Played on: PlayStation 4.
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4 & Xbox One.
Pre-historic times haven’t often been explored in video games, and even less so in franchises that typically fall under the ‘first-person shooter’ genre label – the reasoning there, I would hope, is fairly obvious (but just in case… it’s because there weren’t any guns back then!). This, however, hasn’t deterred Ubisoft who have taken their Far Cry franchise back in time to somewhere circa 10,000 BC when guns and explosions weren’t a concern, but pointy sticks and sharp teeth most definitely were. In Primal you take on the role of Takkar, a member of the Wenja tribe, as you explore the land of Oros and rescue your people from the dangers of a stunning but hostile pre-historic environment and the threats of rival tribes.
This setting might seem like a strange departure for the franchise and, superficially, it is what with the high powered weaponry usually associated with Far Cry games replaced by sticks and stones (and yes, they do break bones!). Underneath this new setting, however, the same Far Cry heart beats, for better or worse, leading to an enjoyable and exciting experience that, for the most part, feels just feels far too familiar.
The biggest change for Far Cry Primal, when compared to its predecessors, comes from the removal of all of the guns and explosives. As these things were not invented back in 10,000 BC (though it’s likely a franchise like Assassin’s Creed would try and make you think otherwise), Takkar has to rely on a range of bows and arrows, clubs, spears and hand-crafted ‘grenades’ (bee grenades. Yep. BEE GRENADES!) in order to conquer the land of Oros for the Wenja people. Despite the lack of high-(or any)-tech weaponry you’re still able to choose to approach situations in the way that best suits you, either by moving silently through the undergrowth, or conspicuously raining flaming arrows down on your unsuspecting foes. These options will be instantly familiar to those who have played Far Cry 3 or 4, as will many other features of Primal’s gameplay. In fact, some of the mechanics ported over from the previous Far Cry games are a little too far-fetched for Primal’s setting. Takkar uses an owl instead of a pair of binoculars to highlight enemies from afar, and has a rudimentary grapple hook to help him climb cliffs, both of which seem more than a little incongruous with Primal’s pre-historic backdrop. Primal’s reliance on its mini-map and hunter vision mode also don’t fit so nicely in the context of a 10,000 BC environment, with the former displaying so much information that you end up being too reliant on it and spending more time looking at it than on focusing on where you are going, and the latter highlighting important things but ruining the game’s stunning visuals; more importantly both break the sense of immersion that Primal’s pre-historic setting strives to encapsulate.
The main new feature of Far Cry Primal is the ability to tame some of the animals you encounter, essentially recruiting them to aid you in your travels and battles. Wolves, lions, saber-toothed cats, bears and badass honey badgers are just some of the animals you encounter and can tame as you travel throughout Oros, and should you choose to you can set about completing your roster of companions almost immediately. You can then have your beasts at your side as you travel around Oros, using them to attack enemies, scare away other predators, or track and kill other animals. Beasts also have unique skills that make them better at stealth attacks, or better at taking down multiple enemies, and some rarer animals are even fire resistant (who knew, huh?). Your beasts can be injured, and even killed, but you can always revive them with a generous helping of red leafs, or you can simply tame another (though this isn’t so easy with some of the rarer animal types). The AI of these animal companions is mostly good, though they can get in your way in enclosed spaces and they do sometimes act with an agency that is a little frustrating. My saber-tooth was particularly fond of picking fights with packs of woolly mammoths, which invariably led to me trying desperately to resuscitate it whilst being charged down by a large creature able to kill me with one strike.
Taming beasts is a nice new addition to Far Cry’s gameplay, but it is a shame that the process itself is so simple. Takkar simply needs to throw out some bait, crouch walk up to whatever predator it is your taming, and then with the press of a button the beast is yours. This gameplay mechanic just feels too important to the narrative of the game to be this undercooked. I also would have preferred to have fewer animal companions; not necessarily less on offer in the game’s world, but definitely less at my command. The game would have been far more tactical if you had to think about which animals to have on your side, and the ability to improve your beasts skills and abilities and perhaps even name them would have helped this mechanic feel a lot more robust, whilst simultaneously helping you to develop a relationship with your chosen few beasts. As it stands in Primal it’s actually a lot easier to just go and tame another saber-tooth than it is try to rescue your current one from a horde of angry stampeding mammoths.
It’s a shame that Far Cry Primal doesn’t do more to advance the franchise forward as a whole too. Capturing outposts, exploring caves, finding resources, choosing skills to upgrade, and improving weapons are all things that you will have done countless times before in Far Cry games and it feels like Primal would have benefited, somewhat ironically given its setting, by looking further into the franchise’s past. Far Cry 2’s often frustrating and punishing approach to survival probably would have worked really well in Primal. Resources are too common across Oros and the stakes just aren’t high enough thanks to skills that put every leaf on your mini-map, or that vastly increase your chances of picking up the rare resources needed for the best equipment upgrades. Primal attempts to include survival elements in to its gameplay too; clubs can burn and break, meat is needed to heal your beast companion, and winter clothes are needed to venture into the snowy North, but none of these elements are developed in enough detail to make Primal feel like a genuine fight for survival in a pre-historic land. Whilst Ubisoft were clearly happy to borrow from Tomb Raider’s recent focus on survival elements, and from ARK: Survival Evolved’s gameplay mechanics, it seems they weren’t quite as willing to put in the effort and time required to make these ideas really work.
To Primal’s credit, however, it is a stunning game with an almost flawless performance throughout. It’s clear that, after finding their feet on the current generation of console hardware with Far Cry 4, Ubisoft are now more than comfortable pushing these machines to deliver a beautiful and smooth gameplay experience. The lush greenery of Oros looks stunning during the day, with the sun shining through the heavy tree canopy and the water glistening. At night, things are just as impressive with the hazy darkness broken up by moonlight and the distant glow of camp fires. It’s a shame, however, that there isn’t any dynamic weather at play in Primal’s Oros as this could have potentially created some truly amazing scenes. I do, however, appreciate that this may not have worked so well with Primal’s fire-related themes and so this may have been a purposeful choice. There are some small quirks in Primal’s graphics, such as an odd shimmering effect on animal fur, but overall things look excellent, and I didn’t experience any frame rate drops in my 20+ hours of play time.
That play time number is important too as there’s no mulitplayer in Far Cry Primal at all. Instead the focus is purely on the story campaign, and it’s not really surprising that Primal has abandoned competitive multiplayer; the franchise has never been able to play in the big leagues here anyway. It is a shame, however, that there isn’t a co-op experience included in Primal as this feels like a missed opportunity to team up with friends to hunt Oros’ wildlife in the same vain as the game’s opening act.
This review may sound very negative – and in many ways it is – but that is because Primal has so many familiar elements that do so little to push the franchise forward. After all, even without turrets, cars and alarms, a Far Cry outpost is still just a Far Cry outpost whether you are conquering it with a sniper rifle and rocket launcher or a spear and cave bear. With that said, I am really enjoying my time in Primal’s world and I really do think that this is down its pre-historic setting. The removal of guns and explosives is a brave move for a franchise that is traditionally regarded as a first-person shooter and despite feeling so familiar, Primal does somehow manage to feel a bit different. Perhaps even a little bit special. It probably helps that I’ve always enjoyed Far Cry’s tendency to set you loose on a big open world to tackle its mysteries as you see fit, though.
You also can’t criticise Primal for being short on content. Between the main story, the village missions, the caves to explore, the locations to discover, the items to craft, the beasts to tame and the skills to upgrade, there are hours and hours of things to do in Oros. I have barely touched the main story, but I am enjoying what I have played of it so far (except for the now obligatory franchise drug-induced fantasy trips), and I’ve never been short of things to do when roaming around Oros’ terrain. I’ve spent most of my time liberating outposts and hunting animals to upgrade my equipment, and when all is said and done, whilst I’ve done all of this before on both Rook Island and in Kyrat, I am still really enjoying doing it again in Oros. It’s worth noting that Ubisoft have worked hard to create a feeling of authenticity too, with the languages used in the game actually based on real pre-historic languages.
It’s the setting of Primal, and the ability to tame beasts, that really makes up the game’s appeal. Had you been playing as another gun toting man roaming the landscape seeking vengeance for some reason or other then Far Cry’s formula would feel really tired. However, by going back to the unexplored era of 10,000 BC Primal manages to continue to do what the franchise does best, whilst feeling familiar but also enjoyable. Primal also avoids the biggest problem from Far Cry 3 and 4; the fact it took a non-native action man to come in and fix everything. Sure, Takkar is still the chosen one of his people, but at least he is one of them and not some American white man coming along to save the day.
Overall Primal is a polished and fun entry in the Far Cry franchise that uses its pre-historic setting in order to add new elements and switch up the flow of the general gameplay. The elements underpinning that gameplay are, however, overly familiar and it’s a shame that the survival, crafting and taming elements feel so under-developed. Fans of Far Cry will find plenty to enjoy in Primal, and pick it up very easily (especially as Oros’ map is so suspiciously similar in layout to Kyrat’s), but gamers who felt tired of the franchise’s formula by the end of Far Cry 4 are unlikely to find enough new features here to chase those blues away. It is perhaps ironic then that a franchise that has decided to go back so far in time has left itself in a position where it needs to make radical changes in the future to remain interesting. One to buy for dedicated Far Cry fans, but one to rent for everyone else.
Images from http://far-cry.ubisoft.com/primal/en-gb/home/