You have to applaud when a franchise veers off the beaten path and tackles something very much outside the realm of the standard first-person shooter. While Far Cry is undeniably a quality franchise, Ubisoft Montreal took a bit of a risk with the latest installment, catapulting the player thousands of years into the past, where an extremely vicious and brutal world awaits. This isn't merely a setting shift; it's also a significant gameplay shift, because now we've got an experience where survival takes center-stage. The result is a stunningly immersive adventure, one that often taxes the mind as well as the fingers. It's a lot more involved than finding meat to eat and firing the occasional arrow.
Visually, this is a solid and fearsome visual production. Perhaps "fearsome" is an odd adjective to use in describing a graphical presentation, but it seems clear the designers wholeheartedly embraced this new setting. Everything, from the terrifying sabertooth tiger to the massive mammoth, has a remarkably raw quality to it. Even when you're moving through a cave or crouching in the reeds, you get the distinct sensation that you're in a very inhospitable environment very much unlike anything humans have encountered in thousands of years. Beyond the great special effects and well-drawn backdrops, this overall accomplishment is by far the most impressive: It allows us to be a part of human history that is almost incomprehensible by today's standards.
The sound is another big achievement, as it is in any game where survival plays a consistent and highly effective role. Especially at the start, just about every little sound or noise causes you to stop, crouch, and glance about with your special hunter's vision. Why? Because you know that just about anything can hurt you, even kill you, and your rudimentary weapons and basic human strength is no match for nature's strongest, most skilled animals. You're a weak animal by comparison and that's why ambient sound is so crucial, and why I'm so happy with the result in this particular game. The soundtrack fits nicely, too, as it tries to be reminiscent of the time in question (while acknowledging that we're focusing on a time when music, like language, was in its earliest stages). Really well done.
No Uzis or AK47s or sniper rifles here. This is 10,000 B.C. and you play as Takkar, one of the few remaining members of the Wenja tribe. After a roughly described cataclysm of sorts, we learn that the Wenja splintered and got scattered all over the Oros Valley, a beautiful yet dangerous array of forests, swamps and caves. Takkar has to help rebuild the Wenja tribe by growing the base village and recruiting new members into the fold. In this harsh and forbidding landscape, Takkar knows the only way humanity can survive is if they band together and pool their respective strengths. That's why he can really use warriors like Karoosh, for example, and why the more the Wenja grow, the stronger you will become. Unlocking weapons, abilities and various items is essential, of course.
But when humans break off into separate sects, differences arise. There are three main tribes in the game, in fact, and there's definitely conflict between them, so in addition to battling nature and all its evils, you're also battling the sometimes irrational animal that is man. Now, this may sound drastically different from any Far Cry game you've ever played, but the developers do a fantastic job of retaining franchise familiarity. How you explore and progress hasn't really changed much at all; you still have outposts to capture, you can fast-travel between certain points (campsites), and you gain access to various upgrades to existing weapons. In other words, the world opens up in much the same way it always has in this series.
The biggest difference really is the palpable survival element that long-time fans may or may not like. Sure, you couldn't rush into a heavily guarded enemy compound at the start of past Far Cry adventures; being cautious and stealthy was probably a good idea. You weren't superman. However, this takes that concept to a whole new level, one that fits perfectly with the time period in question. You have to move that much slower, be that much more cautious, and that much more diligent about your inventory management. Early on, it's easy to get stuck in a bad situation and if you're not prepared, you're dead. It's really that simple. Even after you've played for a good 20 hours, you'll find that while you're certainly better off – you've got some Wenja to help and your weapons are better – you're still watching your step.
Honestly, this creates a game where subjectivity plays a large role: There's no denying Far Cry Primal 's quality, nor can you deny that it uses the standard construct and design of previous installments. However, if you have little interest in survival, stealth, patience, and meticulous inventory management; if you approached most Far Cry games with the guns-a-blazin' approach, you will be turned off by this title. That's a given. And you're allowed to be a little annoyed because it's not what you want. That being said, you should still acknowledge the effort and risk to make such a game, and you should understand that many franchises should be begging for this kind of innovation. Experimentation is a good thing and besides, it's not like we'll come back to 10,000 B.C. in the next Far Cry . This is merely an experiment…albeit an excellent one.
This is a world where vicious beasts are constantly on the prowl, and you and your fellow man are always fair game. This is a place where brotherhood and working together don't simply exist to give you the warm-and-fuzzies; they exist so you can continue to exist. No, you don't have any firearms but you do have fire and you will find that it's an exceedingly useful tool. Spears, clubs, bows, slingshots; these are also at your disposal, as are some unrealistic otherworldly skills – like your hunter's vision that is curiously like Eagle Vision from Assassin's Creed – that give you the necessary edge. You're a solitary hunter and a wanderer, and you're tasked with reassembling your scattered tribe and finding a way to survive another night rife with predators and pitfalls.
Primal is at its purest brutal best when it's challenging you to think on the fly. This is where your preparation can save you, and where your survival instincts kick in. It's what keeps you riveted and shows you just how fragile the early human really was, and why our survival was ultimately far more reliant upon our brains as opposed to our brawn. But there are downsides to this successful experiment: First up is the obvious lack of diverse weaponry. Now, the developers had their hands tied in this respect because they didn't have a huge assortment of modern-day weapons from which to choose. They had to respect the game's realism in terms of what early man could construct, so we're pretty much stuck with bow-and-arrow, spears, and a club. You can upgrade all of these but the end result still feels pretty limited.
Secondly, the story isn't all it could've been. I'm a stickler when it comes to things like pacing and character development and while this game certainly thrives on atmosphere and general immersion, a lot more could've been done with the narrative. Thirdly, I will say that while the Beast Master feature really shakes things up, I had difficulty getting into the swing of things in this respect. It's wicked cool; don't get me wrong; I love the idea of actually recruiting your foes and turning nature against itself, in a way. Having wolves and cougars on your side is a heady experience and being able to mount bears and mammoths is a big help, and really speeds up the game (a plus, because this adventure can feel plodding and tedious at times). I just think they put too much of a focus on this feature.
I'm guessing they did this because of just how limited human tools – and the human himself – really were in those times. It'd be borderline impossible to create a full open-world $60 experience, so they really make you embrace the whole Beast Master thing. It's just that it's so prevalent and so essential it feels a little forced, and it's somewhat less than satisfying to know that your animal friends are the only reason you're alive. And yeah, you do have some difficulty accepting this ability in terms of realism, though I suppose it's easier to reconcile when you consider some of the supernatural skills at your disposal. Still, if we're going to be blurring the lines of reality and fantasy this much, why not simply push the boundaries in terms of weapons and individual skill? Why rely so heavily on the beasts?
But in the end, Far Cry Primal is a healthy, well-designed, immensely immersive experiment within an established franchise. Bottom line is we need more developers to take such risks. The result is indeed a fantastic experience due to the blending of multiple genres – survival, adventure, action, first-person, strategy, etc. – and the retaining of a familiar, tried-and-true formula. This isn't easy to do but Ubisoft Montreal proves it's possible. You feel both vulnerable and empowered; you're always on the edge of your seat and every new day feels like an opportunity, albeit a risky one. The story falls shy of my expectations, the overemphasis on beasts is a bit of a disappointment, and the weapon limitation is clear. But it's still one heckuva ride and one well worth taking.
The Good: Singularly powerful and effective atmosphere. Excellent overall sound design. Solid control and technical aspects. Large, diverse, endlessly challenging ancient world. Encourages patience and rewards caution. Strategic elements bolster player involvement. Embraces the raw brutality of early man's history and places it front-and-center.
The Bad: Limited inventory of weapons. Story and character development is lacking. Overemphasis on beast taming takes power from your hands. Can feel slow and tedious.
The Ugly: "Everything about human life in 10,000 BC is ‘ugly.' And that's precisely the point."