Far Cry Primal review: the past shouldn’t stop the future

By Patrick Garratt, Friday, 26 February 2016 11:07 GMT

A spear in the eye for one of Ubisoft’s great action franchises.

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It’s fair to say this is a cynical exercise, a cash-in both on milieu and legacy. It’s a punt, and represents a sullying of the Far Cry IP. Ubisoft needs to wake up: unessential games like Primal are the sort of nonsense that screwed Assassin’s Creed.

I played around seven hours of Far Cry Primal, and that was enough. There’s a huge amount more to uncover, a whole map of beasts to tame and grunts to skewer, but I’m done. I want to go back, but I know I won’t. Primal’s a disappointing game for a number of reasons, not least of which is an ultimate failure to capitalise on its successes, and it falls just on the wrong side of worthiness.

This is a shoo-in, a bizarre entry into a franchise dominated by contemporary guns, and an undeniably opportunistic attempt to profit from the prehistoric survival wave currently being spearheaded by ARK. Here we have Takkar, a Wenja tribesman battling various spear-wielding factions to conquer the land of Oros. It really is Stone Age Far Cry, right down to the way the map opens, the hunting and the cut-scenes, but mechanical innovation and some fantastic encounters just aren’t enough to arrest the boredom of resource gathering and the platitudinous narrative.

Let’s be positive first, though. Primal contains some serious pluses, and there’s no denying you can gain pleasure here if you’re prepared to work for it. The combat is experimental and largely works, so if you’re a hardcore games hobbyist and you’re interested in seeing some inspired mechanics that will, no doubt, become influential in the near future, it’s worth a look. The removal of guns clearly presented challenges to Primal’s developers, and I have to applaud the results. When it’s in full flow, the combat feels balanced, thrilling and fresh, and you can’t really ask for much more than that. The three main weapons are clubs, bows and spears, with throwing knives and various bombs making up grenades.

What really marks Primal’s combat as new is its use of animals. An owl can scout, tag enemies, drop bombs, perform dive attacks and strategically place affiliated ground-beasts, and you can tame and use a whole host of furry side-kicks, all with different perks, to help you in the thick of the fight. Setting a giant bear on a group of enemies doesn’t get old.

The first hour.

The animal taming element is reason to take Primal seriously. Once you’ve learned the relevant skills, you can tame and use lions, bears, sabre-toothed cats and plenty more. Taming an animal is as simple as throwing some crafted bait in front of its nose, slowly approaching and holding a button. The skill in this comes in not being attacked by the beast, but it isn’t difficult to get the loving attention of a fire-proof large cat just a few hours into the story. Once beasts are killed you can revive them from a menu using red leaves, a collectible resource, and you can ride the larger animals, such as bears and sabre-toothed tigers, meaning your travel times are greatly reduced. You can also stroke your jaguars and wolves, which is impossible not to do. Working with the animals to overcome challenges, alongside the general combat, is probably the most enjoyable element of the entire game.

Unfortunately, there’s too much lacking in the rest of the package. Far Cry’s obsession with young topless women of colour is now beyond tedious, and the script is just trite (if occasionally amusing: the “piss man” sections made me laugh). I know this is a caveman fantasy, but One Million Years BC was made in the 60s, you know? You can’t erase verbs from cliches (like what all the cavepeople did because they all spoke like the native Americans in John Wayne films, innit) and expect them to stop being cliches.

While it’d be unfair to utterly condemn Primal for its hackneyism (even the mighty Rise of the Tomb Raider had its B-movie moments), tedious elements in its progression structure are unforgivable. Primal’s biggest crime is its reliance on forcing you to gather hunting resources to move on. There’s a massive random element in hunting any animal in Primal, so if you go to an area marked on the map as being populated by wolves, you just have to walk around forever until you happen across one. This isn’t optional: you can’t upgrade dwellings in the village to unlock vital skills, and you can’t craft essential items, such as winter clothing to protect you when you’re doing missions in the north of the map, unless you hunt. This is what stopped me playing. When you hit a difficulty spike, you have to power-up. That’s fine, but if that means walking around in circles in a wood for a completely arbitrary amount of time waiting for a random spawn then you can keep it, frankly. Boring people isn’t a desirable feature.

The removal of guns clearly presented challenges to Primal’s developers, and I have to applaud the results. When it’s in full flow, the combat feels balanced, thrilling and fresh, and you can’t really ask for much more than that.

This brick-walling is worsened by probably the most telling feature omission in Primal; there’s no co-op, despite it being included in Far Cry 4. I’m guessing, but completing all the extra work required to include online play in an untested setting was probably too great a risk, meaning you can’t call in a partner when things get tough. It’s just infuriating. This is 2016. When you hit the bosses, and with them a hefty difficulty spike, your first instinct is to request help. There is none. It’s a black mark.

I can’t help but compare Primal to Rise of the Tomb Raider, and hold the earlier game up as an example of how the contemporary single-player action genre is still growing. While Rise showed great advance over its predecessor, Primal reverts to the past (no pun intended). Crystal Dynamics’ giddying mastery of mixed mechanics and player compulsion was a year-stopping game for me, but Primal spends far too much time throwing you back into the enormous world and refusing to let you progress. The optional stuff in Lara’s latest was just that. If Rise of the Tomb Raider is wow, Far Cry Primal is why. I don’t think I’ve played anything so obviously concocted by marketeers for some time.

All of which adds up to a game of conflict. I don’t want to call Primal lazy, because it isn’t. There’s some serious, accomplished development here. It’s clear much thought has gone into combat, structure, progression and world-building, and the presentation is incredible. But I think it’s fair to say this is a cynical exercise, a cash-in both on milieu and legacy. It’s a punt, and represents a sullying of the Far Cry IP. Ubisoft needs to wake up: unessential games like Primal are the sort of nonsense that screwed Assassin’s Creed.

While there’s some long-odds return on Primal’s gambling, there’s no escaping the truth that this is the most incongruous, patchiest Far Cry game released since Far Cry 2. I can recommend it as a cut-price curio in a few months (weeks?), but I’d be wary about shelling out at full-price. There’s just too much wrong with it.

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