Status: complete / platinum
Most Intriguing Idea: Taking the open-world shooter away from actual shooting
Best Design Decision: Well-chosen achievements
Worst Design Decision: Bullet… er, arrow-sponging bosses
After the combat bow was one of the better parts of Far Cry 3, 4 and Blood Dragon, we finally get a game where it’s the star. Far Cry Primal rolls the series setting back to Europe 10,000 years ago so there are no guns, only arrows, spears, clubs, and flint knives. There’s no camera either, so the main character Takkar quickly gains the ability to summon an owl that can “tag” enemies so their movements can be tracked in the world or on the minimap (turning off the minimap improves the game significantly). As an added bonus, he can “tame” predators to do some murdering for him.
Primal is mostly notable for the fact that although it’s fun, almost nothing in it really works. There’s an effort to model an ecosystem, but predators just constantly attack prey animals without ever settling down to eat any of their kills. The game tries to use a day/night cycle to create a sense of danger but doesn’t create a good risk/reward balance for night-time because it just streams an absurd number of predators into most areas. Animals (and people) are supposed to have a fear of fire, but following the pattern of FC3 and FC4, fire doesn’t spread aggressively enough or look threatening enough to be actually frightening. Additionally, animals of all kinds will just happily run into any camp no matter how many fires (controlled or not) are burning. The stone-age setting makes melee fighting a necessity, but the game’s first-person melee is basically junk. Primal tries to tell a story through assembling a village, but the individual stories of the characters Takkar finds never really connect. Worse, his building of the village never really contributes to the conflict against his antagonists.
This was most noticeable in the game’s absurdly terrible boss battles, where Takkar has to fight gimmicky chieftain enemies that have giant life bars and continually summon dozens and dozens of adds. If I wanted to deal with this kind of bullshit I would still be playing Destiny, but at least that game can explain, via sci-fantasy voodoo, why a fairly ordinary-looking foe can shrug off ten full mags of machine-gun ammo. It’s much more difficult to understand why a near-naked neanderthal can ignore a spear hurled into its eye-socket. If Takkar could have summoned any of his hundreds of tribesmen for these climactic battles they could have been cool and interesting but instead they devolved into running around, looking for new spears while slinging meat at my bear to keep it alive. The boss fights in Primal represent everything I hate about the current direction of shooter design and cast a negative pall over the whole game for me.
That said, how did it happen that I ended up with a platinum for this game, something I almost never do? Well, it has to do with some really good trophy/achievement design. It turns out you don’t have to “complete” the game or its various collect-a-thons to get all the achievements. Most of the achievements were built around making the player really explore all of the game’s systems. So, there are trophies for using each of the weapons a certain (non-excessive) number of times, for trying out stuff like riding on an animal to fight, for attempting to kill enemies at long distance, and so on. I didn’t like all of this stuff, but grabbing the achievements was a low enough bar that it encouraged me to get away from my default pattern of only switching between the bow and spear and occasionally flinging a beehive “grenade” at powerful enemies. Encouraging the player to try new ways of playing the game is the best use of achievements, in my opinion, so I appreciated that.
Primal isn’t a great game, and in a lot of senses isn’t even a good one. Enemies come to be too strong towards the end of the game, and the progression system can’t compensate. The experience system still tilts way too strongly towards stealth (although the limitations of the weapons here make long-range sniping somewhat less viable). The crafting and upgrade system is a silly, ill-designed timesink that nonetheless gets exhausted long before the game ends. Also, Ubisoft still can’t make the Dunia engine pause the damn game when the controller battery dies. This is a decent time-filler, but despite the adversity Takkar faces, that true Far Cry feeling of disaster and improvisation is still missing.
Verdict: Cautiously recommended