For a game that’s set some ten thousand years before its modern counterparts, Far Cry Primal feels incredibly familiar. In the coming days you’ll no doubt see words like “reskin” and “mod” being flung around as commentators look to sum up Primal in as few reductive syllables as possible, but even though it has a lot of common ground with other games in the series, Ubisoft Montreal has managed to create something that feels surprisingly substantive, even if it isn’t entirely refreshing.
Severing its ties with Rook Island and the war-torn nation of Kyrat, Far Cry Primal takes us back to the very dawn of humanity. Battling against harsh elements while walking in the shadow of ancient beasts, it’s a brutal chapter in our existence. Tribes rise and fall with only the strongest and most cunning being able to survive in an endless cycle of bloodshed.
As Takkar, players are dropped in right at the deep end. After tracking a herd of mammoth, you and your tribesmen go in for the kill, only to be thwarted by a sudden sabretooth attack. With the hunters having been routed in all the commotion, you barely manage to escape with your life. Stumbling across another lone survivor from your scattered tribe, you emerge from a network of caves into the land of Oros.
At first sight, this patchwork of vast plains and towering mountains looks like a prehistoric paradise, unscathed by the destructive influence of mankind. At times it can be a real beauty to behold even if it is a little barren in places, brought to life by an abundance of greenery and some brilliant atmospheric lighting. However, as you start to travel beyond the bounds of your newfound settlement, a truer, more brutish picture comes into focus.
Aside from playing host to a menagerie of mythic predators, Oros is occupied by three warring tribes. In the north there is the Udam, a bestial race that feast upon the flesh of their enemies. Meanwhile, towards the southernmost reaches of Oros, reside the sun-worshipping Izila who revel in burning their captives alive. Caught in the middle of this blood-soaked sandwich are the Wenja, a small tribe of hunters who have been pushed to the edge of extinction. With Takkar’s arrival comes a new hope for this broken band of stragglers. Intent on building a future for the Wenja, players will guide him as he travels into the heart of Oros.
Compared to previous games in the series – most notably the last two – there’s much less emphasis on story in Far Cry Primal. Although the Udam and Izila help to create a sense of conflict, any form of scripted narrative takes a back seat as players interact with the world around them. That’s not to say Primal is without its memorable moments, but these often stem from the player’s own experiences as well as a handful of characters. Although earlier Far Cry games may boast far more compelling antagonists, Primal’s supporting cast is arguably the strongest in the series, despite having far fewer lines of dialogue.
With the story somewhat sidelined, playing through Far Cry Primal can often feel like pursuing items on a shopping list. With no twists or revelations to uncover, most of your time in Oros will be spent gathering the resources required to build and improve not only your settlement, but Takkar’s expansive arsenal of weapons.
Naturally, you’d be hard-pressed to spot a cache of AK-47s lying about during the stone age. Instead, players will make use of Takkar’s trusty bow as well as an assortment of melee weapons and projectiles. With guns out of the equation, this has a considerable impact on the way in which battles are carried out. Although players can still employ a mix of stealth and ranged attacks, there will be times where hand-to-hand combat is quickest, most effective means of defeating your enemies.
Although it can feel clumsy and all over the place, you’ll soon grow accustomed to charging through groups of foes, bludgeoning them in rapid succession. Of course, hunting predators will often require a change in tactic, forcing players to utilise their surroundings while employing some of the game’s more advanced mechanics. For example, the grappling hook can be used to reach higher ground while taking control of the owl companion lets you locate and tag targets from above. A number of the game’s predators can even be tamed, converting them into AI partners that can be controlled using a handful of basic commands.
However you achieve an objective, whether stealthily from afar or riding a fearsome saber tooth, this will contribute towards the aforementioned shopping list. As you move across Oros, the map will light up with all sorts of blips and icons, each one indicating a collectable or side mission. Even after completing the bulk of Primal’s story-driven, there’s much more to see and do, stretching well beyond the allotted six or seven hours it usually takes to beat a first person shooter.
If you really dig the world and mechanics then that’s great, but even then some of these optional activities can feel like little more than filler. That’s mainly due to the way in which they mimic the many side activities players would carry out in Far Cry 4 and its predecessor. From skinning a variety of exotic beasts to clearing out heavily-guarded outposts, Primal gets more and more familiar the closer you reach its end-game.
It’s also a slight shame that, for the first time in Far Cry’s history, Ubisoft has decided to completely ignore multiplayer. Instead of playing catch up with other big-name shooters, Primal’s diverse change in setting and game flow could have produced a truly riveting online experience for fans of the series.
That said, what the game currently has to offer is put together really well. Although not the best looking game available on new hardware, Primal manages to pack in an incredible amount of detail, especially when it comes to character models. The audio team also deserve a pat on the back. Although fairly minimalist, Jason Graves’ soundtrack manages to adapt perfectly as your adventure unfolds.
Even more impressive is how Ubisoft created its own language for the peoples of Oros. It’s a reconstruction of the language of the time, and one that’s delivered consistently well thanks to a talented cast of voice actors including Elias Toufexis (Deus Ex: Human Revolution) as Takkar.
Branding Far Cry Primal as a cheap reskin would be harsh. Although largely formulaic, there’s enough here for both fans and newcomers to sink their teeth into, not to mention a wonderfully realised depiction of the stone age. However, beneath this wildly altered aesthetic, for better or for worse, Ubisoft is still playing it safe. Personally, I found Primal to be far more entertaining than Far Cry 4, but even then it’s hard to overlook the series’ systematic regurgitation of ideas and concepts.
Version tested: PlayStation 4