Far Cry: Primal PlayStation 4 Review: High Evolutionary

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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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.

Mike takes on the world of early Europe in this video stream.

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.

Interface
You'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 appeal
As 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.

Sound
A 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.

Visuals
Not the most beautifully realized natural space ever, but the day/night lighting effects go a long way toward selling it.

Despite 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.

4/5

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