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Hands on: Far Cry Primal

Bring a spear to a flaming bear fight in the prehistoric wild of Far Cry Primal

Prehistory feels like the perfect setting for Far Cry in Primal, with hunting, taming animals, and fighting cavemen all working well in the series’ formula.

The last few iterations of the Far Cry series have taken place in huge open worlds that have excelled at providing players with distractions.

With Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4, players could take on all kinds of tasks. You could hunt animals to craft better gear, gather plants to create medicines (and drugs), clear outposts, hang glide and drive across the country, race to return packages, take part in drug-addled hallucinations, and if you really felt like it, help to liberate oppressed people from evil bad guys.

The sheer volume of activities available has led to the games sometimes feeling more like an amalgamation of stuff to do than a unified experience. Jumping into a game as young men with no military training who suddenly become amazing with automatic weapons, fully capable of wilderness survival, and resilient enough to battle and kill hordes of bad guys, has made the series feel, well … weird.
That’s why Far Cry Primal could be the best rendition of the series’ recent formula to date. It’s the first Far Cry title where hunting, gathering, and fighting all seem to make sense.

Beast Beats

Primal is set in prehistory, a world with woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers, where tribes of primitive humans are at war with one another. As a member of one particular tribe, your job is to use spears, clubs and fire to kill members of the other, take over their lands, and set up new settlements for your people. All the forest-wandering, animal-fighting systems of Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 make a lot of sense in that context: you’ll do some hunting and gathering because you’re literally a member of a hunter-gatherer society. You wander the jungles and live off the land.

Of course, Far Cry Primal is a Far Cry game, and so you have a seemingly supernatural power — you can almost instantly tame animals and make them do your bidding, turning them from vicious attackers to loyal minions in seconds. It’s this capability that really defines Primal, because you’ll not only be sneaking through the forest, dispatching enemies with arrows; you’ll also be siccing your attack cheetah on unsuspecting neanderthals and riding mammoths into battle.

Related: Far Cry Primal lets you tame wolves and ride a mammoth

The system is a simple one in practice, but as was shown during a hands-on demonstrations last weekend at the PlayStation Experience event in San Francisco, everything in Primal is about gathering and creating the right items. To tame an animal, you need bait to lure it or distract it so you can get in close and do your mammoth whisperer routine. To get bait, you need meat. And that means you need to hunt the various wildlife roaming the forests.

Primal doesn’t change much of the underlying formula of Far Cry 3 and 4, but it recontextualizes a lot of it for the better.

With bait in hand, players can tame animals that will then follow them around, go to the place the player commands, and fight any enemies that happen by. It’s a dynamic that tends to ground the player in Primal’s setting: you’re not just a person dropped in the woods and shooting anything that comes in contact with you, like in past Far Cry games. You’re actually working with the nature that comes in contact with you.

That little change goes a long way to making the world of Primal feel more alive than the jungles of Far Cry 3 or the mountains of Far Cry 4. Lots of animals are potential allies, and you’ll spend time worrying about making sure your animals are okay: if they get hurt, you can feed them to restore their health, and even take a second to pet them. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a small touch that helps pull you into your “Beastmaster” role.

Animal Pals

Animals play an even larger role in the Primal experience than just being a companion to kill guys with. At any point during the demo at PSX, it was possible to call on an owl to recon an area from the skies above. You adopt a third-person view of the owl (just how that happens doesn’t seem to actually make sense, but just go with it), using it to spot enemies, animals and prey.

Far Cry Primal

The owl is another tool in your arsenal, in fact. Its “hunter vision” highlights important stuff on the ground below, and you can send it to attack animals or even people with its razor-sharp talons. Plus, the death-from-above nature of fighting bad guys with an owl is always satisfying to use.

You can set just about any of your weapons on fire.

In addition to the owl, you can only have one other animal in your control at a time, so when you tame a bear, for instance, the wolf that was following you around will bail. But it doesn’t become un-tamed — in fact, it just waits around for you to call on it. Primal includes a menu that shows which animals you’ve tamed, and you can instantly call one whenever you want (provided it didn’t die last time it was with you). The PSX build included a tamed bear in that menu, so of course that was running around with me for the rest of my session once I discovered it.

Different animals obviously have different capabilities and levels of resilience, and this was never more apparent than when hunting with the bear. Smaller animals take damage quicker in battle, but they’re obviously more agile. The bear’s approach to fighting was to literally just tackle its prey and tear it apart, and that goes for anything from a boar to a spear-wielding caveman.

Caveman Combat

The PSX demo culminated in taking down an “outpost,” an event common in the last two Far Cry titles wherein players clear out an enemy camp in order to take it over. With the bear in tow and the owl checking things out from the air, it was easy to get the lay of the land; a few cannibalistic neanderthals were hanging around, and nearby is a big horn they can blow to call reinforcements.

As in other Far Cry games, how to deal with this particular situation is pretty fluid. It’s possible to storm the front gate, send an animal in ahead of you, snipe away with a bow and arrow from a high vantage or sneak in and stealthily take everyone down. And if you’re feeling really adventurous, you can set everything on fire.

Far Cry Primal

Far Cry is a series known for having unpredictable, fast-moving flames, and that’s a major portion your arsenal in Primal. You can set just about anything you’re carrying on fire — your club, your arrows, your spears. And everyone can be set on fire, too, turning your bear or your enemies into screaming flame-spreaders that can quickly change any encounter into a full-on ecological disaster.

So of course, after assessing the camp from a high vantage, I started setting it on fire.

Related: Far Cry Primal takes the series to the Stone Age next February

A frontal assault seemed out of the question, given the disparity in numbers, even with the bear to help out. Primal’s lack of machine guns makes it a lot harder to barrel into foes and hope for the best. Your primitive weapons aren’t any less effective in laying low your enemies — stone spears to the head are particularly satisfying, in fact — but everything is much slower and more deliberate than in Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4. “Sting bombs” seem more like distractions; your animal companion is handy as backup or a diversion in battle. But bumbling into enemy locations gets dangerous in a hurry, especially when you can’t just start blowing everything up or mowing down the opposition.

You can almost instantly tame animals and make them do your bidding, turning them from vicious attackers to loyal minions in seconds.

The fire helps, though, because it’s dangerous and is effective in driving bad guys or controlling their movements. Flames are a great deterrent for animals, as well, in fact: beasts you encounter in the wild are naturally afraid of it, so you can use a flaming club to drive them back and give yourself some space to breathe. In the camp, the fire doesn’t spread evenly, but it’s enough of a distraction — along with the bear sent in to start mauling folks — that the bad guys don’t see me sending a few arrows their way.
Before long, though, it’s a full-on battle, which means running into the camp with spears drawn. Honestly, the bear does most of the work. One of the enemy cavemen blows the horn to summon reinforcements before a spear catches him in the neck, but the bear takes care of the stragglers, even with a few spears sticking out of his hide.

Conclusion

Primal doesn’t change much of the underlying formula of Far Cry 3 and 4, but it recontextualizes for the better many of the ideas and systems in the series with its new setting. Exploring a prehistoric game world finally feels like the right way to use a lot of these ideas, like hunting and gathering.

And the things that make Far Cry exciting — the intense, unpredictable nature of its open-world — feel perfect for riding mammoths and sending bears to maul bad guys. Though Primal looks like it’s set to be an “off-year” Far Cry game, so far, it also looks like it might be the best (and most fun) application of the open world gameplay developer Ubisoft has been cultivating through the series’ last two games.

Highs

  • Prehistory is the perfect Far Cry setting where all its activities make sense
  • Taming and controlling animals adds a lot of interesting strategy to encounters
  • Setting stuff on fire is hilarious
  • You can attack people with an owl

Lows

  • Not clear yet just how deep or engaging the game is beyond running around the wilderness

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