Ubisoft’s Far Cry Primal is to the Far Cry series what Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was to its own franchise. It bears the name, some trace elements, and a technical prowess unlike anything else of its ilk, but it draws strength from flying in the face of all conventional logic of its pedigree. For Black Flag, that meant turning a series built on foundations of alt-historical espionage and murder from the shadows into the world’s finest Caribbean-pirate simulator. Far Cry has built a grand niche for itself as a purveyor of stark-raving homicidal lunacy wrapped around guerilla warfare and pitch-black political satire. Primal, on the other hand, is a confident step toward something much more disciplined and understatedly profound. Where Far Cry 3 and 4 find glee in inviting players to watch civilization fall apart, Primal takes the utmost pride showing why we started it in the first place.
Protagonist Takkar is revealed as a fairly blank slate in the game’s prologue, a beautiful, languid, Malickian sequence featuring a group of hunters taking down a mammoth. It’s a chaotic, brutal act, but balletic in the slow build, the coordination of tactics, and the lack of romance in the victory. The man Takkar becomes could be any of his comrades, and the scene frames the elegance of that in all the natural beauty that can be mustered. After the initial hunt goes awry after a saber-toothed tiger attacks, Takkar is left barely breathing far from home in a new land called Oros, and forced to build his tribe, the Wenja, from the ground up again. It’s in this that the grace of the prologue thrillingly and effectively serves the long road ahead for Takkar’s tale.
Primal’s overarching story involves three well-realized though underexplored rival tribes scrambling for dominance of Oros, all with their own particular fears, conflicts, and spiritual crises, and Takkar gathering the power and people to keep them at bay. But the thrust of the narrative is the building of a new home for Takkar and his people at a time when, even despite the grotesqueries men and women visit on each other during the course of the game, mankind is still, predominantly, prey in a world full of apex predators.
Much of the player’s time in Primal is spent as a hunter and gatherer of food, materials, and people. In previous titles in the series, when the map started to bloat with sidequests, the tasks at hand felt like a mindless collection of busywork in the way of getting more time with Vaas or Pagan Min. There’s still an element of repetition that starts to wear on the player as the game proceeds, but the effects on the prosperity of Takkar’s tribe is tangible with each new progression through the world, be it in the form of more XP, allowing Takkar to learn new skills, or in finding new people to join his tribe. Returning to the village after a major mission allows you to see not just other hunters, but women breastfeeding their infants, children playing and learning about all the new comforts of their home, primitive musicians experimenting with rhythm, and random people just living out their incredibly detailed, artificially intelligent lives. Witnessing all the wonderful, innately human reminders of why Takkar must do what he does is its own reward.
Those looking for something a bit more proactive, however, will have a slightly more complicated reaction. The survival mechanics that powered previous Far Cry titles are stripped down to their primitive essence here. Obviously, there are no guns to be found, and in spite of some variations, Takkar’s arsenal is threadbare, with only clubs and spears for melee weapons and a bow and arrow and a few organic grenade variants (such as a beehive) that can be used to fight enemies from a distance. Combat is visceral and harsh, but it also shows you everything it has to offer within a few hours.
Instead of the series’s trademark gunplay, after a specific story mission, Primal leans hard on Takkar being able to tame and train any animal in the wild that you aren’t trying to kill and eat. The animals are naturalistic on the same extraordinary scale as the humans. Mammoths roam around and rear their young in herds. Wolves hunt prey in fast-moving, scary packs and recoil from fire. Animals of a similar type will make shows of dominance against each other. The same feeling one has watching the bear scene from The Revenant—that is, nature as a simple force, apathetic to the presence of man except to suit its needs as meat—is the same feeling one has wandering around with and attempting to traverse the natural perils at hand.
All of this comes together to create a vicious but breathtaking tableau of primitive life. The question lingers, however, as to whether it’s enough to prove Primal’s worth as a standalone game, and that may be subjective as to what exactly one hopes to get out of the Far Cry experience. The sociopathic glee and wanton chaos that’s come to define the series is muted here. When Takkar has to kill, it is, most of the time, a terse necessity, not a bloodthirsty want. That difference in ethos makes Primal special, lending a certain weight to the violence. But later, when the story introduces other, more ruthless tribes to the mix, riling up the sort of vengeful sadism in the player that isn’t out of character for a Far Cry game, it cheapens the much higher-minded style of play that Primal typically aims for and often achieves.
It’s undoubtedly enjoyable to ride beasts into a horde of enemies and satiate that bloodlust in short spurts, but artistically, Ubisoft has struck onto something much bigger here that it only just barely fails to reach due to the need to serve the framework of a Far Cry game. The irony here is that, while Primal could have been simpler and nobler had it divorced itself more from its pedigree, one gets the sense that there’s no way a game like this would exist in its current form, as high a profile as it is, without the Far Cry name.