Ubisoft’s caveman adventure Far Cry Primal has been one of the stranger, more beguiling games of 2016. Last week, they added a free survivor mode for console and PC players. If you’re willing to start a new game to try it, it makes things much more interesting.
I initially played Primal for about six hours, until the thrill of playing as a prehistoric survivor wore off and I found myself playing just another Far Cry. As I wrote at the time, I was playing in a difficult, distinct way: No minimap, no fast travel, and no subtitles. I never knew what anyone was saying, though I was able to decipher the simplistic story through gestures and gist.
I tried to play unencumbered, carrying only as much as I thought a caveman might carry. But, before long, I found myself loaded up with a huge arsenal of weaponry, able to destroy whole platoons of enemy cavemen. When Ubisoft announced at the end of March that the game would get a survival mode—called Survivor Mode—I decided to wait and play that. I’m glad I did.
In order to play survivor mode, you have to start a new game. That’s a major obstacle, given that most people who bought the game when it came out in February have probably already completed it and moved on. If for some reason you didn’t—and if you like engaging, difficult survival games—you’re in for a version of the game that feels more complete.
Survivor mode mostly functions through a new stamina bar, which sits right below your health bars. Your movement drains it slowly. Running or fighting drains it faster. If it bottoms out, you’ll slow down and lose the ability to quick-heal, putting yourself at a big disadvantage. You replenish a bit by eating food from the animals you’ve hunted, and a lot by sleeping.
There’s a laundry list of other tweaks. Your pet animals now cannot be revived if they go down in combat. You must carry less of everything. Crafting is slower, and hunting vision is less effective. Night is more dangerous. You can also choose to play with permadeath turned on, meaning that if Takkar dies, you have to start a new game. (I don’t play with permadeath. I ain’t got time for that shit.)
At its best, vanilla Primal made me feel like a small part of a large, dangerous ecosystem: I never knew when a deadly predator might attack. But before survivor mode, Takkar was just too much of a terminator. Soon enough, I was able to power through night after day after night after day, healing endlessly, fighting tirelessly, dominating everything in my path through sheer persistence.
Now, I have to rest. I’m terrified to go out at night. I have to keep hunting and hunting, and will continue to do so even when I’ve crafted every item in the game. I really like that, not because it makes the game more “realistic” or makes me feel more like a caveman. I like it because it forces me to engage with the game’s systems from start to finish.
I like playing open-world games with the assists turned off. While part of that is about making the game more immersive, a lot of it is that I hate to see good game systems go to waste. I loved using the talking in-car GPS in Grand Theft Auto IV because it was a great system that was rendered redundant by the ever-present minimap. I love navigating through Fallout 4 visually, using distant points of interest, because the world is designed so you always have something you can use to orient yourself. Like the prehistoric men and women in Primal, I like to use every part of the video game buffalo. Or in this case, the video game yak.
I have a feeling that Primal will be a “Steam Sale Surprise” for a lot of people; something they pick up later this year for twenty or thirty bucks and really enjoy. If and when you do play it, I recommend playing with survivor mode on. Don’t think of it as a special mode. Think of it as the way the game is meant to be played. Put down your preconceptions of how these games are supposed to work and you’ll find the most interesting, engrossing Far Cry game since Far Cry 2.