In the first hour of Far Cry New Dawn, an NPC told me a rumor that dogs were being bred on a nearby hillside, and that they were being raised for food by the Highwaymen. Being a dog-lover, and it being right in the middle of my path towards the next story mission, I decided to go there immediately. As I pulled up on an ATV, my gun-for-hire, Carmina Rye holding on to my back, I heard the growing sound of Die Antwoord’s pulsating heavy club beats.
This had to be the place. If anyone’s slaughtering dogs for food in the post-post-apocalypse, it’s going to be makeshift kennel squatters, blasting Afrikaner electronic hip-hop to cover the sounds of dogs howling in misery. Climbing the hill, gun drawn, the high-pitched squealing of Yolandi Visser rose louder and louder and so did the plaintive barking. Then there was a yelp. Then a buzzsaw. And then I curled my finger around the trigger button and sprayed bullets until a punk rock butcher and a heavily-armed motocross racer fell dead at my feet.
Die Antwoord kept playing as I noticed a dead Yellow Lab lying on a table. I liberated a rambunctious Shiba Inu from a cage, and then followed it to another dead golden retriever who had thrown up the key needed to unlock the other cages. I freed those dogs, and listened to an audio log of Mickey, one of the two leaders of the Highwaymen, disappointed in the production of dog meat. Before this moment, I had wondered if there was going to be a turn where maybe the two black girls in all the teaser art had a chance at becoming protagonists. That a twist later in the game would flip the morality of this narrative on it’s head. But here I realized this was the most daring moral stance Far Cry New Dawn would ever be able to take. There was no interest in redeeming or repositioning the Highwaymen and their leaders later in the story. They were cruel to dogs—to golden retrievers. This was a decision designed to communicate one thing, the Highwaymen aren’t just tacky, assholes with a different world view. To the creators of New Dawn, they were feral savages who had to be put down.
The leaders of the Highwaymen and primary antagonists of New Dawn aren’t Drugs-and-Jesus Cultists (though, do they ever show up) this time. Instead we’re given two black twin sisters: Mickey and Lou. Young, and nihilistic, they like outsider art, loud hip-hop, and they dress like the walked off of a music video shoot for “Lemonade” by way of “California Love." They have face tattoos and piercings. They’re very, very loud. And beyond an obsessive fixation on “Problem Solvers” and “Problem Makers” learned from their absent father, they are completely bereft of ideology, background, or motivational underpinnings.
Set in direct opposition are the survivors of Far Cry 5’s Collapse. Picking up 17 years after Far Cry 5, New Dawn tasks players with helping to rebuild a settlement named Prosperity, founded by returning characters Kim, Nick, and their now grown up daughter Carmina Rye. Joining in this mission is the player character’s boss, Thomas Rush. Rush is trying to restore America to its lost greatness by recruiting and helping develop settlements like Prosperity across the country with the liberal application of Specialists and Resources (both of which you’ll have to collect).
The settlement of Prosperity is a small-scale frontier fort that combines elements of Scandinavian Modern architecture, a shabby-chic hunting lodge, and an organic farm. It’s a bizarre fantasy of survival. Rush places an emphasis on the importance of people who have special skills, who can and will do work. That they’re the ones who need to be brought into the community at Prosperity. At the same time, those are the people he wants to help—the ones already helping themselves. There’s no room for people with disability or a lack of skill sets. It’s a fantasy of communal living, rammed through a capitalistic (and militaristic) lens. In this way, Far Cry New Dawn courts the notion of paring down society to who is valuable, who is expendable, and who even counts as a person. Though, of course, it can’t bring itself to say this out loud.
What passes for the narrative and thematic core of this sequel is a tension between a reactionary, expropriative violent youth (people who are unable/unwilling to make or nurture) against the resurgence of a status quo that ended the world—Makers and Doers who have re-enshrined traditional property rights with stockades and garden plots. And in the end, the Highwaymen are the boogeymen that Rush and the citizens of Prosperity would need to invent, if they didn’t exist. Prosperity and Rush need a cartoonish, hyperbolic threat to justify and flatter their freehold authoritarianism and dress it in the garb of egalitarian communitarianism. Which, if the developers of this game had spent a little more time on would have realized, this could have been an interesting interrogation of how fascism happens.
Most of the verbs from Far Cry 5 carry over, in much the same way. But now enemies have substantial hit points, they level up, and in order to maintain effectiveness in combat, you’ll have to constantly be upgrading yourself with more perks, weapons, and the bonuses that come from upgrading specific sections of Prosperity.
Outposts, which when taken provide the ethanol (a resource naming decision that makes no sense, and is tied to nothing beyond hinting that oil production has likely ceased) needed to upgrade, can be used as fast travel points and mini-hubs, like usual. But they can also be Scavenged, which gives a smaller boost of ethanol, causes the Highwaymen to retake and fortify it, just so you can conquer it again. Unless you get really lucky with hijacking the rare tanker trucks—you’ll absolutely have to do this a couple of times in order to upgrade Prosperity enough to advance the story missions.
So much of New Dawn is about grinding, which is probably the thing that it really steals from RPGs more than character progression and floating numbers. Everything is about collecting resources to craft or upgrade, so you can kill enemies more expediently, so you can collect more resources to craft or upgrade. And it doesn’t even do that loop particularly well.
You’d think engaging in the core shooting play of the game would be fun, but few outposts even look distinctive, and enemies’ health bars increase way more rapidly than your ability to deal damage. All of which turns what should be fast, frantic combat into a tedious war of attrition.
Aside from streamlining the game into a very linear progression both as map and narrative, and the removal of the Resistance meter—plenty of things return from Far Cry 5 in one way or another (usually in a diminished fashion).
Guns For Hire return, but you’re limited to one at a time, and they have even fewer lines of dialogue than in the previous installment. Less than two hours in I wanted to crash my ATV at Carmina’s constant repetition of “Thank my stars!” and watch her go flying over the handles. I ended up happily replacing her with Nana, a stealth-sniper granny caricature. Nana made a joke about not making Driving Miss Daisy jokes, and I immediately switched her out for the Shiba-Inu I rescued from being eaten. I just couldn’t bear the thought of hearing that every time I got on a vehicle.
Bunker exploration also shows back up, only now due to the changes in combat and resource mechanics, they’re almost mandatory unless you relish blowing through the challenges list with each weapon (it gets old fast). But in New Dawn they take on an unrepentant tedium because the puzzles and platforms just aren’t very inventive, engaging, or robust. If they were light in the prequel, they’re absolutely breezy here.
There are music players to find, and a photograph hunt that literally exists only to show off how points of interest from the last game have changed. And then there are the Monstrous Animal hunts. If you've played Zelda, a 3D Mario, or any other game that has boss-level enemies who have glowing red spots indicating their vulnerability, you've seen this before. Only now it takes a thousand bullets instead of a few well timed attacks. The final, final boss is one of these and it's probably the most barren, anticlimactic ideas the franchise has ever had. I spent five and a half hours trying to whittle down it's health before I just stopped caring entirely.
The only truly new thing Far Cry New Dawn has to offer is a new mission type called “Expeditions.” One of the residents of Prosperity is a French Canadian helicopter pilot, and upon upgrading his little section of your home base, he’ll offer to insert you into Highwaymen strongholds to retrieve a package and exfiltrate. Your reward for this? More resources. But you do get a lot, and it’s honestly the most engaging material in the entire game. Except, it’s also borrowed. See, expeditions are basically Metal Gear Solid V meets Hitman, but with way fewer verbs, almost no proper nouns, and tied to the same hit-point-sponge combat that drags the core game down. There’s no real opportunity for engaging in stealth mechanics, and anyway stealth is automatically blown thirty seconds after acquiring the macguffin. New Dawn knows it only really has one verb—shoot—and rather than learn more, it just throws more and beefier bodies onto different maps.
It’s disappointing because I love the potential of sequels. But Ubisoft is unwilling to be bold with Far Cry anymore. Even visually, it feels largely the same as Far Cry 5’s pre-apocalypse (which didn’t have much to care about in it either). Sure, some animals are albino now, but once you pick away the hot pink flowers on everything, and the bisexual lighting graffiti—it’s basically just the old map with stuff removed, surrounded on all sides by a sickly green haze, dead Ponderosa Pines, and the new warning “Radiation Area.”
The more I played New Dawn, the more I asked myself, “Why does this game even exist?” Not in a condemnatory way, but in sheer bafflement.
Everything this game does, at least one other game does so much better alone or in combination. Any of the three Bethesda Fallout games do post-apocalyptic narratives better (yes, even 4). They have richer environments, and characters with real personality, storylines that can be altered by player choice. Or there’s also Metro, which is getting a release on the same day as New Dawn, and is probably a more competent shooter, with undoubtedly a more interesting take on the return to the post-apocalyptic surface by formerly subterranean humans. If you want a game with complex verbs, and environments designed for disruption—Hitman 2 has you covered. If you want to blow things up, build a base, and get mired in the tedium of war, well there’s always Metal Gear Solid V—and that has tanks. While other games and genres learn lessons and try out new ideas, Far Cry has been left to watch an entire industry pass it by.
So, why does this game exist? Because, why not? In the end, it’s more Far Cry, and people seem to like that despite the self-loathing that’s been building within the series since Far Cry 3. But to go beyond that is to invent meaning and inject it into a game that defies coherency, and refuses to give the merciless savages of its post-nuclear quasi-frontier story more motivation and ideology beyond “nothing matters” and “you’re either with us, or against us.” Far Cry 5 needed the world to end, because it was bored and depressed with its own existence, its franchise, really even the whole genre.
New Dawn can’t and won’t revivify itself the way Assassin’s Creed: Origins did when that franchise started buckling under the weight of its own tired legacy. It’s a game that refuses to engage with itself mechanically, thematically, or narratively. As players, we’re left with two options: do the heavy lifting for a game that can’t and won’t, or once again embrace a hollow and half-hearted spectacle. Or we avoid it entirely, and let Far Cry 5’s nuclear winter linger a little longer in the hope that, when the skies clear, they’ll reveal a world that someone, somewhere, can bring themselves to care about.