Far Cry: Primal has no purpose
I haven’t finished Far Cry Primal, but I feel like I’ve played it already. It occupies the same interim territory as something like Gears of War Judgment, but it doesn’t even get the series’ core action right. Trading firearms for prehistoric clubs and bows necessarily demands a dramatic shift in how the combat functions given that neither Far Cry 3 nor 4 had melee weapons, but they feel so awful that I found myself dreading having to use them. This is not the problem Far Cry should have.
Primal casts you quite unceremoniously into the role of Takkar without giving any indication as to who he is, and tasks you with building up a village for the Wenja tribe while waging war against the rival Udam tribe without any reason to care about either of them. This isn’t entirely true; the Udam are murderous cannibals. Their motivation is revealed later and it makes for a fairly decent twist, but for whatever reason Primal chooses to present its opening hours in the least interesting light possible.
The game sure does look nice though. Ubisoft Montreal’s rendition of 10,000 BCE Central Europe is a real pleasure to look at, though it can feel a bit constrained at times. The forests are dense enough to offer some seriously impressive lighting, but the tightly packed trees can also feel suffocating. Mountains and an enormous glacier dominate the background of Primal’s world, an impressive visual that also helped 4 convey its sense of scale and verticality. I was delighted to see this visual used again, but much less delighted to learn that Primal uses the same map as the previous game.
It’s fitting in a way because Primal is mechanically identical to 4, completely defeating the purpose of having such a wildly different setting. The game does nothing interesting with its world, shoehorning in all of the same abilities from 4 and even some of the same items, such as throwing knives (stone shards now) and a grappling hook (literally just a grappling hook, but more prehistoric looking).
4 granted points from leveling up that would unlock abilities from various skill trees, and Primal retains this basic structure. But it also adds an additional layer of having to rescue key individuals of your tribe and then craft better huts for them before certain abilities can be acquired. This is an enormous headache, because the crafting system is not at all fun to engage with when the combat is as frustratingly obnoxious as it is.
Primal has three primary weapons: a club, a bow, and a spear. None of them are fun to use. The club is your main close range weapon, and has a very loose, unsatisfying swing. It can be thrown to stun enemies for a hot second, but if you lose it you’ll have to craft another one. So I never throw it. The bow is a Far Cry classic, but you begin your adventure with a maximum quiver capacity of four arrows. Be ready to craft more on the fly, and often. The spear’s primary attack is a weak poke; it’s designed to be thrown for a lot of damage. You can only carry one at the start, so much like the club if you lose that one you’ll be crafting again.
As is now standard with Far Cry, all of your weapon and pouch upgrades are gained through crafting, necessitating the gathering of plant and animal resources. Finding the necessary wood and flora is easy enough, and it’s not a terrible experience since the world is fun to roam around in. But as soon as you have to start chasing skittish deer with a club and poke at ferocious bears with a spear for pelts that’ll let you carry two more arrows, the entire thing becomes an undesirable chore.
The same can be said for the game’s outposts, another standard feature for the series. These are the best parts of previous Far Cry games, offering an opportunity to wipe out a group of enemies in a variety of mischievous ways. In previous games you might stay outside and snipe everyone from long range, or move in with a silent submachine gun and take them out one by one. Maybe you roll in with a jeep and be as loud as possible, or swoop in with a gyrocopter and land on someone’s head. In Primal, you can… come in from the north with a club. Or maybe the south? Your options feel incredibly limited, a grave sin for a game where the options that are available are the least fun imaginable. The only potential saving grace is that Primal’s beast taming feature, which lets you command wolves, bears, jaguars, and more, allows you to sidestep much of the combat by letting your AI companion destroy everyone for you. But maybe that isn’t high praise.
The combat just feels bad. The forever low supply of arrows means your accuracy has a slim margin of error. When you run out, you’ll have to whip out a club and close the gap, sprinting at your enemies with comical speed and swinging in their direction until they fall. Luckily the game is extremely forgiving with its takedowns, often allowing you to instantly kill foes even in a direct confrontation by just running up to them and mashing R3. Ideally this wouldn’t necessarily be a positive, but such is the case with Primal.
In an attempt to try to salvage something from this experience, I gave the Survivor mode a shot. I like harder difficulty modes when they require me to engage with the game’s systems more seriously than I would otherwise. The Witcher 3 is a wonderful example of a game that gets this right. Its Death March difficulty, which likely steered most players away by its name alone, is totally doable, but requires you to pay attention in combat and make use of potions and blade oils as a witcher would.
Primal’s Survivor mode is not that. It’s not even a difficulty mode. It’ll default you to Expert, but that can be freely changed. What Survivor mode does is add a stamina bar that’ll limit how much you can sprint, swing a club, and swim. The bar is replenished by sleeping or eating meat. Since beds are fairly hard to come by (unless you’re fast traveling back to the village or to a campsite just to refill your stamina bar), I had to have a constant supply of meat, which necessitated doing way more hunting than I wanted to.
I mentioned fast traveling. Survivor mode does not disable fast traveling. However, it does disable several of the game’s more interesting abilities, namely the ability to have your eagle–the game’s replacement for the spotting camera–drop bombs and perform dive attacks on enemies. These sound awesome, and are another way to sidestep having to directly fight enemies myself. But I cannot use these abilities on Survivor, because… they’re unrealistic? But fast travel isn’t? I’m not sure why one is disabled and the other isn’t, but for a game that already feels like less of a game than its predecessors, having this be the case is just nonsensical. If being able to control an eagle and activate thermal version to spot enemies is reasonable for Survivor, why then is it unreasonable to strap a fire bomb to its legs, or have it peck away at enemies, when I can already lower the difficulty to trivialize the combat, or even send other animals to attack?
I simply cannot find a place for Primal to exist. Its insistence on being a lesser version of 4 ruins its chance to truly be something different.