When it comes to open-world games, the maxim is usually that “bigger is better.” For developer and publisher Ubisoft, that often means cramming a game’s map with missions, side-quests, and all manner of diversions that would take anyone with any semblance of a life many months to complete. For the past few development cycles, however, the Far Cry franchise has tried a new approach: Rather than put out an entirely different game every year, it has alternated between larger mainline iterations (last year’s Far Cry 5, for instance) and smaller sequels, like Far Cry: New Dawn, out on PS4, Xbox One, and Microsoft tomorrow.
New Dawn uses an altered portion of Far Cry 5’s open-world Montana setting, telling a tighter, better story in the process. It’s set 17 years after Far Cry 5, which ended with a deus-ex-machina nuclear war that devastated much of society, and trapped the player’s character in a bunker with Joseph Seed, the game’s main antagonist. In this sequel, you play as a new unnamed character referred to only as the Captain, and get reacquainted with everyone who was fortunate enough to survive the blast. It turns out a lot of people in fictional Hope County, Montana, are preppers. The revamped aesthetic is more appealing: Permanent auroras shimmer in the distance and neon-pink flowers and graffiti are everywhere. It’s like everyone emerged from their fallout shelters and immediately realized there were no longer any social norms to stop them from making everything vaporwave.
The post-apocalyptic trappings in New Dawn work much better as a justification for the usual Far Cry shenanigans than those in Far Cry 5 did. This franchise has always had a bit of a Mad Max vibe, but it didn’t really fit with Far Cry 5’s modern American setting, where the player was just supposed to accept that law enforcement was letting Seed’s murderous cult run amok. The villains this time around are a pair of twins named Mickey and Lou, leaders of a bandit group called the Highwaymen. Introducing multiple primary villains works for the Far Cry series, where all of the cut-scenes are told from a first-person perspective and often consist of the big baddie monologuing. Here, Mickey and Lou get to play off of each other as well, and their motivation — survival of the fittest — works a hell of a lot better than whatever Seed’s was. (I think it was either … wanting … or not wanting … the apocalypse? It did not make a ton of sense.)
Everywhere you look, you can see Ubisoft’s developers putting an inventive spin on the systems and assets they needed to recycle to get the game out on time and under budget. Well-trodden locations from Far Cry 5 are now bombed out, graffitied, or flooded with dirt. You occasionally get an enlightening sense of déjà vu, like when I recognized a church structure from the beginning of Far Cry 5 and immediately realized the ramshackle compound that I was about to shoot up once was a bustling downtown area. Characters from the previous game, like the shotgun-wielding Pastor Jerome, also return a little older and a bit grayer. Far Cry 5’s murderous cult, the Project at Eden’s Gate, still limps along, bringing some closure to Joseph Seed’s story.
There are other appreciable aspects of New Dawn’s use of every part of the buffalo, so to speak. Far Cry 5’s Arcade feature, which let users create small stand-alone levels, has been replaced with a feature called Expeditions, developer-made smaller levels that take place outside of Hope County. But it’s a little convoluted: How a military chopper in the resource-starved postapocalypse is able to fly from Montana to Florida isn’t explained.
The tweak that hangs over all of these changes is a new light RPG system. Enemies and missions are divided into four difficulty tiers, and certain missions can be replayed with escalating difficulty. It’s a decent enough system that the idea of playing the same levels over again, with escalating difficulty, becomes an easy proposition to swallow.
The best part of Far Cry 5 wasn’t its toothless presentation of rural America, or the politics of cult indoctrination. It was when it let its guard down to be a little silly. The standout from that game was an increasingly disastrous race against time, which started with a stampede of cows and ended with a downed aircraft. Far Cry: New Dawn feels like an entire game developed with that ethos in mind. It’s a textbook example of creativity springing from tight restrictions. Hopefully, the next installment in the franchise takes those same lessons to heart.