Far Cry New Dawn’s best trick is its post-nuclear juxtaposition of bloom and dilapidation. Its most endearing mission, “A Thousand Words,” leans into this spectacle by bringing together past and present, via photography.
In “A Thousand Words,” I’m invited to explore Hope County in search of the photographs of Tracey Lader, a character from the pre-nuclear Far Cry 5. Lader’s pictures of the old world are dotted around the map. She left them behind as a kind of sorrowful art installation in the locations where she originally took the snaps.
I travel Hope County in search of her pictures. When I find them, I hold them up to make a match between the world as it is now and the lost world she photographed. I see that some broken old shack was once a church spire. I see a grungy military base used to be a thriving workshop.
As well as encouraging detailed exploration of the map, this opens up a gateway to Far Cry 5. In that game, the residents of Hope County are ruled by a violent religious cult. That story ended in the shadow of nuclear war, an event called The Collapse. Seventeen years later, I explore much the same map, though greatly changed by both the nuclear blasts, and the subsequent efforts of survivors to build new lives.
Lader is gone. We don’t know where she is or if she is still alive. But she has left notes behind, making it clear that she placed the photographs in the aftermath of the explosions. “I can’t even picture anything growing here again,” she writes. “All I see is ashes and dust.”
But I see bright flowers, healthy trees and bounding wildlife. Far Cry New Dawn — out now for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One — works with the notion that nature rebounds quickly from a nuclear event, that it replaces devastation with a super-bloom that Lader did not stay to see.
This connects us with the recent history of Hope County, and with the reality of a long period in which survival was much more difficult than it is in the time of New Dawn.
There’s a melancholy at play. I love those online magazine features that show interactive pictures of the same places, a century apart. Lately we’ve seen them in memory of the first World War. The devastation of war is replaced, via peaceful society, with something new. An image of sunken-eyed soldiers smoking outside the shell of a building is replaced by children, sipping sodas outside a fancy restaurant.
These comparative treatments are a reminder that we live among the ghosts of the past. They bring them to life. In Lader’s work, the world of pre-Collapse Hope County comes back to us, albeit briefly.
It’s also a useful glimpse into the work of the game’s designers. Far Cry New Dawn is a smart piece of business by publisher Ubisoft, which has made use of Far Cry 5’s expensively produced assets to create a spin-off that feels like a new game. The map is an update of something that already existed, but its individual locations all needed to be remade and synchronized with what came before. Ubisoft pulled off a similar trick with Far Cry Primal.
Although I can buy the usual mission-solution maps using in-game currency, New Dawn works best as a free-ranging, exploration scavenger hunt in which I meander aimlessly, enjoying whatever distractions present themselves. “A Thousand Words” is a good excuse to ramble, not merely in the physical world of rocks, roads, and trees, but in the memories and feelings of someone who lived there, and recorded what was lost.