I wasn’t majorly adverse to the idea of an upper paleolithic age Far Cry like so many others had been. Though the idea we were trading out modern civil wars with local power hungry dictators for battles against mammoths using stick and stones didn’t exactly seem the most logical step for the series, Primal didn’t initially appear to dance too far out of step with Far Cry’s theme of man vs wild. While I was just a little skeptical, I wasn’t so jaded I couldn’t see it working, with just the right amounts of creative spin and mojo Far Cry could take us to a brand new world, and a brand new timeline, while retaining much of the sandbox and character that made the series so unique. That said if I ever once believed in magic I no longer do, as Far Cry Primal is easily the most disappointing Far Cry since, well, Far Cry.
Far Cry Primal most immediately reminds me of a sandbox survival game. You’re sent out to go crafting, hunting, and your largest concerns are shelter and warmth. Now in all fairness Far Cry 3 and 4 placed an emphasis on hunting and gathering mechanics early on as well, with one solid difference, they weren’t all that key to playing the game comfortably. Once earlier Far Crys were done taking you through their tutorial levels you were free to grab whatever wild gun you could sport and go out murderizing to your heart’s content. Not so in Far Cry Primal. You have to balance your time hunting and gathering, not only to craft, but to build up your homestead and keep up a steady supply of healing items. It feels artificial, like they took what was already a pretty basic system in Far Cry, and enforced it as a necessity. There are a ton of progress walls thrown in every which way, from progress walls relating to crafting, progress walls related to story, progress walls related to exploration and hunting. I don’t really appreciate the changes to be frank. If I play a survival sim, then I play it to be miserable, I play it expecting to have to eat and dress warm and, most importantly, build cool things, a depth Far Cry entirely lacks. When I play Far Cry I expect two things. To cause mayhem and have a blast in any way I can imagine. Worrying about my poor belly or getting goosebumps is not having a blast.
One of the most important lessons ever imparted to me as a filmmaker was “Moments make Movies.” The lesson is simple, it means that big moments, often the most silent, the most visual, can be the strongest in any film, television show or video game. Not only is it entirely possible to tell an effective story with very few or even no words, it’s a sign of a truly adept storyteller to do so. This is yet another reason I gave Far Cry Primal the benefit of the doubt, just because they would be limited in their uses of language didn’t mean they couldn’t tell a good story. Once more I gave the creative minds behind Far Cry far too much credit. The story is bland, low energy and predictable. I don’t think Far Cry has ever gotten its strongest marks in story, other than perhaps introducing the greatest villains this side of Batman’s rogues gallery, but they did at least manage to be engaging and full of spectacle. Far Cry Primal just includes a series of events that it slowly pushes you along with because it happens. You fail to connect with any of the characters, not because they’re limited in their use of the English language, but because there is nothing at all visually or narratively to connect you to them and make you give a damn. You just have to go save your tribe because Ubisoft said so, and even then it is the same exact plot pulled from Far Cry 4 (Save the people of Kyrat) and Far Cry 3 (Save your friends).
I suppose the “big draw” of Far Cry Primal is the fact you get to become the Beast Master (starring Marc Singer.) You’re trading out AKs and Vector ACPs for white wolves and sabertooth tigers. Then perhaps that’s where most of the favors with the gameplay, and therefore the fun, would be found, the meat and potatoes if you will. It’s not so much the potatoes as it is pure starch introduced to make the already tasteless recipe stretch for a couple of meals. The animal companions don’t feel badass, like riding your elephant did in Far Cry 4. They instead feel as though they expand upon Takkar’s already massively hamstrung abilities. Takkar’s “hunter’s vision” (think a limited Eagle Vision) doesn’t work that well, so the Owl is just a more reliable scout. Takkar isn’t able to clear out entire base camps how Ajay and Jay were before him, so his wolf gives him a snowball’s chance. The animal companions don’t so much make you feel clever and formidable as they simply make you feel capable.
Now for those of you out there who are “pet collectors”, who grab all 150 pocket monsters in each Pokemon iteration or digivolve as many dinos possible or create bursting stables in titles such as World of Warcraft or Guild Wars. What’s in Primal for you? Well. Not a whole lot. There isn’t really a huge range to the diversity of animals, just generally four ‘types’ of creatures and a rare version of those you could catch. You’ll fill up your beastiary quickly, and you’ll see everything the game has to offer in terms of animals that can be tamed quicker than that. For all you would be hunters, trappers and beast tamers out there? You’re bound to find this a pretty hollow experience.
Basic Far Cry gameplay, or rather, the most defined Far Cry gameplay from 3 and 4 returns in his game. You still have regular rescue and defense missions, and the enemy AI and RNG behave exactly the same as it did in 4, much to Primal’s detriment. In 4 when the computer decided to dole out a ton of hostile enemies while you were attempting to save some of the local Kyrati’s, you had all the tools at your disposal to mete out brutal justice. In Primal when the computer spawns the same amount of bogies, you’ll find yourself struggling to toss a few piddly spears and dropping a couple of bee bombs to barely even the odds. It may have been too early for civilization to have invented towers, but that doesn’t stop the game from requiring you to climb high vertical structures to scout a map. A map with a layout that may look slightly familiar, complete with forts and villages in the same place. The map is exactly the same as Far Cry 4’s is what I’m saying. I’m going to try and stable the conspiracy theorist theorist in me, I’m just going to say it feels like a Blood Dragon level effort thrown behind a full priced game.
Far Cry 4 was one of the most beautiful games I had seen on the new generation of consoles, it was colorful, striking and I couldn’t wait to get back to Kyrat. Primal goes for a very bizarre “Cave Painting” aesthetic that I personally feel is a major disservice to the title. Now in all fairness I have to cite the fact that Primal does strive for better textures and character models than presented in 4, but it takes away in other areas, such as the draw distance, which instead just turns into a murky fog. The game is low saturation, high contrast, and returns to the bad ol’ days of “Brown is the color of realism.” I was bored playing it purely by the aesthetic alone. There were the occasional “Dream Moments” where Takkar might bond with animal spirits, where everything was vibrant and colorful and exciting, then it was back to the desaturated, muddy, boring “real” world.
The game’s poor aesthetics didn’t only impact my experience, they impacted gameplay as well. Takkar’s Hunter Sense is a wonderful example. The game didn’t really choose to differentiate between animals, materials, tracks, allies or even enemies when it came to leaning on hunter sense. It’s not an entirely optional ability either, you kind of want to know when prey may be near by or a wolf might be stalking you, especially when the night is dark and full of terrors. Your two primary human foes typically include the cannabalistic Udam and the pyromaniac Izila. Enemy color schemes have been toned down from prior games, returning to the same pesky realism, and everyone largely just wears indistinguishable brown furs. Brown that just blends in with the surrounding brown. Mix it in with the occasional unaffiliated NPC that just loves crossing over into your brawls and you have a major confusion fest. Not being able to tell the difference between friend or foe would sometimes mean shooting down an allied Wenja tribal by accident, or letting an enemy tribal sneak in a bit close for comfort.
Perhaps what was most frustrating for me in this entire experience was the fact it simply didn’t feel like a Far Cry game. Primal experimented with a lot of mechanics unique to Far Cry, a system that focused more on survival and crafting, depending on pets instead of weapons. I won’t begrudge Ubisoft for experimenting, the issue for me is none of this experimentation really felt like a “step forward” for the franchise, it didn’t feel like it was meant to take the series in a new, wonderful direction. It simply felt as though it was trying to cash in on a formula that’s proven popular for other type of games. The game is certainly functional, there’s nothing that seriously knocks down the product, but I can’t discern what audience this game would please. Survival gamers can find better, Far Cry gamers won’t enjoy it, and it will barely tickle those video game zoologists. Primal is a poor Far Cry, and it’s an even poorer survival game. Every second I played Far Cry Primal I frankly wished I were playing another game, such as ARK, Don’t Starve and even earlier Far Cry titles. It’s generally not a good sign when you’re playing the latest game in the series and go “Man, I really, really miss the last entry in the series.”