Blood Dragon showed how well the Far Cry formula could work in a completely new setting, so when Far Cry 4 took players back to the relatively sober locale of Kyrat in comparison, it felt like a bit of a missed opportunity, as if Ubisoft weren't quite willing to take a risk on a numbered entry in the franchise.
Primal feels just that, a game where everything is out to get you, where it really does feel like it’s hunt or be hunted. At least it does at the start when your skill tree is a little threadbare and weapons are at their weakest.
Taking on say, a mammoth or woolly rhino at an early stage in the game is tantamount to suicide. It makes you think twice when on the prowl for larger animals with ambushes just as quickly turning against you, transforming an opportunistic hunt into a desperate melee for survival.
It’ll certainly be rude awakening for those used to being the most dangerous thing in a game. When you’re staring at the business end of a pissed-off giant elk hurtling towards you with nothing but a sharpened stick for protection, you suddenly realise you are not the apex predator grenades and assault rifles from past Far Cry titles have conditioned you to believe you are.
This means that in the early stages of the game it’s wise to avoid confrontation with the land's more dangerous beasts as much as possible, not until you’ve upgraded weapons and skills to a level where you can take them on. The lack of merchants, safe houses and weapon lockers does mean that players will have to go after smaller animals as materials for weapons, ammunition, clothing, and building upgrades all have to be scavenged from the landscape and its inhabitants, so naturally Primal is positively teeming with all number of critters and fauna. Expanding your village eventually alleviates the need for constant scavenging, as inhabitants will gather supplies for you which can be accessed through any campsite.
The need to hunt for supplies in the beginning of the game helps convey a decent sense of necessity over self-preservation that humans living in the past may have experienced in order to survive, but traversing the densely populated world can start to grate a little. For example, successfully outrunning a rather brutal encounter with a pack of wolves with only a fraction of your last health bar remaining only to bump into a wandering grizzly bear can get frustrating, and it will happen on numerous occasions.
Thankfully this is where Primal’s tameable animal companions help out, as having one of them at your side is enough to scare away most of the more irritating wildlife living in Oros. They’re not just pest control however, and all can be extremely useful tools in their own right. Bears will draw attacks during battles, wolves reveal more of the map as you explore, and jaguars are able to perform stealth takedowns, with rare versions of the animals handily invulnerable to fire.
They also make fights infinitely more enjoyable and are actually useful in combat, which is more than can be said about most AI companions. Aiming at a target and clicking with the right bumper sends whatever animal you’re currently partnered with on a single minded mission to destroy the unfortunate person or creature you’ve earmarked for death, freeing you up to take out other targets and creating some memorable tandem take-downs.
Even if there is no time to command your animal to attack they are more than capable of looking after themselves during fights, and the larger beasts will often take out many of the enemies before you can. More than once was Takkar's primeval bacon saved by a sabre-toothed friend and it leads to many ‘Record that!’ moments. There’s also something incredibly endearing about being able to command a huge, scarred cave bear to ‘stay’ while you scout ahead.
The animal help isn’t just limited to the four-legged variety, and pressing up on the D-pad calls in an owl which can be used to get a literal birds-eye view of the surrounding terrain. It’s a very useful asset when scouting outposts, and you can even upgrade the owl to attack unsuspecting enemies from above with talons, bombs or angry beehives.
Combat in Primal has been reduced to its most basic form, with clubs, spears and bows your main means of dishing out punishment to enemies. The lack of 21st century tech isn’t a bad thing though, and fights are suitably savage and one of the standout features of the game.
Hit detection for the most part feels accurate and weighty, and conquering outposts and winning skirmishes with hand to hand fighting and well timed spear throws feels a lot more rewarding than if you were to do the same with modern weapons. There’s also something strangely more enjoyable about firing arrows from a bow pieced together with animal sinew, wood and bones at an enemy wrapped in wolf furs than dropping a target from a few hundred metres away with a .50cal sniper rifle.
Primal’s two enemy factions - the Udam and Izila – make decent adversaries. Led by Ull and Batari respectively, the former are a group of Neanderthals who emerged from the ice age with a taste for human flesh, and the latter a fire worshipping tribe partial to the odd bout of slavery. Both have enough unique attributes to make battling either of them feel different, the Izila’s love of fire quickly turns any battleground into a dangerous inferno, while the Udam boast some heavy warriors wearing armour made of bone who are able to soak up arrows and can knock you off your feet with one swing of a club.
It’s a shame that Ull, Batari and the story involving them both feels somewhat underused, and fails to really establish any meaningful presence in the game until much later on. Ull is set up to be the reason behind the Wenja’s troubles, but after his introduction he pretty much disappears for the next six or so hours, while we didn’t run into Batari until nearly ten hours of gameplay had passed and both are reduced to by the numbers boss battles, which feels a bit of disservice to the characters.
The big gaps between sightings of Ull and Batari is partly due to the fact that it’s very easy to get distracted, the map is littered with side-quests and Wenja events (it’s hard to take ten steps without stumbling across hostages that need rescuing or enemies that need dispatching), and partly down to the focus on expanding and upgrading your village and your abilities, which is still loads of fun in its own right.
There’s still plenty of entertaining characters to meet who will flesh out the main story while Ull and Batari are absent. These include a warrior out to avenge the death of his son, a one-armed crafter who calls you piss man (you’ll quickly find out why), a hunter who sends you after dangerous animals and a shaman who’s partial to feeding you hallucinogenic beverages made of blood.
The staggered narrative may be a problem for those who enjoy a more linear structure to a game’s story, but Primal feels more like a platform for creating your own fun out in the game world, whether it’s capturing outposts with a favoured beast companion, leading an angry mammoth across the path of unsuspecting enemies and watching the ensuing chaos, or simply riding through the land on top of a sabre-tooth tiger.
Primal was a bold move for Ubisoft to make, but the experiment has paid dividends. It would have been easy for them to play it safe and release another modern shooter in the same vein as Far Cry 3 or 4, but we would have missed out on one of the surprising gems in the franchise. Hopefully this isn't the last time we see the Far Cry formula taken to new and interesting locales, as I for one am quite excited to see what direction the series goes in next.