I can’t remember the last time I would have described a Ubisoft open-world game as “audacious.” The first Assassin’s Creed game, certainly, but since then the series has evolved more than it has been revolutionized. Even Watch Dogs, certainly the biggest departure in recent years, felt like a craven way of repurposing the standards of this publisher-specific subgenre into the most predictable environment possible.
But “audacious” is exactly the word for Far Cry Primal, which tears the franchise down to the barest of bones and builds upon those fossils in some new, frequently satisfying and occasionally frustrating ways.
Far Cry Primal is set in 10,000 B.C. The following should be obvious to you even without a degree in anthropology, but in the interest of clarity, here is what you will not find in the game: guns; vehicles; rocket launchers; hang gliders; a witty villain; a single word of un-subtitled dialogue.
“audacious” is exactly the word for Far Cry Primal
If someone slid this list across the table to you and said, “Oh, and it’s a Far Cry game,” you’d probably think they were having a bit of fun at your expense. For the first few hours, I kept waiting for Ubisoft Montreal to find some cute workarounds for the strictures of the game’s setting. A magic machine gun that shoots bone fragments? A homing slingshot?
I waited in vain. In the first hour of the game, my main weapons were a club, a bow and a spear. Twenty-five hours later as I headed into the final confrontation with Ull, the Udam chieftain making life hard on my fellow Wenja, my main weapons were a better club, a better bow and a better spear.
This is a Far Cry game in the sense that players must scour a diverse world for resources, conquer enemy bases with a blend of stealth and more ostentatious tactics, and unite a people against a common foe through their actions. But the way it expresses these ideas is an enormous departure, the extent of which is hard to overstate.
Hunting, relegated to side quests in the past few Far Cry games, shares the stage equally with human-on-human action in Primal. As Takkar, de facto leader of the Wenja people, players must rebuild their village and upgrade their weapons with a steady supply of animal skins harvested from increasingly exotic and deadly creatures. Gathering is just as important as hunting; rare trees and rocks are required for most big upgrades, and a variety of plants are needed to create boosts for Takkar’s strength, speed and fire resistance.
Taking down enemy camps can produce a new fast travel location, but the real reward is in a slight increase to the population of Takkar’s village. The Wenja have been scattered from their home by invading tribes, and Takkar is charged with rescuing them and bringing them home. Hosting more villagers translates to a slight experience boost and, crucially, an increase in skins and other resources being harvested by your people.
Even Takkar’s ability to heal himself is reliant on eating the meat of the animals you’ve brought down, so you’re almost never at a point where hunting and gathering aren’t crucial. Past Far Cry games have been domination fantasies. But Primal is about survival.
The land of Oros is brutal, and it’s only slightly less so after Takkar has unlocked all the upgrades to his weapons and his natural resistance to injury. You will never be strong enough to take on a wooly mammoth or equally savage beast without a lick of planning or strategy, and that feels incredibly refreshing in a franchise that tends to elevate players to demigod status by the halfway point.
You will never be strong enough to take on a savage beast without planning or strategy
That does not mean, however, that Takkar doesn’t become more powerful. His greatest strength, and the biggest mechanical addition to the Far Cry formula (as opposed to the many subtractions), is the protagonist’s ability to tame the predators of Oros.
Bears are ferocious, but slow. Cats are stealthier, but easier to kill. Rare varieties have special abilities, like the black jaguar, which can kill enemies without alerting their compatriots. Once breeds of animals are in Takkar’s service, they can be summoned at will depending on what the situation calls for. My impulsive desire to catch ’em all prompted a frankly embarrassing portion of my brain to create the portmanteau “Po-cave-man” (which works better out loud, if only slightly).
Also, you can shoot a flaming arrow while riding your pet saber-toothed tiger, which will be a hard act to top when “Raddest Game Stuff That Happened in 2016″ lists start popping up this December. If Takkar’s ability to see through the eyes of an owl to tag enemies before bringing down a camp doesn’t also make the list, we’re in for a very rad year indeed.
It’s hard to express how much having a persistent partner spices up the equation of combat in Far Cry. I’ve always felt a little frustrated when my attempts at stealthily wiping out enemy camps devolved into gunfights, but summoning my close personal friend the mean-ass bear to even the odds is a hell of a spoonful of sugar to help that particular medicine go down.
pets can be overzealous
Some of Primal‘s changes haven’t been honed to the laser-sharp edge of Far Cry’s more established mechanics. For example: The ability to take down unaware enemies with a single button press returns, but chains of takedowns are often frustratingly sabotaged by overzealous pets, which cost me quite a few experience points.
There’s also a bit of all-but-expected open-world instability (I fell inside rocks on two separate occasions, forcing me to fast-travel to escape, for instance). Animal AI produces some amazing organic moments that make the world feel vital and alive — seeing a pack of wolves chasing deer or goats is not uncommon — but when beasts behave more erratically, Oros feels more like a broken Disneyland ride than an untamed wilderness.
Appropriately, Primal is a game that leans into Far Cry’s basest lizard-brain pleasures. You’re getting constant dopamine hits from finding the next sapling/animal skin/cool rock that will let you become just a smidgen less killable. At the same time, it eschews the trademark sardonic humor, charismatic cast and moral dilemmas that have turned the franchise into the closest thing we have to the thinking person’s open-world shooter.
This comes at a cost. The (perhaps chronologically appropriate) lack of richly detailed characters meant that I was never particularly engaged in Primal‘s threadbare narrative. The lack of mechanical diversity led to a sameness that turned most single-player missions into something of a chore.