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Far Cry New Dawn's post-apocalypse is a perfect fit for a chaotic shooter

Here is an accurate, unexaggerated list of things I did while fighting one particular mountain lion in Far Cry New Dawn: 

  • I shot the mountain lion in the face with a rifle
  • I shot the mountain lion in the butt with a rifle
  • I ran away from the mountain lion while frantically healing myself with a medkit
  • I shot the mountain lion in the face with a sawblade
  • I kicked the mountain lion in the face (this turned out to be significantly less effective than the sawblade)
  • I hid from the mountain lion in a car
  • I ran over the mountain lion with my car while it mauled a random woman who walked by
  • I watched the mountain lion get up after being run over with a car, like it was the god damn Terminator

Nuclear armageddon may have wiped out a good chunk of humankind and left society in shambles, but it sure hasn't disrupted Far Cry's chaotic stew of bad guys, random NPCs, and animals that will eat you alive. The two big changes in New Dawn are some light RPG systems, which make damage stats more significant in combat, and the post-nuke evolution of Far Cry 5's Montana, which is now bursting with colorful foliage. Pink is the dominant color in New Dawn, and I love it—it's a great contrast to the usual muddy wasteland, and it fits perfectly with Far Cry's new baddies: Mad Max-style psycho marauders called the Highwaymen, out to destroy your peaceful settlement of Prosperity.

Ubisoft is leaning harder into features that make Far Cry a bit more like some of its other games

When I ran into that mountain lion, I was fighting my way through a group of highwaymen who had captured a guy named Thomas Rush, who my friends back in Prosperity are counting on to turn them into a solid fighting force. It was my first real look at how Far Cry would work with layers of RPG mechanics added on. When you shoot bad guys, numbers now pop out of them. There are tiers of enemies (1-4) to make it clear how strong they are, and they'll be appropriately crazier looking and better-armored as they go up in rank. 

I was worried that this system would feel artificially limiting, that even if I landed a headshot my gun would be too puny to do real damage. Most of the guys I fought in my four hours with Far Cry New Dawn were just level 1 or 2, and shooting them felt the same as in other Far Cry games. A headshot pops up a satisfying "200," enough to instantly kill most enemies. With a pistol or rifle it takes a few body shots to take someone down. These guys aren't bullet sponges. Unless they have shields—those enemies require you to get creative, shooting them in the feet or waiting for them to drop the shield to attack and timing a perfect blast to the face. Or you can just blow through the shield with a shotgun.

This level 3 enemy wasn't too hard to take down with a basic shotgun (though the RPG did help).

That mountain lion, though, was different. It was level 3 and comically powerful. As I understand the hierarchy, this was hardly the biggest, baddest cat in the forest, but it still tore into the highwaymen compound, killed a few guys before I even spotted it, and then chased me around, ripping out 40 percent of my health bar with a single swipe of its paw. It felt ridiculously unbalanced, but was funny and scary enough that I didn't really mind.

Other than that one chance encounter, New Dawn's attempt to RPG-ify its combat felt fair and straightforward. The stronger enemies will have body armor and helmets, so while they'll be tough to kill with starter weapons, I don't think it'll drastically change the experience of playing Far Cry. Good aim and reflexes still matter, and New Dawn is still very much a combat sandbox. Getting the drop on enemies for sneaky melee takedowns, disabling alarms so they can't call for backup, or finding the perfect sniper perch are all still tactics that will help you take down tough bases.

This isn't an RPG like Mass Effect or The Witcher 3 where you're making big, far-reaching decisions that affect characters and quests. You're not going to be doing much roleplaying here. Really, what it seems to mean is that Ubisoft is leaning harder into features that make Far Cry a bit more like some of its other games, such as Assassin's Creed—and, for that matter, a lot of other big budget open world games, in general. Far Cry has long had collectibles and crafting, but that goes deeper here, with a number of facilities you need to upgrade, using resources you collect from around the open world. 

Upgrade the cartography center, for example, and you'll get more maps that pinpoint resource locations. Upgrade the garden to improve your medkits. Upgrade the training camp to rank up your Guns for Hire buddies. Upgrading your armory and garage let you craft better weapons and vehicles, and the story is tied to how far along you've brought Prosperity as a whole.

I was immediately fond of Grace, a blind woman who walks around the wilderness with a shotgun.

New Dawn shamelessly comes from the school of design where every action and mission comes with an extrinsic reward: There will always be something to upgrade, a new milestone to achieve, an item given to you to scratch that 'you're progressing' itch. It's a lot of stuff, and upgrading a building with one type of parts so I can build a gun with another type of parts, so I can then upgrade that gun with yet more parts isn't really what drives me to play a game like Far Cry. I'm in it to explore a colorful world and approach open-ended combat as cleverly or sloppily as I see fit.

The highlight of my time with New Dawn was using the new sawblade launcher, which can kill multiple enemies with a lucky ricochet and works as a quiet weapon for infiltrating highwaymen bases. I started using it like a sniper rifle, picking off baddies at max range just so I could watch the blade whirl through the air. A subtle trail follows the blade as it bounces so you can watch it slice through a few enemies at once. It's a chunky alternative to the popular bow, not as gleefully violent as Dead Space's Ripper sawblade gun, but satisfying becasue it travels just slowly enough for you to anticipate the moment of impact.

The next best thing was the moment I rescued Timber, a Gun For Hire who is in fact a dog, and he hopped in the sidecar of my motorcycle. Later, he murdered several highwaymen for me. He is a very good boy.

My point is that all the stuff that makes Far Cry really fun was—and still is—detached from the RPG-style progression systems that give New Dawn its structure. If a mission is funny or creative, I'll enjoy it without a pile of scrap metal as a reward. I rolled my eyes a bit when I found out that it would take a couple hours of play to accrue the resources necessary to upgrade my garage and collect the parts needed to build a single vehicle, so I wouldn't have to hoof it from my home base. But those systems will give New Dawn that sense of look how far I've come 20 hours in, when you're flush with parts and building a level 4 "Unicorn Flamethrower" or "Radiation-Pink" AK far better than your measly starter rifle.

Co-op is a good time. On this mission, we spent more time solving puzzles than in combat.

I had enough fun shooting bad guys and running into New Dawn's cast of quirky survivors that the RPG systems never seemed to get in the way, at least. And I really like Ubisoft's tweaked approach to outposts in Far Cry 5. In New Dawn, capturing an outpost grants you fuel, the staple supply used to upgrade Prosperity's facilities. The outpost becomes a fast travel point on the map and is inhabited by NPCs—unless you loot it, which rewards you with extra fuel but then turns the facility back over to the highwaymen.

New Dawn has plenty of elements that will feel overly familiar, but they don't really get in the way of what Far Cry has always done well

Once abandoned and repopulated, the outpost will be level 2, full of stronger bad guys and other changes, like the location of the alarm. Do the whole thing again and you can make an even harder level 3 outpost. This is a system that's now integral to the game, rather than a menu option to simply reset them. It's a great way to let players create their own challenges, and I like the trade-off it's asking you to make. What do you want more right now: a convenient safe haven and fast travel point in one part of the map, or the little extra bit of fuel you need to make that one upgrade?

New Dawn made another clever addition with expedition missions that helicopter you outside Montana's Hope County to steal a valuable supply of something or other from a pile of highwaymen. Nothing groundbreaking here, but they give Ubisoft the chance to set up combat arenas in creative locations. I did one of these missions and found myself ziplining onto the deck of an aircraft carrier, hiding behind rusted out fighter jets with my sawblade gun, working my way belowdecks to secure the package, and then hauling ass to the beach for evac. It gave me a little bit of a Metal Gear Solid 5 vibe. New Dawn's toolset isn't nearly as intricate, but the mission was satisfying in the same way: I scouted enemies, came up with an infiltration plan, botched it and improvised on the fly, then ran away.

As a kinda-sorta-RPG, Far Cry New Dawn has plenty of elements that will feel overly familiar if you've played another open world game this generation. But they're a good thematic fit for the idea of rebuilding after the bomb, and more importantly, they don't really get in the way of what Far Cry has always done well. The sandbox is still fun to play in, only this time around, it's full of pretty pink irradiated flowers.

When he's not 50 hours into a JRPG or an opaque ASCII roguelike, Wes is probably playing the hottest games of three years ago. He oversees features, seeking out personal stories from PC gaming's niche communities. 50% pizza by volume.