I've never played any of the Far Cry games. I possess a copy of Far Cry 4 because it came bundled for free with my PS4, but I've yet to actually insert the disc into the console and try the thing. I was intrigued by Far Cry Primal because it looked like it might explore a novel subject matter that games have kind of ignored for as long as I can remember. Apparently, Far Cry 4 had a bit in it in which you play as a primitive human riding around on animals during a drug-fueled hallucination, and Ubisoft decided to adapt that concept into a full game.
The last time that Ubisoft had done something like this, they had taken the naval combat from Assassin's Creed III (the completely dissociated highlight of an otherwise boring and stupid game) and converted it into Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. And I loved Black Flag! So I was optimistic that Ubisoft might have another novel treat in store for me. I've played dozens of first person shooters, but I've yet to play as a caveman in 10,000 BCE, so let's give this a go, shall we!
The game begins by showing the date 2016, with modern ambient sounds, apparently intended to make the player think that the game might have some kind of present-day framing device (similar to Assassin's Creed). But then the clock starts ticking back to 10,000 BCE, and the game begins. I wonder if this was intended to mock Assassin's Creed and subvert possible player expectations.
Stone age shooter
This game got off to kind of a rough start for me. I was killed by the mammoth in the tutorial because it charged at me before the game displayed the tutorial tip teaching how to attack with a weapon. So that seemed like a cheap death, and gave me a bad first impression. Fortunately, the next few hours of play didn't have any similarly sloppy design, and I was rather enjoying myself.
I died in the tutorial because the mammoth charged me before the game taught me how to use my weapon.
It didn't take long, however, for the novelty to wear off. Combat has a focus on melee combat with clubs and spears, which leads to a problem similar to other first-person hack-n-slash games: the constrained field of view makes situational awareness very difficult. Without the option to toggle to a third-person view, it's difficult to tell exactly what is going on immediately around your character, and close-quarters combat with mobs frequently degraded into just spinning around mashing the attack button. Fighting animals can be even worse, as many of them (such as dholes and badgers) are small and fast and incredibly difficult to actually hit. The problem is mitigated somewhat as the game goes on, as new utility abilities are introduced, but I was saddened that Ubisoft didn't really do anything particularly interesting with the basic combat.
And it doesn't really get much better when the utility abilities are introduced, as they mostly just involve simply sicking your tamed beasts on the enemies and hoping that the beast doesn't die. In the regular gameplay mode, you'll also have access to overpowered one-hit kill attacks and bombing runs with your owl that act similarly to an air strike or artillery bombardment in other games. These attacks are so overpowered that the Survival Mode disables them entirely. If you have a powerful enough wolf, bear, or saber-tooth tiger beast, you can often just get away with commanding it to charge a group of enemies while you sit back and watch.
This is one game in which a bow and arrow actually makes sense as a primary weapon.
Hunting and gathering
When you're not fighting, you're usually walking around hunting animals or gathering raw materials in order to craft weapons and upgrade your little stone-age village. A lot of this hunting and collecting is done using a "Hunter Sense", which is just one of many bog-standard iterations of the now-overplayed "detective modes" that was popularized in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Activating it renders the game in shades of gray and highlights intractable objects in bright yellow, and objective items are highlighted in red that includes a weird smoky/fire effect that makes it difficult to tell what the heck you're looking at. Primal lacks the more thoughtful investigatory gameplay that makes such a system worthwhile.
The Hunter Sense feels kind of pointless though. There's already a setting in the Interface Options to turn on a shimmer effect for interactable objects anyway, which almost completely negates the need for the Hunter Sense. With the item shimmer turned ON, the only real use for the Hunter Sense is to detect or track animals, or to complete missions that require following footprints or clues.
The Hunter Sense just doesn't feel as useful as Witcher III's Witcher Sense.
Every now and then, stalking through the woods, finding a small pack of deer, and felling one with a perfectly-placed arrow or spear to the neck can be fun and engaging. But in general, the Hunter Sense (and the act of hunting itself) is beset by a bunch of nagging frustrations that make the whole system rather suck. One of its biggest limitations is that it doesn't give any indication as to where sounds might be coming from. So if I'm walking through the woods and I start hearing the sound of a nearby elk, I have no idea where it might be. I often don't actually see that elk until I'm right up in its face, and it runs away. The problem is even worse if I start hearing a bear or cave lion, since not knowing which direction the sound is coming from could lead to an unfortunately fatal run-in with such an animal. Maybe you need surround sound for this game to really work the way it's intended? Compared to Witcher III's Witcher Sense, this system just doesn't work.
I assume that you're supposed to stop and use the owl to circle around searching for the source of the sound, but doing so is time-consuming and boring. Without any indication as to which direction to search, I also don't even know which way to send the owl. I'd much rather have just had the ability to climb a tree to get a bird's eye view for myself. Sure you can try to find some high ground to get a better view, but such terrain isn't always available.
Oh! I found the bear that's been growling at me for the past minute or so.
... And it's coming right for me...
But most of all, hunting and tracking is just boring and lacks any real creativity. You don't notice hoof prints at the watering hole and track them back to where the deer are foraging. You don't use your beast companions to sniff out the enemy trail (even Fallout 4 has at least one quest in which you do that), nor do you have to worry about keeping upwind from potential prey so that they don't smell you and run off. You just turn on hunter sense, and if you see glowing, yellow animals, you just crouch and throw a spear at their head. The map is densely enough populated that you're never more than a few seconds from easy prey, and which prey is where is clearly labeled on your map.
Survival Mode would be worth it beasts weren't so stupid
If Primal doesn't feel quite "caveman-y" enough for you, there's also a "Survival Mode" and "Perma-death" option. These both seem intended for repeat playthroughs, but without a character-creation system or multiple classes or anything like that, I really feel no reason at all to bother replaying the game. And since the game only offers one save slot, I couldn't even play the two in parallel. So instead, I played through the first couple hours of gameplay with the default settings and then went back and restarted in Survival Mode. It would be nice if Ubisoft allowed the player to switch into this mode once you get the hang of the game and want an extra challenge, but you can't do that, nor can you disable these modes if they prove too much for you. Instead, you'll have to restart the game.
The idea of the survival mode is definitely welcome, and I've criticized other games like Skyrim for not including such features. I just wish that some of the survival settings were al a carte options. The stamina meter, for example, is a worthwhile inclusion. When enabled, stamina drains gradually and is recharged fully when you sleep, or partially when you eat. It actually makes sleep and food into relevant game mechanics! Needing to use food to restore stamina also makes hunting much more important. Combined with the darker nights and tougher crafting restrictions, stamina also forces the player to have to more carefully consider your routes through the wilderness so that you don't get stuck without an easily accessible place to rest and heal up as you approach exhaustion.
Survival Mode enables stamina, which makes rest and food more relevant, and forces more careful exploration.
I'm not so keen on a lot of the other features of Survival Mode. The lack of a mini-map is particularly bothersome, as it just forces the player into a tedious habit of going in and out of the full map screen in order to see where you are and what locations or collectibles might be nearby. It also makes it annoyingly difficult to track where wounded prey might have run away to. It negates the ability to use certain perks (fortunately, the game doesn't require - or even allow - you to take those skills), but it offsets that by making the remaining available skills more expensive. I'm also not a big fan of how quickly the torch club extinguishes itself.
The real killer for Suvival Mode [for me] is the lack of durability of your tamed beasts. They have little-to-no sense of self-preservation and die way too easily. Even if you're very responsible and cautious with your tamed beasts, they sometimes just glitch out and walk off cliffs and die from fall damage or walk into water and drown. On several occasions, I was walking around, and suddenly I noticed that my white wolf wasn't with me anymore. I opened up the menu to try to summon him again, but he wasn't available. The game informed me that I'd have to find another one in the game world and re-tame him in order to get him back. Fortunately, I had backed-up my save to a USB drive in case I decided to play the standard game mode for a while, so I was easily able to recover my tamed white wolf.
Beasts sometimes wander off cliffs, drown in water, or immolate themselves in fire.
It didn't last long though. Shortly thereafter, I got caught in a fire during combat with a woolly rhino and died. Since I had also foolishly left Perma-death enabled, that was the end of that save file! After playing just a couple nights of Survival Mode, I wished I had bought the game on PC so that I could enable mods that toggled certain survival features on and off. I would like to have kept the stamina bar, and I wouldn't mind perma-death for beasts if there was a mod that made their A.I. not so terribly suicidal. Sadly, I made the mistake of getting the PS4 version, and so no mods for me. I'm stuck with whatever settings Ubisoft arbitrarily decided were appropriate for normal and survival modes.
The problem is that without stamina, the normal game mode just feels too easy and boring. Bonfires and camp fires just become markers on the map that I never care about. Without having to eat to keep my stamina up, and without having to feed animals to keep them alive, I also never felt any compulsion to hunt. So I started the game over for a third time, with Survival mode ON, Perma-death OFF, and the difficulty set to NORMAL. The game might have been enjoyable if not for all the extra overhead that I had to keep forcing myself to do. I had to stop the game every hour or so to backup the save file to the cloud to make sure that I didn't accidentally lose my tamed white wolf to a Darwin Award, and I made a habit of dismissing the wolf whenever I came anywhere near water, if I wanted to go cliff-scaling, or if I had any intention of setting the forest on fire.
You can also lose your tamed beasts to flukes of the game's physics and animation systems.
Oh, and Survival Mode also apparently just completely breaks certain missions...
A well-realized world, full to the brim with filler
The world itself is actually fairly well-realized, sprawling, and offers plenty of scenic vistas of un-tamed wilderness. When I'm walking through the woods, absorbing the ambiance and living in this world, the game really shines! The larger bonfire checkpoints are often spaced just far enough that it takes about an in-game day and most of a stamina bar to find the next one.
Unfortunately, Far Cry: Primal also falls victim to many of the same traps as Ubisoft's other open world games. Despite taking place in a primitive wilderness, there sure are a lot of campfires, man-made huts, and weird wreath monuments. You're never more than a minute or two of walking away from some kind of man-made structure, and meaningless collectibles are scattered everywhere. There's multiple biomes present in the chunk of land present, including the frozen northern region that seems like it's stuck in perpetual ice age. There's no seasonal progression, or weather, or anything, so the whole map just feel stale and "gamey" after a while.
The scenic vistas and serene treks through the woods are the highlight of the game for me.
The world is also over-saturated with random events, which often overlap with each other and with scripted mission events. In one instance, I cleared a cave full of rare black dholes, only to find a cave lion literally waiting at the mouth of the exit. I killed the cave lion, only to take two steps out into the wilderness and be mauled to death by a gorram badger! In other instances, a supposedly "easy" Wenja escort mission was interrupted by a random bear attack that killed two of my allies, almost killed my white wolf, and almost killed me. It's the same problem as Red Dead Redemption: you can't go ten steps in some areas without a fracking mountain lion jumping out of nowhere and killing you.
There's some admirable effort put into making this game feel primitive and un-tamed. Ubisoft appears to have invented a whole new language for its cave-people, and even includes references to real-world paleolithic artifacts. That isn't to say that this is some sort of attempt at historical fiction. Within an hour or two of starting the game, you'll be going on magical vision quests to find your spirit animal.
The narrative is also pretty flimsy. Your character is apparently meeting up with a splinter group of your tribe, and find them at war with a hostile group of Neanderthals. The Udam leader gets some superficial establishment as a blood-thirsty, brutal warlord who indiscriminately murders any of your tribe he comes across. But immediately after Ull's early-game assault on your fledgling village, I played a mission that basically established that the Udam are just another group of people trying to flee the hardships of an inhospitable northern climate. Oh, and there's also a third tribe that's just kind of there, and whom you kill on sight. So the conflict between the groups basically just comes down to racist genocide - a crime in which your character is a perfectly complicit abettor. Admittedly, these are cavemen, so tribalism and shallow morals and ethics is at least justifiable. Who knows, maybe Ubisoft was even trying to make a philosophical point about how humanity should have evolved beyond senseless violence and warfare?
The Udam appear to be a tribe of Neanderthal who simply want to escape the inhospitable climate of the north.
The rest of the game's "narrative" is a process of building your village and recruiting more tribes-people to join. You know, filler and fluff content - Ubisoft's modus operandi. Hitting certain thresholds of population unlocks certain perks, and various huts in the village can be upgraded to provide new missions and other perks and abilities. Though a lot of these upgrades provide nothing except for chunks of experience, which makes collecting the materials necessary for the upgrade feel even more like blatant filler content.
Admittedly, I did enjoy most of my play-time with the game while the map was still mostly mysterious and unknown, and [more importantly] when everything was working properly. It's just that the Ubisoft sandbox design template wore very thin very quickly, and the instability of Survival Mode really hurt the experience.