Far Cry: Primal PlayStation 4 Review: High Evolutionary

Paleolithic Europe is about to E-X-P-L-O-D-E. Does this this primordial reskinning of Far Cry 4 make us want to take up the cause of Cro-Magnon man?

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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.

This image is almost completely indistinguishable from the time I spent in Skyrim.

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.

And this one looks an awful lot like how I played BioShock.

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.

Wanton murder makes more sense in the Stone Age!
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.

You can pet your pet.

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.

Expanding the Year of the Bow into forever.

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.

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