form or another, we've always been at war. 2014's Far Cry 4 sketched the cyclical nature of violence—you depose one dictator and another rises in his place—while 2012's Far Cry 3 delved into philosophical... stuff.

This kind of smug, half-cooked moralizing has been Far Cry's narrative bread and butter now for three games. Maybe, if you're incredibly generous with your interpretations, you can find something in these games—perhaps Primal plays the same as modern combat games because war never changes. But those kind of readings feel inserted after the fact. I don't think Far Cry has anything that nuanced to say.

Instead, Far Cry postures. It foretells. But there's never anything underneath. This series prides itself on mysticism and spirituality, promising always "discovery" and "a journey." But all it delivers are obvious and condescending moral lessons. It's like the guy who can't wait to tell everyone what his tribal necklace means, or that rich kid at university who last year went to Delhi and had her "awakening." All the stuff with cave paintings in Primal, temples in Far Cry 4, and tattoos in Far Cry 3 is watery, pseudo rubbish. Far Cry isn't interested in telling us anything. It's determined that we believe it has something to say.

Unless, of course, you're playing Far Cry 2. It's an open-world game with as much to do and as rich a landscape as any open-world game from 2008, but it's still thematically and mechanically consistent. Before Spec Ops: The Line, Kane and Lynch 2, Receiver, Hotline Miami, or LA Noire, Far Cry 2 questioned video game violence.

You play a mercenary, sent to assassinate an arms dealer who's providing guns to both sides in a civil war. But that mission is quickly forgotten as you become caught up in the conflict—your character realizes that as long as this war keeps going, he'll continue to have work, so the game becomes less about stopping the fighting and more about stirring things up. When a foreign special forces team arrives to intervene, you sabotage their supplies and force them to retreat. When one side of the conflict develops a remedy for malaria, you infiltrate the factory where it's being made and destroy it, lest it be used as a propaganda tool to curry favor with the locals.

Your character in Far Cry 2 is interested not in ending violence or achieving for himself some great, personal status but rather perpetuating war and earning, simply, money. And when we sit down to play it, and what we desire are more missions, more gunfights, and more upgrades and unlocks, we are in his mindset—how we behave in the game is synchronized precisely with our character's profile.

Characterization that rock solid barely occurs in the most scripted, linearly structured video games, let alone an open-world shooter, and yet Far Cry 2 avoids easy nihilism. It's a violent game, and wholly accepting that both the character and the player are hungry for violence, but it ends on a moment of bittersweet optimism. At the end of Far Cry 3, you're either the returning hero or the doomed, dead idiot. In Far Cry 4 and Far Cry Primal, good or bad, you've at least ascended to power. In Far Cry 2, you, your friends, and a lot of the people you decided to try and save end up dead. But you make a moral choice. You at least attempt to do a good thing, and that saves the game from a simple, defeatist tone.

Compared to Far Cry 2, an insightful illustration of video game violence and an excellent story in its own right, what Far Cry Primal lacks is relevance. When Call of Duty went into the future, I took it as confirmation that the writers had given up trying to make sense of the realities of modern warfare and decided to extricate their games from all moral and political questioning. Going the other way, thousands of years into the past, feels similarly motivated.

After eight years spent scrambling for something to say, the makers of Far Cry seem to have given up. It's just a game about stabbing guys, killing animals, and finding plants now. It has no substance. To that extent, Primal is at least somewhat true to its premise. Its empty mechanics, repeated ad infinitum, purely for their own sake, belong not to the present but video games in their saddest, most primordial form.

Far Cry Primal is out now for Xbox One and PlayStation 4, with a PC version released on March 1.

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