Ubisoft are widely ridiculed for the bloated open world design of their games. Markers for side-quests and collectables cover mini-maps like flies on a dead cow's arse, offering little fun and inspiring little more than the basest kind of completionist gaming.
Assassin's Creed, Far Cry and let's face it, probably Tom Clancy's The Division when it's released next year, could all use a lesson in stripping things down. For one of those series at least, this may actually be happening.
Announced this week, Far Cry Primal is a spin-off from the PETA-baiting series set in the Stone Age 12,000 years ago. This means basic weaponry, extremely basic weaponry actually, unless Ubisoft's developers stretch things as far as they possibly can and the game's primitive protagonist crafts a Gatling Slingshot out of a mammoth's spine and a few wolf spleens. It appears however, that the game will primarily feature bows and arrows, spears and variations of each – probably involving fire.
In focusing on crafting, simple combat, and surviving in a world full of dangerous wildlife and rival tribes, Primal is taking Far Cry back to its most basic elements. There will be no assault rifles, grenades, wingsuits or hang-gliders. That may well sound like the game is stripping away some of the most fun elements of the last two Far Cry games, but in doing so Ubisoft has the opportunity to strengthen the series' core.
Far Cry 2 laid the groundwork, but it was Far Cry 3 that realised the full potential of the then eight-year-old series. Far Cry 4 did little but offer more of the (very fun) same, improving it but in no revolutionary way. Big sales success came with those latter two games, undoubtedly because of the refinement of ideas that resulted in something that feels unique in the big budget market.
The joys of these games have been in their settings and the stories that naturally unfold. In Far Cry 4 players could be pinned down by a group of enemies only for a wayward rhino to pass by and take exception to their Jeep. In Far Cry 3 a firefight could veer too close to a group of cassowaries and unleash pure terror, or a frantic escape from certain death could mean a hurried swim across a crocodile's boudoir.
Sometimes Far Cry's fun involves the modern weaponry: attaching C4 to an elephant, panicking when a tiger is nearby and blowing it to the moon with an RPG, that kind of thing. All aspects of what Far Cry currently is play a part in the fun to be had, but removing a significant number of these aspects means a chance to improve the fundamentals.
In Primal players will survive in a world of viscous wildlife, starting as the hunted and eventually becoming the hunter. The interactions with wildlife have made the recent Far Cry games popular and successful, and in Primal how players interact with that wildlife will change. Taking down a bear wasn't exactly easy before, but it'll be tougher with just a pointed stick and some rocks, forcing players to think tactically, run and hide when needs be. How the developers engineer the relationship between player and the life in this world when the power isn't so unevenly distributed could hugely benefit Primal, but also the series beyond it.
Players won't be the dominant, powerful ruler of the kingdom – at least initially. If done right, the player shouldn't be the focal point of the world, around which everything else revolves like in 3 and 4. The primordial world of Oros should be an ecosystem that works when the player is not an active participant in its goings on.
If the game properly fulfils its initial promises then Ubisoft should learn a lot about open world design, but that will depend if Far Cry Primal is really as different as we've been led to believe. Even if it does lean on a few too many old crutches, by even trying to take things in a new direction Ubisoft might just secure the future of the Far Cry series. Even accidentally.