Fair warning: I’m not actually a big fan of the mesolithic/neolithic Stone Age setting, in general. I’m not saying it’s a bad setting – hell, it’s one that’s totally under-served in gaming – but it’s one that doesn’t have much of an impact for me. If you think it’s the best, most interesting setting ever, then bear that in mind throughout this review of Far Cry Primal. It’ll doubtless make a bit of a difference for you. Not enough of a difference, perhaps, but…
Anyway, Far Cry Primal. The latest in Ubisoft’s series of staggeringly beautiful open-world murderthons is, in a number of ways, a pretty radical departure from the last two games. Rather than placing us as an outsider in some sort of dangerous, lawless modern-day area, we’re shunted back to 10,000 BC, as an unapologetically rugged member of a Stone Age tribe trying to establish themselves in the somewhere-in-Europe land of Oros.
No guns. No cars. No protagonist who’s never killed another person going on a killing spree. No radio towers, for crying out loud.
Instead, we’re Takkar of the Wenja, and we’re trying to expand the Wenja tribe’s influence throughout Oros and deal with the other two tribes. There’s the Udam, a cannibalistic northern tribe that resemble neanderthals; and the Izila, a sun-worshipping tribe who like to make blood sacrifices. Then there’s the Wenja, who… actually have no real major characteristics. We’ll be revisiting that.
Rather than guns, you have bows, clubs, and spears. Rather than grenades, you have boxes of angry bees (which, as usual, I consider to be the best thing ever). Rather than binoculars, you have a spiritual link with an owl who can swoop over enemy villages and outposts, and tag foes for you. Or replicate Far Cry 4‘s eagles and claw somebody’s face off. Or drop bee bombs on them, which is also the best thing ever. Seriously: more weaponised bees in games, please.
Takkar quickly becomes known as the Beast Master, as he’s capable of taming and commanding a great many of the wild animals that inhabit Oros. Throughout almost all of Far Cry Primal you’re accompanied by at least one of these potential buddies, ranging from wolves to jaguars to bears, and each of them provide some sort of buff. Wolves growl to alert you to nearby enemies. Leopards can silently kill enemies. Badgers scare the shit out of every other animal in Oros. All of them can join you in fights.
Admittedly, taming them mostly involves “throw a piece of bait and then hold down E”, which has seriously made me reconsider my admiration for basically every profession involving dangerous animals.
They can all be commanded in a fairly simple way: hold down Alt to make them heel, or aim with the right mouse button and press G to order them to move somewhere or attack somebody. And that’s about it.
Still, despite these changes, this is definitely a Far Cry game. There are no radio towers, but there are bonfires and outposts to capture. There are random contextual quests in the environment, plus main quests, plus a huge open world, plus skills to be upgraded, plus a bloody massive crafting system.
The latter comes largely at the expense of money (no pun intended). Far Cry Primal, being set in 10,000 BC, has no actual currency, so all of your weapons are crafted. If you want to make a better club or upgrade a hut in the village, you need to find the resources for it. This makes hunting and chopping down random trees a much bigger part than it has been in the past, although thankfully, you also receive a daily allowance of free materials, and you can disable search animations. You can disable search animations!
The village crafting thing is a neat idea, but one that doesn’t really pan out. As you complete quests and side-events, you get new villagers, and hitting certain thresholds mean you get more free stuff every day and you get bonus experience. There are also “named” characters – the quest-givers – who have their own huts, and upgrading their huts gives you access to more stuff.
At least, that’s the theory. In practice, building the hut unlocks the skill tree related to each of those quest-givers, and upgrading it to its second (and final) level gets you… not much. Occasionally a new upgrade for one of your tools, but usually just a lump sum of experience.
The shift to this era also comes with a few other positives and negatives. Everyone speaks in a made-up language, but rather than being random noises, it’s a made-up language. You’ll hear recurring words and, bit by bit, start to understand snippets of it. The downside is that this means things which aren’t subtitled (like random barks as you walk past people) are completely unintelligible, but as a language nerd I really liked this touch. It’s also nice that some of the words appear to be linked to words that would pop up in the game’s distant future – the word for “bear”, for instance, sounds quite close to “ursa”.
Unfortunately, it also means that a lot of the more interesting weapons are gone, and there’s a big shift towards melee combat. You do – quite literally – have three primary weapon categories: clubs, bows, and spears. There are a couple of variants of these (one-handed clubs and two-handed clubs, and there are three different types of bow depending on whether you need long-range sniping or close-up speed) but it isn’t the sort of Far Cry where you try out loads of different weapons and modifications, and bring what you need with you depending on what you’re doing. You bring everything with you, and can easily craft more spears or arrows in the middle of combat. No hurriedly hunting for a new gun or some ammo, here, and you’ve usually got at least a dozen healing items on hand if you get hurt. This hurts the game quite a lot.
And, well, the melee combat isn’t really that good. It mostly comes down to “click to do a quick attack, hold the button down to do a charging heavy attack), and learning which enemies you can easily take on in melee and which you need to stay away from. Picking off guards in an outpost, freeing a caged beast to cause a distraction, disabling alarms, and then getting caught out and taking everyone else on in a hail of gunfire and grenades (or, er, arrows and bees) is still a thing, but it’s one that’s a lot less interesting simply because the combat itself doesn’t feel nearly so varied. There aren’t many enemy types, and only one of them honestly feels at all threatening.
There are also no vehicles, which means traversing the landscape can be a bit of a pain in the arse at times, but you can ride certain animals – as long as you’re not prone to motion sickness, because holy shit, they bob up and down a lot. Still, there’s something about lobbing spears from the back of a sabertooth tiger while charging through an enemy outpost that fills me with a childlike glee. Even if it does ruin my chances of getting a stealth bonus for that outpost.
There are two other downsides, too. For one thing, there are very few memorable characters; there’s no Vaas or Pagan Min, who have instead been replaced by a pair of incredibly dull cookie-cutter villains. Even the quest-givers are, with a few exceptions, pretty bland, and as mentioned above the Wenja have basically no defining characteristics barring “generic Stone Age tribe”. Considering Far Cry 3 and 4 both managed to do interesting things with their “protagonist” factions, that’s a bit sad. Go watch Far Cry 4‘s intro section on YouTube again, and then go and find Far Cry Primal‘s, and you’ll see what I mean by the sudden lack of personality in the game.
Basically, a huge amount of the game’s character has been lost and the story is practically non-existent, with the main plot essentially being “do quests until you can fight the bad guys.” On the plus side, it’s probably the closest Far Cry has gotten to being an actual “open” game, in that the “fight the bad guy” quests are actually available pretty early on and can be done in whatever order you so choose. And there are a couple of half-decent set pieces, but – barring a couple of the trippier sections and one of the final missions – nothing overly memorable.
For another thing, this untamed land means that there are dangerous animals everywhere. In Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4, a wild animal being let loose on a camp was either a pleasant surprise or a stroke of your own tactical genius. In Far Cry Primal, this not happening is the exception. When a random event mission popped up, like “rescue the Wenja from his two captors”, it was a 50/50 chance as to whether or not I’d even get there before the captors and the Wenja were set upon by wolves or cave lions or dholes or whatever. Sometimes I’d finish quests successfully without raising a finger thanks to animal interference. Sometimes I’d fail them before I got there. Animal attacks have shifted from being a cool little “living world” feature into something incredibly irritating, particularly with the renewed focus on melee combat. Chasing down a wolf that’s performing hit-and-run attacks on you isn’t fun; it’s annoying. On the plus side, watching a cave lion (that’s somehow caught fire) rampage through the undergrowth and murder the hell out of everything nearby is hilarious.
The PC version is largely pretty good. It ran super-speedily for me with most everything set to High rather than Ultra, usually hanging around above 60FPS and occasionally rocketing up to 90. It’s got FOV sliders and a benchmark tool and, ooh, all sorts of things. In terms of controls it definitely feels like a port rather than a “version”, though – you’re going to be using weapon wheels and the like, and the E key is contextually used for absolutely bloody everything, which will get on your nerves when you try to loot a corpse next to a campfire and find that not only have you looted the corpse, but you’ve set your spear on fire.
It also has one really weird issue, which I hope is exclusive to me, but I kinda doubt it is. Because of this issue – and I really don’t say this often – I really, really suggest you play with aim assist turned on.
For whatever reason, Far Cry Primal‘s mouse controls seem to have a sort of “dead zone”, where moving the mouse in tiny increments isn’t registered by the game. By and large, this isn’t a big problem… but when you’re trying to line up a headshot on a moving target from some distance, and you need to move the mouse just a tiny, tiny bit, and the aiming reticle doesn’t actually budge unless you move it further than you want to, you’re going to get annoyed. At first, in fact, I thought the mouse needed cleaning… but no.
With aim assist on, this is a lot less of an issue because you’ll get the headshot without needing pinpoint accuracy. On the other hand, it’s not something you should have to do. (And yes, I tried upping the polling rate and various other things, but those tiny incremental movements are definitely picked up by everything that isn’t Far Cry Primal. It might be exclusive to me, but I’m damned sure it’s not an issue with my mouse.)
Apparently, we can’t have a Far Cry game without some sort of mouse problem. I really hope this gets patched quickly, because it took me a few hours to get used to it, and until then the game felt nearly unplayable.
None of this – that mouse issue aside – is to say that Far Cry Primal is a bad game. It’s one that tries to remain Far Cry while doing its own thing, and I applaud it for that, but a lot of the changes aren’t for the better. I like the new environment, but I miss the character. I like the beast taming, but I miss the weapon variety and customisation. I like the uncharted wilderness, but I don’t like how regularly the wildlife fucks with what you’re doing. I like the crafting, but I groan at the amount of resource gathering it requires. I like the bee grenades, but… actually, no, I want bee grenades in everything.
As a smaller, Blood Dragon-esque experiment, Far Cry Primal might’ve worked really well. But as a full-fledged game in the series, the repetitive nature of the tasks, the numerous little irritants, and the notable lack of character leave it feeling too empty and stretched out.
Its biggest crime is that, for all its wild beauty and open freedom, Far Cry Primal feels bland – and that’s something that no game with “Primal” as a keyword should ever be.