You can ride a bear in this.
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: February 23, 2016
Copy provided by publisher
I have to hand it to Ubisoft. After Far Cry 4 played it safe and delivered more of the same to a tiresome degree, Far Cry Primal represents a dramatic departure in theme, adding new meat to an old skeleton. Though it is unmistakably Far Cry, Ubi’s prehistoric jaunt is exactly what the series needed to get its energy back.
Set in the fictional European valley of Oros, Primal takes us back to 10,000 BCE and into the loincloth of Takkar, a hunter from the beleaguered Wenja tribe. Beset on two sides by the cannibalistic Udam and zealous Izila, the Wenja struggle to eke out a living in a harsh world populated by predators and threatened by desperate conflict.
The narrative presentation is true to Far Cry‘s roots – melodramatic first-person cutscenes lead to missions that involve typical “protagonist gets captured a bunch” missions and the occasional trippy dream sequence – but exposition is a noticeable step up from previous games. I found myself drawn to the plight of not just the Wenja, but the fears and cultures of their antagonists as well, as Primal fully realizes a diverse cast of characters.
Supporting characters are numerous and likable, with their own silly quirks and humorous interludes, while the main villains are oddly sympathetic despite their initially cruel actions. The Udam leader, Ull, strikes a particularly resonant tone the more he’s encountered.
A big part of the story’s success lies in how much effort’s gone into devising each of the three tribes. Drawing from Epipaleolithic inspirations, Primal does an impressive job of creating three very distinct factions in the Wenja, Udam, and Izila, each one boasting unique dress, architecture, and behaviors.
Even more remarkable is the script, which uses a fictional language built from the Proto-Indo-European tongue and boasts three distinct dialects for each tribe. This language (translated via subtitles, of course) is a huge part of what makes this story the best in the Far Cry series.
I was skeptical about my ability to root for stone-age people so readily, but Primal is fantastic at making its ancient characters relatable, as well as amusing – there’s a surprising amount of comedy, especially when Takkar is recruiting the more isolated and unstable Wenja personalities.
With Far Cry going Mesolithic, some dramatic changes have been made to the old formula – guns are out, with the traditional bow becoming a focal ranged weapon. There is a far greater emphasis on melee combat, with a brutal club that serves to be an unwieldy but powerful ally, and spears that can be thrown or thrust into the opposition.
I’ve got to say I find Primal‘s combat more gratifying than in any previous game. Takkar’s club feels perfectly ferocious, and battles are faster and more chaotic than ever before. That said, I would kill for some adequate blocking or dodging to accompany the melee offense – there’s just no suitable defensive moves when the clubs are out and swinging.
As Takkar unlocks new crafting abilities, a few liberties are taken with history in order to provide some exotic and fun sub-weapons – bombs that explode in a cloud of deadly bees, poisons that turn enemies against each other, and a range of fire-flavored armaments.
By far the most important new addition to the combat is Takkar’s Beast Master ability. Many prehistoric creatures roam Oros, ready to be hunted for skins and meats. A number of them can be tamed with bait and turned into lifelong allies, giving players the power to command lions, wolves, bears, and saber-toothed tigers.
Most importantly, you can ride some of them. It’s rather pleasing.
From the lowly dhole to legendary boss creatures, these archaic beasties accompany Takkar and can attack enemies on command as well as provide potential passive bonuses. Bears draw aggro from opponents, while wolves extend the range of the minimap and growl when danger is close.
Takkar can also summon an owl at will, which players get to directly control, flying overhead to tag enemies, drop various bombs, or directly swoop down to murder somebody. Yes, it involves a suspension of disbelief to accept that this otherwise nonmagical cave man can see through the eyes of one random bird, but it’s fun to dig one’s talons into some post-Paleolithic prick’s face regardless.
These new toys are draped around an intensely familiar structure. Skill progression, crafting menus, and combat techniques such as takedowns all return from previous Far Cry games, but delivered in this new context they benefit from a genuine sense of freshness. Without the usual guns to fall back on, battles are more personal and vicious, while extra caution is needed when trying to engage from a distance.
You acquire power quickly and go from feeling like prey to predator, but you’re never allowed to feel invincible, and you’re always readily reminded this a world where everything’s trying to smash and/or eat you.
Animal companions cannot be relied on fully, as they may quickly become overwhelmed and will need healing with meat. Some enemies are able to launch poison bombs, or wield fire, and are more than capable of taking an unwitting player down in seconds. Predatory animals are abundant, moreso than in prior games, giving Oros a beautiful but ultimately perilous atmosphere.
As is common for pretty much all Ubisoft games these days, Primal‘s sandbox of distractions is an absolutely overwhelming affair – stuffed full of nebulous content including collect-a-thons and repetitive side missions. There is a whole bunch of bonfires and encampments to capture in order to unlock fast travel points, and you’ll be expected to gather a ton of resources in the wild to craft useful gear.
Far Cry‘s religious adherence to busywork makes for a cluttered world map and the sense you’re chipping into a mountain with a plastic spoon, especially as it takes some time to work out what tasks are worth pursuing and what one’s aren’t.
There are most certainly some great side activities to indulge in off the beaten path, including brilliant hunting missions that see Takkar tracking and taming Oros’ most dangerous animals, and a number of fun optional quests given out by important Wenja tribespeople.
Even with all the content padding, Primal is so much more engaging than past releases thanks to a memorable environment that’s vastly entertaining to explore. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the settings for Far Cry 3 and 4 anymore, having found nothing truly lasting about them. By contrast, Oros is a rich land full of distinct areas and terrain that one grows to fondly regard as home.
The Wenja village, in particular, is wonderful to watch grow, as Takkar gathers materials to upgrade specialists’ huts and draw more people to the fold.
It helps that you just don’t see worlds like this often in the big budget gaming space. Free to explore a rarely tapped vein of creativity, Ubisoft has created a striking and special place. It makes a change from drab cities and war-torn jungles.
Primal is an eminently pretty game both in terms of the artistic and technical, though some bugs get in the way of things. I encountered nothing game-breaking, mostly physics glitches that saw characters floating in the air or clipping through solid objects. The bugs I witnessed were funny more than aggravating, even if they did spoil the mood sometimes.
In addition to the great linguistic work and authentic vocal performances, sound factors heavily overall into Primal‘s world building. The way clubs smash into skulls or big cats scream in the woods makes for a damn evocative presentation. Combined with beautiful character animations (the look of shock on an enemy’s face before it’s bashed in is incredible) and a colorful backdrop, the audiovisual production is stellar.
Ubisoft’s latest open world dalliance can’t quite shake all the shackles that made Far Cry 4 a dreary affair, but the dramatic switch to prehistory and the associated gameplay elements easily balance out those wider series shortcomings. The Stone Age was a bold move, and the gamble’s paid off in spades, delivering an action-adventure game that gets its cake and eats it too – treading well-charted ground while being able to look and feel completely unique.
Far Cry Primal is a great example of trying new things in a smart and relatively safe manner, demonstrating how a popular series can keep itself invigorated.
While other venerable franchises like Call of Duty are afraid to challenge themselves and make only halfhearted gestures toward invention, Primal plots a course through uncharted waters with a battle-tested vessel and actually commits to making its new ideas more than vapid window dressing.
You can ride on a goddamn bear.