Sticks and stones will break your bones.
Takkar is a hunter, he uses weapons and animals to defeat his enemies and conquer outposts to stamp his authority on the slice of Earth he finds himself in, all for the good of the natives, his downtrodden kin. So far so Far Cry, but Far Cry Primal has something new to say, and our hero is a Neanderthal.
Far Cry Primal is set 10,000 years ago, when our ancient kin were far from the top of the food chain. Vicious sabre-tooth tigers, colossal mammoths, and aggressive bears stalk the lush prehistoric landscape. Takkar and his tribal brethren have nothing but stone spears and arrows to fend off the threatening wildlife.
However, large-toothed creatures aren't the only risk to Takkar and his Wenja tribe's survival. They are the bottom of the pecking order in the tribal hierarchy, dominated and slaughtered by the cannibal Udam and enslaved or immolated by the fire-obsessed Izila. All told, Takkar's native land of Oros is dangerous and demanding.
But Takkar is no ordinary hunter; he's something of a Dr. Dolittle. He can't talk to animals, but he's a dab hand at taming them. Almost every animal you encounter can be tamed. Initially, that means hyena-like dholes and wolves, but with a little training from his shamanic guru, Tensay, Takkar can master the most fearsome inhabitants of Oros and even ride some of them.
These animals can be summoned at any time. Some like the jaguar are better suited to stealthy encounters, while hulking cave bears are your best bet when you're spotted and promptly swamped by club wielding cannibals. You can leave your animal to its own devices for the most part. If you crouch your animal will drop to its haunches and avoid encounters until you reveal yourself, at which time your four-legged companion will seek out the nearest neck to chew on.
You can control your trusty beasts, and directing them to attack one target while you dispatch another demonstrates how satisfying Far Cry Primal's combat can be in full flow. There's one animal you have a bit more control over, and that's your owl. A quick whistle transfers control to your soaring friend who can scout the area ahead, tagging enemies and killing them. Dive-bombing an unsuspecting adversary will leave your owl needing an 80-second rest though, so your air superiority is never enough to take out a whole camp.
If your owl has done its job right, you'll be able to distinguish your enemies by the red markings over their heads, making combat simpler... especially the stealth variety. Ubisoft still encourages a stealthy approach to conquering the enemy compounds and bonfires that litter Oros by offering more experience if you take one over while remaining undetected. The crushing clubs to the head and spears through the necks of distracted foes is as satisfying as the stealth kills found in earlier Far Cry games. The sense of achievement that comes with wiping out a camp unnoticed is reason enough to stick to stealth, but of course, the best laid schemes of mice and Neanderthal men often go awry.
When you are spotted, combat becomes a frantic mess of bludgeoning clubs, hastily-thrown spears and wicked arrows. Keeping control of these situations is difficult; combat is fast and often devolves into who can swing their club the quickest. Combat improves as more enemy types are introduced; some poison you with clay bombs, others throw javelins or shoot arrows, while others just want to bash your head in. The mixture of ranged and melee foes force you to use all the various weapons at your disposal in order to be effective.
Outside the compounds and bonfires that reveal more of the surrounding land when captured, there are many missions tasking you help the embattled Wenja, either by hunting a dangerous creature, escorting some tribes-people through dangerous wilderness or protecting one of their camps from dangerous rivals. These are an interesting diversion at first, but once you've done one you've done them all. Better are the smaller events you stumble across as you explore. These quick-fire scenarios typically only feature a few enemies and a captured Wenja, and are over in a flash, giving you a little boost to experience and enough of a distraction to break up your journey without becoming tiresome.
Saving Wenja has benefits beyond experience. After all, what good is a rejuvenated tribe with no members? Rescued Wenja will go back to your ever-expanding village, and as the population grows so too does your experience modifier, and you'll get rewards in the form of rare animal skins and plants. Some Wenja can teach you to be a better hunter or gatherer. Rescuing them will unlock new skill trees and provide missions to drive the game's story forward.
These distinguished Wenja live in their own huts, which you can upgrade to push your progression tree even further and unlock new items to craft. The missions they send you on are difficult to distinguish from those that you encounter in the world, and typically involve you entering a compound-like area and destroying anyone inside. Sometimes you'll need to follow a trail to find your destination and sometimes you'll need to collect something to bring back, but they all feel formulaic.
There are a few exceptions to the so-so mission design, none more memorable than the beginning of the game where Takkar is hunting a mammoth with his brethren. The hunt is a mixture of tense anticipation as you track the great beast through its herd and the life-and-death excitement as you break from cover and try to bring it down with your spear -- which looks pathetic in comparison to the mass of ivory jutting from the mammoths head -- waiting to skewer you if you get too close.
With the missions providing little impetus to explore Oros, it's up to addictive crafting and levelling to push you forward. Going from a simple flint club to a terrifying block of rock and bone embedded in a branch is a good representation of how satisfying Far Cry Primal's weapon upgrades are. Each upgrade changes the appearance of the weapon and I was always excited to see how deadly they would look after I'd found the requisite materials. By comparison, adding a scope to a rifle or a new skin to the body of a gun feels inadequate.
Since Takkar has no gun, there is a big emphasis on gathering materials, whether it's wood, animal skins or rocks. You'll need a lot to keep Takkar replete with spears and arrows. The animations for collecting materials is mercifully quick, and as you free more of the land from the Udam and Izila your followers will provide you with materials in the game's many caches.
Eventually the game's thin story will ask you to destroy the leaders of the two rival tribes. The build-up to that point is barely noticeable. You start the game repressed and weak, and end the game free and strong by destroying both leaders. The story in between is forgettable, as there are no twists and turns. It's a simple A to B. It's a shame because the Wenja sending you on these missions are captivating characters. Whether it's Sayla who collects the ears of dead Udam to quiet the "screams" or the eccentric shaman, Tensay, who delights in making foul, hallucination-inducing concoctions. The characters are wonderfully expressive with dynamic faces. Also, credit has to be given to Ubisoft for creating an authentic, primitive, ancient language to increase the believability of the prehistoric world.
It's some world, too. Lush woodland to the south moves to muddy, barren earth in the centre that gives way to inhospitable snowy mountains in the north. As with the primitive language, Oros feels ancient, with only a hint of human influence. Rudimentary paths, mud huts and sharpened stakes are the only clues than anything but animals and plants occupy this beautiful, deadly land.
Exploring Oros is rewarded with numerous collectibles. Working through maze-like caverns for cave paintings and stumbling across Wenja bracelets in forgotten scenes of struggle and death are your prizes for scouring the countryside. The collectibles are in keeping with the world and add to the authenticity of Far Cry Primal. It's the slavish attention to the detail of the time period that makes the inclusion of Urki an utter travesty.
If you've played Far Cry 4, then Urki may look familiar. That doesn't make any sense, of course, because Far Cry Primal is set 12,000 years ago. Well, for some unfathomable reason Ubisoft decided to put a Neanderthal equivalent of their idiot character Hurk from Far Cry 4 into Far Cry Primal and call him Urki. Urki will stick out to you because he wears a leopard print bandana and speaks with an American accent. This disaster of a character is so completely at odds with everything Far Cry Primal is trying to achieve that I am still flabbergasted by his inclusion.
This call back to characters of old is symptomatic of Far Cry Primal's biggest problem: despite being set in a completely alien time period it still feels familiar. I am doing everything I did in Far Cry 4 except the elephants are hairy and I have spears instead of guns. Sneaking into compounds and dispatching guards is the same whether I am using a machine made machete or a hand-made club. As enjoyable as the Far Cry formula is, the familiarity of the gameplay left me wanting more and lamenting the lack of a gameplay shift as interesting as the new setting.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One with a digital copy provided by Ubisoft.
Images courtesy of Ubisoft.