Concocted using the formula that made Far Cry 3 the mainstream hit that it was, Ubisoft, seemingly out of modern exotic locales to dump us in, has transported us back in time all the way to 10,000 B.C. where survival is the only rule and you’re a mammoth’s foot away from having both that rule and your fucking back broken.
Primal isn’t so much a sequel to 2014′s Far Cry 4 as it is a spin-off. Nearly all of the previous game’s mechanics and gameplay loops return: you’ll sneak around outposts, conquering them by using brutal takedowns or ranged weapons to fell enemies; you’ll traverse expansive wilds, hunting animals, foraging for resources, and increasing your skillset through side quests (that usually end in prehistoric murder of either neanderthals or savage beasts). The big switch up is that you trade in your guns for a more Fred Flinstone appropriate arsenal of spears, arrows, and clubs.
That’s not to downplay how much damn fun it is to score headshots with a well placed arrow. Or the satisfaction in watching an enemy, covered in flames, flail about after you set a brush fire using… well, anything since a little animal fat and flint means you can ignite the tip of most weapons. Actually, Primal really does a great job of making players weigh their options before a fight. The removal of firearms from this series doesn’t limit you, I’ve noticed. It forces you to play to your strengths. The action becomes a little more intimate and a lot more visceral. Having to fend off an attack when you’re down to just a club made of tied-together bones truly does tickle my inner chest-pumping caveman.
The big hook in this installment, however, is the beast master mode. Because the wilds of prehistory recognize you as the badass you are – also, you went on a hallucinogenic spirit quest since Far Cry has always tried to insinuate drug use unlocks latent superpowers – you gain the ability to tame beasts like wolves, bears, and (sigh) even badgers. Choosing one furry companion at a time (I’ve never written those words before, I realize), your Beast Bro fights by your side, able to take simple commands like “Go there” and “Chew their goddamn face off.” What could’ve been a mere gimmick becomes essential to easing the flow of both combat and hunting new beasts. There’s nothing better than setting up a chain takedown and having your personal Sabertooth pal tear apart a distant archer. Or siccing your fleet-footed wolf on prey you can’t hope to outrun like deer. Being a beast master is a vast improvement over previous games’ “throw some bait and hope a tiger kills anything but you” mechanic and, hopefully, Ubisoft is wise enough to make it a series mainstay.
Despite Primal’s generous helpings of open world exploration and animal murder, the plot is achingly threadbare. Prominent in both Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 3.5 (otherwise known as Far Cry 4) was a central antagonist dripping in personality and foreboding. Primal divides big bad duties between Batari, the female leader to a clan of fire worshiping zealots, and Ull, a cro-magnon warrior host to a tribe of man-eating savages. Your character, Takkar, is thrown into the midst of the land of Oros and is quickly tasked with strengthening the scattered Wenja tribe – the one crew both Ull and Batari love to hate because… well, that’s never made clear. They’re simply painted as the underdogs of Oros because the developers needed players to know their hours of arrow-firing slaughter are righteous.
There’s enough material here for Ubisoft Montreal to say something of substance. Ull’s clan of proto-humans are slowly being wiped out by a sickness the more evolved Wenja are seemingly immune to. There could be some commentary about the new caste superseding the old but the conceit is left untouched. Batari’s Izila are a tribe with deep seeded superstitions and a cult mentality. Most writers would have a field day tackling the religious connotations of early man but, again, those allegories are outright avoided.
The half-dozen Wenja characters the game bothers naming are relegated to mission peddlers. There’s no real progression in their intents. You have a zany shaman with a proclivity toward spirit-rearing drugs, a conflict driven brother-in-arms only interested in the glory of violence, and a even a comic relief that, while speaking native Wenja, intones in an anachronistic hillbilly drawl. They all share one thing in common: they want you to go out there and kill stuff. They’re disappointingly two-dimensional – almost as much as your near mute protagonist. Characterization has actually regressed since FC3 (when a fish out of water millennial trying to play native warrior is a better character than your prehistoric beast master, you done goofed).
Far Cry Primal is at its best, like most of Ubisoft’s open world affairs, when you’re pursuing your own goals. Want to craft a better spear? Let’s hit the plains and find the right critter to hunt. Want to liberate a camping site from rival tribe clutches? Time to swoop in and show those fools the claw side of your pet cave lion. There’s an extensive, multi-terrained world to explore that features lush forests and frigid mountaintops. The ephemeral moments, like fending off a bear, or getting caught in the middle of a tribe conflict, are what makes Primal shine.
The freedom Ubisoft gets right is why we return to Far Cry. But those same freedoms make the experience feel schizophrenic when you’re doled out the same “Kill these guys/save these other guys” missions time and again or forced through a restrictive, on-the-rails story (that decidedly has nothing to say). Far Cry needs its next metamorphosis to really stand out. Its airtight action and sense of exploration have cemented a solid foundation, but there needs to be even more player agency, even more random moments. Blood Dragon was the success it was not just because an 80′s synth soundtrack (though that was 40% of the battle), but because it just went fucking nuts. Far Cry proper could do with some risk taking.
On its own legs, Primal is a plunge into familiar, though comforting, territory. It doesn’t upend the formula yet I found myself enjoying the bedrock nonetheless. Call me old fashioned but I sure as hell get a kick out of throwing spears at my enemies from atop the back of a Sabertooth. Sometimes the simple pleasures are best.
Graphics: From serene sunsets to snowcapped mountain faces, the level design is lush and lively. The game’s engine renders violence and beauty seamlessly.
Sound: The wilderness is brought to life through an abundance of fauna; the choice to have characters speak in native dialect is a nice push for immersion. The music falters, however, when it does decide to show up between sparse gaps of ambiance.
Playability: Ubisoft has hammered out an airtight control scheme to complement crunchy, fast-paced combat. Radial menus (that slow down the action) serve as a weathered but reliable warhorse.
Replay Value: There’s a bevy of occurrences and hunts to go on in service of your tribe even beyond the confines of the story; unfortunately they become painfully repetitive and, worse, unchallenging once you rank Takkar up to an adept hunter. Still, rare beast hunts and the like make up some of the more exciting activities to commit to in Oros – just be sure to mix them up to stave off that “chore list” feeling.
FAR CRY PRIMAL
Available On: PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One
Developed by: Ubisoft Montreal
Published by: Ubisoft