Far Cry Primal Review
For a hot minute, Far Cry Primal seems like it might have something to say. It opens on a clock whisking us from 2016 to 10,000 BCE, the beeps and boops of modern technology rapidly unwind into discernible clacks and clashes. Here we’re introduced to a trio of hunters stalking a young mammoth in a heard of the gigantic beasts; it’s a simple illustration of what it takes to survive in the Mesolithic period. You appear small and weak — the game’s theme of man versus nature couldn’t be more tangible.
And then, as quickly as it arrived, your sense of frailty is gone, replaced wholesale with the tropes and traditions we’ve come to expect from modern open-world power fantasies.
To be upfront about it: Far Cry Primal does a lot very well, which is no surprise since it is privy to over a decade of refinement in a popular genre. However, and this is a big “but,” your enjoyment of Far Cry Primal in 2016 will depend almost entirely on how well you think Ubisoft’s brand of rules and systems inform gameplay.
Speaking for myself, I think the modern Far Cry games have the best version of those mechanics in that style, but as you might have suspected, Far Cry Primal is largely an aesthetic overhaul of the ideas you’ve already seen in myriad titles from Far Cry 3 to Watch Dogs, the Arkham Batman games, Shadows of Mordor, and many many more.
The charitable take on Primal’s gameplay structure is that it’s a more reserved and intimate version of Far Cry 4. By removing the need for Radio Towers (or synchronizing, in Assassin’s Creed terms) and combining their function with clearing out basecamps, Primal creates a sense that your tribe —The Wenja— are conquering outwards, which fits the fiction and had me paying more attention to the actual landmass. The flip side of this is that activities and the game’s variety of weapons have also been scaled back. Truth be told, I appreciated having fewer knickknacks to collect because I found myself digging for more of them than I would have otherwise, but having fewer arms to play with undercuts some of Far Cry’s predatory gameplay. Not to mention the removal of cooperative play, which was a treat in the series’ last entry.
Beyond the framework of the “Ubisoft open-world,” Far Cry Primal’s narrative beats are disappointingly predictable —especially given the intrigue of the prehistoric setting. Ubisoft Montreal has a knack for style they’ve never lost —and I wouldn’t want to undermine the research and labor that went into producing the game’s look— but Primal’s exploration of prehistoric culture rivals about two minutes at the Epcot Center.
Narratively, the game never finds a reason for its setting other than: “what if you were a beast-master shaman-type who could have saber-toothed tigers fight for you while being friends with people who wore really cool looking animal heads for shawls?” There is an attempt at motifs of fire, ice, and burned or scarred skin, but it’s jumbled, insignificant, and undermined by the game routinely drudging up the inevitable Far Cry drug trip scene as its major expository moments.
But what can I say? I’m sucker for lovable furry companions, and Far Cry Primal is packed with them. Making friends with a wolf or a tiger and skulking through the forest hunting and gathering is a simple pleasure — there wasn’t a single moment I enjoyed more than watching my faithful brown bear wrestle with a wild, untamed one. What does bother me about the game’s wildlife, however, is how much of a beating some animals take before succumbing to the blows.
Understandably, Far Cry Primal is a violent game, and between stealth murder and skinning beasts you are going to see some gore. What irks me about Primal’s treatment of animal violence is that it simply doesn’t have a stance. Unlike Far Cry 3 and 4 which offer incentives for different hunting styles, or Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, which intentionally shows graphic and disturbingly mangled carcasses after you’ve poached a whale, Far Cry Primal doesn’t pay any special attention to what your character is doing. Which is —to be clear— slaughtering hundreds and hundreds of animals. So when I’m sitting in front of my TV, pounding a turtle into oblivion, I feel sick to my stomach, but the turtle doesn’t even seem to react — it’s just loot, nothing more. For a game where you’re lauded as a “Beastmaster,” and that expects you to develop a bond with your companions, it’s an absolutely bizarre disconnect.
Frankly, that schism is felt throughout; it’s a skeleton of systems with a theme draped loosely over it. That’s not to say that there isn’t value in a fun game unbridled by substantive plot or meaning, a game best enjoyed when accompanied by conversation, music, or a second screen, but the Far Cry series has been all that and more before. To play Primal, and bounce off shallow characters in a franchise home to performances like Michael Mando’s Vaas, is disappointing. I hate to be so reductive, but despite the high production values, the amount of content, the high cost of entry, Far Cry Primal reads like an expansion, not a fully-realized, one-of-a-kind game.
Raphael Bennett runs Castle Couch and would love to talk with YOU about games on Twitter @raphbennett