Far Cry New Dawn: The Kotaku Review

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By the end of Far Cry 5, the modern world was no more. Washed away in a gout of nuclear fire, all there was left to do was retreat into our bunker and lament the loss. Far Cry New Dawn moves forward from that set-up. Mechanically, it is the same game we’ve been playing since 2012’s Far Cry 3. Underneath the gloss, it is more complicated but one message rings clear: even in Paradise, there will always be snakes. And you, Player One, will get to kill them in the most spectacular ways imaginable.

This piece was first published on February 14, 2019. We’re bumping it today for the game’s release.

Set 17 years after nuclear catastrophe shattered the world, Far Cry New Dawn brings players back to the fictional Hope County, a massive tract of Montana that was also the location for Far Cry 5. That game had wistfully golden fields and sun-drenched forest canopies. New Dawn’s Hope County is a pastel wonderland. Its mutations, which include bark-skinned bison and a Borealis’d sky, recall works like 2018 science fiction horror film Annihilation. Yet Hope County is far from a hostile hellscape; it is a genuine Eden amid nuclear waste. Communities there thrived until the arrival of the Highwaymen, Mad Max-esque raiders—led by twin sisters Mickey and Lou— who stomp on whatever idyllism that remains. That’s where the player comes in. Taking control of the security chief of a para-military fixer group lead by the charismatic Thomas Rush, your job is to stymie the Highwaymen and protect one of the last remaining free settlements, Prosperity.

Taken on its own, Far Cry New Dawn is as straightforward a post-apocalyptic tale as can be told. Indeed, it’s a concept as old (and fraught) as communal history itself: enemies are at the gates. The Highwaymen are the Visigoths attacking Rome. They are the inescapable sin of mankind, made manifest again after the End Times, patrolling conveniently placed outposts for the player to assault. Because of this, it is tempting to say that New Dawn engages with post-apocalyptic iconography only as a means to facilitate more stabby, shooty video game fun times. That’s certainly true on some level, but as things progress it becomes clear that New Dawn—while absolutely not a good game—provokes a conversation about its genre, its medium, and conflict itself. These ambitious goals are tackled with the series’ characteristic clumsiness, stopping just shy of satisfactory conclusions in spite of an earnest attempt.

New Dawn’s mechanical framework is the same as it has been since Far Cry 3. This is an open-world first-person shooter with main quests, some side quests and a lot of bases to raid. While there is a string of main story quests to complete, New Dawn focuses on dropping the player into a majestic space and dotting it with an assortment of challenges to complete, stashes to find, and characters to recruit as companions. This space is best explored during the early game, when enemies and creatures can easily dispose of the player, and before they have amassed enough high quality weapons and abilities to trivialize combat.

The first two thirds of New Dawn represent the series’ formula at its most effective. Wandering the map is a mixture of scavenging and combat engagements that feel mysterious and deadly in equal measure. It’s never quite as freewheeling as its closest competitor, Fallout, but there is a clear cadence to the exploration. You will slip through the countryside and dodge Highwaymen patrols until you stumble upon the ruins of a church. There, you might read a note about a hidden stash in a tomb beneath the ground and solve a puzzle to locate the key. Using what you’ve scavenged there, you might craft a new rifle that allows you to single-handedly topple a Highwaymen camp, securing a cache of ethanol to upgrade your own settlement. This process feels natural, more like an actual progression of events instead of merely ticking off check marks on your map.

When broken down, all that’s happening here is two different activities playing off each other. The first is a return of Far Cry 5’s “prepper stashes,” reimagined as post-apocalyptic scavenging excursions. These special scenarios are dotted liberally throughout Hope County, some offering combat challenges and platforming courses, others leaning towards puzzle solving. On one expedition, you might find yourself disarming a lock in a heavily booby-trapped bunker by tinkering with a collection of animatronic fish. In another, you will be forced to dispose of a mutated wolverine inside a dilapidated community center and escape from encroaching flames after your attempts to burn the creature’s nest ignite the entire building. These sequences, nestled off the beaten path but never so secret that a non-player character can’t mark their location conveniently on your map, breathe life into the world and admirably experiment with genre tropes of trash scavengers and old world ruins. They remain one of the series’ best additions, and feed admirably into Far Cry’s brand of open world combat. As you explore more, you can craft more weapons using the collection of duct tape, components, screws, and other materials you find from these stashes.

As you amass resources, you will slowly start tackling the map’s various outposts and refineries. The goal is simple and remains unchanged after all these years: kill everyone and take what they had. Whereas games like Far Cry 4 and 5 tied this process into vague political or religious struggles, New Dawn’s rationale is much more immediate. Each enemy base contains a cache of ethanol, a resource that is spent exclusively in upgrading the various features of your home settlement. If you want to craft higher tier weapons, upgrade your garden, or enable fast travel you will need to upgrade your home, and that means accumulating ethanol. Read cynically, this is a much more self-interested motivation for tackling outposts than other Far Cry games. But divorcing these activities from the series’ ill-defined and mismanaged ideological struggles and framing them solely in terms of resource acquisition is a remarkably good fit for the post-apocalyptic genre. It makes sense for New Dawn’s central mechanical struggle to center upon who actually gets to thrive in Paradise.

And yet, here is where New Dawn starts to run into a problem. In the act of conquering enemy fortifications the series’ vapid repetitiveness makes itself known. First, comes the ability to replay these challenges for further rewards. These “escalations” allow players to cede the base back to the Highwaymen. This increases the raw difficulty of the encounter—New Dawn adds an ascending four tiers of difficulty for activities and enemies starting with grey common encounters and ending with golden “legendary” encounters—and allows players to continue the violence. For all of their new difficulty, additional guards, and extra alarms, these challenges never escalate so far that you can’t clear them with some sneaking and a decent quality bow and arrow. That weapon and its continued prominence within the series belies one of Far Cry New Dawn’s most explicit motifs: cycles and repeated conflict.

The bow was first introduced in Far Cry 3, along with this base-clearing activity. In that time, it has remained one of the most effective tools across games. It is essentially silent and can kill most enemies with a single shot. This is true all the way from modern settings like Far Cry 4 and 5 to the prehistoric times of Far Cry Primal. It is true here as well, after the end of the world. And that truth reveals the series’ underlying thesis, the dark heart that led Far Cry 5 to end in fire and ash: we are no better now than we were in our most distant past. The mechanical truth of Far Cry, expressed in countless bases claimed and arrows fired is that humanity will never be free from violence. New Dawn has two responses to this cynical thesis. First, it wants you to enjoy the chaos. If you can’t stop it, you might as well have some goddamn fun. Secondly, it wants to understand why all of this has happened before and why all of it will happen again.

That first impulse is best expressed in New Dawn’s vivid aesthetics. Far from the dark and dingy post-apocalyptic worlds characteristic to the genre, New Dawn’s Hope County is a technicolor wonderland teeming with shades and hues that are both unnatural and astounding. Rivers flow with water the same color as robin’s eggs, deer antlers feature bizarre shades of pink, the sky shimmers with neon light, and bears’ hearts glow yellow within their chests. New Dawn retains some of the vague Biblical allusions of Far Cry 5 but weaponizes them to greater potential. Hope County’s splendor is miraculous and treated as such. This is an impossible sanctuary, a true Garden of Eden in both lushness and color palette. This is made all the more apparent if players go on “expeditions,” missions that take them them outside Hope County and into the rest of the United States. These areas lack the same energy and brightness of the main map, but the resulting contrast only serves to highlight Hope County’s splendor.

That brightness bleeds into the visual flair of the Highwaymen and their design. Their armor and vehicles are painted and marked with the brightest colors, and they announce their attacks with literal fireworks and colored smoke. They have an undeniable flair, as both a visual extension of Hope County’s mutated majesty and a hip-hip vanguard of the new world. Unlike Far Cry 5’s Eden’s Gate cult, which held onto pretensions of ideology that the game could never adequately define, the Highwaymen are more understandable: they are here to fight, fuck, and have fun.

The result is both a post-apocalypse that feels distinct and a Far Cry setting that feels much more allegorical. Whereas Far Cry 2 and 4 wanted to touch on socio-political struggles in their respective African and Himalayan facsimiles and Far Cry 5 bumbled about in a muddled American pastoralism, New Dawn leverages its flashy aesthetics into a world that is concerned with broader concepts. It is telling that the series’ most vivid setting and straightforwardly honest villains come after the pretensions of polite society have literally been burned off the face of the earth. Far Cry 5’s biggest flaw was attempting to appeal to modern day issues without mustering the bravery to actually point fingers. New Dawn opts for something less complex and is stronger for it. The corresponding freedom allows it to be more visually communicative and altogether coherent than its predecessor in both design and aesthetics.

New Dawns’ villains, the twin sisters Mikey and Lou, feel less like actual entities in the way that other series’ villains have. Far Cry 4’s Pagan Min, for all of his problematic foppishness, was a clear agent of monarchy and tradition with a defined backstory and motivation for his selfish impulses. He was a small man, ruling over a small country, lashing out against a world that had failed to love him. Far Cry 2’s Jackal was an agent of forever war, seeking to fan the flames of conflict so high that they might burn away all facilitators of violence including himself. Mickey and Lou are thankfully not as crass as Far Cry 3’s villain Vaas Montenegro but their motives are often as murky and ill-defined. Because the Highwaymen are the allegorical snakes in Hope County’s Garden of Eden, the Twins are nothing more than Id and Ego made manifest. When they are on screen, their raw charisma makes up for their lack of complexity but their role in the narrative is largely functional.

As the Twins escalate their efforts against the player and Prosperity, New Dawn finds itself moving along with a much more confident pace than Far Cry 5. Gone are the long wanderings and intermittent monologues of vague ideologues. Instead, the Twins exert a real and constant threat against the player through the sheer power of their will and desires. They want so deeply and feel so convinced in their own strength that they never fade to background like some other series villains. What they lack in complexity, they make up for in sheer presence. The result is that New Dawn’s narrative maintains momentum, even accounting for the moments it pauses and asks to player to take some time upgrading their base.

One of New Dawn’s chief thematic concerns is parenthood and children. It teems with absent fathers, struggling mothers, and wayward children. From Carmina Rye, your first AI companion and daughter of Far Cry 5’s Nick Rye, to the inexplicable decision to give series comedic relief Hurk Drubman Jr. a child of his own, New Dawn is positively fascinated with the relationship between parents and their offspring, and it is here that we start to understand the Twins more. They take because they can, they kill because they want to, and their development—arrested early due to nuclear fire—has manifested in one prolonged temper tantrum.

Far from blaming the Twins, New Dawn more pointedly blames their father, an unseen individual who responded to the challenges of the new world with violence. There are problems with this, but as New Dawn starts to explore generational violence and starts to ask how even after the end of all things, we still have villains like the Twins, it starts to become something more interesting than expected even if it never completely shakes off the series’ superficiality or hasty shorthands. It comes and goes in the briefest flashes but there is, I think, something here. It just happens to be buried under banal vision quests and broad strokes writing that hampers New Dawn’s ability to express itself coherently.

New Dawn’s fascination with father figures means reaching back to address the flaws and shortcomings of its own parent game. It is therefore impossible to talk about New Dawn without talking about Far Cry 5 and its own villain, the David Koresh knock-off Joseph Seed. As a result, New Dawn is not merely a spin-off sequel but a text which actively complicates a player’s existing relationship with Far Cry 5 and Seed himself. In Far Cry 5, Seed made vague proclamations about politicians and the horrors of moderns news as portents of an end that actually did come. What made Seed falter as a compelling villain was the game’s inability to make his prophecies bold enough to name the forces of injustice sending the world towards annihilation. Seed’s eschatology was couched in Christian metaphor but lacked a coherency beyond the surface trappings. He resurfaces in New Dawn as a new type of “Father,” both in the context of his religion and in a more literal sense. And while New Dawn over-assumes how interested players will be in the fate of Joseph Seed, its decision to connect him into its broader thematics turns Seed into an honest to God character this time around. Not necessarily a good character, but a character nonetheless.

In the years following the Collapse, Seed became the leader of a survivalist group called ‘New Eden,’ a colony of Luddites disconnected from the rest of Hope County. In an allusion to Far Cry Primal that emphasizes New Dawn’s belief that there is nothing new under the sun, New Eden functions more like one of that game’s many pre-history tribes than the cult found in Far Cry 5. As Joseph is once again thrust into leadership and as he reckons with the fact that he was right in the worst possible way, he also becomes a literal father to a young boy named Ethan. This core relationship complements the relationship between the Twins and their father. In this case, Seed’s continued religiosity and faith forces him to come into conflict with Ethan. It is a much more understandable story, focused on a much more human and haunted man that the paper thin villain from Far Cry 5.

Seed’s presence also brings a corresponding shift into magical-realism that begins to complicate player’s relationships to the game world and Far Cry 5 itself. This comes most notably during the game’s mid-point where, desperate for allies against the Highwaymen, an alliance is forged with New Eden that ends with Joseph giving the player a piece of fruit from a forbidden tree. It’s eye-rollingly on the nose as visual metaphor, but is also how New Dawn justifies an entire new tier of character perks and abilities. In a move that caught me off guard, New Dawn starts to more adequately incorporate notions of religion into the fabric of its narrative than Far Cry 5 did. It does this while maintaining levels of ambiguity that mostly feels earned rather than cowardly. Did you truly eat fruit blessed by God or can your new abilities be explained away as mutations? Were Far Cry 5’s Sheriff Whitehorse and his deputies unknowing avatars of the Four Horsemen? New Dawn never goes so far as to answer these questions, but it is in the posing of these things and their corresponding ambiguity that it begins to open up and explore matters of faith and prophecy with more consideration than its father text. It’s not perfect—this is still a Far Cry game, after all—but New Dawn’s willingness to play with these ideas is certainly welcome.

The end result is a game that I enjoyed but which also frustrated me greatly. On some levels it is crass and annoying. Far too many of its citizens are prone to stupid dick jokes and its tone can vary wildly from scene to scene. It is often tired with its metaphor and fails to think through the implications of its tropes, even as it remains fair-paced and occasionally introspective. Its raw gameplay is both satisfying but also so remarkably shifted away from the complexities of series critical darling Far Cry 2 that additional veneers of gloss—damage numbers, enemy rarities, and the baffling decision to allow players to purchase crafting materials—make it clear that the series will never reclaim its messier, more interesting ideas. But if I dig deeper, scratching off the fine varnish of AAA quality and safety, there are pieces of a genuinely interesting game. Whether that is the vivid art direction or a willingness to address its themes with a great degree of awareness than previous titles, New Dawn has instances where everything comes together.

Near the middle of my playthrough, I rescued the foul-mouth buffoon Hurk from the Highwaymen’s clutches. I hate Hurk. I hate his fucking guts. He started a joke character in Far Cry 3’s Monkey Business DLC pack and has been featured in all games since, including a baffling presence as ‘Hurky’ in Far Cry Primal. Nothing he says is funny, every moment with him makes me want to choke on a pretzel. Here he was again, a reminder that the Far Cry that compelled me most—the dark and considered Far Cry 2— could never return. Like the old world, it was gone. I could try to cling to it, to cling to a world that was, or I could accept that this was the new status quo. That even as New Dawn sometimes surprised me, it would also have Hurk and everything he represented.

“You look dang familiar,” Hurk said to me the first time I saw him again in New Dawn. “As if we’ve done this before in some endless haunting loop from which neither of us will ever escape.” I see you too, New Dawn.

I thought about shooting him in his stupid face. I thought about how his sudden appearance was undermining all the work New Dawn was doing with its narrative. I thought about how much I wished this game was like Far Cry 2. I thought about how long I’d been caught up in Far Cry’s cyclical violence and formulaic gameplay. Then, I finished the dialog and added Hurk to my roster of companion characters.

There are always snakes in the garden. There will always be a new map of bases to conquer. There will always be another Hurk.

The old world is dead, long live the new world.