In the essentials, Far Cry Primal feels a lot like any other installment in the series. It’s an open world with a sprawling map dotted with enemy camps and collectibles and other points of interest. The plot revolves around two warring prehistoric tribes – the Wenja and the Udam – in which you play as Takkar, a seasoned Wenja hunter known as the Beast Master who possesses the unique ability to tame wild animals. Takkar must reunite the scattered remnants of his tribe after a disastrous hunting trip gone awry.
The difference (beyond the Stone Age setting) is that Takkar is of his world in a way that former Far Cry protagonists were not. Takkar is not a domesticated westerner displaced in a remote locale. He’s a caveman. He grew up a caveman. He knows the flora and the fauna and he knows what it takes to survive. Thanks to his affinity for wild animals, Takkar even has a privileged standing within his tribe, placing him in a leadership position at the outset of the game.
That’s not to say that life (or survival) is any easier in Oros than it was in Far Cry 4‘s Kyrat. Oros is a savage landscape. Its residents are constantly at war, and only a fraction of those residents are human. The land is populated with wolves, jaguars, bears, mammoths, and saber-toothed fucking tigers, and any and all of those creatures can kill you without too much trouble. Though it has the conveniences of a modern sandbox – maps, fast travel, icons, and the like – Oros is wild in a way that prior Far Cry games were not. The land is untamed. Far Cry Primal feels, well, primal, a world that lives according to the laws of survival of the fittest.
That tone is easily the most remarkable thing about the game, which makes a brutal first impression. I killed a bear with a club within ten minutes and then tamed a saber-toothed tiger ten minutes later. Together we successfully fought off an ambush from a pack of wolves only to fall beneath the charge of a stampeding woolly mammoth. Bones crunch. Stones thunk. Everything has a weight that could collapse and crush you at any moment.
All of that is in the game’s favor. Primal feels alive. It’s also noisy, and playing with a headset only amplifies the effect. You’re always aware that the wilderness between human settlements is rife with prowling creatures. Leaves and trees never stop rustling, and the constant screams and roars make it impossible to distinguish distant calls from imminent danger close at hand. At first I felt safe once I had a saber-toothed tiger at my side, but that proved to be foolhardy when I stumbled into a pack of snow leopards that seemed to materialize out of nowhere. The other animals won’t leave you alone just because you brought a bigger menagerie.
Fortunately, Takkar is more than equal to the dangers. The Beast Master feature is surprisingly well realized, and taming a new species is relatively simple. You drop some bait, wait for the creature to take it, and then get close enough to hold a button. The feature gives the game a distinct mechanical flavor, subtly shifting the combat focus away from weapons. Though Takkar can craft clubs, spears, and arrows, animals are frequently more effective, and each companion has unique abilities. Bears are difficult for enemies to kill, while panthers are far stealthier and saber-toothed tigers are able to loot corpses after a kill (no, I don’t know how). Takkar also has an on-call owl that can scout ahead and gather information.
All of Takkar’s pets are lethal to humans, which means that the zoo offers many different approaches to any given situation. I used my owl to scope out an Udam camp and identify targets, then summoned a silent black panther and ordered it to take out individual enemies while I remained undetected (it feels a bit like the Eagle Vision feature from Assassin’s Creed). Later, I realized that I could issue those kill commands directly from the air, combining an owl with a panther to create the prehistoric version of a drone strike. Charging into battle alongside a bear while riding a woolly mammoth is less subtle but can be equally effective.
Far Cry Primal is still unmistakably a Far Cry game and will probably play much like any other installment once you get settled in. I don’t want to oversell it without having seen more of it. Even so, the tone lives up to the prehistoric namesake. The world feels appropriately primitive, with monstrous prehistoric beasts and characters that don’t speak English (you’ll have to read the subtitles that have been translated from cave speak). It’s different enough to feel noteworthy and familiar enough to be comfortable, and I’ll be curious to see what the finished game looks like when Far Cry Primal debuts on February 23.