If I learned one thing after four hours in Far Cry Primal's open world, it's this: the sun is my friend. When exploring the lush wilderness of Primal's Stone Age setting, it's safer to venture out during the day, when visibility is higher, and predators are fewer in number.
A day/night cycle is one of several things making Primal a somewhat unusual series entry. It still uses the same basic structure as Far Cry 2, 3 and 4 -- capturing outposts, crafting new weapons, unlocking new skills -- but with a higher focus on survival, the world itself feels more foreboding this time around.
Take the wildlife, for instance. Although hunting plays a part throughout the franchise, Far Cry Primal places it front and center. As humans did in the Stone Age, you'll spend much of your time hunting various creatures for food, supplies, and building materials. Animal fat is essential for torches, which ward off aggressive predators. Bear and jaguar hides help you upgrade not only your equipment, but also the huts in your home village.
This central hub serves as another departure from Far Cry tradition. Whereas the tropical world of Far Cry 3 and the Himalayan mountains of Far Cry 4 focused on scattered camps, Primal's village is the home base around which missions and major upgrades revolve. By venturing into the wild, meeting new characters, and recruiting them as your village's specialists, you'll unlock new options for survival and combat. Each specialist has a hut in your village, each of which needs certain animal skins and herbs to improve.
There are at least eight specialists from what we saw in the demo, each of whom governs a certain skill set. Tensay the shaman, for instance, is the catalyst for new beastmaster abilities. Observing a simple upgrade list showed me the necessary plants and animal hides I needed to upgrade Tensay's hut. After half an hour, I had the supplies, upgraded the shaman's abode, and unlocked the next tier of beastmaster powers.
This structural change to the Far Cry franchise means you'll be returning to your village often, tucked away in a safe cave as it is. In fact, every time I ventured out from its confines, whether on foot or by fast travel to outlying bonfires, danger reared its head soon after. Much like the Stone Age's cave dwellers, I was reluctant to leave the cave without preparing the adequate supplies. Primal's village is both a systemic hub and calm sanctuary.
All of the upgrading -- whether by hunting, gathering, or recruiting new specialists to your camp -- facilitates Primal's brutal combat. This series entry doesn't fall back on heavy machine guns or vehicular assaults -- instead, it stresses close-quarters melee fighting and numbers management. That is, while Far Cry 3 and 4 granted you options for taking on large groups, Primal is less forgiving when you're outnumbered.
There are still options for taking on several enemy tribesmen at once -- a makeshift "beehive grenade" is one of my favorites -- but they're not as powerful as a modern landmine or RPG. During my demo, I only ever attacked enemy groups, or aggressive packs of wolves, if I had the upper hand from the outset.
During the few hours I played, this tense combat created a sense of impact when I actually did begin skirmishes. I could only swing my club at one enemy's head before his two companions swarmed me, and the bow and arrow is hard to use on moving targets. The same goes for any animal companions I sent into the fight. My jaguar was effective for only a short time if I couldn't stop a distant tribesman from hurling a spear at the beast.
But much like the combat in the rest of the Far Cry franchise, Primal's felt as if it was fueled by the many looming upgrades in my skill tree, promising to add another wrinkle to my ambushes, or another tactic I could employ down the road. Primal also felt like its predecessors in that its world was only captivating because of the progress you could achieve by exploring it.
But the day/night cycle, the focus on survival, and the central village hub all combined to create a tense, measured, brutal demo. After four hours with the next installment in one of Ubisoft's flagship franchises, it was clear that Far Cry Primal is taking steps to create a unique experience in itself. However, time will tell if the entirety of the game can reel us through the Stone Age setting. Come late February, we'll have a full review detailing our thoughts.