There are two different kinds of caveman movie: the ones with dinosaurs and the ones without. The latter is more historically accurate, but the former is more, well, fun. Dudes in loincloths grunting half-English and throwing spears at a T. rex sets a certain vibe, and one that even the more serious-minded films can’t entirely escape. Far Cry Primal has no dinosaurs in it, and the humans all speak an unfamiliar language (translated via helpful subtitles), but it’s the second kind of caveman movie at heart. Anyone looking for an accurate simulation of humanity’s early days scraping to survive in a harsh and brutal world should look elsewhere. In this game, you throw bee bombs at your enemies. Realism isn’t really the goal.
That’s all for the better. The Ubisoft approach to open-world games resists the patience and pacing necessary for a truly immersive experience; almost from the first moments of play, Takkar, the bland protagonist, is confronted by a half a dozen or more mission options. Wait a few seconds in the game’s lush natural environments, and spontaneous “events” will pop up nearby, offering a chance to run a hundred feet south to fulfill one of a small handful of randomly generated beats for a few experience points. It’s an unnecessary distraction that grows more annoying over time—after a few hours you’ve seen everything those events have to offer, and the rewards for completing them aren’t worth taking the time away from other, more interesting missions.
This desperate need to fill the player’s time, to offer content until, at least in theory, the amount of things to do renders any question of the quality of those things irrelevant, is hardly new. Yet something about the contrast between the life of early man, isolated and struggling to survive, and the constant flood of options facing Takkar at every turn, makes the philosophy feel even more misguided than usual. One can almost hear the designers whispering in the background, “You can do this! Do you like this? How about this? You like this, right. Or this is great! You can also do this! Look! Over here! Are you not entertained?” It takes more effort than it should to sink into Oros, the game’s gorgeous setting; ideas and locations are less introduced than flung haphazardly against the wall, the apparent hope being that if more is thrown, then more will stick.
The ultimate effect of all this fiddly, at times annoyingly condescending design is one that ironically puts control back in the hands of the player. Anyone wanting to get the most fun out of Far Cry Primal (and it can be fun!) is going to have to curate their own experience with the ruthlessness of an editor loading up to kill a whole book full of someone else’s darlings. Still, the nagging sense of never quite doing enough, of leaving so many red and orange spots on the map unresolved, doesn’t ever go away, and the plethora of options has the unfortunate effect of robbing the game’s slight story of what little tension it might have had.
There are occasional narrative missions—two of which are punctuated by extensive, arrow-sponging boss fights—but completing these has little tangible effect outside of cut scenes. Intentionally or not, that works in the game’s favor, since it allows further freedom to pick and choose what you’re interested in experiencing. If you want to track down the powerful leaders of the warring Udam and Izila tribes and kill them to make Oros safer for your own people, the slightly nicer Wenja, you’re more than welcome to do so; but if not, there’s no wall barring your progress in other areas. And it’s those other areas where Fry Cry Primal comes closest to shining.
Animals—unpredictable, violent, and oddly endearing—have increasingly been the series’ main appeal, offering diversions stripped of any need for forced personality or narrative logic, and here, they take center stage. Given the time period, Takkar doesn’t have access to the wide range of equipment available to previous Far Cry heroes. He relies on bows, spears, and clubs for his kill sprees, but those alone aren’t enough. That’s where the beasts come in. Oros is teeming with wildlife—much of it dangerous, all of it wild—and in order to progress, Takkar must learn to tame the most powerful predators to serve under his command, striking at enemies from the shadows and offering a critical tactical advantage in group assaults.
What this means is that you can sic a sabretooth tiger on the bad guys. Or a wolf. Or a cave bear. Or a dhole, although that’s less impressive. You can even ride some of the larger animals to war, and if the idea of riding a mammoth into battle doesn’t hold any appeal at all, this game probably is not for you. The process of taming an animal is rudimentary at best (you find one, throw bait at it, wait a few seconds, and voilà), and the fact that the beasts are easily resurrected makes them less precious individuals and more assets to be exploited. But you can pet them. The petting doesn’t increase their affection for you (once an animal is tamed, it’s yours for the duration) or provide any other tangible benefit. In a game where nearly every choice is based on the possibility of increasingly meaningless rewards, it’s a rare moment of simple affection. That’s something Far Cry Primal could’ve used more of.