Ubisoft’s Far Cry Primal is the kind of game that makes you forget about the passage of time, which is mildly ironic considering how many centuries have elapsed since the year in which the game is set. The prehistoric atmosphere feels like its been transported from a different era of human history, while Primal itself is an absorbing video game that makes minutes vanish on a clock. I recently had the opportunity to play through the first few stages of the campaign and those four hours felt like they evaporated.
In Far Cry Primal, you play as Takkar, a prehistoric hunter with the ability to tame the megafauna of the era. The game takes place in 10,000 BCE (roughly the intersection of the Ice Age and the Stone Age), and your primary goal is to reunite your tribe, which has been decimated and scattered across the fictional, vaguely central European land of Oros.
The story begins with a successful mammoth hunt that turns into a failed mammoth hunt after a saber toothed tiger attacks your party and steals your prey. After a brief tumble down a hill, you wake up next to your friend, whose ribs and lungs are poking through his abdomen, and that brutality – that unflinching look at the physical toll of survival of the fittest – is easily the most striking aspect of Far Cry Primal.
It goes well beyond toothy encounters with the wildlife. Takkar is a member of the Wenja tribe, one of three groups vying for control of Oros, and the people are just as wild as any of the animals. The other factions include the cannibalistic Udam – you’ll regularly come across dismembered bodies roasting over campfires – and the Izila, sun walkers (read: pyromaniacs) who don’t eat their victims but are fond of burning them beyond the point of recognition.
The Wenja, meanwhile, aren’t exactly a peaceful civilization. Your first Wenja ally and the leader of your village is a woman named Sayla. She wears a necklace made of human ears and she adds to it every time she comes across another Udam corpse (there are no physical or philosophical distinctions between the men and women – everyone needs to know how to survive on their own). Later you’ll meet a Shaman named Tensay, who encourages you to drink your own blood in order to commune with animals. Your allies are just as cruel as your enemies, the only major difference between them being a circumstance of birth.
Yet despite the brutality, the extreme gore never feels forced, and that’s what makes Primal so unusual. The violence is a natural extension of the setting because anyone unwilling to inflict savagery is guaranteed to become a victim of savagery, and the game makes you believe in the genuine necessity of that struggle. Oros is a rough land. It has none of the conveniences of modern civilization – no medicine, no literature, no running water – and that’s partly what makes the storyline so urgent. You need to reunite the Wenja not because they’re somehow more noble than your antagonists, but simply because there is strength and security in numbers. The bigger your village, the more reticent the other tribes will be to invade.
All of which is to say that Ubisoft has constructed perhaps the first video game sandbox in which violence actually makes sense. The raw, graphic nature of that violence simply amplifies the tone. That’s the other major difference between Primal and its Far Cry predecessors (descendants?). While Primal introduces prehistoric versions of many modern weapons, there is no equivalent to a machine gun and the combat takes place in much closer quarters against enemies that will charge into melee range as rapidly as possible. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and you’ll frequently stumble into danger (and die quickly) if you don’t mind your surroundings.
Fortunately, a careful approach is enough to avoid most encounters and the gameplay introduces other features to make exploration more manageable. Once they’ve been tamed, larger beasts like bears will act as a deterrent to smaller wildlife. They’ll also draw the attention of Udam and Izila warriors who decide that a massive bear is more threatening than a random dude with a bow and arrow.
Even then, however, combat is much denser than gun battles that play out over a greater distance and the battlefield becomes more cluttered, more chaotic, and more savage as a result. You’ll feel (and see) skulls shattering beneath your club, giving the game more immediacy as it displays the gruesome consequences of your actions. Everyone is subjected to the same unforgiving laws of nature.
Primal is still structured like a Far Cry game, which means you’ll spend your time crisscrossing a map looking for outposts to raid and points of interest to explore. The game just feels more claustrophobic and more intense within that framework (the jungle is particularly close when played with headphones). I’ve now spent upwards of six hours with Far Cry Primal and I like everything I’ve seen so far, and I’ll be curious to see what the finished game looks like when it debuts on February 23.