Ever since modern humans' ancient ancestors first stood on two feet, prehistoric people faced a never-ending fight for survival. Ubisoft attempts to give gamers a taste of that struggle in Far Cry Primal, an open-world, first-person, action-adventure title that's a mash-up of movies like The Clan of the Cave Bear and The Beastmaster with games like Tomb Raider. But mechanics and storytelling techniques rehashed from previous Far Cry games keep Primal from evolving.
As in Assassin's Creed, another popular Ubisoft series, the when of Far Cry Primal is just as important as the where. Primal rolls back the clock to 10,000 B.C., somewhere in Central Europe, placing players in the middle of a battle for survival against the rigors of nature, and against other humans.
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Takkar, the protagonist, is a hunter from the Wenja tribe who's on a quest to find his lost tribespeople in the land of Oros. Along the way, he encounters the brutish Udam tribe and the sun-worshipping Izila tribesmen, who have been capturing Wenja for nefarious purposes. It's up to Takkar to save his people and take his place as their leader.
A Whole New World
Primal's open-world game play employs a nonlinear main story, which makes this title noticeably different from the numbered Far Cry games. Once you arrive in Oros, you can tackle the game any way you see fit. (As a committed completist, I've been popping side missions like cans of Pringles.)
The main missions introduce you to the main cast of characters, including influential tribe members, whose help you'll need to build your village. Primal is married to the usual open-world missions types: escort, fetch, destroy and collect. They're fun, but can get tedious after a while.
Because Far Cry Primal is set in prehistoric times, there are no guns. Your arsenal will consist of a bow and arrow, a spear, a club, and stone-hewn throwing knives called shards. Each weapon or tool is upgradable over time, provided you've got the necessary components. (I got pretty proficient with a bow and arrow, and was able to take out a goat or Neanderthal with a head shot at approximately 50 yards.) Collecting animal skins, minerals and plants is an important part of Primal, and this fits in with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Wenja.
Like Kyrat in Far Cry 4, Oros is a breathtaking land of extremes. You'll encounter rolling, grassy plains and redwood forests so dense that sunlight struggles to break through. There are icy, snowcapped mountains, with temperatures so intensely cold your character will die in about 5 minutes without the proper clothing. As I ran from mission to mission, rescuing Wenja and cutting a bloody swath through my enemies, I reveled in watching butterflies flit through the air as a herd of deer grazed in an open pasture and the sun set in the background.
Meet the Neighbors
Like Assassin's Creed, Primal scratches my humanities itch, mixing in juicy nuggets of fact in a broth of creative license. The cowrie shells worn as identification by the Wenja tribe were included by the game's developers to refer to the migration of Africans into Europe, and to the use of the shells as currency in many cultures around the world. The Udam, the substitutes for Neanderthals in the game, appear to pray to a Mesopotamian fertility goddess — historically impossible, but it made me smile to see the statue.
Ubisoft was so dedicated to creating a veneer of historical realism that its developers worked with anthropologists and historians to research the clothing and culture of Stone Age humans. Research time was also spent on the racial appearance of the three groups. Because the Wenja and Izila are meant to be nomads, there's a clear mix of ethnic backgrounds in both tribes, with some people having dark skin and dark hair, and others fairer skin with lighter hair.
Ubisoft also worked with a pair of linguists to create speech based on proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of most European and Indian tongues, to approximate a language that might have been spoken in the Stone Age. The resulting subtitles made me feel like I was watching a high-end foreign film — right before I brutally clubbed someone to death. The fictional language is one of my favorite parts of the game, but I'm not sure how many gamers like to read while they play.
Make no mistake that outside of the struggle of ancient man versus man, Primal is very much about the struggle of man versus wild. The title begins with Takkar and several other Wenja tribe members on a hunt for woolly mammoths. From then on, Primal delights in reminding you that humans are not the apex predators in this world, throwing in a menagerie of wildcats, bears of various sizes, crocodiles and even badgers that are ready to make you into a meal. The predators kept my head on a swivel while I was exploring, but I also sustained serious injuries from attacks by boar, deer and goats.
Although most of the game's fauna are active for the full 24 hours on the in-game clock, things get more intense once the sun sets. Predators that might have shied away in the light are much more aggressive at night. It's more than a little disconcerting to see a pack of wolves bearing down on you, snarling, eyes glowing against the inky blackness.
But the animals are not all bad. Once you reach a certain point in the game, you'll unlock the Beast Master ability. Like the protagonist of the 1982 B-movie and its sequels, you'll have the power to tame and control animals, sort of like a prehistoric Dr. Dolittle. So far, I have 10 members in my animal army, including a white wolf, a cave lion, a dhole (an Asian wild dog) and a brown bear. Larger animals, such as my bruin friend, can be ridden thanks to the Beast Rider perk; let me tell you, riding a saber-toothed tiger into a group of hostile enemies is exhilarating.
There are plenty of other wow moments in Far Cry Primal, such as going on trippy vision quests. At its core, Primal is a continuation of previous Far Cry titles, delivering tight game play and interesting characters in yet another beautiful sandbox for gamers to play in as they see fit. But the true star of this game is Ubisoft's commitment to the details, such as creating a 9,000-year-old language.
As pretty and entertaining as Primal is, however, I can't get over the feeling that I've played this game before — because I have. Storming outposts, searching for collectibles in every nook and cranny, riding large animals into battle, and hunting and scavenging — it's the third time Ubisoft has drawn from this well for the Far Cry series.
While the formula is more polished than in the previous two entries, it would have been nice to get some innovation this time around. For instance, there's still no way to defend yourself in the water, which opens you up to attack from the large, carnivorous fish that populate many of the lakes and rivers in Oros.
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I have a couple of other gripes. Other than the goal of protecting the Wenja from the Udam and Izila, it never feels like the game has an overall arc, which is disappointing to fans of a good story line.
Takkar is a bit wooden as a main character. Despite being an extraordinary warrior who can tame the most ferocious of animals, he is outshined by the colorful allies and enemies around him. Aside from declarations that he will kill so-and-so from whichever tribe a mission is centered on, he doesn't stand out as a character. It's the same complaint people had about Ajay in Far Cry 4.
Overall, I'd recommend Primal for newbies looking to get in on the Far Cry series, and fans who are looking to satisfy their craving until the next numbered entry is announced. But gamers looking for a title with a little more meat should look elsewhere.