Review: Far Cry Primal and first person shooting in the stone age
The very first thing you see when loading Far Cry Primal is the current date of 2016, before this begins to quickly tick backwards, all the way to 10,000 BC.
This is a clear reminder that you are about to enter a very different world to the sort that is normally chosen for open world and first-person shooting games. Even for Ubisoft – the team that has taken us back to the Crusades in Assassin’s Creed – this is a new world, and a fascinating one at that.
Far Cry Primal sees you take on the role of Takkar, a member of the fictional central European Wenja tribe. You’re in search of the rest of his people in the land of Oros, which is said to be where they have travelled.
It’s a beautiful world too, following on superbly from the sweeping panoramas that made Far Cry 4′s Kyrat such a breathtaking location. Oros is arguably better because of the rich array of inhabitants – beasts, spirits and humans, all a mixture of friendly and fearsome – that litter it.
Its characteristics change from day to night too, with different creatures and resources appearing once the sun goes down, but as the danger levels go up as more beasts come out to hunt. Risk-reward is a central theme of this game.
In capturing the brutality, beauty, dynamics and constant tight-rope walk of surviving, Primal goes to great lengths to try and translate the harshness of this world – with varying degrees of success – but it does so without ever getting boring, and that is no mean feat.
If you’ve played any of the Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed series you will be familiar with the key mechanics of Primal.
At the heart of the game is the core aim of expanding your tribe’s standing. Explore the vast map, claiming new bonfires to reveal that area on the map as well as expanding your own territory, much like the eagle viewpoints in Assassin’s Creed and radio towers of other Far Cry games.
This in turn helps boost your tribe’s population, and over time they will begin to hunt and gather more, meaning more resources, which can be used to build and craft better weapons and tools and so on.
This is one of the things Primal does very well – to foster a real feeling of community and tribalism in you as you play. Perhaps this is because it is such a different setting to any first-person exploration game we’ve played before. Normally you feel at the top of the food chain in such situations, but that is far from the truth in Oros.
A key part of the game is also gathering the key members of your tribe needed to help it survive. Take up side missions to rescue or asset them and the skill points start to rake up. There’s Sayla the gatherer, as well as Shaman Tensay, warrior Karoosh and crafter Wogah. Each of which can have their skills upgraded to increase your own capabilities and those of the Wenja tribe as it battles to survive.
Soon this means bigger and more regular hunting parties leaving your camp, as well as scavengers, so your resources begin to swell. The goodie bags left at each of your bonfires are invaluable for quickly stocking up on key items too.
This is a shooting game where the bullets have been replaced with flint spears, stone clubs and bows, and that never gets any less interesting as you scavenge resources to upgrade them.
You’ll need these tools to fight off two rival tribes for starters. The fire-wielding Izila and the flesh-eating Udam, who you encounter first, are keen to wipe you out, trying on a regular basis to do so. Combat evolves over time as new upgrades and even beasts come into the fray, meaning tactics change, but it is always brutal.
Not only that, the seemingly endless wildlife of Oros is generally not that keen on you either. Never has a food chain felt quite so obvious in a game, with the deer and other smaller creatures fleeing the moment they see you, while you’d be wise to do the same when the wolves, bears, sabre-tooth tigers and other big cats appear.
In some ways, the wildlife of Oros is almost too aggressive. We were regularly attacked in broad daylight by hogs and badgers, even though the game suggests that it is when night falls that you should really start to take care.
Keep fighting off the over-the-top wildlife and recruit your key specialists, however, and the mechanics of Primal are undoubtedly great. There is more than enough detail and dynamics to ensure you don’t think of this just as a spin-off. The sense of ‘survival of the fittest’ is vivid, unexpectedly so, and it makes Far Cry Primal a success.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game comes when you encounter Tensay the Shaman, who teaches you to tame and command the beasts of Oros. This drastically alters how you approach beasts – they go from worrying threat to intriguing challenge to try and tame.
But also, combat becomes tactically different as you contemplate if, when and how to use your beasts to take out enemies. You can use bears like berserkers to thin the numbers, or maybe a tiger to cause general carnage. Even owls can be used to carry and drop firebombs you craft. They can also be used as scouts for the surrounding terrain to help you plan attacks, adding a layer of thought process to assaults, rescue missions and even general movement.
Stealth also becomes much more difficult with many of the beasts, and you must decide if you’re willing to forfeit that in exchange for brute force.
This is in stark contrast to the heavy-handed melee attacks that are regular early in the game.
As an experience, then, Far Cry Primal triumphs partly because of how surprising it is. It could have easily just been a re-working of Far Cry 4 simply in a stone age setting, but it has too much depth to be thought of just as such.
The lack of co-operative gameplay is a disappointment given how good it was in Far Cry 4, and there are flashes of human and beast animation that don’t quite flow as they should, but on the whole these are issues you can get past.
Primal is just that – a primitive experience solely about survival – and that is why it is so refreshingly fun.