As I mentioned when I reviewed Just Cause 3, open-world games are getting to be a little rote. Free some outposts, blow up a thing, do enough stuff to progress the story, complete enough blah blah to upgrade your blah blah. While the scale and scope of video game worlds are more impressive than ever, the things developers are expecting players to be impressed by are getting to be, well... unimpressive.
Thank God for Far Cry Primal, then, which steers a wooly mammoth right into the competition.
Far Cry Primal
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Available On: PlayStation 4 (reviewed,) Xbox One, PC
Which wasn't my expectation, to be sure. The release of Far Cry 3 back in 2012 gave way to Far Cry: Blood Dragon, a fifteen-buck expansion that took the same basic gameplay and slapped a cheesy 80's coat of paint on it. It worked, yes, but part of the reason it worked so well was the price point. Asking sixty bucks for it would have been a bit much. That's why I was afraid Primal would be Far Cry 4's equivalent to Blood Dragon: a reskin, through and through, but with a retail price tag instead of a DLC one.
How wrong I was. Primal is not only a full-fledged experience, well worth every dollar spent on it, but also arguably the best Far Cry yet. Yes, in a franchise famous for open-world gunplay and large-scale destruction, a game where players are armed with spears and ride animals is perhaps the finest entry yet.
The reason for that, I'd contend, is that it does a particularly excellent job of making you forget you're ever playing a Ubisoft game to begin with. From Watch Dogs to Assassin's Creed to Far Cry to even The Crew, most every game to come from the French publisher bleeds together into a homogenous glob of sameness. Climb a thing to uncover more map, liberate so and so areas to get more so and so things, do enough stuff from a stuff-giver-person to get more stuff so you can help more stuff-giver-people. It's all very rote.
And, make no mistake, Far Cry Primal has the same basic skeleton of those games. But it's how the bones of that skeleton are rearranged, and the flesh and blood on top of it that makes it such a compelling experience.
For starters, the setting, characters, and arsenal all combine to make it feel like something fresh and original. When's the last time you built huts for cavepeople in a game, or rode a wooly mammoth through an enemy's village? How does your attack strategy change when sniper scopes and explosives aren't a thing? Are there really that many strong hunter women and one-armed men who urinate on you in video games? Primal is filled to the brim with a collection of oddities, as if the developers decided to stop kowtowing to the mainstream and just go completely bonkers with anything and everything. It pays off, because everything here is something unusually strange and different for Ubisoft. Which I like. Keep it up.
All of this works to hide the fact that the narrative is, while fun, not exactly original or clever. Big bad evil tribes have marginalized your tribe, which is clearly superior for reasons. Your job is, obviously, to completely wreck all the other tribes until you unify all of Oros under the Wenja tribe.
Sound familiar? It should, because it's basically the plot of the last two Far Cry games. A lone dude preserves the legacy of blah blah group of people for blah blah reasons and restores glory to said blah blah group of people. Now, this isn't a bad narrative, by any means. But it's definitely rehashed. It's fortunate that the dialogue and cast are both so top-notch, because if they were't, I'd be a little more critical. As it stands, though, I'd say that the narrative is inoffensive, and you're really going to be staying for the players involved more than anything.
Well, that and the gameplay, which is, in my opinion, the best in the series. Yes, again, I realize that Far Cry is a game about open-world shootbangs, and if you'll notice, Primal has little to no shootbangs. I actually hesitate to call it a Far Cry game at all, because it really feels like its own new IP. But because it is part of the franchise, I have to concede that it works better than any entry. The melee combat is fast and brutal. The ranged combat requires the utmost precision and punishes every missed shot. Movement feels more fluid and dynamic than ever before.
Whether you're scaling a cliff while fending off eagles from pecking you to death, or setting fire to a village as you throw spears into enemy tribes, there's a sense of fluidity and precision that I've never felt from an open-world Ubisoft title. It's pretty refreshing. The consistent mixing up of objectives helps, too.
Carrying out those objectives is more fun this time around, too, thanks to the heaping helping of new features. Training animals, while still basically a contextualized action, is rewarding, as different animals have different pros and cons, and are suited to different situations. Finding villagers actually feels worth it, because it brings your population up, which lets you build new huts, which lets you get new gear. Even the franchise's usual "tag enemies" gimmick is livened up by the addition of an owl, who can scout out territory and even function as a drone that players can bring raining down on unsuspecting enemies.
In other words, facets of other, lesser games are on display here. But in Primal, those facets are actually arranged in a way that manages to feel compelling, and not like a tedious checklist of stuff to do. Just Cause 3, Watch Dogs, Fallout 4 and even the excellent Assassin's Creed Syndicate are just four of the recent games that made me ask, "why am I even doing this?" I never asked that in Primal. I just grinned and got excited about unlocking more junk and more stuff to do.
It also doesn't hurt that the game is flatout gorgeous, either. Playing on a PS4, I was constantly convinced that I was playing a PC game on High or Very High settings, as the visuals were often lifelike in nature and the performance never dipped once. Light trickles in through trees that sway in the wind as grass crunches beneath your feet and you push through dynamic foliage, stalking an uncannily realistic enemy before impaling them and their squad. It sucks you in to the point where you'll forget you're even playing a game.
The textures, the shadow work, the animations... everything about Primal is nothing short of astonishing. I would hazard to call it a landmark work for visuals in console gaming, in fact. Nothing I've played on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4, thus far, has managed to look this great while maintaining such pitch-perfect performance. This is exactly the kind of game I thought we'd be getting when this generation of consoles launched.
Far Cry Primal is, in fact, that kind of game as a whole. Everything about Primal feels like a step above its competitors, and then some. The story is a bit by-the-numbers, sure, and the music is a bit unremarkable. But when everything else about your game is so brilliant, and manages to capture you so completely, it's easier to forgive both those things.
Ubisoft has managed to make a game that retains all of its signature open-world elements, yet Primal's coat of paint is so arresting, so convincing that I can't help but concede that they're finally onto something.