Ubisoft took a brave and bold decision to move Far Cry to an era where one of its most defining features would, by chronological necessity, be absent. Far Cry has always been about saving a group of downtrodden revolutionaries from some sort of despotic tyrant – usually by shooting everything in the way by using a plethora of guns, explosives and other bits of terribly destructive ordnance.
Set in a time before the discovery of gunpowder, running water, and fine dining, Far Cry Primal instead travels back to 10 000BC – the beginning of the Mesolithic period around the end of the last glacial period. It puts you in the bare feet of Takkar, a member of the Wenja tribe. During a hunt for a mammoth, Takkar and the rest of his hungry brethren (they’ve not eaten for many suns) are blindsided by a ferocious Sabretooth. The hunt gone awry, our hero sets off to fulfil his fallen kin’s dying wish; discover the promised land of Oros, and find the rest of the Wenja.
We love living in an Oros world…
To his dismay, when he gets there he finds that Oros is not the proverbial land of milk and honey. Largely that’s because neither cattle nor bees had been domesticated, but also because the Wenja lie scattered, beaten into submission by two other stronger tribes; the savage, cannibalistic Udam who live in the frozen wastes of the North, and the fire-obsessed Izila, a perhaps more civilised bunch – though equally savage in their brutality and incendiary fondness for setting things and people ablaze.
It becomes Takkar’s job to reunite the strewn and separated Wenja people, while battling off the Udam and Izila. There are no real grand overarching plots, no single tyrannical autocrat to dispense with and the intertwined political themes that run through Far Cry’s narratives here only extend so far as you’d expect from a game about people on the verge of civilisation; mostly it’s all about “me want land, me hit thing that has land.”
The narrative’s a little disappointing as a result. The game’s writers have attempted to make it a little more personal, with you fulfilling the needs of specific tribespeople and running through their own stories as the game progresses. Instead of a linear structure, you’re able to do these stories for each of the mission givers in the order of your choosing, but it feels a little flat as a result; there are no great big moments, no fantastic set pieces that help string along a cohesive story that you’re actually eager to see the conclusion of. In fact, it doesn’t even really seem like anybody is the good guy; you just have three groups of Mesolithic savages vying for the same territory, unable to peacefully coexist. I suppose though, that that’s precisely what would happen. Still, it felt like 15 hours that could have been spent doing something more engaging.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
As brave and as bold as the Antediluvian setting itself is, I do wish there had been a greater departure for the gameplay itself. For better or worse, this is still very much Far Cry. Just about everything you know and (perhaps) love from Far Cry in modern settings has an analogue in this primitive one. That is, except for those infernal radio towers. Much to my delight, I didn’t have to scale a single structure to unlock new bits of the map.
Instead of binoculars, you’re now able to command an Owl, whose eyes can mark and track targets for you. Instead of the usual outposts, where you’d have to (preferably silently) kill each guard before claiming it, you’ve got camps and campfires that work the same way. The fortresses from Far Cry 4 return; larger camps that require wits, brute strength of a combination of both to get through.
You’ll still spend much of your time killing the local fauna and skinning them, using their pelts and innards to fashion new gear and upgrade your village. Another welcome return is a Far Cry 4’s karma system, where helping the Wenja you’ll come across in Oros helps you in the long run, unlocking abilities and rewards as the population of your village grows. As usual, the map is littered with things to do; hunting challenges, a world of collectibles, treasure hunts and side activities that range from the genuinely exciting to the terribly mundane.
Bringing a knife to a gun fight
The big exclusion is of course the weaponry. Clubs, spears and slings replace guns, with the bow and arrow serving as your primary long-range weapon. As you’d expect, they’re all upgradeable – and as you convince more specialist tribes-people to join your village, you open up trees of skills and upgrades. Your standard, rock-chiselled spear makes way for a shinier, sturdier and pointier one, your bow is able to propel its arrows further. Interestingly, the game works a little like a “lite” version of your favourite survival games.
You’ll have to forage for and collect items that you’ll have to use to craft your own ammunition, magically carving arrows on the fly, tying rocks to sticks to fashion clubs and spears. I can’t say I really missed the guns much, because you’ve a far greater weapon in Far Cry Primal; the now extinct beats of the early Holocene; Sabretooths, cave lions, grizzly bears and particularly ferocious badgers are at your beck and call once you’ve mastered the ability to tame beasts. If you played Far Cry 4 and enjoyed having Kalinag’s spectral white tiger maul enemies, you’ll be familiar with how they work.
Prehistoric PETA would hate this game
Point them at an enemy, press a button and your semi-domesticated pet is off to rip an enemy to shreds. You can also ride most of your menagerie; sabretooths make for more efficient mode of transport than Far Cry 4’s vehicles, and just as in that game, you’re able to weaponise pachyderms. There are few greater thrills than stomping enemies and their strongholds to bits on the back of woolly mammoth.
And though much of the rest of the game is transplanted from previous games, the new animal masteries aren’t not the only thing Far Cry Primal does right; I particularly enjoyed the Beast Master challenge hunts, where you’d set off not just tracking down, but eventually trapping and killing bigger, more merciless animals.
One particularly exciting hunt had me chasing the very Sabretooth that killed my original hunting party. With my trusty wolf at my side, I tracked the ferocious beast, and was able to hurt it in open combat before it fled – spurring on a track and a chase, hunting the injured animal until it retreated to its den. Once there, the fight functioned much like a boss battle – but eventually, my canine companion and I were able to best the beast, who then became my new furry friend because Far Cry Primal treats its digital animals like dispensable items.
Unfortunately, Far Cry Primal is missing anything resembling multiplayer. There’s no competitive multiplayer, which is fine – but the lack of co-operative play hurts a little. Bringing in a friend to wreak havoc on Kyrat was one of the best things about Far Cry 4, and its excision here just makes me sad for the lost potential. Teaming up with a group of friends to hunt legendary animals, utilising strategy and planning could be an amazing experience, but it’s one you won’t find here.
Far Cry Primal also has some of the most annoying and frustrating boss design – taking a page, I suppose from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. While not explicitly difficult, both of the major boss encounters are the sort that have you trying to beat a big bad guy who’s a damage sponge, while simultaneously taking down infinite waves of regular bad guy NPCs. They’re neither clever nor engaging, and only serve as a reminder that you’re playing a game, and a game must have annoying boss fights because the imaginary game design manual says so.
Also from Deus Ex? Your characters voice actor is the same one that provides Adam Jensen’s simultaneously silky and gruff voice. Here it feels a little out of place, with Takkar’s voice too polished for a caveman speaking a made up language based off what’s known about the Proto-Indo-European languages of the era. While the game’s actors do their best to speak these lines with gumption, it sometimes sounds a little silly (with a few comic relief missions from a Far Cry staple making it sounds silly on purpose). Still, it’s got to be better than English with a caveman accent.
Far Cry Primal is a good game, and I’ve enjoyed the 20 or so hours I’ve spent in Oros thus far. It’s difficult not to be disappointed with the lack of narrative impetus though. Far Cry 4’s story wasn’t particularly strong, but this one’s worse. It does Far Cry very well though. It’s a great big sandbox filled with innumerable side activities – for you to explore things, kill things, collect things and skin things. The fun comes from the emergent stories you create.
Far Cry Primal was reviewed by Geoffrey Tim on a PlayStation 4