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Jeremy Parish, Primary Reviewer
Read the updated verdict on page two.
An odd realization occurred to me about two hours into playing Far Cry: Primal: I was having the damnedest time telling my play experience apart from Skyrim.
Of course, the two games are quite different in many ways, and all I need to do to differentiate them is have a look at Primal's streamlined skill tree, or duck into a cut scene where my primitive protagonist grunts at his filthy, rag-covered caveman companions. Primal may offer an expansive open world, but it's minuscule compared to that of even the tiniest Elder Scrolls game, with far fewer mission objectives and much less variety in terms of play.
In practice, though — in action — my approach to Primal has fallen into the familiar groove I created for myself over far too many hours with Skyrim four or five years ago. Crawling through the grass; inching my way from place to place; relying on stealth to get me safely across the deadly, predator-packed wilderness; and, of course, preemptively taking out every threat from a safe distance with headshot-centric archery. Heck, there are even woolly mammoths, albeit without giants to tend the herds. All that's really missing in Primal is the magical ability to vanish into the shadows by crouching out of my enemies' line-of-sight, and the perpetual threat of dragons swooping down to die and glitch through the scenery. But it's close enough.
This isn't a complaint or a criticism; on the contrary, this is how I'm most comfortable playing open-world action games. Open-world action games don't always present the option of playing them my way, so I'm grateful when the opportunity arises. Skyrim, Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid V, and now Primal: Huge adventures perfectly happy to let me approach them with the meticulous, glacial, cowardly play style that suits my personality. In fact, Primal practically necessitates it. The game's melee combat is pretty terrible, and despite the game's overall tone quickly veering away from any pretense of realism in order to translate shamanic mysticism into core play mechanics, there's no equivalent to offensive spell-casting.
This suits me fine since, as I've said, creeping through the underbrush and relying on silent archery to win the day is how I'd prefer to be playing Primal anyway. I could see the game disappointing someone hoping for more variety, or for the opportunity to play more aggressively. I suppose you could try doing that, but it doesn't seem like it would be much fun. But that seems to be true of Primal in many ways: Depending on how you approach it, it could be a fascinating and engrossing game, or it could be a rote, mechanical experience. To be completely honest, I expected Primal to be the latter, so to be afforded the freedom to experience the former comes as a welcome surprise.
Without question, Primal is simply the latest in the seemingly unending succession of "Ubisoft formula" games. It does say "Far Cry" on the box, after all, but you might be surprised by how little this game attempts to reinvent the wheel despite being set several millennia before the wheel was actually invented. Every trademark element you've come to expect from nearly a decade of open-world Ubi games is here... perhaps looking a bit more unkept than you're used to, but present nonetheless.
If you've played Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, or Watch Dogs, you know exactly how Primal works. You take missions from a handful of key non-player characters, build a home base where you can access regularly replenished consumables or view your progress in a sort of hall of trophies, and roam across the land guided by icons that populate the map as you seize key tactical points. Far Cry 4's fortresses are now primitive bonfires, but the effect is the same... and your conquest of these forward positions is marked by a screeching bird passing overhead, just to remind you that you're not really so far removed from Assassin's Creed despite the prehistoric setting and first-person perspective.
On one level, Primal feels like a terrible missed opportunity. By stripping the series of even the vaguest hints of modern existence, including recognizable language, Ubi had the opportunity to completely change its paint-by-numbers approach to open-world design. Instead, we're simply given paleolithic equivalents to the elements of other Far Cry games: Taming animals instead of running around with allies, using an owl to scout the landscape instead of flying rickety helicopters, a club lined with serrated fangs in place of standard melee attacks. It's gruntier and more animalistic than other Ubi games, but the routine's about the same.
Really, the biggest change to the series' design comes from the lack of firearms here: Your standard array of weapons consists of clubs, arrows, and spears. It feels rather limiting, though there's something to be said for the requisite change in tactics. Most interestingly, you can set your weapons ablaze in order to liven things up: Flames spread somewhat realistically, and you can use sweeping grass fires to drive enemies or create a barrier. Or you can use it to soften up tough enemies. Bears and mammoths can soak up quite a few spears, even to the face, but set your weapons to burn and the flames will catch in their fur and sap a creature's strength as it flees, making the task of hunting it down for the kill far easier.
But I suppose the idea behind Primal's unconventional setting wasn't to create an opportunity to redefine the Far Cry series. Rather, the point was to recontextualize the familiar. And, truth be told, it generally succeeds. The rules and mechanisms of Far Cry's universe seem a lot more sensible when they involve primitive man. Of course you're foraging key resources as you hunt, because after all, you're the leader of a hunter-gatherer tribe. Even Far Cry conventions (the hero's destiny being conveyed through some sort of ritual hallucination) make a lot more sense here. And the white-savior clichés that have left people shaking their heads at the past few entries in the series cease to be a concern when you control a member of the same knuckle-dragging primitive tribe you're trying to lead to salvation.
The setting itself goes a long way toward selling the game. Rather than playing out in a tropical jungle, Primal takes place in the woods of central Europe (presumably Switzerland, given the steep mountains on all sides). The woods feel dangerous, especially at night; beasts cry out in the distance, and sound becomes as important as sight in ensuring you don't stumble heedlessly into a deadly apex predator. Even your owl — your mystic eye-in-the-sky — isn't always effective, as dense forest canopies can obscure its vision. Primal, especially at the beginning, seems carefully crafted to make you feel helpless and small, a weak and desperate little man poking at the darkness with a pointed stick.
That changes as you play, but I'm quite a ways into the game and I still tread carefully. Not to mention slowly, and — most importantly — somewhat haphazardly. It would be possible to play Primal like any other Ubi game, to set down some sort of system for methodically clearing the game. In fact, I understand that's what my co-reviewer Mike has done. But for my part, I'm happier not taking that approach, of crawling through the underbrush the way I did in Skyrim. I'm enjoying Primal far more than I have any of Ubi's other recent titles, because the danger that lies between its key map points creates a sense of tension lacking in the company's other output, and I'm content to simply explore the map to see what new sights I can stumble across.
I had hoped Primal would be a reinvention of the Ubi formula, but instead it plays more like a justification for the formula. We'll see if I still feel the same way once the credits roll... but for the moment, it's proven to be quite compelling.
Mike Williams, Second Opinion
Far Cry Primal is a rather safe evolution of the modern Far Cry series, but I agree with Jeremy that the new setting is probably the game's biggest strength. Moving the franchise beyond rough copies of modern day Indian Ocean islands or Nepalese mountains helps immensely. Taken back to Stone Age and the valley of Oros, everything that is "Far Cry" begins to make sense.
Hunting and skinning? Takkar is a hunter, that's how he lives and feeds his tribe prior to the start of the game. Crafting gear and weapons out of skins, meat, wood, and stone? Weapons made of those materials are all you have available to you, because there aren't handguns or rifles in Takkar's time. The indiscriminate murder of tons of people? That's the opposing tribe and there's no real law enforcement or even the concept of ethics yet.
At one point, Takkar chugs a pair of eyeballs from the corpse of an opposing tribesman and goes on a crazy trip to follow a large naked stone statue in an ice cave. I just went with it. It's the Stone Age and that's thousands of years ago, so let's rock on, Far Cry Primal.
Thematic consistency is important. It allows us to make sense of things we're doing in a game. If I'm playing a game set in medieval times, I'm not going to be building a railgun without the developers doing a bit of legwork to explain it. While Jason Brody and Ajay Ghale didn't really make much sense as hardened killers who could craft weapon holsters out of random skins, Takkar is already living that life. I've enjoyed Far Cry 3 and 4, but Primal is the first time where I've thought, "Oh, wow. Everything just fits here."
Crawling through the underbrush, activating your hunting senses to track your prey, taking careful aim, and letting an arrow fly feels good. Oros is all wilderness. Sure, there are tribal camps of various sizes littered about, but those are mere degrees away from the untouched land itself. You feel like you're carving out a place for yourself and your tribe, dispatching opposing tribes and making sure the wildlife doesn't kill your friends.
That Skyrim feeling Jeremy is talking about? It's not just the melee combat or frequent use of bows and arrows, it's how the world lives around you. You'll frequently come across a tribesman (friend or foe) fighting a bear, or a jaguar hunting a pack of deer. Once I watched a pack of wolves get their faces stomped in by two mammoth. Or there was the time I was about to attack a occupied camp, only to have a wolf do the hard work. The simulation isn't perfect and unlike Skyrim, it resets when you leave, but it's good enough for this theme park.
Sticking with Bethesda for a moment, let me say that I think Far Cry Primal has a better version of the settlement idea put forth in Fallout 4. You can do so much more in Fallout 4's system, but the game doesn't justify its use. Here in Far Cry Primal, as you save your fellow tribesmen and gather supplies, your original cave-bound camp expands to fill the local valley. People mill about, bridges are built, and named villagers have their own unique homes. It feels meaningful and even leads to further missions to undertake and skills to gain.
If Far Cry Primal let me down a bit, it's probably in the new animal taming system. It's not that taming and controlling animals doesn't work, I just find that it makes the game a bit easy at times. Once you gain your first companion, you can send your pet to do the hard work if you don't feel like it. Any damage your pet takes can be healed via meat, which you'll likely have tons of from random hunting. If the pet dies, re-summoning it isn't that hard. And taming new beasts isn't particularly difficult either; the hard part is really finding the unique animals' stomping ground. If you want a challenge, it's better to go solo. But I admit, it's sometimes fun to watch your animal friend rend faces.
I enjoy Far Cry Primal more than I liked Far Cry 4. The actions are the same, but the setting makes familiar elements much stronger. The new settlement system adds a layer of meaning to your overall actions that the previous games lacked. And Oros is a fun playground, one where you can watch all life fighting for survival, just like you are. I still need to complete the campaign, but what I've played so far - I clear open world maps before finishing story campaigns and I'm most of the way through Primal's map - it's very good and worth your time if you enjoyed the previous games.
You know, I've played enough Ubisoft open-world games that I really ought to realize that the whole experience changes after you make some progress through the story. In my earlier comments, I wrote about how tense and slow-paced Far Cry: Primal feels as you creep through the wilderness armed only with primitive weapons. But that's only because I hadn't really taken the time to explore the possibilities inherent in taming wild animals, one of the game's central mechanics — your protagonist's alias is the Beast Master, after all.
Initially, controlling beasts seemed more of a supplemental aid. A cave lion skulking up for the kill? Neutralize it with bait and turn it into a friend. Use the owl to spy on bad guys or scout for dangers. Sic a wild dog to distract enemies while you line them up for an arrow to the skull. That sort of thing. As my palette of summonable creatures expanded, though, I came to realize just how diverse and essential a role Primal's animal companions truly play.
Your companions vary in terms of more than just appearance — roaming around with, say, a badger is an entirely different experience from entering combat with a cave bear or riding a sabertooth tiger. Large animals make it much harder to employ stealth, so while you can easily get the jump on enemies with a jaguar at your side, trying to sneak up alongside a brown bear is worse than futile; it'll actually draw enemies' attention to you.
Which isn't to say you should avoid using those apex predators as your fuzzy pals. They can dish out a whole lot more damage than most enemies can deliver in return, and you almost never have to worry about being caught unawares by prowlers. Wild predators will turn tail and run when they realize that tasty-looking pink monkey-thing is best pals with the top links of the food chain. Different companions are more effective than others at warding off assaults; badgers, for example, are small enough that wolves and jaguars will completely ignore them... to their own detriment, since the tamable badgers in Primal are a YouTube meme in video form, willing to take on animals of any size, immune to poison, and even capable of reviving themselves from death. Other companions offer different boons, be it the ability to slip up and take down human enemies unseen or a helpful tendency to forage for resources in quiet moments.
In any case, the tougher form of animals obviate the need for meticulous stealth. Mastering some high-level companions is the differences between crawling painstakingly through the underbrush with "hunter vision" activated at all times and casually dashing through the jungle. Once you learn to spot the difference between friendly humans and members of hostile tribes, you can move brazenly through the world and slip into stealth only when you spot bad guys nearby... whose ranks you can then thin out with your owl and other companion before mopping them up yourself.
Surprisingly, despite the incredible potency of the more powerful animal companions, only a handful of unique creatures are gated behind high-level quests. Once you gain the general ability to tame animals, the only thing preventing you from heading out and immediately befriending a sabretooth is the skill points you have to spend to unlock that ability.
In general, Primal doesn't do much to obstruct progress. Besides learning to control animals, the only other real obstacles you face are matters of climate and navigation. These challenges are resolved fairly quickly through primary quest lines, and in the long term they don't pose too much of a challenge. As with many other things about Primal, however, they fit the game world perfectly and make for a much more elegant open world experience than usual. Rather than blocking off portions of the world because of some arbitrary restriction like the police or whatever, Primal creates limits that make sense: You'll freeze to death without the knowledge of creating cold-weather gear, and you can't reach a high cliff without a grappling hook. (Never mind that rope wasn't invented until considerably later than the era in which Primal is set; as anachronisms go, it's a fairly harmless one.)
Perhaps not surprisingly, Primal's greatest weakness comes from its narrative. The problem isn't so much that the story hangs together loosely in order to afford players maximum freedom in its open world, but rather that honestly there's only so much you can do to create a powerful, emotional story for characters who speak in guttural sentence fragments and drift towards racial caricatures at times. (The beast-shaman who basically amounts to a human version of Rafiki from The Lion King treads perilously close to uncomfortable territory.) Essentially, Primal explores the last days of the war between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon man, with an inevitable outcome. Although there's some mysticism involved, what with the protagonist's uncanny control over beasts and his lurid visions of fertility fetishes, Primal avoids adopting the lunatic metafiction that its cousin franchise Assassin's Creed uses to contextualize its journeys into the past. In this case, though, a little external intrigue might not hurt, because otherwise it's a lot of filthy people in animal skins grunting about establishing their primacy over other tribes.
Where Primal's setting fails as the basis for telling a powerful tale, though, it excels at creating an interesting sandbox to play in. Even after you acquire powerful animal companions whose presence allows you to stride fearlessly through the wilds, Primal remains intriguing. Mechanically, it feels more restrictive than similar games, since you rely largely on primitive weapons for combat — not necessarily a bad thing most of the time, though you really feel it when the designers funnel you into spaces where you lose access to the companion creatures. In those moments, the game usually becomes aggravating, as it really doesn't hold up to that form of play.
On the whole, though, Primal manages to take the Ubi template and do something not precisely new with it, but something engaging all the same. You may have trouble empathizing with the game's clumsy warriors, but the thrill of riding a cave bear into battle against a throng of cavemen remains one of the most surprising video game experiences I've had in a while.
InterfaceYou'd be surprised by how much a caveman has in common with a sci-fi super soldier. Standard fare, with tons of pop-up notifications and waypoints.
Lasting AppealAs with most sandbox games, it depends on how deeply you're willing to invest in the world and the collectibles. The central story is quite brief.
SoundA huge part of the game's appeal, especially in the early hours, which see you nearly helpless in the jungle; every animal sound echoing through the night will make your breath catch.
VisualsNot the most beautifully realized natural space ever, but the day/night lighting effects go a long way toward selling it.
ConclusionDespite being built on the skeleton of previous Far Cry games — its map is literally an overlay of Far Cry 4's! — Primal manages to stand apart from other open-world sandbox action games through the sheer novelty of its primitive setting. Although the emphasis on bow hunting and woolly mammoths can give a bit of a Skyrim vibe, that quickly fades as you gain full mastery over the protagonist's ability to summon a variety of deadly beasts into combat. The writing fails to make its primitive heroes anything more than one-note lunks, but the primordial nature of the game world complements the action and ultimately makes up for the underwhelming story.