Ubisoft could do this in their sleep. Sometimes it feels like they have. Far Cry’s evolution over the last three games has been, uh, glacial. Far Cry 3, Far Cry 4, and Far Cry Primal consist of the same gameplay verbs applied to mostly different nouns. Upgrade your guns (bows and spears). Throw grenades (beehives). Clear out bases (bonfires) to capture fast travel points. Tag enemies with your camera (owl). Ride an elephant (woolly mammoth) into battle. Wreak havoc when you release wild animals (wild animals). Unlock the grappling hook (grappling hook).
After the jump, macaroni and skill trees
Ubisoft has been iterating and sometimes outright repeating this open-world formula for some time now. They finally backed off from their yearly Assassins Creeds, because while familiarity breeds content, it also breeds contempt. Solid games like Unity and Syndicate were too easy to dismiss as annual installments instead of sequels. Ezio ’16. It’s 2015 so this must be Paris. It didn’t matter whether they were good. The new features felt too small and the familiar features felt too old. Maybe these games need more downtime? Maybe they need more creative innovation? Maybe they need a little of that absence that makes hearts grow fonder? Maybe they need to be priced at the equivalent of $30 a year instead of $60 a year, with the lost revenue offset by DLC? Maybe whatever the market will bear isn’t what it used to be?
Far Cry Primal is a game from before these questions. There’s been very little change since Far Cry 3 in terms of tone and gameplay. The art assets are (mostly) new because the particular things are new. What they do isn’t new. It is instead refined. The fundamentals of the experience — the moment-to-moment of stealth and kills and collecting and hunting and skill points — are finely honed. Ubisoft has moved far beyond the genius of Far Cry 2, the challenge of its downtime and empty space, its bleak storytelling, its willingness to let Clint Hocking be Clint Hocking. These open worlds are far too successful to risk anything other than proven formulas. Is it any surprise that the Primal in Far Cry Primal is a euphemism for 5.
Okay, that’s not entirely fair. The mostly silly Primal setting does have its unique charms. As a simple caveman trying to get by, it makes sense that you would spend so much energy picking flowers, gathering wood, and skinning marmosets. It makes sense that you need more of these kinds of rocks to upgrade your club and those kinds of pelts to upgrade your ammo pouch. It makes sense that you need meat to heal up. The whole resource system makes more sense when you’re literally a hunter/gatherer.
It makes less sense but better gameplay that you’re a pet class in Far Cry Primal. You are a wolf whisperer. And a saber tooth tiger whisperer. And a bear whisperer. You are even a hyena whisperer and a badger whisperer. Taming an animal (holding down the square button) puts it in your stable of instantly available pet sidekicks, each of which has a special ability. The wolf warns you when predators are near. The hyena supposedly skins animals you’ve hunted (I say supposedly because my hyena ignores his duties the same way a cat ignores a command to do tricks). The jaguar can attack without ruining stealth. You can ride the saber toothed tiger. The bear is a big-ass bear. This is a first-person game in which you have no idea what you look like beyond what you can infer from the other goofballs in your village, so the pets provide actual visuals. Who cares what you look like when youre riding a saber tooth tiger? You’re a dude galloping around on a saber tooth tiger! You’re a Frank Frazetta poster! That’s what you look like.
Primal’s settlement system is everything a settlement should be: part of the skill tree, part of the story progression, a resource sink, a quest hub, a supplemental source of resource income. It is the heart of the game, which is exactly what it wasn’t in Bethesda’s Fallout 4. Bethesda gave you an optional and charmless Minecraft-a-like so you could build an unsightly favela of no gameplay consequence whatsoever. Ubisoft gives you a hub around which the game turns, arguably a more important facet of the character progression than the actual character. In Far Cry Primal, it takes a village to go up a level.
Unfortunately, because Ubisoft’s storytelling skills are among the worst in the business, there’s none of the pull of the homestead system that drove Assassins Creed 3. That settlement told the story of America, but with minimal gameplay implications. The Far Cry Primal settlement has all the gameplay implications you could ever want, but the only story it tells is about a bunch of grotesque oddballs huddled together. Your village NPCs hunch over like barely evolved primates, gesticulating wildly and gibbering in Simlish. They are tattooed and shaven and sometimes misshapen. They wear seashell jewelry or human ears. When you upgrade their hovels, they whoop and holler and haltingly cavort like the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. They hiss and grunt and call you nicknames like Piss Man and Mammoth Feet. They merrily beat and try to drown a captive from another tribe. These are the Wenja, a scattered tribe, gathered single-handedly by you, your owl, your wolf, your bear, your eagle vision, your mammoth mount, the NPCs that sometimes accompany you, your set of skill trees, your equipment, your upgrades, and even your trepanning skill. All for a bunch of weirdos. You can’t wait to get back out into the open world to do some missions. You can’t fast travel out of there fast enough.
Far Cry Primal’s setting is also disappointing, which mutes the potential thrill of exploration. What’s over the next hill is mostly what was over the last hill. The biomes don’t vary too much beyond the non-cold part and the cold parts. There is no volcano erupting lava. Dinosaurs don’t show up. You won’t encounter any Sleestaks. I was hoping Ubisoft would take the whole thing less seriously. I was hoping they might lean closer to Blood Dragon. I was hoping for Raquel Welch in a fur bikini. But Far Cry Primal only goes to 10,000 BC. Considering that you get a magical owl who can drop bee bombs, it’s a strangely restrained world.
The land of Oros is just a generic forest. It’s hardly primal. In fact, it’s downright tame. It smacks of civilization for how it’s swarming with dudes skirmishing, hunting, needing rescuing, offering quests, or just meandering. The nights are bright with people wandering around holding torches aloft. There are even roads you can follow. In the snowy area, you have to warm up at a campfire every so often. But given the sheer density of stuff on these maps — Ubisoft is terrified of empty space — a cozy fire or cave is never more than a stone’s throw away. Furthermore, fast travel undermines any sense of geography. There’s no reason to trudge across frozen wastelands when you can just teleport. There’s no reason to pay attention to the name of anything or landmarks or cliff faces or alligator infested rivers or labyrinthine caves or precarious paths along cliffs when you’re just going to bampff past them from now on.
The initial upgrades give the game an early kick in the pants. It’s exciting to get a better bow, a two-handed club, and bee bombs for your owl. But over time, the new toys and tools get increasingly redundant. Why do I need a sling, a spear, stone throwing stars, and a bow? They all pretty much do the same thing. Why should I fuss with poison antidotes instead of healing? Why would I ever attack a camp myself when I can just scout it with my owl, call in an airstrike, and then send in a procession of wild animals, replacing each dead one with another one from my menagerie? What do I care if plants show up in my eagle vision when I can see them plainly on the minimap? Different ways to do the same things should probably be more different than they are in Far Cry Primal.
Nothing I’m saying is new. None of it should come as a surprise. It’s pointless to point out these things. Critical analysis of an Ubisoft franchise entry is like critical analysis of a Tyler Perry movie. They’re made for the marketplace more than the medium. It’s all so familiar, so easy, so irresistible. Gameplay comfort food. You can’t stop eating it, not necessarily because it tastes good, and certainly not because it’s nutritious. It’s just so familiar, so easy to have another forkful, so calculated for maximum palatability. You’re always on the verge of another skill, another upgrade, another chunk of the map, another collectible, another reason to play a little longer. Milestones are never milestones. They’re inchstones and they’re ubiquitous. So when I’m playing it, I sure am playing it. But when I’m not playing it, I’m wondering why I sank my time here when I could have played Dying Light, The Witcher, Mad Max, Arkham Knight, yet another Grand Theft Auto V replay, or at long last a return visit to Saints Row IV. So, sure, it’s not on par with those games. But is it a good game? That’s the wrong question. The truest thing about Far Cry Primal is that above all else, and at the expense of all else, it’s an effective game.