It's a cliche, but Far Cry: New Dawn is the video game equivalent of popcorn. Bits of it taste great, but most of it is just there to be consumed, free of expectation. You shovel it into your mouth and admittedly it can be difficult to stop until the bag is empty, but you'll barely remember eating it once you've sat down and had a real dinner.
For prolonged periods of open world play, New Dawn is fun. At times, it borders on being really fun, but it never quite hits the highs that it likes to tease. It bigs up certain story missions as non-stop thrill-rides, but in practice they just consist of the same things that you've been doing for hours out on the game's map. You shoot people, you blow things up, and you enjoy the gruesomely satisfying knife-kill animations.
Set after the events of Far Cry 5, New Dawn takes place in the same fictional North American county of Hope County. The land still feels vast and natural, but following nuclear war, the trimmings have changed. It's no longer just blue skies, dark green trees, and dusty roads. Bright pink flora blooms everywhere, the sky is slicked with aurora borealis- esque hues, and even the animals look like they've been spray painted by 90s ravers.
Visually, it's a much more interesting title than Far Cry 5, and the post-apocalyptic nature of the map lends itself better to exploration. In the previous game you would rarely get out of your vehicle and stomp around on foot -- the map was little more than a number of locations connected by big open roads -- but here, there are ruins of the old world ripe for looting. Scavenging plays an important role in New Dawn as you accumulate crafting materials, but even though it's just the mindless gathering of springs, gears, and other easy-to-identify items, it's a compulsion that's difficult to ignore.
If you really wanted to strip New Dawn down to its most basic form, it's another game in which you must increase numbers in order to watch numbers increase. Your base of operations, a cosy little settlement named Prosperity, must be levelled up and its core components upgraded. The camp comprises of several facilities that each serve a predictable function. Upgrading the garage lets you craft and call upon more reliable vehicles, while improving the workbench allows to you build better weapons.
And boy are you going to need better weapons. Enemies in New Dawn, whether they're colourful animals or thugs from the tyrannical Highwayman faction, quickly scale in terms of difficulty. The release introduces a number of basic role-playing game mechanics, but the most notable is the new 'rank' system. Almost everything revolves around four colour-coded ranks: common (grey), rare (blue), legendary (purple), and elite (yellow). Enemies have them, weapons have them, and mission difficulty is indicated by them.
This means that in order to effectively dispatch a legendary or elite enemy -- that is, killing them without having to resort to cheap, AI-abusing tactics -- you're going to need legendary or elite weaponry. The damage output from anything less isn't going to cut it, to the point where you're probably going to run out of ammo before your foe actually hits the floor.
And so, much of your time spent with New Dawn is going to boil down to chasing that next weapon rank -- it's how the game measures progress. Once you've hit that elite tier, you know that you're almost untouchable, and at first, it's rewarding. Troublesome, armoured foes can suddenly be killed with a few quick bursts from your elite assault rifle. A couple of shots to the head and that deadly cougar isn't anywhere near as deadly as it was two hours ago.
It's easy, accessible, streamlined progression, but once you're on top and the pursuit of promised power is over, New Dawn presents a hollow experience. You find yourself driving right on by the supply trucks that, only a few hours ago, you would have hijacked without a second thought. You don't need the materials anymore. In fact, you don't need much of anything anymore. By this point you're probably drowning in unused resources, which makes the inclusion of eye-rolling microtransactions even more questionable. If you're handing over real money so that you can speed up the already simple process of upgrading your arsenal, then there's little point in actually playing.
That's not to say New Dawn should be a longer, more in-depth experience. The RPG elements do provide a welcome structure that Far Cry 5 lacked as it awkwardly funnelled you from one forced story scenario to the next, and by the end of this sequel, it feels like you've come full circle in a reasonably satisfying way. Again, it's popcorn entertainment -- you've finished the bag and you're not really hungry anymore, but the movie's over and it feels like it's time to go and do something else.
There's a reason that we haven't mentioned New Dawn's story yet, and it's because it's largely unremarkable. It's a loosely constructed tale of revenge and ham-fisted religious undertones, and like Far Cry 5, its attempts to tell a serious, mature story are offset by try-hard dialogue and characters who frequently make nonsensical decisions that result in nonsensical outcomes. Almost every narrative beat in New Dawn feels like it's at odds with how the game is played.
It tries desperately to be human, to make you care about Hope County's inhabitants, but aside from a handful of comical moments, it falls completely flat. It's hard to take things seriously when just minutes ago, you were seeing how far you could launch a wild boar by having it step on your remote explosive. Heck, forget the exploding pigs, it's hard to take anything seriously after seeing New Dawn's final boss fight.
Far Cry: New Dawn can quite easily provide a weekend of fun, but when it comes to recalling your favourite games of 2019, don't expect to remember this post-apocalyptic adventure. Its streamlined RPG elements do add some welcome structure, but this trek through Hope County may seem familiar to a fault. It's almost a shame that Ubisoft didn't go all-in on making New Dawn a totally over-the-top spin-off, rather than a sequel that struggles to tell an all-too-serious story.