could this be the best game of 2016

The main character in the game is a bad ass hunter.

IN real life, travel to exotic, lawless locations at the edge of the world tend to involve extreme elements of danger or even death — and potentially getting laughed out of every travel insurance office in town.

In the Far Cry series of video games, however, it’s a core part of the appeal. Not the part about the difficulties of obtaining travel insurance though, obviously.

The Ubisoft series is well known for three things — exotic locations and creatures, interesting characters, and firearms in the sort of quantities usually associated with major armed conflicts.

The latest game in the main series, Far Cry Primal is released later this month and is also set in an exotic, faraway, dangerous location — central Europe in 10,000BC.

You are cast as Takkar, a hunter from the Wenja tribe who finds himself in the land of Oros and has to reunite his scattered tribe, survive against the elements and overcome dangerous opponents — both human (the Udam and Izila tribes) and animal.

Given the series’ long-established modern-day setting, there’s been some trepidation about how well the franchise will handle the transition to a stone age setting, particularly regarding the loss of firearms and modern technologies such as GPS, jeeps, and digital cameras.

As a long-time fan of the series, I have to admit I was also slightly sceptical when Far Cry Primal was announced.

As cool as riding a woolly mammoth around or having a sabre-tooth tiger as a companion sounded, how would it compare to desperately trying to reload a shotgun to stop a charging honey badger, or using a stolen jeep as a battering ram before leaping out and emptying an assault rifle into an outpost full of guards just before the whole thing suddenly caught fire and exploded?

It might not be guns, but that doesn’t mean the game isn’t fun.

It might not be guns, but that doesn’t mean the game isn’t fun.

Having played a hands-on prerelease beta of Far Cry Primal in Montreal recently, the answer — for me, at least — is “extremely well”.

The core Far Cry experience is still there, and I honestly didn’t think it suffered from swapping submachine-guns for spears. The basic gameplay mechanics are still the same, you still have a vast, beautifully detailed and painstakingly created world to explore, and there are dangerous animals, interesting characters and no shortage of things to see, do and discover.

The Mesolithic era was not quite as primitive as people might initially think, explained Far Cry Primal creative director Jean-Christophe Guyot.

“When you say ‘we’re going to play something in the Stone Age’, people get a mental image that is sometimes very, very primitive,” he said.

“It’s something we want to give because that’s what people expect, but at the same time we discovered it (the era) was much more advanced than that.

“People had a culture, they were not apelike in any way, there was a language.”

Given the lack of period written evidence about stone age life, the game’s designers have walked a line between exhaustive historical research to create a believable world while creating something that would be compelling and interesting from a gameplay and story aspect as well — effectively broadly historically accurate, but with various degrees of creative licence.

The attention to detail the series is known for was all there in the beta I played — the way the characters move, their outfits, the behaviour of the animals, the fact the developers even designed a functional prehistoric language for the game — and it wasn’t long at all before I’d completely forgotten the lack of guns and was admiring a passing herd of woolly mammoths as I crouched in swaying long grass with a spear ready.

A timeline showing when the game is set.

A timeline showing when the game is set.

Since 10,000BC wasn’t noted for its abundance of arms dealers, Takkar must craft his own weapons from resources found in the world. There were several weapons available including a club, a bow and arrow, a spear and even a clay pot full of angry bees. Oh, and fire — you can ignite your club or arrows, effectively weaponising fire which is a powerful tool in the Stone Age. Fire becomes particularly important at night, when it also can be used for illumination as well as scaring off nocturnal predators.

Hunting also remains a key element of the game, according to Jean-Christophe — and it’s not just the player hunting animals. Animals hunt other animals (and humans), humans hunt animals, and it’s all going on while you explore the world, leading to what’s been described as “anecdotal moments” when someone unexpected and interesting occurs organically in the world.

“You can see a band of Udam (an enemy tribe) starting to chase a prey, they run into whatever — could be a bear, could be another tribe, could be anything — it becomes more chaos,” he said.

“Someone throws a fire arrow, it starts to burn, some animals start to run away, they’re on fire.”

As you progress, Takkar gains the ability to tame some of the wild animals in the game, including an owl which can be used for scouting and attacking enemies; more powerful animals can be tamed and unleashed later in the proceedings.

As game director Thomas Simon noted, animals are superweapons in Far Cry Primal.

“There’s no AK-47 in 10,000BC but there is a sabre-tooth tiger,” he said.

“Imagine the surprise of an enemy tribe that consider animals as either prey or an incredible danger they have to fear; and suddenly seeing this man — you — capable of controlling them.”

Having said that, Thomas reiterated the dangers the world and its fauna still posed.

“The player will have no doubt that humans were not at the top of the food chain,” he said.

Appropriately, Oros’ inhabitants do not speak English — all the dialogue is in either the Wenja or Izila languages, which are based on the real-life Proto Indo-European language which would have been spoken in the area at the time.

The graphics in this game are absolutely stunning.

The graphics in this game are absolutely stunning.

A team of linguists, led by academics Andrew and Brenna Byrd, worked to create the surprisingly complex language of the game, which is brought to life by the voice actors. The language — which is subtitled in English for conversations and cutscenes — added further to the experience for me, helping recreate a realistic-feeling prehistoric world inhabited by real, albeit emerging, societies.

A huge amount of effort has gone into designing the game and speaking with some of the creative and design team, it was clear they all shared a passion for the game and bringing it to life; for telling its story and ensuring the player felt part of an engaging, living — and very dangerous — world.

While the full game is not out until February 23 (on PS4 and Xbox One; PC gamers will have to avoid spoilers until early March), narrative director Jean-Sebastien Decant said it was a great feeling knowing the game was about to release and hoped gamers got a lot out of it — and perhaps learned something at the same time.

“It’s good that throughout the fun and the action, maybe you get to know a little bit more about the Mesolithic era and more about the prehistoric age,” he said.

“I think that a lot of people think that, for instance, dinosaurs were among man and men were cavemen.

“This game in a way is going to shed a light on a period that’s not been that much exposed in pop culture.”

Royce Wilson travelled to Montreal as a guest of Ubisoft

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