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An enemy attacks with a pipe in Far Cry New Dawn Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

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Far Cry New Dawn review: Is its violence fun, horrific, or both?

New Dawn converts Far Cry 5’s world into a colorful, silly, and oddly judgmental playground of violence

“Are you a problem solver, or a problem maker?” The Far Cry series’ newest standout villains — twins Mickey and Lou — raise this question in the opening scene of Far Cry New Dawn. A few hours later, I suspect I’m neither, as I’m frantically fleeing a lichen-covered bison with a monstrous amount of health, leading it toward an outpost filled with civilians who, if I’m lucky, promise to divert its attention. Then again, at least I’m not the one speared on the end of that bison’s horn.

Past Far Cry games repeatedly flirted with these kinds of moral gray areas, but none have been especially diligent about unpacking the intangible space between right and wrong. Far Cry New Dawn practically mechanizes its indifference. It doesn’t really afford the chance to solve or make problems. It’s only really interested in being a playground for carnage.

And as far as violent playgrounds go, New Dawn’s excels, embodying the maniacal freedom of Grand Theft Auto in an anarchic, Fallout-esque setting with the vibrancy cranked to 11. Its extensive array of weapons, vehicles, and explosives facilitates mowing down enemies and retaking outposts in any number of combinations. I can dress up as a unicorn while I run around launching buzzsaws into people’s faces, or I can use god powers to kill a bear in a single punch (more on that later).

The villainous twin sister of Far Cry New Dawn Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

While all that mayhem is fun in the moment, it doesn’t exactly leave me feeling much of anything when I step away from the game. If anything, I feel a little gross when I recall that New Dawn’s narrative frames my exploits as that of the wasteland’s righteous savior.

No matter how many lines NPCs feed me about justice, it’s hard for me to believe I have the moral high ground. Far Cry’s obsession with self-serious story has always run antithetical to the havoc you can wreak in-game. New Dawn’s emphasis on over-the-top spectacle against a bright neon backdrop makes this dissonance impossible to ignore, cheapening its narrative beats and any attempts at drawing a firm line between good and evil. If Ubisoft had entirely committed to the dystopian free-for-all it created in all but name, I can’t help but feel the final product would have been stronger. When Technicolor corpses litter the floor of every reclaimed settlement and I’m holstering my neon green rocket launcher with a tamed wild hog named Horatio at my side, parables ring pretty hollow.

New Dawn is a sequel of sorts to Far Cry 5. That game ends with a nuclear ‘bang’ obliterating the beautiful landscapes of the fictional Hope County, Montana. Its antagonist, the messianic despot Joseph Seed, avoids the apocalypse his ravings seemed to accurately predict. Since many of the residents of the surrounding area already shared his paranoia, its population proves oddly well-equipped to wait out the end of days. After emerging from their bunkers, they begin building civilization anew, their work made much easier after Seed finally decides to stop bothering them and travels north with his remaining flock to create New Eden.

New Dawn begins 17 years later. Hope County is haunted by a new menace: the flamboyantly lawless Highwaymen, who mark their arrival with fireworks and leave sprawling neon graffiti in their wake. As one of the last surviving members of a crew sent as aid, I’m charged with single-handedly reclaiming all the outposts the scoundrels stole, in typical Far Cry fashion.

a marauder with a shield attacks in Far Cry New Dawn Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

Ubisoft recycles much of New Dawn’s map from its predecessor. After all, it took years to create such a colossal swatch of Montana to explore; why limit it to a single use? Not that many sites remain easily recognizable with the cotton candy-colored palette swap and overgrown foliage retaking the landscape, transforming it into a gorgeous charnel house. As in Far Cry 5, the entire environment becomes accessible after the opening cutscenes, though the addition of tiered enemy classes prevents me from rushing into the most dangerous areas unarmed and underequipped.

New Dawn draws out a generally linear path for me to follow by starting me in the bottom corner of the map, but random encounters make every sojourn its own adventure. It’s almost impossible to blink without being accosted by a slave trader or stray wolverine. My firefight with a group of Highwaymen once got interrupted by a rather perturbed grizzly bear that followed them as they fled onto a nearby roof.

Ubisoft has added a few new role-playing elements with this entry, such as the ability to craft weapons and upgrade a home base with the copious amounts of springs, gears, and ethanol lying around. A new Expeditions mode also whisks players off to striking locations, like decrepit fairgrounds or the remains of a crashed space station, for one-off missions. For the most part, though, New Dawn remains true to the series’ familiar formula.

There’s a snag this time around, though. With such a heavy emphasis on relishing the wasteland’s chaos, the player’s archetypal “hero” role doesn’t exactly fit. While the Highwaymen’s leaders, the aforementioned twin sisters, happily engage in atrocities like handing a child a live hand grenade or setting up Saw-style torture scenarios, the group’s motivations don’t seem all that different from the player’s. They search out new settlements, ransack whatever resources they find, and kill anyone who gets in their way.

An enemy in bright red armor attacks the player in Far Cry New Dawn Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

This hypocrisy — or I suppose, my own, as the player — never gets addressed, and becomes downright laughable after Seed returns to the fray. He foresees my character as the second coming, the only soul pure enough to eat the fruit from his magic (and possibly radioactive) tree, in a paper-thin biblical metaphor. Eating it makes it possible to turn almost invisible, run at super speed, and, yes, even kill bears in a single punch.

Even the twins’ guiding principle — and seemingly only character motivation — of problem solvers versus problem makers drips into some of New Dawn’s core gameplay loops. They only draft new members, voluntarily or otherwise, who add obvious utility to the Highwaymen. The same is true for the few survivors I can recruit act as doctors, ammunitions experts, or cartographers, all beefing up my home base in some way. I’m not allowed to extend that same offer to the many homeless locals I encounter across the Montana countryside, struggling to get by. They’re completely dehumanized, existing as either potential sources of new resources or collateral damage to my many firefights.

The game’s added RPG elements made me wonder if Hope County’s efforts could align with some of the Highwaymen’s. What sort of choices could I make outside of firing some more bullets or tossing another grenade?

After all, my enemies obviously have enough excess power to blare electronica 24/7, they imply that their organization spans beyond the borders of Montana, and they’ve managed to establish a prison system. It didn’t help that some of the most exhilarating parts of the game involved going undercover as one of their ranks, and competing in demolition derbies and down-and-out brawls.

Far Cry New Dawn - twin sisters Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

Obviously, they’re still ruthless murderers with several practices that should never be condoned, but we’re both hunting down entertainment through the sights of a gun, with whatever power comes along with those pursuits a happy coincidence. Ubisoft crafted an environment that encourages post-apocalyptic mayhem. Since both the player and the Highwaymen are running around essentially throwing a big middle finger to the end of the world, why not work together?

Like the rest of the series, though, New Dawn has a limited vocabulary of solutions, and all of them involve maiming enemies or baiting dangerous animals to do that work for you. I never expect to play a paragon of virtue in Far Cry, but when juxtaposed against an enemy equally as destructive and fueled by a desire for power for no larger purpose, any claims that my actions hold moral superiority fall flat. And it’s frustrating for a series to continually suggest a tailored approach with the addition of role-playing elements when the only real choice is destruction.

New Dawn works best when it fully embraces its framework as an anarchic sandbox. Its exaggerated carnage proves satisfying, its random encounters generate hilarious confrontations, and its uniquely colorful spin on the post-apocalypse is captivating to get lost in. My biggest gripe lies in its lost potential. If Ubisoft had embraced the game’s fundamental silliness instead of cutting its narrative off at the knees by spackling over it with morality, I can only imagine what kind of truly Mad Max-esque shenanigans would have been possible. Its enemies and I are both the villains, but they’re allowed to be comfortable with their morbid, violent fun.

Far Cry New Dawn is now available on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PS4 using a final “retail” download code provided by Ubisoft. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.