The best part of Far Cry Primal was when I tracked a huge, deadly bear back to its den, intent on convincing it to be my best friend.
I had been hunting this special bear for a while, tracking it after it ripped through villages and tore up various cavefolk in the area around where it lived. Switching on my special “hunter vision” let me see its tracks glowing bright red on the ground, and I could easily follow them from heaping pile of mangled flesh to heaping pile of mangled flesh, a trail of destruction to make clear just how tough this was all going to be.
Finally, I discovered its cave. Just as I began to set traps for our final confrontation, like Arnold prepping to take down the Predator, the bear was upon me. My pet saber-tooth fought valiantly but ultimately fell in battle. He provided just enough distraction for me to lay an ambush or two and then hurry out of there, using my prehistoric grappling hook to swing over a fissure in the cave, narrowly avoiding a swipe of the bear’s huge claws.
After many, many spears to the face and several incidents of just barely climbing out of reach of the creature as it barreled toward me, I finally beat the bear. Then I held down the “X” button down for five seconds, it was tamed. After that, I stormed a Neanderthal camp with my bear buddy wrecking every foolish Fred Flintstone who didn’t know enough to flee in terror.
These are the best moments of Far Cry Primal: when the game goes out of its way to provide big, bombastic action and give you plenty of tools to make it feel like your own. There are lots of times when Far Cry Primal can be fun and exciting, as you command your owl to attack a scout, snipe another lookout with your bow and bash a third with your club before you’re spotted. But it’s an uneven experience, filled with busywork and dispensing with all but the barest semblance of story. Far Cry Primal is about wandering around the wilderness doing caveman things, and that’s both the best way for it to present this formula, and the most you can ever expect from it.
With the addition of being able to tame and command animal companions to the Far Cry formula, Primal encourages even more creativity.
It’s 10,000 BCE in Far Cry Primal, and you’re Takkar, a member of the Wenja tribe. Long ago, some of your tribal kin left for a rich, lively land called Oros. On your way to find them, you’re attacked by a saber-tooth, all your pals die, and you find that the remaining Wenja in Oros are beset on all sides by mean invaders. One group kills and eats Wenja; the other enslaves them. So your goal is to reunite the tribe and slaughter everybody who looks at you the wrong way.
You’ll battle a ton of members of these rival tribes through the course of the game, using all manner of primitive weapons like clubs, spears, arrows, sharp rocks, bombs that spew bees, and fire. The Far Cry games are great about providing players with a lot of options and the mandate of “go nuts,” and with the addition of being able to tame and command animal companions, Primal encourages even more creativity. You can use your owl to scope out an enemy position, ride in on a mammoth and crush everything, or send in your sneaky jaguar ahead to kill a bunch of guys without being spotted. You can turn enemies against one another with poison, set your bear aflame and send him careening into the enemy village, or sit calmly up on a cliff, raining arrows down onto unsuspecting primitives below.
None of it is particularly new (apart from the animals, of course), and it’s not especially deep — you point your animal at what you want it to kill and it fights until one of them is dead — but it is often a very effective use of the open world insanity that has defined the most recent Far Cry games.
The trouble is that when you’re not riding a bear or accidentally burning down half a forest, you’re engaging in a lot of menial, repetitive tasks. Often, Far Cry games (and open world games in general) boil down to big To Do lists full of a ton of side junk, not all of it interesting. You can, of course, ignore a lot of it — like spending time crafting newer, better gear like spear belts and arrow quivers through combining the right ingredients in menus — and that freedom to specialize and selectively invest in the game’s mechanics is central to the appeal of these open world affairs. Some of it, however, you can’t skip: you need to constantly gather wood and rocks and other junk to make your weapons, several missions only unlock from skinning the right animals and bringing back the right wood to upgrade your village’s huts, and if you want new animals buddies or gear, you have to hunt for them.
It’s the Far Cry open world formula of hunting, gathering and crafting taken to its barest extreme, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. There are “story” missions to complete, but they’re usually just variations on the theme of stuff you get up to when you’re wandering around on your own — clear an outpost, kill a bad guy, hunt an animal, save some tribesmen. What narrative and characters are included are incredibly thin.
The last two Far Cry games received quite a bit of criticism for issues with their stories, and it seems Ubisoft Montreal’s response here was to say, “Okay, we don’t need a story, then.” So mostly, Far Cry Primal becomes a game about crafting.
To be sure, all that hunting and gathering and menu-hopping does pay off, if you’re willing to invest the time and irritation in completing it. With upgraded spears and clubs, firebombs and bee grenades, and wolf and tiger friends, you’re a formidable force and you’re able to choose a variety of paths to complete any given objective. It just takes a lot of time working with Far Cry Primal’s simple, semi-dull systems. Sure, you can always run off and do something else, but if you want to be able to reliably best the late-game missions or complete the game’s four Beast Master hunts (like the bear one described above), you’ll have to spend some time crafting sooner or later.
So on the whole, Far Cry Primal is a mostly fun mixed bag. You can ride a saber-toothed tiger! But you have to find and kill a bunch of badgers to upgrade your house and unlock your best skills. You can hunt a legendary, super-angry woolly mammoth! But you’ll have to grow your tribe up to the right level by completing randomly generated, repetitive rescue missions out in the world. You can free the Wenja people from bad folks everywhere! But you’ll wind up having a lot of repetitive fights of the same basic makeup along the way.
Far Cry Primal is packed full of stuff to do, just like every other open world game in publisher Ubisoft’s growing stable of the genre. It does some interesting things by applying the formula to a Stone Age setting, but like other Far Cry titles, it’s so broad that most of what it offers is simple, quick, and repetitive. In bursts, wandering the Stone Age lands with your bear bud in tow can be quite a bit of fun — but in larger doses, it turns out that even being a Prehistoric beast master is a day job that has its share of boring, menial tasks.