“Addicting” is one of the stranger adjectives used by game critics. In almost every context, addiction has an extremely negative connotation. Describing a friend as “addicted” usually signifies that they need someone to step in and help them with a life problem. It’s not even always positive in the context of games — it can be especially nasty when considering the gross ways mobile app developers scheme to keep customers playing and purchasing microtransactions.
However, Ubisoft’s “Far Cry” franchise has always represented a more positive form of addiction to me. As players progress through a “Far Cry” game’s narrative and explores its dangerous, expansive open worlds, they also progress in ability — constantly upgrading weapons, unlocking new areas to explore (upgrading traversal capabilities) and finding new crafting materials to upgrade equipment.
If you really want to be reductive about it, all this upgrading can simply represent numbers going up incrementally. But this constant, expertly crafted feeling that you’re just a bit stronger — a bit more agile — a bit further in the story — results in one of the most engaging power-fantasy gameplay systems in open-world gaming.
“Far Cry Primal” certainly manages to nail that feeling of continual progression, but it isn’t just another one of these games. Like fellow spin-off entry “Far Cry: Blood Dragon,” “Primal” radically alters the game’s setting, whisking the player from the contemporary war-torn landscapes of “3” and “4” into Central Europe’s stone age. This risk-taking, unconventional setting allows “Primal” to be a huge improvement over its predecessor (the bloated, overlong “Far Cry 4”), returning to a design closer to the leaner, meaner “Far Cry 3”
Easily one of the best-looking and best-running games on PS4, “Primal” ’s natural landscapes of rivers, old-growth forests and mountains are heart-stoppingly beautiful, as are the slightly exaggerated lighting techniques used to give the world distinct periods of day and night. The art design of “Primal” takes the idea of the caveman/woman as traditionally depicted and injects its classic “Far Cry” brand of violence. Even though upgradeable clubs, bows and spears replace a huge arsenal of guns, this is definitely no less gory. Tossing a spear through an enemy caveperson’s brain is something you’ll do again and again in this game, and it never gets old. My roommate and I couldn’t stop laughing whenever I would nail a bad guy with a well-placed spear or arrow from across the screen. It’s one of the most gleeful melee combat experiences I’ve had with a game.
That being said, where previous “Far Cry” games thematically concerned bloodlust, insanity and nihilism, this one imbues its characters with a deep spirituality — a forgotten religion that dictates the way they speak and hunt. It’s a breath of fresh air in a franchise on the verge of feeling a little Hot Topic-brand angsty.
Even though I’m a devout real-life vegetarian, I’ve really enjoyed Far Cry’s traditionally over-the-top hunting sidequests — missions where the player hunts down huge, deadly animals for valuable skins used for item upgrades. “Primal” adds a brilliant new mechanic to these missions that had begun to feel slightly tired in “4.” In “Primal,” the player has the ability to tame and ride these dangerous animals. It’s brilliant, and I’m shocked they’ve never done it before — each animal ally comes packed with its own abilities for passive exploration and combat. They always feel like an asset, never a hassle. This mechanic is a blast to mess around with.
One thing critics have failed to comment on so far is “Primal” ’s superior sound design. The game’s introduction, which uses only audio and a black screen to establish its setting in a way I won’t spoil, is the highlight of an all-in-all masterful implementation of sound mixing and unforgettable effects.
The game’s narrative is nothing to write home about — the franchise has still struggled to find a good central villain since “Far Cry 3” ’s Vaas (Michael Mando, “Better Call Saul”). But this series has always been about aesthetic, setting and that sweet sense of progression over anything else. And in those ways, “Far Cry Primal” succeeds in grand fashion. It’s different enough to be refreshing and familiar enough to hit those same endorphins in the back of your brain that made “Far Cry 3” so fun to play. It’s so cool to see a major studio continue to take big risks with a big franchise and have it pay off swimmingly.
“Far Cry Primal” was reviewed using a post-launch physical copy provided by Ubisoft.