Release Date: February 23, 2016Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PCDeveloper: Ubisoft MontrealPublisher: UbisoftGenre: Action-adventure
For as good as 2014’s Far Cry 4 was, there was no denying the extreme similarities to Far Cry 3 that sort of lessened the overall experience. In fact, both games were nearly identical in certain areas, with a minor reskinned asset here or a rehashed radio tower there. With Far Cry Primal, Ubisoft sought to throw out those norms, replacing guns with sticks and stones and shifting the focus to hunting and crafting in the wilderness. And while there are still certain elements in Primal that feel a bit too familiar, even in 10,000 BCE, the prehistoric setting proves to be a strong and unexpected fit for the Far Cry universe, and it gives the series a much-needed push in the right direction for potential future installments.
Players assume the role of Wenja tribesman Takkar, who must use his natural hunting and taming abilities to help his tribe survive in the dangerous prehistoric world of Oros (somewhere in modern day Europe). Oros serves as a wonderful and inviting backdrop to this primitive tale: the visuals are vibrant and bright, with lush jungles, rocky caverns and cliffs, and tranquil water holes that beg further exploration. Environmental design is handled beautifully, using the elements and a day and night cycle to construct impressive natural vistas. The character designs and animations are all extremely top notch, and everything runs fast and smoothly from a performance perspective. But Oros is also lurking with many dangers, too. Enemy tribesmen can always be hiding behind the next bush and vicious beasts can attack and pursue you with little warning.
Far Cry Primal is very light on the story, but that makes sense given the context of the setting. You’ll start out by rescuing several key Wenja throughout Oros and bringing them back to your camp. Building new huts for these Wenja opens up a variety of nonlinear missions until you find yourself deep in the territories of two rival tribes. This open-ended nature actually works really well for advancing the story, as it feels like you are learning everything about how the world works right alongside Takkar, with support from the Wenja community you create. If there’s one thing that’s noticeably lacking here, it’s in the absence of a memorable villain like the maniacal Vaas from Far Cry 3 or Pagan Min from Far Cry 4.
Where the game excels, however, is in its commitment to the prehistoric time period. All characters speak in rudimentary fictional languages, and the range of weapons and learnableskills feels logical for that era, with clubs, spears, and bows taking the spotlight. The combat definitely favors a more stealthy approach in Primal, but once you’ve upgraded your clubs and spears, the thrilling melee possibilities burst to the surface, and you’ll soon be clubbing skulls and launching spears with powerful force (Scoring “headshots” with a quick spear jab to the face is something that never gets old). Commanding fire is also a crucial mechanic to surviving the harsh wilds of Oros, from lighting fast travel bonfires, to burning down enemy camps, to staying warm in the snowy northern regions.
Aside from foraging materials to craft new supplies, taming wild beasts is the new gameplay mechanic around which Far Cry Primal revolves. Taming a beast is easy enough: You simply throw out some bait and slowly approach the animal while it eats. After a beast is tamed, it will join you in battle and mimic your fighting styles. When you crouch, your beast will lay low and enter stealth mode. When you’re clubbing people left and right, your beast will lash out at anything that moves. You can also command your beast to attack a specific enemy. It’s definitely a welcomed addition, and one that has helped me out countless times in battle. You’ll even begin to care about your roster of animal companions, from healing their wounds with meat to reviving them if they go down in combat.
Outside of the main story, the land of Oros is brimming with side missions and random events to complete, as per the norm in a Far Cry game. Most of these deviations are par for the course, whether rescuing captured Wenja, fending off a pack of predators, or clearing enemy outposts. Others are much more involved and intriguing, specifically the master hunter quests, which task you to track, fight, and tame a rare and powerful beast in the wild. Just getting to these beasts is a huge challenge, and the fights themselves can be particularly brutal. Thankfully, these rare beasts remain wounded even if you die while fighting them, so you can essentially chip away at their health over several attempts.
Far Cry Primal is its own beast more often than not, but for returning Far Cry players, the similarities to previous installments will be readily apparent at times. And in truth, there are a lot of elements in Primal that are simply reskinned assets from Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4. Manual healing and animal skinning animations have been virtually cut and pasted, while the core hunting and crafting mechanics follow the same basic formula, though slightly more robust. Scoping out enemy locations with your binoculars is now done with your owl companion (although your owl can actually attack the targets and drop bombs on them, so it’s decidedly cooler). And of course, mounting a mammoth in Primal is just like mounting an elephant in Far Cry 4, but trampling your foes is still all sorts of fun.
Make no mistake about it, this is a Far Cry game in every sense of the word. But at the end of the day, it’s still a really enjoyable Far Cry game. The dangerous prehistoric world, addicting beast mechanics, and primitive mix of stealth and melee-based combat make the experience feel both new and alive, even if more than a few elements have been recycled from previous Far Cry games. Far Cry Primal does just enough to stand apart from its modern day predecessors, and thanks to the robust and rewarding gameplay and open-ended design, it makes me excited to see what era Ubisoft will transport the series to next.
Joe Jasko is a staff writer.